The Emperor and the Assassin (1999)




Director: Chen Kaige (who also did "Farewell My Concubine").

Starring:  Li Gong (Lady Zhao ),  Fengyi Zhang (Jing Ke),  Zhou Sun (Dan, Prince of Yan),  Xiaohe Lu (General Fan Yuqi),  Zhiwen Wang (Marquis Changxin),  Kaige Chen (Lu Buwei),  Yongfei Gu (Queen Mother),  Benshan Zhao (Gao Jianli),  Haifeng Ding (Qin Wuyang),  Changjiang Pan (Prison Official),  Xun Zhou (Blind Girl),  Xuejian Li (Ying Zheng). 

Chinese film.

Around 221 B.C. one of the rulers (Ying Zengh) of one of the seven kingdoms (Qin) wants to become the first emperor of all China.  To do so he gets his concubine Zhao to act as a spy in the kingdom of Yan, but she is diverted by falling in love with the assassin she is hired to kill Ying Zheng (who will be prepared for his attempt and will kill him, which will give the King the excuse he needs to conquer Yan.)

Gong Li's other films include The Story of Qiu Ju, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Shanghai Triad, and Chinese Box).


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Good  movie. 

221 B.C.  Following some 550 years of civil war among hundreds of kingdoms, seven states emerged as the dominant powers in China.  The most ambitious of these states was the Qin, ruled by King Ying Zheng.  The Kingdom of Qin invades the Kingdom of Han. 

Chapter I.  The King of Qin. 

Queen Mother's quarters.  With her is Marquis Changxin and the prime minister, Lu Buwei.  The prime minister asks the Queen Mother if she is aware of her son's intention to eliminate the Kingdom of Han.  The Queen is aware and she asks if her own homeland of the Kingdom of Zhao will be next. 

At the present, all Han except the capital is in the hands of Qin soldiers.  So far, the Han capital has been under a 30 day siege. The King of Qin wants to take Han, but the prime minister wants to preserve Han.  The King dismisses the prime minister. 

Lady Zhao arrives.  She grew up in Zhao along with Ying Zheng and later became the family's housekeeper.  More recently, she has been the lover of Ying Zheng.  She reminisces about how an innocent boy from Zhao became the present king.  Now Lady Zhao wants to return to her homeland.  

The Prince of the Kingdom of Yan arrives.  He is a hostage in the Kingdom of Qin.     

The Han capital falls to Qin.  Now the King of Qin turns his attention to Yan.  If Yan falls, the north of China will be united.  But the King needs a pretext to attack Yan.  Lady Zhao tells the King to send Prince Yan back home and from there he will send an assassin to kill the Qin King.  This will provide the pretext for an attack on Yan.  Lady Zhao believes in the political purpose of the King of Qin.  She believes him to be different from other kings, so she volunteers to go with the Prince Yan to his Kingdom of Yan to make sure he sends an assassin to try to kill the Qin King.  In order to prove to the Prince of Yan that she has had a complete break with the King, she has the prison warden brand her face with a branding iron (an act preserved for prisoners).

Lady Zhao and Prince Yan go to the Kingdom of Yan.

Chapter II.  The Assassin.

Jing Ke is a famous assassin who has killed many people.  His most recent assignment is to kill an entire family of swordmakers, which he does, but not completely.  He refuses to kill the blind teen-age daughter.  She begs him to kill her and when he continues to refusel, she kills herself.  This changes Jing Ke and he vows never to kill again.  He becomes a sandal peddler. 

Jing Ke intervenes to save a young boy who steals bread from the revenge of a shop owner.  In doing so, he refuses to kill the shop owner even when the shop owner taunts the former assassin to kill him.  The shop owner is killed, but not by Jing Ke.  Someone pushes Jing Ke, holding the ax the shop owner had held up to his own throat, thrusting the axe into the taunter's throat.  Jing Ke is arrested and is going to be tortured, but Lady Zhao, who saw the whole affair, intervenes.  When she sees that Jing Ke is not afraid of torture or death, she has him released so she can use him as the assassin of the Qin King.

Lady Zhao tells Prince Yan of the assassin, but Jing Ke refuses to kill.  Prince Yan gives Lady Zhao three months to get him to agree to be the assassin.  If she is not successful, both she and the former assassin will be killed. 

Prince Yan and Lady Zhao learn that 400,000 Qin soldiers are at the Han-Zhao border waiting to attack Zhao. 

Qin Palace.  It is revealed that Marquis Changxin is the father of two male children by the Queen Mother.  The King of Qin does not know this and the boys have to remain hidden within the Queen Mother's quarters. 

Chapter III. The Children.

One of Marquis Changxin's children suddenly shows up in the presence of the King.  Changxin quickly tells the King that the boy is his nephew. 

Soon afterwards, Changxin stages a coup.  Changxin travels to the residence of the former prime minister Lu Buwei to get his support.  But the prime minister will not cooperate with the scheme.  Changxin is not discouraged for he continues with his attempted coup, but the ambitious man falls into a trap set by the King.  Changxin leads his men toward the King's quarters when he finds himself surrounded by Qin soldiers.  All the rebels are killed, but Changxin is spared, at least for the moment.  

The King learns of the true identity of the two young boys.  He is furious.  He has the two children killed, despite the vigorous protestations of the Queen Mother.  Changxin is brought in and he taunts the King by telling him that his real father is the prime minister, originally from Zhao  --  the King is a bastard from Zhao. 

In the Qin Ancestral Temple, the prime minister appears before the King.  The King acknowledges that the prime minister had raised him and that he had taken care of the King.  The prime minister kills the traitor Changxin and the King calls him father.  The prime minister leaves.  The King issues a decree that the prime minister is a traitor and that all of his family should be killed. 

Back in Yan, Prince Yan imprisons Lady Zhou.  Jing Ke goes to Prince Yan and tells him to release Lady Zhou.  Lady Zhou is released and Jing Ke starts retraining as an assassin. 

General Fan flees to the Kingdom of Yan.  The King of Qin issues a decree to kill the general.  Prince Yan welcomes General Fan to his kingdom. 

The King of Qin now tells General Wang that he wants revenge on the kingdom of Zhao for the disrespect they had shown to he and his family when he was a boy.  He tells the General to destroy Zhao.

Prince Yan says that he wants to help the kingdom of Zhao against Qin.  When Lady Zhao hears that the King of Zhao will force the children of Zhao to kill themselves, she vows to go to Zhao to prevent this. 

Chapter IV.  Lady Zhao.

Lady Zhao travels to a Zhao outpost, 20 miles from the Zhao capital.  She finds a massacre there and she falls into deep despair.  Even though she is told that it is impossible to reach the capital city because the Qin have it surrounded, she decides to travel there. 

She meets with the King of Qin and tells him that she was naive in her belief that he would prevent bloodshed.  But the King of Qin tells her that Zhao is different.  He wants revenge on the Zhao people for bullying his father and insulting his mother.  Lady Zhao says that he cannot be a good ruler if he has hate in his heart:  "The ruler of all under heaven should love all people under heaven."  She gets the King to agree to save the children. 

Lady Zhao travels to the gates of the Zhao capital and finds the bodies of the dead Zhao children.  Some of the children were buried alive (despite the command of the King of Qin to let the last group of surviving Zhao children go).  Lady Zhao utters:  "Goddamn Ying Zengh." 

Back in Yan, she gets sicks and sleeps for five days.  She tells Jing Ke that "I do not want to live.  I want to go back to Zhao." 

The Qin Queen Mother is dying.  Her son tries to console her, but she spits in his face saying: "Goddamn you!"

Totally disillusioned with her former lover, Lady Zhao tells Jing Ke about the original plot hatched between herself and the King of Qin.  Jing Ke later meets with General Fan who asks Jing Ke to tell the King of Qin when he sees him that he never told anyone about the King's secret (of his birth).  The general then kills himself. 

Jing Ke practices the assassination.  He will appear unarmed, but within a rolled up map he will show the King of Qin will be a knife. 

Chapter V.  The Emperor and the Assassin.

It is announced to the King of Qin that the envoy from Yan has arrived.  The King says to let the man come to him with his sword, but Jing Ke is forced to give up his sword by the staff.  In the presence of the King, the King has his men give Jing Ke back his sword.  The assassin then pretends that he is frightened and tells the King of the plot to kill him.  This reassures the King and he asks to see the map brought by Jing Ke.  As the map is unrolled, the assassin grabs the hidden knife and thrusts at the King of Qin.  The King jumps back and then starts to run with the assassin in close pursuit.  No one intervenes on behalf of the King.  The assassin throws his knife at the King, but he misses.  The King then wounds Jing Ke with a sword.  Jing Ke pulls out his own sword to kill the king, but he finds it has been broken in two.  The King then kills the assassin. 

The King is furious that no one would help him against the assassin. 

Lady Zhao arrives to take Jeng Ke's body for burial.  She turns to leave, the King shouts "my love!", Lady Zhou hesitates for a moment and then leaves. 

In 221 BC the King of Qin conquered all six of the other kingdoms by military force.  The Qin Dynasty lasted only 15 years.  It was overthrown by the Han.  The King of Qin 's tomb is in Xian guarded by thousands of terra-cotta warriors. 

The movie is a kind of "Gone with the Wind" for China.  There are many characters involved, as well as lots of complicated political and historical twists and turns.  Gong Li is terrific in her role as the naive follower of the King of Qin who is transformed into one completely disillusioned with him.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:



2000 B.C. -- towns had grown into small cities on the North China Plain. Warrior-rulers, religious specialists, artisans, and farmers formed distinct social classes, and some were very much richer and more powerful than others.

1953-1576 B.C. Xia Kingdom

One of these urban centers, near the present city of Zhengzhou, gave rise to the kingdom known as Xia. China entered the Bronze Age during this period.

1576-1059 B.C. Shang Dynasty

1300 B.C. wheat, goats, and the chariot reached China from the Middle East. A military aristocracy emerged as a clearly defined ruling class that owed allegiance to the Shang kings.

The Shang people left written records, the first in Chinese history.

1059-221 B.C. Zhou Dynasty

The state of Zhou in the Wei River Valley rebelled against the misrule of the last Shang king. They pointed to the planetary conjunction of 1059 B.C. as a sign that Heaven's mandate had been given to them.

403-221 B.C. Warring States Period.

Qin Shi Huangdi or Ying Zheng, uniter of the future China.

before 259 B. C. – this was the Period of the Warring States. Qin was one of the western kingdoms in the Warring States Period.  The Qin were sometimes called the Ch'in, the possible origin of the name of China.

259 B. C. – Prince Ying Zheng born. At the time, the number of remaining feudal states was few. Zheng's state, Qin, was the most powerful of the states.

He was King Zheng of Qin during the Warring States Period prior to becoming an emperor.

246 B.C.-238 B.C. – he reigned under a regent. The warring of the states continued.

238-221 BC - ruled without a regent.

221-210 BC –he ruled as emperor of China.


221-206 B.C. Qin Dynasty

221 B. C. – he unified China and proclaimed himself the First (shi) Emperor (huangdi) of the Qin Dynasty. Indeed, he was the first man to rule the whole country.

To avoid the anarchy of the Warring States Era, he abolished the feudal system. Instead, he divided the empire into thirty-six provinces run by three governors: one civilian, one military, and a moderator between them.

Shi Huangdi also ordered the aristocrats to move to Xian Yang (the capital), so he could keep a close eye on them.

He built a predecessor to the Great Wall of China to keep out the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, as well as an extensive network of roads and canals throughout his kingdom. He also standardized weights and measures, currency, and Chinese script and the legal system. In addition he built a Terracotta Army near Xi’an.

But the rule of Shi Huangdi was way too rigid. Some of his excesses included high taxation rates, the burning of books, burying scholars alive, and infliction of other cruel punishments.

The Emperor’s Imperial Secretariat and chief advisor was Li Si. He was responsible for inspiring many of the reforms and laws the emperor passed.

Late in life, after many assassination attempts, the Emperor became somewhat paranoid. He refused to stay in one place for long. He also slept each night in a different building in his palace complex. Furthermore, he hired several "doubles" to fool any potential assassins.

210 B. C. – Ying Zheng died suddenly at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture. He died without a will.

Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao persuaded Zheng’s second son Ying Huhai to forge the Emperor's will. In addition, they forced the first son Ying Fusu to commit suicide.

Ying Huhai became the second emperor ("Er Shi Huangdi").

Er Shi Huangdi’s reign was characterized by revolt. Within four years, the Emperor was dead, the imperial palace and library were burned.

After a rule of only 37 years, Qin rule ended shortly after the first emperor's death in 210 B.C. His son became the second emperor, but had been quickly overthrown.

The next Chinese dynasty was the Han Dynasty. It rejected the Legalism of the Qin Dynast for Confucianism, but left most of the other changes in place.

206B.C. - A.D. 220 Han Dynasty



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