Zhang Yimou’s Hero is a visually aesthetic roller coaster ride. I have watched the movie several times and still remain amazed by the spectacular over the top mise en scène. However, after my latest watch I have developed an affinity to the idea of tian xia and its relevance in a broader contemporary context as well as in my life in general.

The literal translation of tian xia is ‘all under heaven’ which in its very nature encompasses everything under the sky, and thus figuratively the entire world. While there are many other universal themes (love, friendship, sadness, hatred, revenge etc.), this one particularly strikes a chord as it talks about peace. It’s universal applicability is what makes it so touching. Time and again we have witnessed in human history the desire for everlasting peace, each era had its own torch-bearer however, the struggle for overall peace still persists even today.

In the context of the movie, tian xia is referred to the geographical expanse of China ( meaning the Chinese land and its people) with the underlining theme of unification. The China we see today was once fragmented into seven kingdoms  who were at constant war (Warring States Period). The futility of these wars was that it only caused the people suffering, despair and destruction. What set the King of Qin apart from the others was his aspiration of a united China thereby being able to end the warring period and re-establish peace. However, in order to achieve this noble plan, the people were once again subjected to further suffering when the Qin army started with its conquering. These conquering wars witnessed high number of casualties and death of innocent  bystanders, the wounded, resistance forces were suppressed or terminated, families were displaced and all the harshness involved in any war, even the war being fought for peace. The loss experienced in terms of human suffering and resources is justified for the long-term benefit it eventually reaps. This trade-off of giving up the present for a brighter future highlights the sacrifice made by the common people, the assassins and the King of Qin himself.

We hope for a better tomorrow, and it can only happen if we make changes to our present. This sounds so clichéd but we can all relate to it, irrespective of where we come from and the time we come from. Sacrifices are made by an individual, by a family, by a community, by countries, by organisations, by trade blocs, by allies, and perhaps one day by the world.

In this light, I personally see tian xia as a model for a new world order. And thus, the unification of China can be translated to the unification of the world in  the contemporary context. And mind you I am not saying unification in the literal sense but rather as a creation of a space where similarities are seen as a form of initial link, followed by the acceptance and celebration of differences,  harmony and peace being natural order of things.

Unification has different meanings in different contexts, but it always stands for some form of solidarity . Unification of the world may be an idealistic thought today, but so was a unified China, a unified India against British colonialism, the European Union, World Trade Organisation, NATO and likewise back in their times.

Background Readings:

  1. Gary Rawnsley (2011) ‘The political narrative (s) of hero’ in Gary Rawnsley and Ming-yeh Rawnsley (ed), Global Chinese Cinema: the culture and politics of Hero, (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 13- 26.
  2. Chen, Xiaoming and Rawnsley, Ming-yeh T. (2010), On Tian xia (all under heaven) in Zhang Yimou’s Hero, in Gary  Rawnsley and Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley (eds), Global Chinese Cinema: the culture and politics of Hero (London: Routledge), pp.7889.
  3. ZHANG, Y., et al. (2004). Hero. [United States], Miramax Home Entertainment.

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