KL Yong 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 the name of 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’s said, Zhuge Liang’s intellectual talents were already famous before 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.
In turn, Zhuge Liang’s contributions under the Shu banner are plentiful. He was instrumental in the forming of a temporary alliance with Sun Quan, an alliance that 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 legendary promise at Liu Bei’s deathbed of “bending one’s back to a task till one’s dying day” eventually became a metaphor in Chinese culture and language for unwavering loyalty too.
Sadly, Zhuge Liang died while on his fifth expedition to defeat the Cao-Wei forces, thus never accomplishing his sovereign’s dream. Posthumously, he was rewarded with the title of Marquis Zhongwu. Zhongwu means loyal and martial in Chinese.
Cao, Shu, What???
Following the disintegration of the Han Dynasty, China was split into three rival 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 those bordering the East China Sea. The 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 in Chinese culture.
Most tales about Guan Yu are, however, 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.
Jump forth to today, Guan Yu is widely venerated as Guangong or Guandi (Lord Guan) in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other 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 sworn sibling, unwavering in his loyalty and support. In addition, the widespread worship of Guan Yu is also thanks in great part to progressive deification by various emperors of China over the centuries. To give an example, Ming Dynasty Emperor Wanli bestowed upon the hero a lengthy title. This title elevated Guan Yu to the status of a formidable god of war.
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 corrupt aristocratic families. Such acts led to him more commonly remembered and referred to as Justice Bao in modern times. Furthermore, he is also frequently referred to as “Bao Qingtian,” qingtian in the Chinese language being a metaphor for justice.
The Divine Judge
Like several other legendary Chinese heroes, modern perceptions of Bao Zheng significantly differ from historical records; this, the result of myths and Wuxia stories intermixing with actual accounts of Bao Zheng’s office.
Practically all Chinese pop entertainment today depicts the hero as an imperial judge with a jet black face and a crescent moon on his forehead. Some folk religions even honor him as the leading judge in the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell.
Regardless of the mysticism of these dramatized depictions, Bao Zheng was still known to have initiated many legal reforms to better hear the grievances of the people. He also unhesitantly sentenced tens of corrupted officers.
In modern Chinese, spoken or written, Bao Zheng’s name and titles are synonymous with criminal justice and upright governance. His most famous 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 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 emperor, the previous emperor, even their family members, were also captured and imprisoned.
Historically referred to 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 the abducted sovereigns. For the next century, the remnant dynasty would also constantly be belittled by 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 Jurchen invasions saw him swiftly 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 became high for an eventual Song victory. There was even confidence about rescuing the two captive emperors and restoring their rule.
Sadly, Yue Fei fell not in battle but to the intrigues of imperial politics. As the patriotic general 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 the mighty general to obey.
Upon Yue’s reluctant return, the corrupted chancellor Qin Hui (秦桧) also swiftly arranged for Yue Fei to be imprisoned. The mighty general was subsequently executed on false charges.
Who Killed China’s Most Respected General?
Today, most historians believe the real culprit behind Yue Fei’s unfair execution to be Gaozhong himself, with Qin Hui merely the executor.
It is believed that 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 national 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 revered as the brightest embodiment of valor, patriotism, and military brilliance.
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 are the 19th-century Opium Wars.
While the empire was not overrun in the aftermath, China was forced to sign several unequal treaties, including the notorious one that ceded ownership of Hong Kong Island to Britain. Till today, the social and political repercussions of these treaties continue to affect China’s relationship with other global powers. Particularly, western powers.
The primary catalyst for the First Opium War is, in turn, often said to be Lin Zexu. A scholar and officer of the Qing Dynasty imperial court, he aggressively, even viciously, opposed the importing of opium from Britain.
In 1839, Lin launched a series of crackdowns 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.
A Chinese Icon of Integrity and Uprightness
Regardless of his so-called mishandlings of the opium situation and foreign affairs, and the repercussions, Lin Zexu is today honored throughout global Chinese communities for his moral uprightness.
In recent times, he even became the representative hero against drugs 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.
Lastly, this pre-modern Chinese hero today also represents Chinese nationalistic pride and patriotism, and is a symbol of resistance 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.
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 Yong Kuan Leong