Research Notes: Who is a hero?

I remember as a child having, more than once, as an essay topic or even interview topic: who is your hero and why? The way we define hero varies from situation to situation; oftentimes it is a parent or an adult with whom we had a very close relationship. But hero doesn't have to mean a hero like superman or even soldiers; it can simply mean someone who has inspired us to be better people.

Looking through language textbooks, however, we see that the term "hero" (英雄) was almost exclusively reserved for soldiers in the military. What is more, in some textbooks nearly 3/4 of the stories pertain to soldiers in the military. Sometimes there are female soldiers, but overwhelmingly, nearly all of the stories about battalions who overcame hardship, natural or human, to claim a victory for China.

I asked my friend the librarian about this topic, as he grew up reading these kinds of textbooks (although, if you see my post below, the textbooks he used had significantly fewer of these kinds of stories, as compared to other textbooks from the 1970s which were almost exclusively military stories).[1] He confirmed my theory, that the concept of "hero" was reserved for those who served in the military. He explained this to me, saying that when these textbooks were written, China had been at war with Western powers for nearly 100 years, and only when the Communist came into power did the Chinese finally start winning (let us remember the Opium wars, plural, the Sino Japanese war, the semi colonization, and then WWII in Asia, all of which decimated the Chinese state). However, the Communists won the civil war in the 40s, and (in Chinese accounts) the Korean war against the Americans in the 1950s. These people were the heroes of the new Chinese state. The librarian also pointed out to me that this still exists today because the PLA is involved with such things as Sichuan earthquake relief (which, by most accounts, was a very successful rescue mission, especially when compared to Katrina). He also admitted his bias, having served in the airforce.

Since I've talked about identity beyond a national sense, my first question would be, "what about women? Do they have no heroes?" But at the same time, women were a part of this struggle too. They fought against the Nationalists and the Japanese. So a lot of stories were about women. One in particular comes to mind about a girl who kills herself in front of nationalist troops rather than abandon the 8th road army (the Communist forces).

This also made me think of America. There is certainly an almost untouchable respect for our troops in America (we must support the troops) but it is not the only way to be a hero. This may be because it has been a long time since a large proportion of our male population has served in a war. More importantly, most of the veterans alive today served in wars of which our nation was not uniformly supportive. The Vietnam war, and Vietnam veterans, still serve as a point of contention amongst the population. No longer is it necessary to be a war hero, or even a veteran at all, to be considered a hero in the general sense. Obama's lack of military service was hardly mentioned during the campaign, and while McCain's experience in Vietnam was exhaustively used by the McCain camp, it's significance was largely lost on the younger generation of Americans.

What does this mean in the larger sense of what it means to be Chinese? I don't think that these textbooks are attempting to claim that the only way to be a hero is to be in the military. I think it serves more as a metaphor. The revolution claimed that sacrificing oneself for the cause was the most important thing a person can do, and military stories serve as a much more vivid example of this kind of sacrifice than stories about peasants who spend 12 hours a day farming, or children who collect nails off the street for the great leap forward. Furthermore, the formulaic story of soldiers overcoming harsh weather, dead surroundings, or an evil opposing army serves to demonstrate the common theme of overcoming hardships for the revolution. Even the "enemy" can serve to demonstrate a larger theme. In the many stories about soldiers crossing difficult mountain ranges, rivers, or surviving harsh weather, the writers of these stories send a message to children that through determination and dedication for the revolution, man can essentially overcome nature (a very radical idea throughout the history of China. And when Chinese soldiers overcome American or Nationalist armies (I laughed a bit when we were called 美国鬼子, or American devils[2]), the authors can make strong anti imperialist or anti rightist statements.

It is still considered a respectful position to serve in the military, just as it still is in mainstream American society\. But I think these stories are not only meant to teach children to join the military; I think they wanted to teach children the greater themes about the meaning of sacrifice and the rewards of dedication.

[1] The textbook series that is overwhelmingly full of military stories上海市小学课本语文。 上海市中小学教材编写组出版,1972 A few more that had at least 1/3 of the textbook include military stories are: 中等专业学校材 语文: 上册. 北京:高等教育出版社, 1959; and初级中学课本语文。上海:教育出版社,1958

[2]上海市小学课本语文。 上海市中小学教材编写组出版,1972

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