Growing up in Singapore, I did not have formal history lessons in primary school, but indirectly we learnt about heroes in China history during Chinese lessons or festive seasons. Behind each of them, there was a take-home message to look to them as role models. There were three that stuck in my mind.
Qu Yuan 屈原
Because the main character in my book makes a key journey during the Dumpling festival (7 June 2019), I had previously written an article describing the story behind this Festival. Here’s what was written:
‘This festival commemorates Qu Yuan (340–278 BC). He lived during the Warring States Period as a king’s advisor in Chu. Backstabbed by his jealous colleagues, his counsel was ignored by the Emperor who even exiled him. During this time, he wrote several poems to express his love for his country. In 278 BC, his beloved Chu finally fell to the powerful Qin. On hearing this, Qu Yuan threw himself in the Miluo River, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
The Chinese believe in the afterlife, hence the body must be intact at death. The locals could not bear the thought of this patriot’s body being eaten by fish. So they went out in dragon boats to find his body, but without avail. As a result, they resorted to deterring the fishes by generating noise and giving an alternative food source. They banged on drums, and threw dumplings (zongzi, 粽子) in the river.’
This is what my teacher said to us at the end of the story: ‘He was a loyal man. He loved his country so much that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for his country.’ She went on to tell our elementary class to be like loyal like him, and to love our country and be prepared to die for it.
Yue Fei 岳飞
Another Chinese hero is Yue Fei. He was a famous general who lived in the 12th century (1103-1142) during the Song dynasty. In Eastern China, there is a temple built in his honour.
Yue Fei had won many successful battles. But the lesson teach at school was not about his conquests. Like Qu Yuan, he was fiercely loyal to his country. However, he was an even better role model. The Chinese place a lot of emphasis on filial piety, ie respecting one’s parents and elders. The most famous story about him is the four-worded 精忠报国 tattoo his mother made on his back. ‘Serve your country loyally’. So the filial son obeys his aging mother and goes off to fight battles for his country.
Naturally, like the teacher who taught us about Qu Yuan, this one was also full of praise for his loyalty and filial piety. Because those lessons had embedded in my mind, even though I hadn’t mentioned Yue Fei’s name in my story, I touched on such lessons about loyalty to the country. If you want to know more about Yue Fei, this cultural website is a good place to start.
Like Yue Fei, I did not mention this famous Chinese philosopher directly in my book. But I am sure you have come across this name. Today, Confucius (551–479 BC) is still widely respected. Despite globalisation Confucian teaching schools have gained popularity in China because parents want their children to learn about their own ethnicity and culture. Confucius believed the family is the core unit of society. When one is good to his own family, this extrapolates to his interactions with the outside world, ultimately leading to loyalty to his country. His many teachings are often quoted. Here is an example: What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others己所不欲，勿施于人
In fact, he is so well respected that some will even invent quotes, like this one: Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. (from Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith)
Others are misquoted. This famous one is from another Chinese philosopher Laozi 老子: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 千里之行，始於足下
If you want to know more about Confucius, this educational website is a good one.
Great Yu 大禹
If you have been following my articles, you will know that I went on a trip to Sichuan in China researching my book. On this trip, I learn about Great Yu (2123 -2025 BC). My tour guide was surprised I had never heard of him and took pleasure in telling his story as he was from the region.
He lived at a time when China was plagued with floods. Despite dams and dikes built by his father, hills were still flooded. When he took over, he was rumoured to be married for only four days. He toured the country to understand the geology, and did not visit his wife and newborn even when work took him closer to home. He finally returned after thirteen years, when he successfully controlled the waters with river dredging and canal irrigations. Here’s a sculpture commemorating his great works.
As my guide was so proud of him and this sculpture had such pride of place in the rural village of Taoping Qiang, I had to slip this hero’s name in my book. Here’s a link for more information about him.
I have given you insight into four Chinese historical figures mentioned directly or indirectly in my book. To balance the gender out, I will write another article about female historical figures in a future article.
This article was first published 1 June 2019. Updated 18 Nov 2019 for the official blog tour of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, published by Aurelia Leo. I pledge to give 25% of the royalties from its sale to charity.