Battle of Wits
China Hong Kong Japan South Korea 2006
Directed by Jacob Cheung.

A stranger emerges from the desert to defend a city from a maurauding army. He serves the people but gets nothing but contempt in return. The well worn story is transplanted into ancient China and refreshed by a focus on how the stranger's belief sytem, Mohism, conflicts with the belief system of the ruling elite.

At its heart, Mohism is a doctrine of "Universal Love." When you dig a bit deeper, you find -- well, actually you find that's about it. Mohism was a direct challenge to Confucianism back in the day, but by the time of the Qin Empire (3rd Century BC), it had pretty much run its course, mainly because the doctrine is pretty thin and not very detailed. Which worked just fine when all of China was constantly at war and didn't have time to over-think anything, but as China became increasingly settled, the doctrine drifted into insignificance. These days, though, it's a popular doctrine to resurrect and discuss, because of its similarities to Christianity -- no, not because it's shallow, but because of "Universal Love."

Mohism is best understood in contrast to its contemporary Confucianism. Confucianism demands "filial piety", honoring your elders, loving your family, and respecting your emperor. You must do this because this is the will of Heaven and is the moral way to behave, no matter what. Mohism, on the other hand, asks that you not differentiate in your respect and love between your family or someone elses, your state or someone elses. We are all as equal and deserving as each other of this love. Mohism does not claim that this must be done because it is morally correct, as Confucianism claims, rather, Mohism requires you to embrace Universal Love because of the material benefits it brings: You love everyone, they love you, you stop killing each other, everybody benefits. So rather than a set of moral rules, Mohism has a fluid morality based on possible outcomes.

Unbelievably in this day and age, I can't find any Mohist doctrine translated into English online. So here's a snippet of their philosophy from my home library:

At present feudal lords know only to love their own states and not those of others. Therefore, they do not hesitate to mobilize their states to attack others. Heads of families know only to love their own families and not those of others. Therefore they do not hesitate to mobilize their families to usurp others. And individuals know only to love their own persons and not those of others. Therefore they do not hesitate to mobilize their own persons to injure others. For this reason, as feudal lords do not love one another, they will fight in the fields. As heads of families do not love one another, they will usurp one another. As individuals do not love one another, they will injure one another. When ruler and minister do not love each other, they will not be kind and loyal. When father and son do not love each other, they will not be affectionate and filial. When nobody in the world loves any other, the strong will surely overcome the weak, the many will oppress the few, the rich will insult the poor. The honored will despise the humble, and the cunning will deceive the ignorant. Because of want of mutual love, all the calamities, usurpations, hatred, and animosity in the world have arisen. Therefore the man of humanity condems it.

What is most interesting about the Mohism in A BATTLE OF WITS is that the movie doesn't really spend very much time spelling out the belief system, except in its most basic terms. Instead, we see its adherents grappling with the philosophy, trying to figure out what is the best moral choice to make that would result in the best outcome. We see its opponents attempting to snuff it out, feeling threatened by an alternate belief system that does not automatically revere those in power. And most importantly, we see Mohism being put into practice by deeds, not words.

The film is set during the Warring States Period, when Mohism was at its peak. The state of Zhao is invading the city-state of Liang, which is in the process of surrendering, when Ge Li (Andy Lau), a Mohist, arrives and agrees to defend the city against the Zhao. What does Mohism have to do with seige warfare, you might ask? As it happens, the main text of Mohist doctrine, the Mozi, concerns itself not only with questions of Universal Love, but questions of strategy and defence as well. This might seem a strange combination, but the reason is clear when you recall the Jesuit system of sharing expert knowledge with rulers, to gain their ear, and so impart the wisdom of Christianity to them. In the same way, Mohists strove to "enlighten" the rulers of the Warring States, and by their usefulness, show the doctrine's effectiveness.

Ge Li sets about defending the city, then, according to the Mozi, which includes chapters about "Fortification of the City Gates", "Defense against Attack with Ladders," and "Preparation against Inundation." And when the Zhao troops decide to tunnel their way into the city, well, Ge Li is well prepared, having read "Preparation against Tunnelling" as well.

In addition to doctrines of defense, other doctrines receive attention as well. Mohists "packaged" their faith to rulers in a neat set of "ten doctrines", many of which were demonstrated in A BATTLE OF WITS. In addition to Universal Love (which is the most obvious and regularly demonstrated), they include:

Elevating the Worthy. Appointments should be made on the basis of competence, not position. Ge Li picks his general out of the troops because he saw one was an excellent archer. This infuriated the Prince, who was also a good archer, but whom Ge Li did not choose.

Rejecting Lavish Funerals. It's a waste of resources! Ge Li has a large ditch built to dump bodies after each battle. In contrast, the Emperor sets up an elaborate funeral when someone close to him dies, and it is the ceremony that almost causes Liang's undoing, when they are caught unawares by enemy troops.

Rejecting Fatalism. Your fate is not preordained, you must make great efforts for great rewards, as Ge Li inspires the people to do and as he himself must do as well.

Rejecting Music. Actually, this one isn't in the movie. But Mohism rejects all music as frivolous expenditure that could be better spent feeding the masses. In other words, Mohists are no fun to have at parties. Rejecting Mohist ideals, the film has a powerful and dramatic score by veteran composer Kenji Kawai.

It is extremely rare for any protagonist to have a fully formed, ethical belief system that is carefully demonstrated throughout a film (after all, most our Hollywood heroes end up dealing out vigilante justice by the end, if not worse). In this, A BATTLE OF WITS is fascinating to watch. It embraces the old "stranger/savior" story from classic films like THE SEVEN SAMURAI and ROAD WARRIOR, and elaborates on military tactics and siege warfare, which has been made newly popular by two of the greatest siege defense pictures ever made, THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING. The film is let down by the drab Art Direction, and a limited palette of browns and greys and black, with the only strong color bursting from the occassional fire, but Jacob Cheung's direction compensates for this with a strong, steady camera that captures the action so clearly that you rarely lose track of key characters even in the midst of the fiercest battle. Andy Lau delivers as expected and is supported by a fantastic pan-asian cast, including welcome old-timers Wu Ma, Ahn Sung-ki, Chin Siu-Ho, and youngsters Fan Bingbing, Choi Siwon, and Nicky Wu. Jacob Cheung has made some great movies in his day, this may very well be his best.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 29, 2007.


Feng Youlan's A History of Chinese Philosophy (or is that an Introduction to Chinese Philosophy) tells me that... well, I can't remember. But in defense of Confucianism, Confucianism seems to go by the concept that, since, in a state of nature, you love your parents more than you love that parents of another, that's natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Mohism goes the other way and argues that there's no distinction, and that you should venerate them as you should your own.

I don't understand why, but I can't break free of Feng Youlan putting Mohism as the main antithesis to Confucianism. It tends to ignore human nature, and put up the values derived from logic above the more basic human values of Confucianism.

Posted by: Inst at October 21, 2007 10:03 AM

Taoism and buddhism are much closer to the truth. And strictly speaking are not compatible with confucian ideals. Their are some facsist totalitarian idea's in this social order. I love the chinese And respect them. But not the outdated concepts of confucianism. that belong in the dark ages.

Posted by: Jason at February 27, 2009 02:27 AM
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