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.
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 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 continued to serve 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.
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 Sich. 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. He is universally recognized 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 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 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). The reason for this stems from Guan Yu’s brotherhood with Liu Bei. He is seen as the ideal brother, 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
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 then led to him more commonly referred to as Justice Bao.
Like many legendary Chinese heroes, myths and wuxia stories have intermixed with actual accounts of Bao Zheng’s office, subsequently 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 also 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 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 the Jurchens invaded its capital of Kaifeng, thereafter also imprisoning the emperor and his father. 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 the battlefield, 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. He was then executed on false charges.
Most historians nowadays 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 the former one be rescued. Whatever the truth, General Yue Fei died unjustly at age 39, the victim of shameful court politics. Among all Chinese heroes, he is the brightest embodiment of valour, patriotism and military brilliance.
5. Lin Zexu (林则徐), AD 1785–1850
Throughout its long history, China suffered many disastrous military defeats, with the most recent humiliating episodes being the Opium Wars. While the empire was not overrun in the aftermath of these, 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. His actions quickly angered the British Empire into 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.