The Emperor and the Assassin

Provost's Film Series

February 12, 2009


Introduction written by Liesl Smith


Director and China

In The Emperor and the Assassin director Chen Kaige, who lived through the reinvention of China during the Cultural Revolution, takes up the first invention of China.  The movie tells the story of Qín Shi Huángdi, the man who united the warring states and formed a unified China. 

Chen is one of the most important of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, men who came out of the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s.  The “Fifth Generation” filmmakers took up the history of China’s national culture and the psychology of that culture. While working to push their medium technically, filmmakers like Chen also tried to push the technical, psychological and emotional sides of their medium. Within China as well as without, Chen’s work is respected for its deep humanism, placing an acute criticism of the potential brutality and inhumanity that lies within all persons side by side with depictions of reason, compassion, and desire for harmony.


The Personal and the Political

Chen’s own connection both to film and the challenge of the relationship between Chinese politics and history goes back to his childhood.  As a young boy in the Red Guard he was “forced” to denounce his father, a prominent filmmaker in China.  That denunciation, indeed the many fissures between past and present reinforced during the Cultural Revolution, may in part lie behind his conviction that China is “a country that has no past…. Political regimes systematically robbed us of history and it’s only now that we are beginning to get it back.” (Interview with Leonard Klady, May 31, 2003).  Certainly that conviction that the Chinese were stripped of their own history has impelled Chen to make movies like The Emperor and the Assassin in order to bring forward that past for reconsideration.


Ancient History

Nominated for the 1999 Grand Jury Prize by the American Film Institute and the Palm d’Or at Cannes, The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) tells the story of the first emperor of a united China who ruled in China’s classical age, the age of great philosophers with the flowering of Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism. The story is based upon the monarch of the Qin province who in 221 BC brought together the seven warring clans (Qin, Yan, Qi, Qu, Yan, Han, Zhao and Wei) and took for himself the title Shi Huángdi or Emperor.  Of the seven clans, the most important in the movie are: Qin, Han, Zhao and Yan.

Qín Shi Huángdi was certainly a remarkable ruler. The measure of his accomplishments and grasp of power make him comparable to men like Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great.  The remarkable tomb which he built for himself in X’ian with its famous terra-cotta army of about 8,000 soldiers and horses and the underground palace which he built for himself rival the achievements of the Egyptian pharaohs in attempting to provide for all the emperor’s needs in the afterworld. (Shi Huáng’s immortality, indeed divinity, became a dominating obsession of his later years. Indeed when he died in 210 BC, he had just returned from a fruitless trip to Japan in search of an elixir of life.) 

A few from among the many developments which Shi Huángdi fostered include:  standardized systems of writing, weights and measures; the division of China into 36 individually governed states, with their own bureaucratic and defensive administrations; a sprawling system of roads and canals; and the building of the Great Wall to connect the various border walls.

Alongside these unifying achievements, Shi Huángdi himself was—as the film illustrates—a man tormented by the fears of losing all that he had worked so hard to achieve.  Thus, although in name the uniting of the kingdoms “ended” centuries of bloodshed and factionalism, the first years of a unified kingdom were brutal ones. The movie reflects the reality that Shi Huángdi’s long rule was one of increasing tyranny.  He transplanted the former nobility of the warring states to the capital where he could keep a closer eye upon them.  He instituted despotic laws, oppressive taxes, and intellectual isolation.  The latter of these, and his fear of the power of the Chinese intellectuals, can be seen in his legislation of 213 BC when he tried to burn all books that spread the writings of the great philosophers.  When he died after ruling for 37 years, his son ascended the throne, but was quickly deposed and the Han dynasty took over.


Past and Present

It is rather a truism that Chinese directors take up ancient Chinese history to critique contemporary structures via a storyline that is rendered “safe” through chronological distance. In the case of Qín Shi Huángdi, one could say that Chinese political structures themselves invite the comparison since Mao Zedong explicitly compared himself to Qín Shi Huángdi in reference to his ability and willingness to rule with force (Alasdair Clayre, The Heart of the Dragon, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984, p. 9). 

Despite this, Chen was adamant at the time of the movie’s debut that he had not undertaken a “history lesson,” but rather that he’d set out to tell a story that illustrated how thoroughly and insidiously absolute power corrupts.  At the beginning he said, “The First Emperor is admired by many. He's a very nice man at the beginning, nice and humble, and there is nothing wrong with his dream of the unification of China. But all politicians when elected say something good and it always ends tragically. It's very universal, the way Shakespeare is universal." 


Size and Scope

A few facts will suffice to lay out the size of the film: one of the battle scenes required 5,000 extras; the opening battle took 10 days to film; the imperial Xianyang palace was completely reconstructed for the movie; and historically accurate artifacts both everyday and ceremonial from chariots to musical instruments had to be reproduced to “populate” this expansive world. Certainly to construct the world of an emperor who himself employed roughly three million people on his various projects requires both monumental production and a monumental budget—a budget of American movie-sized proportions.  As a result, The Emperor and the Assassin was at its time one of the most expensive films ever made in China and the battle scenes have been compared to Kurosawa’s Ran.