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A hard look at heroes - and their heroics

中国日报网 2014-05-23 17:23






When acts of altruism are exaggerated, they become hollow. The shift from a tradition of melodrama to a growing need for truth and complexity reflects a move up the curve of civilization.

A popular television program has just made a comeback, but it is making waves for the wrong reason. The second season of A Bite of China, a documentary series on Chinese food, is drawing record numbers in ratings, but the biggest controversy it has caused has nothing to do with what we put in our mouths. It is about how far a mother is willing to go for her daughter.

Ziyu, a teenager from Henan province, has been in Shanghai to study the viola. In the five years she has been away from home, her mother has lived in a small rented place in Shanghai and helped her with her daily chores. So the daughter can concentrate on her music, the mother has not returned to her Henan home, not even when her mother-in-law underwent chemotherapy. She is torn between her responsibility as a mother and as a wife and a daughter-in-law.

This detail is supposed to demonstrate the mother's self-sacrifice. But it backfired because a significant number of the public interpreted it as a sign of fixation. Some viewers became so upset they even started harassing the mother and daughter online - to the point that the director of that episode made a plea to target criticism at her and her alone and spare the subjects of her documentary.

If you thumb through Chinese newspapers, you'll come across hundreds and thousands of stories of this nature, stories about officials and ordinary citizens who go out of their way to help others. Of course it is not the altruism, but the self-sacrifice, that is increasingly turning heads - not in admiration but in concern. In a way the changing reaction signals a subtle departure from traditional values and a growing awareness of the balance that is needed in our daily existence.

A typical "heartwarming" story goes like this: A crisis erupts and a policeman (or one of any other profession) rushes to the rescue. He spends days saving a dozen people while totally oblivious to the needs of his own family. At the same time, his wife is giving birth to their first-born or his old mother is dying, but he would not squeeze out time to visit them. Even though he passes his home many times, he does not stop but rushes to save total strangers.

As is obvious, whoever wrote this must have been moved to tears by the absolute selflessness of the hero. In placing a halo around him, he or she has played up the deliberate neglect of the needs of the hero's family - to the extent of dwarfing the fact that he saved a dozen lives. And for thousands of years, Chinese people have eaten up this sort of thing as part of our regular diet of moral lessons.

Yes, it goes back to before the days of newspapers and television reports and movie biographies. And it predates the age when the word "propaganda" was coined. Ordinary Chinese, especially the illiterate, depended on folk operas for their knowledge of history as well as entertainment. Those operas were predominantly morality tales where characters were portrayed in stark black and white. There was no room for nuance.

Take the famous Three Kingdoms saga. To show Liu Bei in a positive light, his archenemy Cao Cao had to be made a villain, complete with a white face (in Chinese traditional opera a white face denotes either a clown or an evil person). Never mind that in historical records Cao was a capable leader of great complexity.

In the same story, the two military counsels who worked together to defeat Cao were heightened to show their contrast. In real history, both Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang were leaders of extreme intelligence and the former played the pivotal role. But in fictionalized accounts familiar to generations of Chinese, the former was turned into a petty, jealous person while the latter was given almost supernatural powers.

Because reality usually does not lend itself to operatic proportions, Chinese writers and artists (and journalists) tend to hype up or even make up certain details to get the point across. If an adult jumps into a lake to save a child, he has done a mere "good deed"; if he saves three kids with his last breath and drowns, he has performed an act of heroism. To go one step further, if it's a child who saves three other children and drowns, he'll be made into a martyr and there will probably be a national campaign to extol him, with his image plastered throughout the nation's classrooms. I grew up with many such posters.

When I returned to China in the late 1990s, I was surprised to read about teachers calling for an end to such campaigns. They said children should not be encouraged to risk their own lives in such situations. Instead they should ask for help from adults. While it is honorable that some kids give up their own lives to save others, this kind of heroism should not be emulated by other children, they insisted.

The refusal to see real life as a facsimile of melodrama is a sign of the increasing maturity of Chinese society. Tales of unmitigated heroism have met with more and more suspicion in recent years. People question the integrity of the reporting and, if verified, the mental health of the people featured in the stories. If someone is unable or unwilling to help his own family, they reason, how could he possibly extend a hand to strangers?

I have a strong feeling that most of these stories have a kernel of truth in them, but are distorted beyond recognition by people too eager to paint in broad strokes.

There was a "model" policewoman who worked tirelessly, did a lot of good for people in her jurisdiction and died in a work-related car crash. She was essentially an exemplary official molded in the image of Mother Teresa. During a reporting trip to that area, I suddenly thought about asking government officials about the policewoman.

"She was a wonderful person and always helpful," they said. "But she did not have a happy family. Her husband was cold to her."

It made perfect sense: What could have happened was she channeled the unhappiness in her family life into devotion to her job. But in all public portrayals that important detail was removed as an inconvenience, thus taking away the texture of real life that would have authenticated her story and made it so much better.

The readiness to embrace melodrama is an offshoot of an agrarian society with relatively low levels of education and sophistication. This applies not only to melodrama on screen and page, but also in real life. Altruism is a virtue shared by all humanity, but elevating it to a height unreachable by most humans is to take it out of the context of human dynamics and transform it into an abstraction. It is an effective way to cheapen it.

The change in public perception should sound an alarm to anyone whose job is to portray heroism in life. Instead of making it pure, one should preserve the messy reality.

Genuine situations and emotions run deeper than embellished ones.





















(英文原文:中国日报周黎明 译者 tootwo 编辑 Julie)


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