Our Planet

Or, I could alternately title this post, “The lesson I have learned from watching the movie ‘Hero’ (Ying xiong) *1.”

I am fascinated by the mystery of metaphor and how everything around us can be the inspiration for finding practical solutions to problems that bother us. For instance:

Dmitri Mendeleev was obsessed with finding a logical way to organize the chemical elements. One night in a dream, he saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, he immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, and that is how we have the modern Periodic Table of elements.

August Kekulé, unable to find a solution for how the atoms in benzene are arranged, turned his chair to the fire and dozed. He began dreaming of atoms dancing. Gradually, the atoms arranged themselves into the shape of a snake. Then, the snake turned around and bit its own tail.

Nikola Tesla was struggling to find a way to harnesses alternating current to create mechanical power. One day, while walking through a park in Budapest, Tesla was reciting a poetic passage by heart from Goethe’s Faust *2: “The glow retreats, done is the day of toil; It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring; Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil, Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!” And, as the sun set that day, with its glow retreating, Tesla is said to have drawn the design for the induction motor in the sand .

The movie Hero (original title Ying xiong) is a masterpiece brought to light by director Yimou Zhang in 2002. The film received extremely favorable reviews, scoring 95% at Rotten Tomatoes and 85 at Metacritic, and it is an amazingly beautiful display of visual scenery and colors, showing martial arts in the spirit of the Chinese tradition.

The story is set in ancient China, during the Warring States period. The plot builds around a defense officer, Nameless, who is summoned by the King of Qin regarding his success of terminating three warrior assassins Long Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. Because of the previous assassination attempts, the king has implemented extreme security measures: no visitors are to approach the king within 100 paces. Nameless claims that he has slain the three assassins, and he displays their weapons before the king, who because of it, allows him to approach closer than 100 paces and tell his story.

Every attempt to portray the story in a truthful way was colored in a different color. By using the colors red, white, and blue, the director in a somewhat Rashomonian *3 style represents different ways of telling the same quest story…

Big spoiler ahead!

In the last scene, the king, touched by the tale and by Broken Sword's understanding of his dream to unify China, ceases to fear Nameless. He tosses his sword to Nameless and examines the scroll drawn by Sword that was hung behind him.

The king tosses his sword to Nameless and stands up to examine the scroll hung behind him, which was brought as a gift with the weapons of the dead assassins. The letters on the poster were written by the assassin Broken Sword and supposedly contain a hidden secret on swordsmanship.

Turning his back to Nameless while deciphering the scroll, the King of Qin says following:

“I have just come to a realization! This scroll by Broken Sword contains no secrets of his swordsmanship. What this reveals is his highest ideal. In the first state, man and sword become one and each other. Here, even a blade of grass can be used as a lethal weapon. In the next stage, the sword resides not in the hand but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.

Nameless leaps to kill the king but changes his mind in the last moment. Realizing the wisdom of the words, he abandons his mission, saying:

“Your Majesty, my task is completed now. My decision will cause the deaths of many, and Your Majesty will live on. A dead man begs you to remember: a warrior's ultimate act is to lay down his sword.”

In the scene shortly after, Flying Snow asks Broken Sword to explain why Nameless failed his mission, and he answers that he wrote two words to Nameless: "Our Land."

Later on, the narrative explains that Chinese people even now very often use the 天下 to refer to their own country. Although “our land” is a slightly adjusted meaning for English-speaking countries, the literal translation of the pictograms would be “under the heavens,” or, as Google translator says, “the world” or “material world” — ”Our Planet.” *4

The goal of unification exists and has existed in many cultures for a very long time, and there are many people even now who think that the ultimate solution would be to unite all countries under one global government. There is nothing wrong with this type of admirable goal. The wrong thing is usually the means we use to get there. Even Hitler, according to historians, in the back of his mind had an idea to create some kind of better world, and we all know how that turned up.

Yes, we live on the same planet, the same space ship that floats around in an endless universe. It is Our Planet, the only one. As for now, we do not have any other, there is no planet to spare, and, if anything happens, there is nowhere to go. Regardless of how rich you think you are, you are stuck here with everyone else. Like it or not, that is what it is, and, if we are floating on the same boat, maybe we should learn where the toilet is, how to watch those sea waves, where to find food, and how to get warm in those cold nights.

The choice is quite simple: either we can make our lives bearable, if we are not prepared to enjoy the ride, or we can create hell by fighting and being miserable all the time.

But it seems the news that we live on the same planet and that we belong to the same species still has not arrived in the heads of our elite and our leaders.

Why is that?

Frederick P. Brooks, in his book “The Mythical Man Month,” explains that, according to Genesis, the Tower of Babel was man’s second major engineering endeavor, after Noah's Ark, but that Babel was definitely his first failure. The project of Babel has not failed because they didn’t have a clear mission, enough man power, materials, enough time, or adequate technology — they failed because of a lack of communication and organization.

As Frederick says:

They were unable to talk with each other; hence, they could not coordinate. When coordination failed, work ground to a halt. Reading between the lines, we gather that lack of communication led to disputes, bad feelings, and group jealousies. Shortly, the clans began to move apart, preferring isolation to wrangling.”

“So, it is today. Schedule disaster, functional misfits, and system bugs all arise because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing”

The purpose of organization is to reduce the amount of communication and coordination necessary; hence organization is a radical attack on the communication problems treated above. The means by which communication is obviated are division of labor and specialization of function. The tree-like structure of organizations reflects the diminishing need for detailed communication when division and specialization of labor are applied.

So, yes ,we all have communication issues, we speak different languages, we have different religions and cultures, and, although we think that we have many differences, we have a few things in common:

First one is that we have “our land,” “one land” — “our planet”.

Secondly, usually forgotten, is that we belong to the same tribe. According to science, generically, we are 99.9% the same, and only 0.1% are differences, aka variations. Forgive me for this sarcasm, but I sincerely hope that, among those 99.9%, we can find at least some common ground.

Now, realizing that all people around us are ours brothers and sisters, and that we are on the same boat, a good thing would be to stop fighting with each other (“sword disappears altogether”) and start cooperating (“embraces all around”) with everyone. When that happens, the desire to wage wars (“desire to kill”) no longer exists, as we realize that all the issues we have are solvable, and therefore, without the need for war, as a result “only peace remains.”

Somehow, we as a society created that notion that peace and war are equally opposing sides of the same coin, but they are not. The same way we notice the importance of health only when we get ill, we acknowledge peace only when we face war. Just as illness is not a state of our body, war is not the state of our world — it is just an illness we need to overcome.

I would like to add one more interesting piece of trivia at the end of this post: the word “hero” in Chinese is pronounced ying xiong and could be literally translated to “should endure.” In English, “hero” means “a person admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

So, there is discrepancy between the idea of being a hero in eastern and western culture.

But, if we replace the word “endure” with the synonym “bear,” the Chinese meaning of “a person being prepared to endure suffering for the sake of others” is kept, plus the other meaning of “bear” as a name for a fearsome forest animal that is strong, brave and courageous — closer to western society’s meaning — is also there. All meanings are unified in one, and the discrepancy between two cultures disappears.

Maybe we are all born to be heroes. We just need a bit of bear courage and the ability to endure when difficulty arises.

Notes & References:

1. Hero (2002)


2. Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe : Before the City–Gate


3. Rashomon (1950)


4. Tianxia