Archive for April 2005

Another grammatical public service announcement

April 24, 2005

“Transition” is a noun, not a verb. If you are moving from one stage to another, it is a transition; you are transiting; you are even in transit, but you are not transitioning. Any sportscaster who uses this “word” more than a hundred times should have a white T scribbled on his forehead with the telestrator.

Now, a post for the English Crowd: Word Inflation

April 18, 2005

Everyone who’s taken an economics class knows about inflation: as the government prints more money, the money we have now becomes less valuable. This phenomenon is now pervading our language. A movie is not just sad; it’s really sad. A book is not just powerful; it’s very powerful. In our desperate attempt to communicate our feelings, we are diluting the meaning of our words. There is a time and a place for amplifiers like “very” (It is, for instance, effective in conjunction with “moderate” or “somewhat”), but we have overused these tools, and now they are dull. It’s time to power down our vocabularies. Instead of “really sad,” use “tragic.” Don’t use “really tragic” because it’s redundant.

This change will be difficult because force of habit is so strong. (I’ve had to edit amplifiers out of this post numerous times!) Also, one must account for one’s audience. Some people don’t know what “tragic” means, tragically, so “really sad” is still a useful phrase. This change towards simplicity will bear fruit, however. A person whose words are measured is easier to trust than a person who sounds like a movie critic. One can believe what he says, be it “This was a great book;” “I’m a good driver,” or “I love you.”

The Hero as the Suffering Servant

April 14, 2005

Virgil seems more qualified than anyone else to judge between Nameless and the King of Qin, also known as Qin Shi Huang.  Many of the problems which the Roman author considers in The Aeneid resurface in Hero, including the futility of civil war, the conflict between the community and the individual in government and in culture, and finally, justice versus mercy.  Virgil, after considering the merits of both arguments, would spare Qin because he would consider Qin is much more important to the future of the state.  The unification of China will strip the Chinese people of some of their individuality, but the peace and harmony which they will achieve will justify the sacrifice.  Some of his actions, like the execution of Nameless, are not totally morally legitimate, but small mistakes are forgivable.

Virgil would first have to justify Qin’s continued existence since so many of the film’s protagonists are determined to kill him.  An astute student of Chinese culture, Virgil would know that China has spent its entire history oscillating between unity and disunity.  He would remember the opening lines of Luo Guanxhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an account of the civil war which ensued between the fall of the Han dynasty (which itself rose to power after Qin Shi Huang’s dynasty crumbled into civil war) and the rise of the Jin: “The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity.”  Virgil, whose Rome had itself just sustained a hundred years of civil war, would be sympathetic to Qin’s weariness with fighting and his desire for peace.  Like Qin, the Trojans do not seek to crush their enemies but to seek harmony with them (Aeneid VII.281-314).  The similarity in Virgil’s and Qin’s syntax, in fact, is striking.  Qin wishes to unite “All Under Heaven” while Augustus Caesar wants to extend Rome “beyond the paths of year and sun, beyond the constellations, where on his shoulders heaven-holding Atlas revolves the axis set with blazing stars” (VI.1053-1056).  Qin and Rome both consider themselves the natural and destined rulers of the world, so to them, any war is a civil war, any war is a tragic waste of life between brothers.  Virgil would note Qin’s interpretation of Broken Sword’s 20th “sword” character: the highest form of swordsmanship is that in which “sword is free from hand and heart” and the swordsman’s only wish is for peace.  Like Aeneas, who sacks his own city to win the war with Latium, Qin is fighting so no one will have to fight anymore (XII.746-802).

Virgil, despite his agreement with Qin, would also have to acknowledge a major roadblock to their worldview: differences in culture.  Latium and Zhao argue that they are individual, self-governing nations, and Troy and Qin are not peacemakers but invaders.  When Numanus argues that Latins are a hardy people accustomed to suffering while the Trojans are used to luxury and ease, Ascanius can respond only with violence (IX.798-851).  Ascanius shows the Trojans’ cultural ignorance when he kills a white stag which the locals revere (VII.637-711).  Amata and Juno go so far as to compare Aeneas to Paris, who was a woman-thief, not an ally (VII.425-427, 474-495).

The primary manifestation of Latium’s and Zhao’s independence is in their separate languages.  Even after Trojan victory is decided, Juno requests that the Trojans adopt the Latins’ name and language, and Jupiter grants her wish (XII.1089-1100).  When Qin attacks Zhao, Zhao’s calligraphy teacher says, “Please remember that arrows might destroy our town and topple our kingdom, but they can never obliterate our culture.”  He continues to write in the face of a hail of arrows, showing the essence of Zhao’s culture: self-expression even in the face of death.  The students follow his example, and in doing so, Qin’s attacks do not harm them.

Zhao’s successful defense against Qin offers a direct rebuttal to Virgil’s reasoning.  Under Zhao’s model, individuality, not harmony, is the greatest good.  The artist can express himself however he likes: he can use one of the 19 sword characters or create another.  He loses the accessibility of the standardized language system which Qin supports, but he gains purity and power, and these are more important than life itself.  Without uniqueness, all become, like Nameless, nameless.

This is not the whole story, however.  The defense of Zhao was a lie which Nameless invented to fool the King.  Self-expression thus loses its greatest victory, and we do not know now whether it is worth the sacrifice.  Virgil, seeing this deconstruction, would remember The Aeneid, in which Turnus, Amata, and Juno, the foremost Latin nationalists, are all hate-crazed and irrational, and the pantheon of nations which Marc Antony leads into battle serve only to add variety to Augustus’s victory parade (VII.339-360, 410-427, 451-470, 589-602, VIII.888-950).

Ultimately, the community ethic owns Virgil’s loyalty.  Aeneas suppresses his own wants and needs for the sake of the community on numerous occasions.  When he is tired and sick, he pretends he is optimistic and happy to sustain his soldiers’ morale (I.275-292).  When he flees Troy, he gives up the opportunity for individual glory attained through fighting to the death because he can best serve his people by living (II.400-404, 428-433).  He is so pious that he remembers to bring his household gods and even carries his father out of the city on his back (II.974-984).  Aeneas circles around Scylla and Charybdis, ceding an opportunity to equal Jason and Odysseus, because he does not want to lose a single one of his men (III.548-564).  The Trojan captain leaves a life of luxury and romance in Carthage so he can establish a city for his son and his people in Italy (IV.346-378).

Nameless and Qin Shi Huang share Aeneas’s ethical code.  Qin continues to fight and to expand, despite numerous assassination attempts, because he desires unity.  Nameless, too, makes the ultimate sacrifice: he spares Qin, putting himself in peril of execution, and instead of trying to escape the fortress, he accepts his sentence.  The two men brave this great personal suffering for the greater good of their people.  As Broken Sword, who understands Qin’s actions, says, “The suffering of one is nothing compared to the suffering of many.”  The agony of the individual is still tragic – it is for this reason that the characters, who sacrifice so much, wear white, the color of mourning, in the third story – but when this sacrifice edifies the community, it is honorable.

Virgil has sufficiently defended Qin Shi Huang’s life.  Now, he must justify Nameless’s death.  Qin’s politically savvy advisers say this choice would send a message to all that the rule of law is absolute.  The death of this assassin, coupled with the supposed or actual deaths of Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword, would greatly amplify Qin’s reputation.  Qin can now claim that like the daughters of Danaus featured on Pallas’s belt, he will forget no wrongdoing (X.682-686).  Qin, however, stated earlier in the movie that his ministers do not understand his true motivation.  Furthermore, Qin could overrule the law, as Pauline Chen notes in her review of the film.  So, this explanation is not sufficient.

There are many parallels between this ending and the ending of The Aeneid.  Aeneas, too, chose execution over mercy (XII.1252-1271).  His was also a good political maneuver: Turnus, Aeneas’s archrival, would be a living rebuttal to the Trojan’s reign, and Aeneas’s ally, Evander wanted vengeance for his son, Pallas (XI.230-239).  Aeneas’s action seems to be visceral, not political, however.  The death of Pallas infuriates him, and he never wants to forget it; indeed, he says that it is Pallas, not Aeneas, who is killing Turnus (XII.1266-1268).  This dimension could not have been lost on Virgil, for he writes here that Aeneas, who until now has usually been dutiful and pious, was “aflame with rage – his wrath was terrible” (1263-1264).  Virgil could reasonably argue that Qin, a paragon of virtue just minutes earlier, is having a similar reaction.  Qin is extremely paranoid: no one can come within 100 paces of him without special permission.  This episode has likely left him even more shaken and uneasy.  As Aeneas melded his identity with Pallas, so Qin may here be melding his identity with the state and in doing so, washing his own hands of the murder.  Virgil would not consider the action perfectly just, but he would sympathize with it.  In response to the claim that this is abuse of power strips the monarchy of legitimacy, Virgil would respond that the mob can abuse power as well as an individual can, noting the Latin people’s rush to war against pious Aeneas (VII.822-846).

Thus, having considered the political and emotional reasons for Qin’s choice, and noting that Qin is much more valuable to China than Nameless is, Virgil will spare Qin rather than Nameless.


Chinese Political Timeline

UNITY: Shang (1600-1066 B. C.).  Zhou (1066-256)

DISUNITY: Warring States (256-221)

UNITY: Qin (221-206).  This is the first dynasty to unite all of China.  After Qin Shi Huang dies, there is a period of rebellion against his weak son.  The dynasty that follows, however, is one of the greatest: Han (202 B. C. – 220 A. D.).

DISUNITY: Three Kingdoms (220-265 A. D.)

UNITY: Jin (265-420)

DISUNITY: Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589)

UNITY: Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907)

DISUNITY: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960).  After this period, four competing dynasties emerged: Song (960-1279), Liao (907-1125), Western Xia (1032-1227), and Jin (1115-1234).  Mongol Rule under the Yuan followed (1271-1368).

UNITY: Ming (1368-1644).  Qing (1644-1911)

DISUNITY: Republic of China (1911-).  Because of pressure from Japan and friction between the KMT and the CCP, China spent the entirety of the 1930s and 1940s at war.  After this, the Chinese government splits into two entities: People’s Republic of China (1949- ) and The Republic of China (1949-).

Auxiliary Sources

Chen, Pauline.  “Hero.”  Cineaste, Dec. 1, 2004.  Vol. 30, Issue 1.

Luo Guanxhong.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  <>.  14 Apr. 2005