Zhang Yimou’s Hero: Reclaiming the
Martial Arts Film for “All under Heaven”

By Feng Lan

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 1-43

This essay examines how the concept of tianxia informs the ideological orientation and aesthetic features of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. The concept of tianxia had functioned as the fundamental worldview of the premodern Chinese until subverted by the imported discourse of nationalism. The doctrine of tianxia is now reviving after different ideological forces in China have recently come to reclaim it as a compelling alternative to the modern order of nation-states, and thus a solution to the basic problems of today’s world. Largely resonating with such a trend of asserting the legitimate role of Chinese culture in constructing a new global vision on the basis of a Chinese transnationalism, an artistic reconfiguration of tianxia also provides strategies by which Zhang reinvents the marital arts film as a way to invigorate Chinese cinema in the international film market. Zhang’s utilization of tianxia allows him to re-historicize the wuxia discourse and recreate the wuxia characters as a sort of culture heroes rather than sheer warriors. In addition, the tianxia perspective helps Zhang to re-visualize the narrative space of martial arts films in ways different from the spatial production of conventional martial arts movies sustained by the jianghu imaginary. Ironically, however, the intended tension between the two kinds of tianxia vision embodied respectively by the wuxia heroes and the King in the film contributes to not only enhancing the dramatic appeal of the film but also revealing the intrinsic contradictions of the tianxia ideology.