The Assassin at last. What a masterpiece. Mind you, it's not your run-of-the-mill wǔxiá piàn, with members of rival martial arts schools challenging each other, or with acrobatic fights in bamboo groves.
No. First of all, the film is set under the late Táng, and director Hou Hsiao-Hsien [Hóu Xiàoxián 侯孝賢] secured the assistance of a Taiwanese historian who specialises in the Táng Dynasty to make sure the court manners, musical instruments, dances, foodstuffs, etc. were historically accurate. As a result, the film is visually stunning in its faithful representation of court life and costumes. Many scenes have been photographed in natural light or in candlelight, and you can see the beautiful patterns of the silk clothes and the gauze curtains.
Secondly, many protagonists are female. Women under the Táng enjoyed much more freedom than under later dynasties (see The Celestial Empire, p9), and the film is basically a tale of women plotting against each other against a backdrop of seemingly masculine authority.
I won't spoil the scenario, but the film does depart from the short story. Niè Yǐnniáng returns from her training with the nun as a full adult, not as an adolescent as in the short story. The nun does not disappear; on the contrary, she tells her to kill her cousin Tián Jì'ān, the de facto independent ruler of Wèibó. Niè Fēng is Tián's provost. The various wives and concubines of Tián Jì'ān plot against each other. Instead of killing Tián, Yǐnniáng starts taking part in the various conspiracies, thwarting assassination attempts and protecting her father. I won't spoil the outcome of the film, but I believe it is about Yǐnniáng's finding her own destiny after years of being subservient to others.
Oh, and there is the best depiction ever of a magic-user and of his spells in a semi-historical film. Yes, a magic-user could definitely do with more hit points...
I have found a very interesting article on this matter on the engrossing Dutch fan web-site devoted to Robert van Gulik, the celebrated author of the Judge Dee mystery novels.
Here is the text of the article, which had originally been published in the 1950s. The highlighted parts have been so by yours truly.
One-Sided Notes On a Many-Sided Subject
R.H. van Gulik
Some time a studious person with much leisure at his disposal might well compile an encyclopaedia containing all the mistaken statements on Far Eastern subjects that may be culled from ancient and modern Western literature.
His would be the work of a lifetime, but it would be far from labour lost. For so complicated has become the tangle of human relations on this small globe of ours, that a study of errors is often much more enlightening than a study of truisms.
To such an encyclopaedia of errors on the Far East, the entry polygamy would occupy considerable space. Except for Far Eastern politics, there are few topics about which one reads so many erroneous statements.
This goes for China as well as for Japan. Since a great many Japanese customs go back to Chinese prototypes, here we shall deal with polygamy in China, leaving the Japanese aspect of this problem for a subsequent occasion. Some writers describe the old Chinese polygamic system as a pool of black iniquity; others praise it as the long-awaited final solution of all our social problems. In fact it is neither of the two. Polygamy in China was the logical consequence of certain social and economic premises, and worked neither better nor worse than any of our own social institutions. And now that these premises are gradually disappearing, polygamy is disappearing together with them.
There are many reasons for the prevalence of erroneous ideas about Chinese polygamy. In the first place, Chinese family life has until very recently been a closely guarded, isolated territory where no persons except members of the family itself could trespass. Among foreigners it was perhaps only the wives of the early missionaries who could obtain glimpses of life in the quarters of the womenfolk in a Chinese mansion. But foreign wives had an avenue of approach only to Christian Chinese families, where there were no secondary wives or concubines.
Even the Chinese themselves found it difficult to obtain information about the “inner courtyards” of their friends. For in China the separation of the sexes has, since olden times, been carried out so firmly that in old-fashioned families it was considered improper to dry articles of male and female clothing on the same laundry line. An unmarried girl of an upper middle-class family had no contact at all with any male person except her brothers, and the contacts of a married woman were largely confined to the male members of her husband’s and her own family.
This separation of the sexes was facilitated by the architectural features of the Chinese dwelling house. Especially in North and Central China, houses spread horizontally instead of vertically. One mansion is in reality a compound consisting of a number of separate courtyards, each having its own buildings and gardens, and connected with each other by winding corridors or covered passages.
This peculiar arrangement of the Chinese floor plan also answered many of the problems of a polygamic family system. Each of the several wives could live in a separate courtyard of her own, with her own servants, and her own kitchen. The architecture eliminated many causes for the friction which is bound to arise sooner or later if one man lives together with several wives under the same roof.
Besides there were a number of other factors in ancient China that contributed to a harmonious home life. One of the most important probably was sociability. In the olden days Chinese women were rigidly excluded from all outdoor activity, and could not take part in the social functions which their husbands so freely attended. It is not without reason that the husband in conversation with outsiders would refer to his wife as “nèiren”, or “she who is within”, and she speak of him as “wàizǐ”, or “he who is without.” These terms are today still used in Chinese colloquial speech although the real situation is nowadays often quite the reverse.
Women being thus confined to life inside their home, the wives provided company for each other, played card games and chess together, engaged in the polite arts such as painting and embroidery, and celebrated seasonal feasts together. The question of personal dignity, as important in China as anywhere else, did not arise because an age-old tradition had fixed the hierarchy of the womenfolk of a mansion, circumscribing exactly the rights and duties of all, from the seventh concubine to the old grandmother of the husband.
With so many people involved, the activities of a malicious person could easily be curbed by gentle pressure, and without interference on the part of the husband, who, if he was a wise man, kept studiously aloof from all quarrels among his womenfolk.
Further, economic factors played an important role. The old Chinese thought it nonsense to let ten women live in miserable poverty, as long as there could be found one man who could afford to let all ten of them live together with him in ease and comfort. Moreover, the primitive means of communication in ancient China often caused a man to live separated from his family for one or two years at a time. He then took unto him a wife in the place to which his official duty or his business had called him. When he returned home, he took this wife and children, if any, with him. They were incorporated into the original household as a matter of course.
As to the origin of the system, Sinologues are probably right when they derive it from the sacred duty of every man to perpetuate the family line, in order to ensure the continuation of the sacrifices to the ancestors. If the first marriage failed to produce male offspring, it was a man’s duty to take a second or third wife, until he had obtained a son. Ethnologists are probably also right when they look for the origin of the system in the archaic belief that the leader of a tribe or clan has a more potent “aura” than common men, and therefore is entitled to more than one wife, as a matter of prestige. It would seem that it is this same question of prestige that is the origin of the old Chinese tradition that a high official should have at least four wives.
Be this as it may, the polygamic system has worked in China reasonably well for more than 2,000 years. There have been the usual number of tragedies, and the usual examples of complete happiness. Since that is about the same as can be said for our own monogamic marriage system, I for one, taking into consideration the special social and economical environment that obtained in ancient China, would not presume to commit myself either way.
There is, however, one point in the old Chinese polygamic system that in my opinion deserves commendation. That is that all children of one father, whether born from the first wife, secondary wife or concubine, are his legitimate offspring and as such have their incontestable rights, including those to a share of his inheritance.
Some Western writers maintain that the Chinese system of polygamy precluded the existence of spiritual love between husband and wife. Chinese literature supplies ample proof that, under the special conditions that obtained in old China, this is by no means true. There were countless examples of two or three cultured women who were happily untied with one man at the same time, in a deep and true love. The secret of such a harmonious household seems to lie in the virtue of forbearance, which is so prominent a characteristic of the Chinese people in general, and in their genius for compromise.
I conclude these random notes with a Chinese joke, one of the very few that can be translated into English, since through a coincidence the word “sour” has in Chinese the same double meaning as it has in English. The story is about a man who had an exceedingly jealous wife, who for many years had prevented him from acquiring a second spouse. By dint of much gentle persistence, he finally secured her consent, and one day he introduced into his mansion a beautiful young concubine.
From then on, at the evening meal there always occurred an awkward moment, when the steward of the mansion had to ask his master whether he planned to stay with his first wife that night, or whether the servant should make preparations in the court yard of the new arrival. As a solution the master instructed his steward when serving the wine always to ask him whether that day he would drink yellow or white wine. It must be noted that Chinese yellow wine will spoil after a month or so, while white wine, which resembles our gin, will last much longer. The arrangement was that if the master answered “yellow,” it meant his first wife, and that “white” would refer to his preference for his concubine on that day.
The first night after this secret arrangement had been made between the master and his steward, the latter duly asked during the evening meal whether his master would drink yellow or white wine; the answer was “white.” The next evening the steward received the same answer, and the same thing happened on the third night. On the fourth evening, when the steward was approaching his master’s chair to ask the vital question, he bowed and whispered: “Master, may I humbly suggest that tonight you drink some yellow wine, lest it grow sour.”
The screenplay is based on Niè Yǐnniáng [聶隱娘], a wǔxiá short story by Péi Xíng [裴铏]. The story is set under the Táng against a semi-historical background, and is one of the very first nǚxiá (female knight-errant) tales, if not the first one. I haven't seen the film yet (it is released on 9 March here in Paris), but my understanding is that it departs from the short story.
Anyway, here is a translation of the short story that I found on-line:
Niè Yǐnniáng was the daughter of Niè Fēng, the General of Wèibó (an area in modern day Héběi Province) during the Zhēngyuán Period of Emperor Dézōng’s reign in the Táng Dynasty. She was only 10 when a Buddhist nun came to beg for alms. Fond of Yǐnniáng, the nun asked the general: “Will you give me your daughter and allow me to educate her?”
General Fēng was angered by this, rejecting and reprimanding her.
The nun, however, remained stalwart, threatening the mighty general: “Even if you put her in an iron locker, I will still take her away.” The little girl disappeared that very night.
Astounded and dismayed, the general ordered a search of the area for his missing daughter, but to no avail. Thoughts of their missing daughter haunted the general and his wife for years to come.
Five years later, the nun returned with Yǐnniáng. “Her training is finished, and it’s time for her to return home,” the nun explained. As the girls’ parents celebrated the return of their daughter, the nun vanished in an instant. The family wept with joy.
When asked about her years of training, Yǐnniáng simply replied: “It was just reciting scripture at first, nothing else.” With disbelief, her father asked again, Yǐnniáng replied: “I don’t know what to do. You wouldn’t believe me, even if I told you honestly.” General Fēng reassured her, encouraged her to speak.
Yǐnniáng began her tale: “When I was first taken, in the dark, I had no idea how far I had travelled with the nun. At dawn, I found myself in a large cave. There were no people outside, only a thick forest that housed many apes and monkeys. There were already two girls in the cave, both 10 years old as well. They were beautiful and smart, but I never saw them eat. They bounced around the steep mountain cliffs like apes in the trees and never fell. The nun then made me swallow a mysterious pill and handed me a two-foot long sword. It was so sharp that you could cut a hair in half by blowing it toward the blade. I learned mountain climbing with the two girls. Gradually, my body became lighter and lighter. After a year of sword practice, I was able to hunt apes. Later, I switched my target to beasts such as tigers and leopards. Every time I tried, I cut their heads off with ease. Three years later, I could stab eagles in the sky. By this time, my blade had worn down to only six inches, but I could still attack birds easily.
“In the fourth year, the two girls stayed back to guard the cave while I was taken to the city. I had no idea where I was, but the nun pointed to a man in the crowd, explaining his sins and crimes in great detail, then she said: ‘Cut his head off for me when his guard is down. He will be as easy a target as a bird.’ She then passed me a three-inch dagger. In broad daylight, on a bustling street, I decapitated him without raising any attention. I stuck his head into a bag and brought it back to the cave. Later, the nun used potions to turn the head into water.
“In the fifth year, the nun assigned me another assassination. She said: ‘That official is sinful. Many innocent people have died at his hands. Go to his room in the night and cut his head off.’ So, I went with my dagger and snuck into the house through an unclosed door. I hid on a beam as the official played with his child, and I didn’t do the deed until daybreak, bringing his head back to the nun. The nun was in a thundering range and asked why I was so late. I told her: ‘I saw the official playing with his child. It was so lovely that I couldn’t bring myself to kill him.’ But the nun snapped at me: ‘The next time that happens, you kill the child first. Kill his loved ones before you end his life.’ At that lesson, I could only bow.
“Then, one day, the nun said, ‘You can hide a dagger in the back of your head, let me show you. It won’t hurt. And, now you can draw it out whenever you need it.’ Amazing as it seems, the nun did as she said, continuing: ‘Your training is coming to an end. You can go back home.’ When we were parting, she also told me that she would see me again in 20 years.”
Yǐnniáng’s strange tale struck fear deep into her father’s heart.
Later, Yǐnniáng was discovered to be disappearing into the night, only to reappear in the morning. General Fēng was too scared to enquire as to her whereabouts. But with this fear, his love for her began to diminish.
One day, a mirror polisher was passing by Yǐnniáng, and she told her father: “That young man can be my husband.” Fēng didn’t dare to refuse and married Yǐnniáng to the young man. Yǐnniáng’s husband had only one skill—polishing mirrors, nothing else. So General Fēng provided generously for the couple but kept both of them at a distance.
Years later, Fēng passed away. By then, the Commander of Wèi had heard of Yǐnniáng’s skills, hiring her and her husband as his close officers. This went on until the Yuánhé Period (806-820) under Emperor Xiànzōng. One day, the commander found himself an enemy—the Governor of Chénxǔ, Liú Chāngyì.
The commander sent the couple to collect Liú’s head. This time, things did not go so smoothly. As they set out, Liú foresaw their coming, and gathered his officers: “Wait at the north of the city tomorrow morning; you will see a man and a woman riding a white donkey and a black donkey respectively. The man will try to shoot a magpie with a slingshot and miss. The woman will grab the slingshot and hit the magpie with a single shot. Bow and inform them that I sent you there to greet them.”
Everything went exactly as Liú said. The surprised couple said: “Governor Liú is an amazing prophet. How else would he know we were coming? We wish to meet him.” When Liú arrived, the couple bowed and apologised: “We deserve the punishment of death for such malicious intent!”
Liú replied: “No, you were only carrying out orders. I wish to hire you. Please stay here and trust in me.” Yǐnniáng realised that her old master could not compare to Liú and agreed: “My governor, we are convinced by your talents and are happy to serve you.” When Liú asked about compensation, the couple said, “Two hundred bronze coins per day will be more than sufficient.” Their demands were met. Later on, Liú found out that the couple’s donkeys were missing. He ordered a search, eventually finding a pair of paper donkeys in a bag, one white, the other black, causing the great governor to infer that—as well as having considerable martial powers—Yǐnniáng and her husband possessed powerful magic.
A month passed and Yǐnniáng told Liú: “Our former commander does not know we now serve you. He will send others. Cut some of your hair and wrap it in red silk. I will put it on his pillow to let him know our loyalties have changed.” Liú did as she said, returning early the next morning, saying: “The message is sent. The commander will order an assassin named Jīngjīnger to kill me and collect your head in the early hours of the morning, but don’t worry, I will find a way to defeat him.” Liú was relieved and showed no signs of fear, but he did light candles during the night and remained alert. At midnight, a red flag and a white flag magically appeared, floating and seemingly fighting with each other around his bed. Suddenly, a head and a body fell from thin air. Yǐnniáng appeared, triumphant: “Jīngjīnger is dead.” She dragged the corpse outside and turned it into water with the potion the old nun used, consuming even the corpses’ hair.
Yǐnniáng later issued Liú a warning: “There will be another assassin named Kōngkònger early tomorrow morning. His skills are mysterious and magical. No human has ever lived to speak of his power, even ghosts can’t track him down. He will sneak in without so much as a shadow. I am no match for him. This time, you will have to depend on luck. Please wear Yúnnán jade around your neck and cover yourself with blankets. I will turn into a small insect and hide in your intestines—the only place I won’t be discovered.” During the night, Liú did what Yǐnniáng suggested. With eyes closed, he lay on his bed. Suddenly, a loud noise rang from his neck. Yǐnniáng jumped from Liú’s mouth to congratulate him: “You are safe! Like an eagle, the assassin only strikes once and flees. He is deeply ashamed by the failure and will be hundreds of miles away in a few hours.” Later, Liú checked the jade and found a deep dagger mark. In gratitude and amazement, he awarded Yǐnniáng and her husband with handsome gifts.
In the eighth year of the Yuánhé Period (813), Liú was transferred from Chénxǔ to the capital. Yǐnniáng did not wish to go with him. She said: “I will travel to various mountains and lakes to visit the saints. All I ask is that you give my husband a small position.” Liú agreed and gradually lost contact with her.
When Liú passed away, Yǐnniáng arrived at the capital on her white donkey and grieved at her former master’s memorial.
During the Kāichéng Period (836-840) under Emperor Wénzōng, Liú’s son, Liú Zòng, was on his way to report for duty as the Governor of Língzhōu. On an old plank road in Sìchuān, he ran into Yǐnniáng, whose appearance hadn’t changed a bit; she still rode upon a white donkey. At the reunion, Yǐnniáng gravely told Zòng: “I see a great disaster in your future, you should not be here.” She gave him a pill and asked him to swallow it. “Quit your position next year and go back to your hometown of Luòyáng. It’s the only way to avoid this disaster. My pill will only keep you safe for one year,” she said. Though Zòng had his doubts, he thanked her and offered colourful silk as a gift. Yǐnniáng refused and disappeared. Sadly, Liú’s son did not heed her words, and—after one year—Zòng kept his position. He died mysteriously in Língzhōu. That was the last time anyone ever saw Yǐnniáng, the great female assassin.