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5 Chinese Heroes You Should Know About

ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Note: Chinese culture and history can often be confusing, no thanks to the tendency for myths, literature and religious accounts to blend with historical facts. This list of Chinese heroes focuses on historical details.

1. Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), Also Referred to as Zhuge Kongming (诸葛孔明), AD 181–234

Gamers fond of Koei’s Three Kingdoms series of games would be well familiar with this ancient Chinese hero. The legendary strategist and chancellor of Shu-Han during the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era (AD 220 – AD 280), Zhuge Liang is unanimously hailed by all Chinese as one of the most brilliant minds in Chinese history. Some even consider his name as synonymous with wit and intelligence.

So it was said, Zhuge Liang’s talents were already famous prior to his recruitment by Liu Bei. The warlord had to personally visit Zhuge Liang three times at the latter’s abode before Zhuge Liang agreed to assist the Shu forces.

Zhuge Liang’s contributions under the Shu banner are many. He was instrumental in a temporary alliance with Sun Quan, which then led to the famous Battle of Red Cliffs and Cao Cao’s permanent denial of the lands south of the Yangtze River. During Liu Bei’s many expeditions, Zhuge Liang also ensured steady flows of supplies to the Shu forces. In other words, he secured the survival of the Shu forces in the face of two superior enemies.

Most famously, Zhuge Liang was absolutely unwavering in his loyalty to Liu Bei. The strategist served as regent for Shu-Han for eleven years after Liu Bei’s death, faithfully assisting Liu Bei’s rather inept successor and never once giving up the dream of reuniting China under the Liu family. His promise at Liu Bei’s deathbed of “bending one’s back to a task till one’s dying day” eventually became a metaphor in the Chinese language for unwavering loyalty. Sadly, Zhuge Liang died while on his fifth expedition to defeat the Cao-Wei forces, thus unable to fulfil his sovereign’s dream. Posthumously, he was bestowed the title of Marquis Zhongwu. Zhongwu meaning loyal and martial in Chinese.

Zhuge Liang. The Chinese hero symbolizing intelligence and faithfulness.

Zhuge Liang. The Chinese hero symbolizing intelligence and faithfulness.

In popular depictions, Zhuge Liang is often shown wielding a crane feather fan and wearing Taoism inspired robes. He is one of the most mystified Chinese heroes.

In popular depictions, Zhuge Liang is often shown wielding a crane feather fan and wearing Taoism inspired robes. He is one of the most mystified Chinese heroes.

Cao, Shu, What???

Following the disintegration of the Han Dynasty, China was split into three rivaling kingdoms. The largest was the northern Kingdom of Wei, ruled by former chancellor Cao Cao. Sun Quan's Kingdom of Wu controlled the eastern territories south of the Yangtse and bordering the East China Sea. Smallest among the three was Liu Bei's Kingdom of Shu, located in modern-day Sichuan. Liu was a descendant of the previous Han emperors, thus considered by some to be the only rightful ruler.

2. Guan Yu (关羽), Also Referred to as Guangong (关公) or Guandi (关帝), AD ???–220

Another famous Chinese hero from the Three Kingdoms era, Guan Yu was the sworn brother of warlord Liu Bei and one of the key generals of Shu-Wei. Till today, the mighty general continues to represent the supreme virtues of honor and righteousness to Chinese people worldwide.

Most tales about Guan Yu are lionized, in great part due to fictitious accounts found in the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. That said, it is known that Guan Yu valiantly defended Liu Bei’s Jing Province (荊州) territory for seven years. He probably also wouldn’t have lost the province and died, had key ally Sun Quan not turned on Shu-Han. Today, Guan Yu is venerated as Guangong or Guandi (Lord Guan) in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other Chinese folk religions. In cities such as Hong Kong, it is also common for shops to have altars honoring Guan Yu. Such altars are even found within Hong Kong police stations.

A Hero for All

Of note, criminal triads in Hong Kong revere Guan Yu too. Typically, these organizations honor him as Guan Yikor (关二哥 in Cantonese), which means second elder brother Guan. The reason for this stems from Guan Yu’s brotherhood with Liu Bei. He is seen as the ideal sibling, unwavering in his loyalty and support. At the same time, the widespread worship of Guan Yu is also thanks to progressive deification by various emperors of China over the centuries.

A shrine to Guan Yu. One of the most beloved and venerated Chinese heroes.

A shrine to Guan Yu. One of the most beloved and venerated Chinese heroes.

3. Bao Zheng (包拯), Also Referred to as Bao Gong (包公) or Bao Qingtian (包青天), AD 999–1062

Bao Zheng was a government officer during the reign of Emperor Renzong of the Northern Song dynasty. Beloved and respected for his sense of justice and uprightness, he took on many different posts before promoted to the position of prefect of Song capital Kaifeng.

His many legendary acts of justice include sentencing his own uncle and punishing powerful but corrupted aristocratic families. Such acts led to him more commonly remembered and referred to as Justice Bao in modern times. He is also called “Bao Qingtian,” qingtian in the Chinese language being a metaphor for justice.

Like many other legendary Chinese heroes, myths and Wuxia stories have also intermixed with actual accounts of Bao Zheng’s office, the result of which is the judge being elevated to divine status. Practically all Chinese pop entertainment today depict him as an imperial judge with a jet black face and a crescent moon on his forehead. Some folk religions even honor him the leading judge in the Chinese ten courts of hell. Regardless of the mysticism of these dramatized depictions, Bao Zheng was known to have initiated many legal reforms to better hear the grievances of the people. He also did sentence tens of corrupted officers. Today, Bao Zheng’s name and titles are synonymous in the Chinese language for criminal justice and an upright government officer. His most famous cases also continue to be the inspiration for numerous movies and television series in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Justice Bao is a popular heroic character in many Chinese operas.

Justice Bao is a popular heroic character in many Chinese operas.

One of Many in a Glorious Age

There were several other legendary Chinese heroes from Bao Zheng's era. For example, Di Qing was his military counterpart. There were also the famous Yang family warriors. All are regularly featured in Chinese periodic movies and television series.

4. Yue Fei (岳飞), AD 1103–1142

In AD 1127, the Northern Song dynasty came to an abrupt end when its capital, Kaifeng, was invaded by the Jurchens. Worse, the reigning Song emperor, the previous emperor, even their family members, were also captured and imprisoned. Historically known as the Jingkang Incident/Humiliation (靖康之恥), the remnants of the Song royal family then fled south and established the Southern Song dynasty. Tragically, Southern Song never regained their lost territory or rescued her abducted sovereigns. For the next century, the remnant dynasty would live with this stinging humiliation, till Mongolian forces overran the whole of China.

There was briefly hope, however, in the form of Yue Fei. A brilliant young military commander from a poor farming family, his repeated successes in repelling further invasions of the Jurchens quickly saw him promoted to the rank of general and commanding the largest Song army. From AD 1134, Yue Fei also led several counter-offensives into Northern China and was largely successful in liberating Jurchen occupied territory. Thanks to his efforts, and those of other Song generals like Han Shizong and Liang Hongyu, hopes were high for an eventual Song victory. There was even confidence about rescuing the two captive emperors and restoring their rightful rule.

Sadly, Yue Fei fell not in battle but to the intrigues of imperial politics. As he was about to launch an offensive to retake Kaifeng, Emperor Gaozhong of the Southern Song dynasty summoned him back to court. Infamously, twelve golden plaques were dispatched to force Yue Fei to obey. Upon the general’s reluctant return, the corrupted chancellor Qin Hui (秦桧) swiftly arranged for Yue Fei to be imprisoned. The mighty general was then executed on false charges.

Today, most historians believe the real culprit behind Yue Fei’s sentencing to be Gaozhong himself, with Qin Hui merely the executor. The crafty emperor was convinced he would have to relinquish his throne should the previous emperors be rescued, and thus he was hell-bent on preserving the status quo, no matter the humiliation. Whatever the truth, the great General Yue Fei unjustly died at age 39, the victim of shameful court politics. The sheer indignity of this then secured Yue Fei’s immortal status. Among all Chinese war heroes, he is remembered as the brightest embodiment of valor, patriotism and military brilliance.

Yue Fei statue at the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei Tomb, Hangzhou.

Yue Fei statue at the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei Tomb, Hangzhou.

Kneeling statues of Qin Hui and his wife at the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei Tomb, Hangzhou. They are the antithesis of Yue Fei, representing corruption and greed.

Kneeling statues of Qin Hui and his wife at the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei Tomb, Hangzhou. They are the antithesis of Yue Fei, representing corruption and greed.

5. Lin Zexu (林则徐), AD 1785–1850

Throughout its long history, China suffered many humiliating defeats at the hands of foreign powers, the most recent of which being the Opium Wars. While the empire was not overrun in the aftermath, China was forced to sign several unequal treaties, including one that ceded control of Hong Kong to Britain. Till today, the social and political repercussions of these treaties continue to affect China’s relationship with other global powers.

The primary catalyst for the First Opium War is often said to be Lin Zexu. A scholar and officer of the Qing Dynasty imperial court, he aggressively opposed the importing of opium from Britain. In 1839, Lin launched a series of aggressive campaigns in Guangdong, arresting over a thousand opium importers and forcing merchants to surrender over a million kilograms of opium for destruction. Without surprise, his actions quickly led to the British Empire retaliating with military might. The ensuring First Opium War then began China’s long series of humiliating defeats at the hands of foreign powers in pre-modern history.

Regardless of his so-called mishandlings of the opium situation and foreign affairs, Lin Zexu is today honored throughout global Chinese communities for his moral uprightness. In recent times, he even became the Chinese hero against drug and other forms of substance abuse. June 3, the day Lin confiscated opium, is now the Anti-Smoking Day of Taiwan. June 26, the day on which Lin’s men finished destroying the confiscated chests of opium, is also today the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Last but not least, this pre-modern Chinese hero today also represents Chinese nationalistic pride, particularly against foreign exploitation. The scholar continues to be regularly referenced in discussions on Chinese sovereignty. Overseas Chinese communities are also known to proudly display statues of him.

Lin Zexu in Chinatown, New York City. He might have triggered the First Opium War, but no one, not even his enemies, questioned the moral integrity of this Chinese hero.

Lin Zexu in Chinatown, New York City. He might have triggered the First Opium War, but no one, not even his enemies, questioned the moral integrity of this Chinese hero.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where can you find the statues and shrines of these Chinese heroes in specific places or cities in China?

Answer: 1) The most prominent shrine, of sorts, to Zhuge Liang, is the Wuhou Shrine/Temple in Chengdu. My pic of Kong Ming is taken from there.

2) Guan Yu is widely venerated throughout China and overseas Chinese communities. You will often find him as one of the deity guardians in Chinese temples. He is typically positioned near the entrance to the main worship hall. You will sometimes even see altars to him in Chinese shops and restaurants.

3) Bao Zheng is seldom worshiped. However, some Taoist temples might have figures for him. Look for his distinctive black face with a crescent on the forehead. If you’re interested in him, the Bao Gong Ancestral Temple in Kaifeng is probably the best place to go.

4) The most prominent memorial of Yue Fei is in Hangzhou. The Tomb of General Yue Fei.

5) Lin Zexu is not worshipped, so there aren’t any specific temples to him. However, museums in Hong Kong and Southern China often contain mentions of him. There is a great statue of him in the Hong Kong Museum of History too.

With the exception of Lin Zexu, what’s important to note is that Chinese temples always venerate tens of deities and historical characters. You have to be on the lookout for distinctive features, or know the Chinese characters for the names of these Chinese heroes.

© 2016 Scribbling Geek