The Image of Hero and the Concept of Shame in the Chinese Culture

free essayEach culture operates with some specific image of reality. Thus, different cultures provide their particular understanding of values and interpret them due to their general approach to the world. Peculiar features of each culture can be learned from its artifacts, for example, its classical writings, influenced by a specific culture’s outlook. The concept of hero is a characteristic for each culture (due to every culture has some ideal image of human behavior), but its features differ in each separate culture due to its general patterns. It is the reason why through the analysis of some features of a hero’s image it is possible to learn some details, concerning the cultural tradition,  gave the specific heroic image. The Chinese classical texts provide numerous examples of heroic behavior, corresponding to some general pattern characteristic of the Chinese culture. Besides, analyzing two different classical novels can show that some specific features remain invariable for the main characters of both texts. The idea of personal honor in the Chinese culture is primarily based on the concept of public shame, which means one to avoid any situations, discrediting him or her publicly.

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The classical story “The Legendary marriage at Tung-t’ing” tells about a Chinese scholar Liu Yi who married a female dragon. Particularly, the story begins with Liu Yi’s journey to the capital, committed by him to pass necessary examinations and become a Chinese official. Besides, the protagonist failed the exams and had to return home. When he returned, there was a grieving woman who told him that she needed his help with some supernatural issues: the woman was a dragon (the youngest daughter of a dragon-king) whose husband behaved incorrectly with her. Thus, she asked Liu Yi to carry her letter to her father to receive the king’s help with the problem. The protagonist answered: “I’m a man of honor” (“The Legendary Marriage at Tung-t’ing” 346) and helps the female dragon with all of that because she is a woman in help need. It is very characteristic for Liu Yi  not to express either amusement or fear, but just do what the female dragon asked him to. The same situation Liu Yi had with the uncle of that woman, the Ch’ien-t’ang lord (also a dragon). The latter killed the husband of his nephew and proposed Liu Yi to marry her, adding: “a hard rock can be split, but can’t be rolled; a righteous man can be killed, but not put to shame” (“The Legendary Marriage at Tung-t’ing” 351). The answer of Liu Yi was negative and, as he explained the female dragon later, he refused the proposal because it would seem shameful if the man, who carried to the dragon king the letter, discrediting the husband of a woman, replaced him consequently. Such a situation could look like Liu Yi helped her to become her husband, while he did that due to his honor made him do. Besides, in the end of the story, the female dragon pretends to be a human woman; Liu Yi becomes her husband and she bears him a child. Hence, she uncovers her real identity, and only then Liu Yi considers it not to be shameful to live with her in her supernatural kingdom due to his marriage with her not of being a princess. Thus, all the deeds of Liu Yi are determined by his fear of any public shame, and, therefore, he became a prince due to his avoiding all the situations that could discredit him.
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The story about Wu Song (and his adventure with a tiger) demonstrates that all the deeds of such classic Chinese hero as Wu Song are totally determined by his need for positive public image. This story is told in the second part of the 23th chapter of “The Water Margin”. The adventures begin with the protagonist’s visit to a tavern where the host tells warns him about some dangers, while Wu Song neglects all the preventions. Thus, he wants (and drinks) more wine, while the host told it to be dangerous to drink more than three bowls of his wine. Therefore, he leaves the tavern despite the host’s warning about a dangerous tiger,  walking outside. The protagonist does not want to submit the host’s recommendations and acts as he wants to show the independence of his mind. His intention is obvious through his words, as the following: “I’m a Qinghe County man. I’ve crossed that ridge, at least, twenty times. I’ve never seen any tiger. Don’t try to scare me with that crap. Even if there is a tiger, I’m not afraid” (Nai’an, Guanzhong 226). Furthermore, when Wu Song reads the government proclamation with a warning of the tiger, he anyway refuses to return to the tavern due to his considerations of, “If I do that, the host will laugh at me for a coward. I can’t return” (Nai’an, Guanzhong 227). Consequently, he meets the tiger and kills him because it is the only one way to save his reputation undoubted. The story demonstrates, that Wu Song, considered to be a hero, risk his life, drink more than needed and do other irrational things to look dominating, but, finally, all of that leads him to the success and glory.

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Both stories can be analyzed through the prism of the concept of shame in its opposition to the concept of honor in the Chinese culture. Due to Li, Wang and Fischer’s claiming, in the Chinese culture, one’s sense of shame determines this person’s morality, there is no morality without shame, based on the linkage between one’s behavior and its social reflection (769). This idea is so important, since the ancient times of the Confucianism’s dawn to the today’s Chinese cultural reality, shame remains on its privileged positions among other virtues (Li, Wang, Fischer 770). Besides, it is significant to understand the concept of shame correctly, in the Chinese context. For example, due to Ho, Fu and Ng’s emphasizing on the difference between the Chinese and Western ethical approaches, “the Confucian ethical tradition” is “grounded on interpersonal relationships, but not on the human person’s relationships” with some internal censors, such as consciousness or God (66). Particularly, in the Chinese culture, losing of one’s ”face”’ is more “immoral” than one’s evaluation of his or her act. In his profound study, Hsien Chin Hu claims two main concepts of face to occur (and its losing or, in other words, of shame). The first one is called “mientzu” and concerns the social credit of a person within his or her state, while the second one is called “lien”, concerning the reputation of a “man, fulfilling his obligations irrespective of the difficulties involved” (Hu 45). It is obvious that both Liu Yi and Wu Song had some problems with their “mientzu”: the former one failed the officials’ exam and, thus, lost his chance to join the Chinese Government, while the latter was an outlaw and wandered without any concrete place of living. Simultaneously, both worked hard to keep undoubted and even to strengthen their “lien” as it is clear from the analysis of both stories provided. When Liu Yi appeals to the circumstances, forced him to abandon the female dragon and return the world of mortals, he speaks about the need to preserve his “lien”  and also Wu Song does not want to return to the tavern’s host to preserve his heroic image. Hence, it is obvious from Hu’s work that for the Chinese culture the loss of “lien” means something like social death, there is no doubt that for such a collectivist society hero should be always oriented on the preserving of his “lien”.

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To conclude, it is clear that both Liu Yi and Wu Song share the main idea of the culture of shame, due to which, one’s positive public image (“lien”) is the most important value to be preserved at any cost. Both protagonists of the Chinese classical texts risk their lives, endure hard temptations and suffer from different circumstances only to preserve their public images of men of honor. It means the importance of public point of view to be very important for the Chinese culture, and everyone (as long as Liu Yi and Wu Song are the classical heroes of the Chinese literature) to be recommended to behave in the same way, evaluating the public point of view as something more important than his or her own live. Such collectivist orientation of the Chinese culture is underlined by the positive evaluation of the mentioned position of both protagonists due to the fear of shame being described to be the main reason for their brave and extraordinary deeds.