aving emerged from such a violent, tumultuous period, King Qin's vision of a unified China was indeed sincere and was accepted by many as the official mandate from heaven. However, the violence used in the process of unification was fierce. In his drive to unify China, the First Emperor not only slaughtered thousands of innocent people, but also killed those closest to him. The only person close to him who survives is the woman he loves who, in the beginning, shared his vision. Eventually, the Emperor's violent means and his slaughtering of innocent children destroy the love between them.
he Emperor is a conflicted person, one who is constantly reminded of the mandate from heaven; he must carry out his forefathers' plans to unify China. The Emperor is human as well, almost childlike in his behavior and affections. During the course of the film his humanism is diminished by his firm resolve to achieve the unity of China.
t the outset, the Emperor's vision for a unified China is one of a benevolent dictator, his desire to end war and bring peace to the lives of all people under heaven is genuine. The King of Qin sees the land of all seven kingdoms, "as far as the eye can see and can't see," as one great empire. A place where the people speak the same language, use the same currency, build a great wall to protect their nation from outsiders, a massive country where all are ruled by one. Although the Emperor achieved the unification of China, his use of brutal force and lust for power earned him many enemies. As such, Qin's rule over unified China only lasted for 16 years before being overthrown by the Han. Do the ends justify the means? This is a question we are left asking in the case of China's First Emperor.
n THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN viewers know that there are seven kingdoms, but the film deals with four of the kingdoms in a meaningful way. These kingdoms include: Qin, Han, Zhao and Yan.
he Kingdom of Qin is the Emperor's home and the most powerful state in China prior to unification. The first battle sequence in the film is Qin conquering Han. Han was the first state taken by Qin. When Qin is given an opportunity to allow Han to remain a colony of Qin, the Emperor, defying his prime minister Lu Buwei, flatly refuses.
he Kingdom of Zhao is introduced early in the film. Zhao is significant as this is where the King of Qin was raised (he was held hostage as a child in Zhao). The Emperor and his life long lover/confidante were companions from their childhood. Lady Zhao was actually a servant to the Emperor's family. The simple, but elegant woman is a commoner by birth. The deep love between Lady Zhao and the Emperor would not have been accepted in the palace court, however the Emperor ignores this. In the beginning Lady Zhao has one dream, to leave the Qin palace and return to her homeland. Upon hearing the Emperor's vision for a unified China she decides to make a sacrifice in order to support her lover. Ironically, it is the Emperor's brutal destruction of Zhao and the murdering of the children of Zhao that destroys the relationship between the Emperor and his lover. The killing of the Zhao children is testimony of both the Emperor's brutality and his inability to keep his promise to his beloved Lady Zhao. Not only does this signify the end of their emotional allegiance, but also an end to their political alliance. From this point on Lady Zhao plots with the Prince of Yan and the assassin, Jing Ke, to kill the King of Qin. During the process she falls in love with Jing Ke.
he Kingdom of Yan plays a pivotal role in the film. Yan is the home of Jing Ke, the assassin, as well as the Prince of Yan. The Prince of Yan was also raised as a hostage in Zhao with the Emperor, the two were childhood friends. Now that the Emperor's vision is clear, that Yan too will be absorbed into the new China, the two become arch enemies. After having herself branded as a criminal, in an effort to win the trust of the Prince, Lady Zhao makes her false flight to Yan in order to find an assassin. It is Lady Zhao, who with the Emperor, contrives the scheme of finding a killer from Yan to try and assassinate the Emperor. If such an assassination attempt were to occur, the Emperor would have the full justification he would need to lay siege to Yan. The Prince of Yan is determined to stop the Emperor at all costs, but fails.
n the end, the Emperor succeeds in his quest to unify China. However, this achievement is realized at a great cost, he is alone and has destroyed all those who loved him.
ing Zheng, the future 'First Emperor', was crowned King of Qin at the age of thirteen in 247 B.C. Ying Zheng governed the kingdom with an iron fist, creating a centralized government under his strict control and maintaining power through intimidation and a harshly enforced legal code. Qin, a model totalitarian state, was soon transformed into a kingdom perfectly suited for perpetual warfare. With an army of over one million men, it began a march of destruction, efficiently eliminating its rivals one by one. The relatively weak kingdom of Han was the first to fall in 230 B.C. When Zhao followed soon after, Wei appeared to be Qin's next victim.
s the tide of Qin's brutal military machine swept across the region, it seemed inevitable that the remaining states would soon fall under the yoke of Qin domination. In desperation, Prince Dan of Yan planned to kill the King, selecting the infamous assassin, Jing Ke, for the dangerous assignment. In the guise of a Yan emissary bearing gifts for the great King, Jing Ke gained an audience with Ying Zheng. But his assassination attempt failed and, with his subsequent death, the relentless Qin army continued its deadly assault, engulfing the entire region until there was only one kingdom and only one king--Qin Shihuang.
ing Zheng's brief reign is remembered for its remarkable achievements. He completely reorganized the state, abandoning the feudal system in favor of a centralized and authoritarian government. The Empire was then divided into districts and provinces. He also introduced standardized currency, measurements, and a unified writing system across the expansive Empire. Under his rule, many large-scale public works were begun including the construction of roads, reservoirs and the Grand Canal. In addition to revolutionizing agricultural production, Ying Zheng ordered the building of a 'Great Wall' along the northern borders to prevent attacks from nomadic tribes.
any of Ying Zheng's monumental construction projects were designed to celebrate his glorious reign. To commemorate his military victories, he had replicas of the palaces of the kingdoms he had conquered constructed along the slopes of the Qin capital. To further enhance its reputation as an unparalleled center of power, he had more than 120,000 noble families from across the Empire relocated to the capital. Before his death, he had begun work on an even more impressive capital and an enormous tomb (containing the famous army of terra cotta warriors) near Lishan Mountain. On frequent tours of his domain, the Emperor was fond of ordering the construction of huge stone monuments in places he had visited; memorializing his great achievements. It is estimated that during his rule, a total of three million people, or roughly 15% of the population, worked on the Emperor's grandiose projects. But Ying Zheng's reign was also one of unprecedented brutality. A strict legal code was introduced to keep the population in check and neutralize any possible challenges to his power. The manaical ruler ordered every book in the Empire burned. And, in true tyrannical style, when the loyalty of the great scholars in Xianyang was called into question, Ying Zheng simply had them all buried alive.
iscontent with the harshness of his rule quickly mounted. Several attempts on his life were made, including a bold effort sponsored by the Prince of Yan in 227 B.C. To carry out his daring murder plot, the Prince specifically chose the notorious assassin, Jing Ke. But this, as all other assassination attempts, failed. But Ying Zheng's dynasty of 'endless generations' lasted less than a decade after his death in 210 B.C. In 202 B.C., Qin was toppled and, once again, China was plunged into civil war.
nyone attempting to assassinate Ying Zheng would, obviously, have to be exceptionally courageous. Short tempered, paranoid and fanatically cautious, Ying Zheng constantly surrounded himself with his ministers and aides. Even the whereabouts of the Emperor were kept secret. To reveal them was an offense punishable by death.
he man assigned the task of killing the king was the master assassin, Jing Ke (circa 227 B.C.). He was born in Wei, though his ancestors were originally from the kingdom of Qi. Jing Ke is described in the ancient histories as a man fond of books and the sword. Skilled in the martial arts, he first offered his services to the royal courts but, after repeatedly being rejected, he became a professional assassin. Despite his occupation, Jing Ke was a mild mannered man who preferred to spend his days getting drunk with friends like the butcher, Gao Jianli. Having heard accounts of his superior skill and courage, the Prince of Yan commissioned Jing Ke to assassinate the King of Qin. In order to gain access to the Qin court, Jing Ke was disguised as an emissary of the Yan government bearing gifts for the King. The first present was a box containing the head of General Fan who had earlier defected to Yan. The second was a map of Dukang territory that Yan planned to cede to Qin. Secretly concealed within this rolled map was a dagger. As Jing Ke opened the gift, he grabbed the weapon and lunged at the King. But his plan failed and he fell to the King's sword.