Jonathan Clements investigates the continuing fascination Chinese filmmakers feel for both the First Emperor and the man who tried to kill him.
It was a messy, scrappy struggle in a chilly hall, lasting less than a minute. A suicidal assassin pulled a knife out of nowhere and chased the ruler of the Qin dynasty around his throne. Bodyguards watched in frustration, forbidden on pain of death from mounting the steps to protect their leader. The court physician distracted the assassin by hurling his medicine kit at him, and when the man ducked, his would-be victim was finally able to tug his own long ceremonial sword from its scabbard. The murder attempt was over scant seconds later, as the attacker died under a rain of blows from the man who was supposed to have been his victim.
The incident changed history. Now, nothing stood in the way of the man who would become the First Emperor. The would-be killer, Jing Ke, had been the very last man who stood a chance of getting close enough to kill the power-hungry ruler. His failure to do so was a crucial event in the birth of the nation we now call China, and has been dramatised on countless occasions, not the least on film.
SELLING THE FIRST EMPEROR
A lot can change in 2200 years. The palace where the fight took place is now nothing but a low, lumpy hill near the modern Chinese city of Xi’an, but it has been recreated many times in Chinese film and television. Part of its appeal stems from a modern discovery – it is hard to believe, but it has still only been 34 years since the famous soldiers of the Terracotta Army, the guardians of the First Emperor’s tomb, were unearthed in the Chinese countryside.
Terracotta is in great abundance in the Xi’an region. The clay soil, which turns a darker red when wet, is still the chief ingredient in local pottery. Dozens of modern terracotta soldiers dot the landscape around the First Emperor’s gravesite, standing to attention outside modern souvenir factories. Even some of the shop dummies in Xi’an’s shopping malls have Qin dynasty topknots.
The originals are still largely where they have been for the last 2000 years, standing watch outside the underground mausoleum of the First Emperor. The main pit of the 7000-strong terracotta army is now roofed over by a structure like that of an aircraft hangar, its denizens roped off from the throngs of tourists who come to see them every day. Outside, around a towering concrete statue of the First Emperor himself, self-appointed tour guides hassle visitors for the chance to show them around, for a fee. Hundreds of hawkers clutch reproduction Qin dynasty knick-knacks and offer them for a few pennies, yelling over the fence at the tourists who queue for the surround-sound, 360-degree IMAX First Emperor experience.
It’s this international co-production that most foreigners have seen, a 45-minute docu-drama, funded with a large injection of Canadian money that was put to good use in Xi’an with the construction of a massive permanent set, that has since appeared in several other films and TV shows.
FAKING THE PAST
Property of Xi’an Film Studios, also known as the Shadow Factory, the set still sits on the outskirts of modern Xi’an. The historical First Emperor proclaimed peace in his time, and symbolised it by melting down all the bronze weapons in his domain to make twelve massive statues. Replicas of these stand guard outside the film set, glowering down upon the deserted car park.
From the top of the First Emperor’s movie-set battlements one can make out strange grey huts in the distance. These are concrete buildings that can be draped with silk to form the exteriors of Chinese or Mongol tents for military camp scenes – the solid undersides ensuring that continuity is maintained from day to day, and no “tent” moves between shots.
Despite its many period details, the set is strangely empty, often kept secret from foreigners in order to ensure that they are corralled into approved tourist spots. There is, after all, little hope of getting $10 from a sightseer to have their photo taken with real terracotta soldiers at the mausoleum, if the same tourists can have the same experience for free with the fake ones that are positioned all around the set.
Incorporating a mock-up of the First Emperor’s palace, a lake large enough to stage a sea battle, forests for bandit skirmishing and even a replica piece of the Great Wall, the set is mainly used today as a place for re-enactments of the emperor’s heyday, from dancing girls to full-on martial arts spectaculars for a local audience. The bleachers in the central courtyard can be removed if the venue resorts to its original purpose, as in the case of The Emperor’s Shadow (1999), which featured the set in exterior shots of the First Emperor’s palace, or the long running First Emperor TV series, which was also filmed there.
Fakery is part of the First Emperor story. The would-be assassin, Jing Ke, gained access to the throne-room by brandishing the head of one of the First Emperor’s enemies, a deserting general who had fled across the border. The head was real, but had been donated by the general himself, on the understanding that his sacrifice would guarantee someone else the chance to kill his one true enemy. Such desperate measures formed part of the plot of Zhang Yimou’s global hit Hero (2002), which had a framing device inspired by Jing Ke’s throne-room deception. A sheriff, played by Jet Li, arrives at the First Emperor’s palace, claiming to have dispatched three assassins, although the trophies he bears of his achievement are merely a ruse to get within striking distance of the First Emperor. The ultimate bluff can be found in Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1999), in which the First Emperor secretly arranges the assassination attempt, to provide himself with an excuse to invade the country that sponsors Jing Ke’s mission.
Jing Ke is a Chinese anti-hero – a troubled, suicidal killer whose greatest moment was also his greatest failure. He was the subject of his own TV series, Assassinator Jing Ke (2001), which portrayed him as the scion of a noble family, forced to kill his own best friend for a chance at offing the First Emperor. Jing Ke achieved a different kind of immortality in the movie Highlander: Endgame (2000), where he was played by Donnie Yen. Zhou Xiaowen’s The Emperor’s Shadow (1996), however, focuses on Jing Ke as part of a much larger conspiracy; in this version, he gains access to the court by claiming to be a friend of the First Emperor’s foster-brother, the famed bard Gao Jianli.
Even this has foundation somewhere in fact, as the historical chronicles record that this musician was a part of the great conspiracy to murder the First Emperor. Ancient accounts of the life of Jing Ke refer to a famous goodbye at the River Yi, on the border of the First Emperor’s kingdom, where, after months of training and preparation, the conspirators gave their chosen assassin a rousing send-off as he went off on his mission. Gao Jianli provided the music, for a song repeated in almost every First Emperor movie and serial: “The winds howl around us / The river runs cold / As the valiant depart/ Never to return.”
MYTHS AND MAGIC
History has not always been such a strong point in accounts of the First Emperor, and his fortunes have fluctuated with the times. He was reviled through much of the 20th century as a terrifying bogeyman, only to be rehabilitated in the dying days of Chairman Mao, with Chinese citizens encouraged to see him as a benevolent dictator, doing what was necessary to preserve China itself. There remains a political dimension to stories about the First Emperor – was Jing Ke a noble-minded revolutionary, trying to save the world, or was he nothing more than a terrorist dupe? Such questions lead to arguments over almost every fictional version. When, in Hero, Jet Li’s Nameless decided not to kill the First Emperor, the character was reviled by critics as a collaborator. Meanwhile, The Emperor’s Shadow was briefly banned in China, presumably for its protagonist’s decision to try to kill the First Emperor himself – inspired by Jing Ke’s heroic sacrifice, Gao Jianli attempts to kill the First Emperor by smacking him with a lead-weighted musical instrument. This, too, is an event that exists in the historical record, but highlighting it in a movie about the First Emperor risks government censure.
Screen versions of the First Emperor’s life have tried every conceivable angle. The Channel Four/Discovery Channel docu-drama First Emperor: The Man Who Made China (2005) actually drew its script from ancient Chinese court reports, clinging as close as possible to actual minutes from meetings. A 2001 First Emperor TV series concerned itself only with the gaps in the court record, concentrating on the Emperor’s love life, which is never mentioned in the original documents. Another TV series, A Step into the Past (also 2001), rejected history completely, instead basing its story on a science fiction novel in which 21st century time-travellers attempt to meddle with history.
Jackie Chan’s The Myth (2005) takes matters even further into the fantastic. Mixing elements of Indiana Jones with the First Emperor’s story, it was inspired by the true incident of a meteorite that struck China during the First Emperor’s reign. But it soon veers into sci-fi, with modern-day treasure hunters racing to grab pieces of the ancient stone, prized for its gravity-defying powers. Jackie Chan plays two roles in the film – he is one of the contemporary tomb raiders, and, it is implied in flashbacks, his earlier incarnation as Meng Yi, the First Emperor’s loyal general. Although Meng Yi was a real historical figure, there is no record of the star-crossed love story in The Myth in which Meng Yi falls in love with the concubine he is supposed to be guarding. Nor, to be fair, does the historical record have anything to say about Jackie Chan fighting on a conveyor belt in a glue factory.
Only one fact unites these many versions – the First Emperor remains a perennial obsession with the Chinese. As the man who united the country for the first time, and as a symbol of ultimate authority, the shadow of the First Emperor falls over every aspect of modern China. He even gave his name to the country itself – our word “China” comes from his “Qin” dynasty.