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Home  /  Inside China  /  "Zui mei" - Modern Chinese heroes as the encounter between reality culture and traditional values
"Zui mei" - Modern Chinese heroes as the encounter between reality culture and traditional values print version

Zhang Lili, Wu Bin, Wu Juping and more are modern role models of Chinese culture, ordinary people who became instant heroes through an altruistic act and pull strongly the emotional chords of Chinese society.

The stories of Zhang Lili (张丽莉, aka 'zui mai jiaoshi', 'most beautiful/virtuous teacher'), the Harbin middle school teacher who sacrificed herself to save two pupils from the wheels of a vehicle, and Wu Bin (吴斌, aka 'zui mei siji', 'most virtuous driver'), a Hangzhou bus driver, who didn't let a critical hit in his liver stop him from bringing his passengers to safe ground in his last moments, have sparked up the hearts of all walks of life in China in the last month. These cases add up to the July 2011 story of Wu Juping, "China's most beautiful mother" or 'model worker' Guo Mingyi.

These stories demonstrate the scope of the character 'mei' 美. While Zhang is the (most) "mei teacher", Wu is the (most) "mei driver" and Wu was the (most) "mei mother". 'Mei', signifies 'beautiful' but can also mean 'good'. In the altruistic cases above, the line between 'beauty' and 'virtuous' is very thin and 'beautiful' becomes an adjective that reflects inner luminance. Particularly in the case of the women 'heroes' the public can easily see beauty in their appearance that corresponds to their good deeds.

But why is China so moved by these events and why do dramatic titles as 'China's most virtuous/beautiful' are given to ordinary people? What leads even the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency to acknowledge that this is the 'age of ordinary heroes' (平民英雄出的时代). In general, these stories represent an optimistic intersection between modern digital culture and traditional values, between the communist leadership and common people's interests. The public is moved, and the state and media only wish to expand this unique moment, celebrating the chord of social harmony.

While the story of Lei Feng, the altruistic Maoist soldier who died in 1962, continues to inspire the Chinese educational system, the teaching of his deeds also tends to involve a bitter acknowledgment that today values have changed and people are not as self-sacrificing as they were in the 'reddest' years of all. At the same time, the public is less naïve, carries resentment towards the corruption of officials, and is less likely to consider people in power positions as heroes. New stories that 'touch' are not patriotic legends but rather moments that one can strongly relate with. China Daily has captured this trend wisely and publishes a page dedicated to 'modern heroes' which it calls "the successors of Lei Feng", connecting between longstanding myths and the decisions of everyday people.

'Reality culture' pumps up the minds of Chinese youngsters not less, and perhaps more, than it does elsewhere on the globe. The news events that draw most attention are the ones that are astonishing but remain at close range, i.e. things that could happen to 'you and I'. As an article by Xinhua News Agency argues, the key is the essence of "small characters" ("小人物").

The 'reality' here is not only manifested in the background of these characters, but also in the randomness of the events that they found themselves in. Therefore the tribute that the media and public express towards them lies in two dimensions: One is making the person a hero and analyzing his or her sage-like qualities. While teacher Zhang Lili lies in a comma, journalists interview her family, workmates, pupils and past teachers in attempt to find roots for her amazing virtue. Portraying Zhang Lili in a strong positive light is necessary, but at the same time, the key for her popularity lies in her 'ordinary' existence. Viewers relate to her since maybe she projects the hearts of other people too, maybe she proves the Mencian argument of the virtue that lies in the core of the Chinese or human heart. 'Maybe in spite of our tough and sometimes indifferent daily existence when urgency comes we would also find this softness and altruism within us'.


A tribute poster prepared for the honor of Zhang Lili, titled "big love moves the earth"



Zhang Lili showed what it means to be a dedicated teacher; Wu Bin demonstrated that a driver is fully responsible for his passengers at all cause. We would surely trust our children to attend the caring of these two personnel, a comfort that is quite rare in these turbulent times. Here, the excitement of the state and the public intertwines; the values of 'work dedication' and 'benevolence' (仁义) are important both on the individual level and on the governmental level, that wishes to maintain social stability. These everyday role models (mofan 模范) are stronger than any propaganda and the state media widely uses them to elevate the patriotic sentiment and the faith in the divine morals (daode 道德) of Chinese society, clearly corresponding with Confucianism and traditional culture.

The 'zui mei' stories yet are not a boost to the Chinese social ego as they are an indication that morality has not become extinct in the value endangering society. The story of 'little Yueyue', the little toddler that lied on the street after being hit by a car, only to be coldly ignored by dozens of pedestrians, is one of many events that led to social pessimism and nostalgic introspection. Zhang Lili and Wu Bin not only offer an alternative, they indicate that the 'morality gene' is still located in the DNA of Chinese society.

The balance between the competitive society that promotes self-sufficiency and socialist chords, between modern instant culture and longstanding profound tradition, suddenly does not seem so fragile when commoner altruism is exhibited. The images that 'move China' (感动中国) resonate with instant emotionalism that popular culture produces in a quest for high rating, while the state regards them as a source for its legitimacy.

Another important aspect of this topic is the role of digital media. While some doubt the liberty of Chinese internet, the impact of the Chinese Weibo instant messaging service exceeds any internet platform that exists in the West. Censorship is exercised, but at the same time the attention that mainstream media gives to the Weibo and to netizens' reactions is fascinating. State-affiliated media can choose of course to exhibit the comments that suits its agenda, but it can seldom hinder the expansion of a story that was already exposed.

In many of the big new events, what make viewers so involved is photos and videos that captured the event 'live'. Such was the case with Wu Bin's painstaking efforts and, on a different note, also with the neglect of 'little Yue Yue'. People are moved by daily life stories, but 'word to mouth' or printed words are seldom enough nowadays. What touches most are cases that are supported with authentic and concrete imagery.

The contrast between the glossy TV or internet platforms which are filled with women's skin, commercial ads and dizzying pop-ups and the astonishing, intense and virtuous reality that the 'zui mei' events produces an immense social spark. The fact that within all the modern 'noise' an ordinary person can become a virtuous hero, and indifferent viewers can get in touch with their feelings is a comforting notion for individuals, state officials and TV rating.

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