And yet, for all its great humanity, for all its heartbreaking appeal, Sima Qian's letter strikes a Western reader as odd. It would, I think, have struck a contemporary Roman as odd, too It touches, as I said, on some of the grand themes of human life. The oddity is in the themes it leaves out.
Please read these articles. They strike me as parallel descriptions of the tone, peculiar to my ears, of the films Hero and Iron Monkey. In the first, the King of Qin, the Chinese Emperor que futuris, is poised to invade Jet Lis homeland of Zhou. But Li decides that unity is preferable to division, chaos and war, and declines his opportunity to kill the King. In the second, the vigilante Iron Monkey fights and defeats a corrupt Imperial governor in the late 1800s.
Now, those things are all very well and good. But the tone of these movies is entirely foreign to me. Yes, the Qin Emperor will end the internecine war of the Seven Kingdoms. But if this were a Western movie about, say, Henry Tudor and Wales, Edward I and Scotland, or George II and the 45, one of two tones could be employed: either the king is a murderous butthead bent on annexation, conquest and tyranny (Braveheart), or he is a self-interested but good man who will be required to rule well (Henry V).
Now, Lord knows, a lot of Western movies dont even reach this level of political sophistication: David Duchovny noted that The X-Filess unintentional subtext was that all the evil in the world was the fault of a handful of middle-aged white males. If so, this would still fall under Category A above. But in Hero, the supremacy of the future emperor is unquestioned; his morality is quite literally unremarkable. In Iron Monkey, when the corrupt officials replacement arrives, Wong-Fei Hung merely notes, Ah, the new governor. Let us hope he is honest. Thats all? Why not, Ah, the new governor. Let us hope he is honest, lest we have to kick his sorry ass back to Beijing, as well?
In a society far more primitive than 1890s Chinas, the Magna Carta noted that the king was expected to perform in certain ways and guaranteed certain rights of the lords and commons; the Dragon Throne was generally unencumbered by such worries.
And let me be frank: I prefer Kill Bill to most martial arts films for one simple reason: Quentin Tarantinos chewy morality. Sure, his films are about bad things happening to bad people: thats the attraction. But how do you know they are bad people unless the film paints them so? Everything you know about QTs characters comes from the films themselves. Jules and the Bride are amoral characters who awaken to morality; for me, they are the attraction of his films.
(As for the threat of Chinese nationalism: well, if the Kuomintang itself can agree with the PRC that Taiwan is a part of China, while deferring to the indefinite future any declarations or changes of sovereignty between the mainland and Taiwan, I will not worry about the fire in Asia too much.)