Thursday, May 22, 2008

Heroism, or Humanity?

Like my three sisters, I was named after a hero. In fact all of our names take the form “like so-and-so,” where "so-and-so" is the name of a (dead) hero who was receiving significant posthumous praise around the time of out births. In the 1960s heroes were abundant, and they put the cause – in this case the creation and construction of a Communist China – before their personal interest, including life. We were proud of these paragons of social virtue and their deaths didn't seem to be a sad thing. "Convert sadness to strength!" was a universal slogan. A hero always dies a proper death and thus it is weightier than the Tai Mountain, as Mao put it. As such we wouldn't cry for him or her with tears. We would shout "Learn from so-and-so!" instead.

When my big sister died at age 16 as a Red Guard, her comrades called her a "hero." As a child I was very confused by the notion that a life was tradable with the title "hero." I just wanted my dear sister back – who cared what her title was?

I think my aversion to heroism probably stemmed from that. I was certainly alone in this – but not any longer.

The Sichuan earthquake has created many stories of both heroism and survival, and several things are strikingly different from anything in my experience. Many have commented on the swiftness of the official response in proportion to the crisis, which seems to signal a significant evolution in the relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens. There is, however, something more subtle happening that is worthy of comment.

Right now one of the most hailed heroes in China is Jiang Min, a 28-year-old police woman from Beichuan (almost completely destroyed) working in Pengzhou. The earthquake took her two-year-old daughter, her parents, grandparents, and other relatives living at home. In total she lost 10 family members during those short minutes of devastation. Of course she did not know this at the time, but could only fear the worst. After her fear was verified the next morning, in the days that followed she worked nonstop in her duties with fellow officers dealing with the disaster from Pengzhou.

Following this prodigious effort, Jiang Min was interviewed about her situation. She answered questions stoically in the local dialect, then collapsed. Soon video clips of her interviews showed up everywhere on TV channels and the internet. The formal media tried to portray her heroism and hold her up as a role model. On the other hand, the informal reaction, manifesting itself through blogs and online forums, was divided. Some sided with the formal media declaiming Jiang Min a hero. A few blamed her as heartless to be able to continue to work when such a horrible thing had happened to her family.

The clearest voice, however, was that of sympathy. Many people commented that what she did is a natural way to deal with tragedy – by clinging to the familiar and going through motions. Heaping neither praise nor blame on Jiang Min, they simply said that their hearts went out to her and others like her. Some angrily condemned the cruelty of a reporter who asked Jiang Min, "Do you miss your daughter when you are helping other children?" Some called on the reporters to leave her alone and urged Jiang Min to say "No" to interviews.

This kind of sensitive feeling and great sympathy being expressed surprised me in a very positive way. While that type of response might seem natural in America, it was anything but for the China I grew up in.
Yet more reporters continued to rush to Jiang Min like bees to flowers. She was also invited to Beijing to attend CCTV's big benefit performance Sunday, an honor that surprised her. In Beijing high government officials shook her hands while speaking bureaucratic jargon to praise her heroism. This again provided more pollen to the reporting bees.

A new video clip I saw last night showed that, in Beijing, Jiang Min seemed to be getting used to the role imposed on her by the journalists and officials. This time she was speaking Mandarin, and in a more confident and comfortable manner.

Jiang Min's role aside, the divergence in attitudes between common people and the official media signals an important shift.

So, what has changed? What is different now? It is not simply the magnitude of the tragedy. I can remember Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 during my youth. The death toll then was even higher. We learned the news long after because the official media did not reveal it immediately. There was a great shock and grief, but it was a sadness we took upon ourselves, not a sadness we felt for others. China’s history is full of suffering, and almost all Chinese have felt that suffering weigh on them personally, even when they were not directly involved. Has material affluence in China pushed the people over a barrier where they recognize the suffering of others is not directly impinging on them, and is that the source of sympathy? Or is the expressed sympathy a result of the guilt that they are not sharing in the suffering? Or is it simply that the value of Chinese lives is finally on the rise?

When I heard that the CCTV benefit telethon Sunday night had, in a few hours, raised over 200 million US dollars to help the earthquake victims, I could not believe it. That is an amount that goes beyond duty and obligation, the two mainstays of Chinese support. Something has changed.

More to this is that people are no longer passively following the official media, like my parents did. The common audience's level of understanding has surpassed the journalists, and I cheer for that.
It is when people do good things without any agenda that something special happens. Concerns originating from humanity instead of propaganda-heroism will go a much longer way.


Linda Austin said...

It is wonderful to see the responsiveness of the Chinese government (and the people) to the earthquake victims. Instead of working hard to deny or hide the extent of the tragedies, the government and the press are being unusually open. I hope the leaders and the people see how much more unity, sympathy and assistance that openness can bring, not just from the Chinese people but from people and nations worldwide. I believe the Chinese response to this catastrophe has boosted China's image to the world during a difficult year.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thank you for the comments, Linda.

Rocking Offkey said...

Heroism comes in many ways. In a way, Jiang Min was just performing her duty. And that's equally commendable. There's the old saying, every is a hero, if we all perform our duty well.

Xujun Eberlein said...

That is a good way to put it, Rocking Offkey.

justrecently said...

It's a mixed bag of new and old (Lei Feng style) reactions, seems to me. But the way private initiative organises relief efforts looks really new.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Very true.

justrecently said...

Another story about heroism, but just as the police woman story, it isn't as black-and-white as the old Lei-Feng stories used to be. If you can see what shapes the story, I'd be grateful if you let me know.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Justrecently - Thanks for the link. I actually don't see anything that stands out here. It is an unfortunate and sad story, being wounded before having a chance to do anything. The reporters are trying to portray Wang Peng in a standard Chinese way. The grandmother bit is typical Chinese thinking.

justrecently said...

Thanks for your answer, Xujun.