> Opinion

Portrayal of hero redefined in Chinese works

ZHANG YINGFANG | 2018-09-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Currently, there is a view that in today’s mundane consumerism-permeated era, heroes and their portrayal are gradually being submerged. But when we deeply observe and examine the changes in Chinese society since the 1990s and the variation in Chinese literary writings, we will find that this is not the case. Till today, Chinese literature’s interest in the hero and heroism has yet to waver. The hero remains a popular theme in Chinese literature.

In the context of the cause of advancing and building socialism and the changes in social life brought by it, the common understanding and definition of the hero have been quietly altering. Since the mid-1980s, the literary understanding of people and their relationships with the times has been increasingly inclusive. Literature about heroes, either in a conceptual sense or the way it is written, has been adjusted with a multi-dimensional trend.

Works of early contemporary heroic literature share a common value orientation: Heroes are a product of their times. Observations and writing about heroes are based on the large background of the times, which is both the particular environment that the hero is in and where the life and values of the hero ultimately belong to.

Since the 1990s, the boundary between the tides of the times and daily life has become increasingly blurred. Different from earlier heroic literature that stresses integration with the times, hero portrayal after the 1990s often allows the hero to return from being superman to being an ordinary person and to normal life. With multifaceted reflections on individuals’ social value, personal value and spiritual world, post-1990s literature has shaped more substantial, rich images of the hero.

Also in this period, divisions have appeared in the definition of a hero. First, there are “great heroes,” the important figures who speak for the times. They leave unusual footprints in history, and they become the monuments of an era or of the whole nation. But apart from these “great heroes,” there are “small heroes,” who though are not the makers of the times, pursue the ideals of a common life and live with perseverance. The latter has gradually become a new type of hero image.

The character Ying (literally meaning firefly) in the novel Lantern Bearer by Chinese writer Jia Pingwa is an ordinary officer who works in Cherry Town, a remote place located deep in the Qinling Mountains. Ying, who adopted the new name Daideng which literally means “the lantern bearer” as a poetic reference to the firefly, is dedicated to doing a good job in each little thing. She shines her own tiny light on her ordinary post, hoping to bring even a small change to life through her own efforts. They are these common, every-day “small heroes” who bring warm strength and comfort of the soul to the modern people swamped in the daily hustle and bustle. They inhabit a new kind of heroism—the radiation of one’s inner light onto one’s daily life and work as well as the perseverance toward one’s life dream.

Heroes should not be judged on the basis of where they are from or by their success or failure—this is a defining trait of hero portrayal in contemporary Chinese works. The heroes who have contributed to national glory with remarkable achievements indeed deserve admiration from the public, but those who undergo failure and show weakness in personal character are also able to impress people through emotional resonance. The shift in the heroic paradigm reflects the redefinition of the meaning of success and the value of the hero in an age of cultural diversity. In some sense, the hero is not just an individual, but a belief in life: The broadness and expansion of the inner being can act as a beacon to oneself and to others.


Zhang Yingfang is from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Fudan University.

(edited by BAI LE)