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5 Chinese Heroes You Should Know About

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 mainly on historical details.

Zhuge Liang. The Chinese epitome of intelligence and faithfulness.
Zhuge Liang. The Chinese epitome of intelligence and faithfulness.

1. Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), also referred to as Zhuge Kongming (诸葛孔明)

Born AD 181. Died AD 234.

Gamers fond of Koei’s Three Kingdoms series of games would be well familiar with this name. Legendary strategist and chancellor of Shu-Han during the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era of China (AD 220 – AD 280), Zhuge Liang is hailed by all Chinese to be one of the most brilliant strategist in history. He was also renowned for his loyalty to warlord Liu Bei, founder of the Shu-Han state. In movies and television dramas, he is often portrayed as a genius, skilled in supernatural arts.

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 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 expeditions, he also ensured steady flows of supplies to the Shu forces. What earned Zhuge Liang permanent recognition as a Chinese hero, however, was his unwavering loyalty to Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang served as the regent for Shu-Han for eleven years after Liu Bei’s death, faithfully assisting Liu Bei’s successor and never once giving up the dream of reuniting China under the Liu family. In this sense, he fulfilled his promise at Liu Bei’s deathbed of “bending one’s back to a task till one’s dying day.” He died while on his fifth expedition to defeat the Cao-Wei forces. Posthumously, he was granted the title of Marquis Zhongwu, Zhongwu meaning loyal and martial in Chinese.

In popular depictions, Zhuge Liang is often shown wielding a crane feather fan and wearing Taoism inspired robes.
In popular depictions, Zhuge Liang is often shown wielding a crane feather fan and wearing Taoism inspired robes.

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 controlled the eastern territories south of the Yangtse and bordering the East China Sea, and named his kingdom as Wu. Liu Bei, descended directly from the previous Han emperors, founded the kingdom of Shu, which is located in modern-day Sichuan.

A shrine to Guan Yu.
A shrine to Guan Yu.

2. Guan Yu (关羽), also referred to as Guangong (关公) or Guandi (关帝)

Birth year unknown. Died 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. He is universally recognized by Chinese worldwide as the epitome of honour and righteousness.

Most tales about Guan Yu are lionized, this in great part due to the fictitious accounts in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, it is known that Guan Yu successfully defended Liu Bei’s Jing Province (荊州) territory for seven years. And he probably wouldn’t have died and lost the province, had key ally Sun Quan not turned on them. Today, Guan Yu is venerated as Guangong or Guandi (Lord Guan) in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other Chinese folk religions. In places such as Hong Kong, it is common for shops to have altars honouring Guan Yu. Police stations are also known to revere Lord Guan.

Of note, criminal triads in Hong Kong revere Guan Yu too. Typically, these organisations honour him as Guan Yikor (关二哥 in Cantonese). The reason for this is probably Guan Yu’s brotherhood with Liu Bei. He is seen as the ideal brother, unwavering in his loyalty and supprt. In large parts, the widespread worship of Guan Yu was also because of progressive deification by emperors of

Standard depiction of Guan Yu for Chinese altars.
Standard depiction of Guan Yu for Chinese altars.
Justice Bao is a classic heroic character in Chinese opera.
Justice Bao is a classic heroic character in Chinese opera.

3. Bao Zheng (包拯), also referred to as Bao Gong (包公) or Bao Qingtian (包青天)

Born AD 999. Died AD 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. Bao Zheng’s many legendary acts of justice include sentencing his own uncle and punishing powerful but corrupted aristocratic families. This led to him sometimes refer to as Justice Bao.

Like many legendary Chinese heroes, myths and wuxia stories have intermixed with actual accounts of Bao Zheng’s office, elevating him to a mythical status. Practically all Chinese mass entertainment depict him as an imperial judge with a jet black face and a crescent moon on his forehead. Some folk religions even honour him the leading judge in the Chinese ten court of hell. These depictions aside, Bao Zheng was known to have initiated many legal reforms to better hear the grievances of the people, as well as punished 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 investigation cases have inspired numerous movies and television series in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

One of many in a glorious age.

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

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

4. Yue Fei (岳飞)

Born AD 1103. Died AD 1142.

In AD 1127, the Northern Song dynasty came to an abrupt end when the Jurchens invaded the capital of Kaifeng, and captured the emperor and his father. Known as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), the remnants of the royal family fled south thereafter and established the Southern Song dynasty. They never regained their lost territory nor rescued their abducted sovereigns. The Southern Song dynasty lived with this humiliation for another century, 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, he started launching counter-offensives into Northern China and was successful in liberating several Jurchen occupied territory. For a while, hopes were high for an eventual Song victory. There were even hopes of rescuing the two captive emperors, and restoring their rightful rule.

Sadly, Yue Fei fell 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 before Yue Fei obeyed. After his return, the corrupted chancellor Qin Hui (秦桧) arranged for Yue Fei to be imprisoned then executed on false charges. Most historians nowadays believed the real culprit behind Yue Fei’s sentencing to be Gaozhong himself. The emperor was concerned he would have to relinquish his throne should the former emperor be rescued. Yue Fei thus died a classic hero’s death at age 39. Today, he lives on in the hearts of the Chinese as the Chinese hero of valour, patriotism and military brilliance.

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.
Lin Zexu might have triggered the First Opium War. But no one, not even his enemies, question the moral integrity of this Chinese hero.
Lin Zexu might have triggered the First Opium War. But no one, not even his enemies, question the moral integrity of this Chinese hero.

5. Lin Zexu (林则徐)

Born AD 1785. Died AD 1850.

Throughout its long history, China suffered several disastrous military defeats. In recent history, the most humiliating episodes were the Opium Wars. While the empire was not overrun, China was forced to sign the several unequal treaties, one of which ceding control of Hong Kong, These treaties continue to have social and political repercussions until today.

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 forceful campaigns in Guangdong, arresting over a thousand opium importers and forcing merchants to surrender over a million kilograms of opium for destruction. His actions soon compelled the British Empire into retaliating with military might. The ensuring First Opium War 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 honoured throughout global Chinese communities for his moral uprightness. In recent times, he is also the Chinese hero against drug and other forms of substance abuse. June 3, the day when Lin confiscated opium, is the Anti-Smoking Day of Taiwan. June 26, the day in which Lin’s men finished destroying the confiscated chests of opium, is now the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Politically, Lin also represents Chinese national pride, particularly against foreign exploitation. He continues to be referenced regularly in discussions on Chinese sovereignty. Overseas Chinese communities are also known to display statues of him.

Lin Zexu statue in Chinatown, New York City.
Lin Zexu statue in Chinatown, New York City. | Source

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