Thematically, however, “Hero” left me cold. Patri Friedman at Catallarchy has already discussed some of the collectivist themes in the film, specifically the exaltation of individuals willing to sacrifice themselves to the collective good. But I wish to pose a different challenge: assuming that heroes should indeed sacrifice themselves for the greater good, what is the greater good in a political setting like that of this movie? Warning: spoilers ahead.
The action takes place around 200 B.C., just prior to the unification of China under the Qin (or Ch’in) dynasty. The primary conflict in the movie is between the King of Qin – who wished to conquer and unite the six warring nations of China – and those who opposed him, including the would-be assassin called Nameless (Jet Li). The opening words of the film seem ambivalent about which side is right, admitting the existence of heroes on both sides of the conflict and acknowledging the bloodshed caused by the Kind of Qin’s ambitions. But by the end of the movie, the true moral of the story becomes crystal clear. Nameless realizes that the King of Qin’s plan will unify China, thereby putting an end to war and bloodshed. He therefore refrains from assassinating the King, allowing himself to die instead.
But is it really true that unification improves the lives of the people? I’m not so sure. On the one hand, as the film indicates, unification can prevent the constant feuding of smaller states. On the other hand, unification also allows the concentration of political power over large numbers of people, and political power has a nasty way of getting used for evil as well as good. As the Qin history linked above says, the first Qin emperor accomplished many things, but…
Despite all of these accomplishments, Shi huangdi was not a popular leader. The public works and taxes were too great a burden to the population. It seemed that Shi huangdi could not be satisfied. Also, the nobility disliked him because they were deprived of all their power and transplanted. Finally, he banned all books that advocated forms of government other than the current one. The writings of the great philosophers of the One Hundred Schools time were burned and more than 400 opponents were executed.I’m no historian, so I won’t make any strong claims about whether unified regimes have overall performed better – in terms of human rights and standard of living for the common people – than decentralized political systems. But based on my limited knowledge, I lean toward the latter. Western Europe, for instance, benefited greatly from power divisions among various states, among different layers of the feudal hierarchy, and between the state and the church. True, kings and dukes had a bad habit of conscripting the people to fight in innumerable pointless territorial wars. Still, in the long run, decentralization helped create the pockets of wiggle room needed for notions of freedom and human rights to take root. Meanwhile China, despite centuries of technological and scientific superiority to the West, languished under a parade of tyrannical regimes.
These are complex and difficult historical issues. Don’t expect any of them to be addressed in “Hero,” a movie of great style but dubious substance.
ADDENDA: Eugene Volokh and Ann Althouse both give "Hero" a negative review. Also, I just noticed that a commenter on the Catallarchy post (linked above) says the movie is propaganda for the PRC's "One China" policy vis-a-vis Taiwan, which is consistent with my complaint.