Ask Mei

Chinese heroes

Some of the Chinese equivalents of Alexander the Great and Winston Churchill

There are a lot of historical heroes in the West such as Alexander the Great, Leonardo Da Vinci, George Washington, Winston Churchill, etc. Who are some of the Chinese equivalent?

The Western definition of hero is “a person of super-human qualities and often semi-divine origin”. In contrast the Chinese word for hero – yingxiong 英雄 – has a more complicated meaning and more varied historical origins.

Yingxiong was first mentioned in two of China’s earliest history books Zuo Zhuan 左传 (468 – 100 BC) and Han Shu 汉书 (about 80 AD). Both referred to powerful people as yingxiong, especially those who ended up being kings or emperors, such as the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang.

Over time the two characters acquired additional meaning too: ying 英 refers to wit and wisdom; whereas xiong 雄 refers to power and bravery.

The historical Chinese heroes fall into a few categories.

First, as descendants of Yandi and Huangdi 炎黄子孙, we Chinese tend to see the legendary Yan Emperor and Yellow Emperor as the earliest Chinese heroes. Tradition holds that their empires merged around 2800-2500 BC, becoming the origin of the Chinese race and civilisation. Other emperors who also enjoy hero-hood include the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty 秦始皇, who united China and built the famous Great Wall; and Taizong of the Tang Dynasty 唐太宗 who helped his father to establish the Tang and brought unprecedented economic prosperity, military strength and cultural richness to China during his 23-year reign.

The second category of hero includes those who sacrificed their lives for their principles, beliefs and to the benefit of others. Take Qu Yuan 屈原 of the Warring States period (about 500-200 BC). Qu was a poet and diligent minister in his native state of Chu. When Chu was conquered by Qin, he chose to drown himself rather than serve Qin even though the king of Chu had mistreated him and sent him into exile more than once. The unconditional loyalty he showed his sovereign and country made him a symbol of patriotism for generations of Chinese. Qu was also the origin of the traditional Dragon Boat Festival. Legend goes that Qu’s fellow villagers carried their rice dumplings and boats to the river in which he drowned and beat drums, splashed the water, and threw rice into the water in order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body.

Some of China’s ancient military strategists are also remembered as heroes. Somewhat confusingly the most famous is at least partially a product of fiction. A statesman and strategist named Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) existed but historians are divided over how much he really achieved and how much his heroic reputation is due to his depiction in the classic book The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This literary work cemented Zhuge’s place in the Chinese psyche as the epitome of coolness under pressure and a man of unfailing ingenuity and intelligence. Some of his more famous strategies are even embedded in the Chinese language as idioms. The only problem: they were almost certainly not his, but those of the author of The Romance. So, at best, we can say that the Zhuge whom the Chinese idolise today is part fact, part fiction.

I regret to say that compared with the long list of illuminating historical heroes, contemporary China is a country where the number of ‘heroes’ has diminished. Since the economic reforms started 30 or so years ago, society has got richer in material wealth but poorer in other respects. Asked who their heroes are today, young Chinese will invariably list rich tycoons and pop stars.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite unive­­­rsity in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at: [email protected]


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