5 Chinese Heroes You Should Know About

Updated on February 7, 2018
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Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

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

Zhuge Liang. The Chinese hero symbolising intelligence and faithfulness.
Zhuge Liang. The Chinese hero symbolising intelligence and faithfulness. | Source

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 unanimously hailed by all Chinese to be one of the most brilliant minds in Chinese history.

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, he 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.

What earned Zhuge Liang permanent place in the pantheon of Chinese heroes, though, was his unwavering loyalty to Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang 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 for unwavering loyalty in the Chinese language. 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 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. 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

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

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 revered by Chinese worldwide as the epitome of honour and righteousness.

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 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 also common for shops to have altars honouring Guan Yu. Such altars are even found within Hong Kong police stations.

Of note, criminal triads in Hong Kong revere Guan Yu too. Typically, these organisations honour 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. In large parts, the widespread worship of Guan Yu is also because of progressive deification by various emperors of China.

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

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

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. These acts led to him more commonly remembered and referred to as Justice Bao in modern times.

Like many legendary Chinese heroes, myths and Wuxia stories have intermixed with actual accounts of Bao Zheng’s office, the result of which elevated him to divine status. Practically all Chinese mass entertainment today depict him as an imperial judge with a jet black face and a crescent moon on his forehead. Some folk religions also honour him the leading judge in the Chinese ten courts of hell. Regardless 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 investigation cases also continue to be the inspiration for numerous movies and television series in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

One of many in a glorious age.

There were 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 continue to regularly featured in Chinese periodic movies and television series.

4. Yue Fei (岳飞), AD 1103–1142

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.

In AD 1127, the Northern Song dynasty came to an abrupt end when its capital, Kaifeng, was invaded by the Jurchens, and the emperor and his family captured and imprisoned. Known as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), the remnants of the royal family then fled south and established the Southern Song dynasty. Southern Song never regained their lost territory nor rescued their abducted sovereigns. For the next century, they 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, he also led counter-offensives into Northern China and was largely successful in liberating Jurchen occupied territory. For a while, hopes were high for an eventual Song victory. There was even confidence of rescuing the two captive emperors and restoring their rightful rule.

Tragically, 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 his 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. Qin Hui was merely the executor. The crafty emperor was convinced he would have to relinquish his throne should his father or brother be rescued. Whatever the truth, General Yue Fei died unjustly at age 39, the victim of shameful court politics. The indignity of this secured Yue Fei’s immortal status. Among all Chinese heroes, he is remembered as the brightest embodiment 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.

5. Lin Zexu (林则徐), AD 1785–1850

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.

Throughout its long history, China suffered many humiliating defeats, 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, one of which ceded control of Hong Kong to Britain. These treaties continue to have social and political repercussions till 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. Without surprise, his actions 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 honoured throughout global Chinese communities for his moral uprightness. In recent times, he became the Chinese hero against drug and other forms of substance abuse. June 3, the day when Lin confiscated opium, is now 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 nationalistic pride, particularly against foreign exploitation. He continues to be referenced regularly in discussions on Chinese sovereignty. Overseas Chinese communities are also known to proudly display statues of him.

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    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong

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