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The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

In Chinese history, intellectuals were Confucian in the

government office but Taoist at home. Taoism became the guiding

philosophy of Chinese spare time activities, including fine arts such as

painting, music, calligraphy, and various ways to keep us in good health

such as medicine and physical exercises. Typically Taoists were nonofficial

hermits who devoted their talents to admiring nature and the

Chinese landscape. The moral spirit of Chinese swordsmanship was to

cut the throat of social power and wealth to help the poor, therefore nonofficial.

Martial arts are also a form of physical exercise. As a result they

have been deeply influenced by Taoist philosophy, which is the hidden

message the movie Hero is trying to convey. It is impossible for a

Westerner to fully understand and appreciate this movie without some

basic knowledge of Chinese Taoist philosophy.

The first principle belief of Taoism is the so-called the united

One of nature and man. In other words, the human world and the

natural world are one world, and humans should stay as part of Nature.

In the modern scientific view, the whole universe including humans and

animals are made of the same atoms, but Taoist philosophy emphasizes the

spiritual side. The ideology of a good swordsman is that he is acting on

behalf of both nature and man, or God in the Western terms, but not for

himself. This is contrary to modern Western philosophy where self actualization

or individual freedom in the human world is the ultimate goal. God, the world,

and I are three entities in the Western view, but they are one,

the big One in the Taoist view.

The movie Hero is the story of five swordsmen. There are four

assassins headed by Nameless, played by Jet Li, and their target is the king

who is also the fifth swordsman. There are three minor characters; an

elderly blind musician, an old calligraphy master, and Moon, the maid of

one of the swordsmen named Broken Sword. These eight characters present

different facets of the ideal image of a Taoist hero, or the Chinese

traditional hero. The story is told and retold by Nameless to the king, and

each of his retellings conflicts with the previous ones but brings the

fighting sides closer to a spiritual unity of humankind and the universe,

giving another dimension to the movie’s complexity and its high level

of ideology.

When Nameless fights his duel with the assassin Sky, a

trembling white-bearded musician gropes back to play his final tune for

the two. Music and swordsmanship are said to be based on the same

principles and share the same idea of spiritual perfection: The perfect tune

makes no sound. This is a direct quotation from the first founder of

Taoism, Lao Tzu, and it also alludes to the movie’s final conclusion that

a perfect swordsman uses no weapon. During their duel, the two stood

still face to face for a whole hour with their eyes closed to fight each

other fiercely in their minds. To an ordinary audience, this plot may

sound mysterious and remote. This obscurity is a unique feature of

Taoism as practiced by mystics in ancient China. Some Taoist monks

and nuns sat meditating the mysterious nature of the universe

as a religious practice. It is worthwhile to notice that in the primitive primary
society, dispute was often resolved by demonstration of power rather than a real fight.

When Nameless comes to fight Broken Sword and Snow, the

third and fourth swordsman and swordswoman who happen to be lovers,

calligraphy becomes the main concern of the movie. Broken Sword and Sky have

developed new fighting techniques through the practice of calligraphy.

Again, calligraphy and swordsmanship are said to base on the same principles.

Nameless has to study Broken Sword’s calligraphy to understand his new

fighting techniques in order to beat them. Broken Sword writes the words

SWORD and All UNDER HEAVENS for Nameless. “All under

heavens” indicates the whole humankind and the united One of man

and nature together. There is no room for fighting and killing in such a

united world. To act in accordance with such a high ideology, the king

gives his sword to his assassin Nameless, who then has the chance to kill

the king but misses it deliberately. The king, the fifth swordsman,

finally understands Broken Sword’s calligraphy. The Chinese character

SWORD written by Broken Sword, contains the connotation of perfect

swordsmanship and refers to the notion that there is neither a sword

in the hands nor a dagger in the heart but a broad mind that can embrace

the whole world.

When you embrace the whole world, you see only friends and

no enemies. When you embrace the whole universe, you forget your own

life and death. A Taoist sees no differences in the world and faces

anything without emotion. A Wes

Re: The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

A full version of this essay is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:

The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

written by You-Sheng Li

Re: The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

It is very informative but also a little bit shocking to read this essay after watching this movie.