A man who says he is nameless enters the court of the Qin Emperor in order to gain the rewards of his extraordinary exploits: He has defeated & killed the three most dangerous warriors in the seven kingdoms. People like them, we are given to understand, prevent the unification of the empire. The emperor is amazed: Two of the assassins once attacked his palace & proved unstoppable. He wants to hear the man’s story.
The man says, I killed the first one, then I used secret knowledge I acquired, that one of the other two had loved him, to drive them apart. A combination of jealousy & grief brought them to ruin. In this story, it is eros that destroys the couple: Lovers do not share their beloveds. This implies our man was good enough to have defeated the first man. But he says he could not understand the second man’s calligraphy, though he claims calligraphy & swordsmanship are alike.
The emperor calls him a liar. Having seen the couple, he knows they are above such pettiness. He says, the first man was your friend; you plotted together – he gave his life for you. He thought himself an unrivaled fighter – he must have believed your technique could successfully assassinate me. The couple must have seen through your plot immediately – but the man’s example persuaded them. The woman attacked her man to spare his life, so that she would fight in his place. Both these you killed before witnesses. In this story, cooperation & sacrifice replace eros.
Both stories crucially involve deception & war, but the latter does justice to the nobility of the warriors. The assassin must not have known the character of the emperor, or he wanted to test him. This is the crisis the story describes: Nobility & empire cannot tolerate each other, but empire has a much more obvious claim to teaching or at least securing the good.
The warrior admits his lie. He now corrects the emperor’s story. In truth, he killed none of the warriors – they plotted together. This casts doubt on witness testimony, of course. But men judge from experience, not rumor. Astoundingly, telling the truth is what gets him killed. Had he lied, he would have succeeded.
The crucial fact about the third story is that it explains both attacks on the palace as failures. Sacrifice really is sacrifice for the empire. The pride of the few must be destroyed in order to protect the many. Only the one can do it. The emperor refers to his sword as a protection. Strangely, he says he could die happy knowing that his enemies came truly to know him, as none of his servants do.
A fine story exquisitely filmed, recounting for the benefit of the Han how the empire was first created.