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Everyone loves a hero, and Chinese history and folklore are full of these adventurers and warriors who triumphed against the odds. Whether it is their fearlessness, their sagely wisdom or seemingly boundless love for their fellow men, there is always that one larger-than-life trait that has turned each into a household name across the generations, not to mention the stuff of Disney and Netflix movies.
In time for the Mid-Autumn Festival and Esplanade's Moonfest, we bring you our top five legends from various periods of Chinese history. Read their stories, then take our quiz to find out which one you could be, in a (wishful) parallel universe.
Born in 412 AD, Hua Mulan is best known as the girl who disguised herself as a boy—for a great cause. Instead of spending her days prettying herself for marriage as was expected of her, Mulan took the place of her elderly and ailing father and went on to the battlefield. She was never coerced into doing so, rather, it was simply a duty she felt strongly about and graciously took on to protect her family and father from war-induced circumstances. The disguise carried on for 12 years, during which no one cast doubt on her gender or capabilities, presumably because she was able to carry out her soldierly duties.
The very first transcription of Mulan was made known in the Ballad of Mulan, a folksong from Northern Dynasties China in the 5th century. This well-known line from the original ballad best sums it up: “When a pair of rabbits runs side by side, who can distinguish male from female?” Since then, through the years, the story of Mulan has been adapted into books, plays, movies and animation.
Catch the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe as they bring you The New Mulan Ballad, a pingtan classic.
A 12th century warrior who rose to become a general during the later years of the Song Dynasty, Yue Fei’s name is synonymous with loyalty. Born into a humble farming family in Henan province, he is mentioned in the History of Song, a record of historical events of the dynasty, as well as the Table of Peerless Heroes, a collection of biographies of noted individuals. We learn that he was named “Fei”, meaning to fly, because at the moment of his birth, a peng (a great mythical bird) was observed to crow above his house.
Recognised for his talents and martial ability from a young age, he enlisted in the imperial army at age 19. There, he joined in the struggle to liberate the northern territories of the Song dynasty, conquered by Jurchen invaders who had managed to capture the capital city Kaifeng along with then-Emperor Qinzong. The newly-appointed Song Emperor Gaozong took notice of Yue Fei and his military prowess, promoting him to general. Victory after victory followed until Yue Fei besieged the captured capital Kaifeng. Worried that Yue Fei might defeat the Jurchens and free the captive Qinzong, Gaozong decided to secure his throne by ordering Yue Fei to lift the siege.
Yue Fei understood that this meant certain death but continued the siege because of his loyalty and sense of duty. He had the words “faithful to the country” tattooed on his back and personally cared for his soldiers and the welfare of their families. He was eventually put to death by Emperor Gaozong, and his selfless actions ultimately ensured his place as one of the most loyal warriors in Chinese history and folklore.
See Yue Fei and his brave general, Yang Zaixing battle the Jin army in this martial arts showcase and Cantonese opera classic, Battle of the Xiaoshang River.
There is no greater weapon than a prepared mind.
Born in 181 AD, Zhuge Liang was chancellor of the Shu-Han during the era of the Three Kingdoms. He was also known as the “Sleeping Dragon” because his abilities were often underestimated by people around him, possibly because he led most of his life in recluse. Military warlord and ruler of the kingdom of Shu Liu Bei was the one to recognise his potential and persuaded him to join his army.
Zhuge Liang’s contributions were bountiful. He forged alliances with the Sun and Wu Kingdoms that led to battles won, such as the famous Battle of Red Cliff. Before this, Zhuge Liang was often “tested” by his peers. Zhou Yu, strategist of the Wu Kingdom, gave him a seemingly difficult task of making 100,000 arrows in just 10 days. Zhuge Liang did not fret and said that he could accomplish the task within three days. He then requested for 20 storage boats, each manned only by a few soldiers with many visible straw men placed on deck. He mimicked an attack on the Wei army by beating war drums and shouting orders. In response to this “threat”, the Wei army fired back many arrows, all of which were caught by the straw men. The boats amassed over 100,000 arrows, and Zhuge Liang gained Zhou Yu’s respect. After this, both men worked together to take on the Battle of the Red Cliff.
Brainiacs, master basic riddle-solving techniques and pit your wits against fellow online participants at Lantern Riddles Online.
Tall, athletic and known for his immense strength, Lü Bu, also known as the Flying General, was an imposing figure that even the most capable soldiers feared to face in battle. Born in 161 AD, he is best known for turning against his lords and in some cases, causing their demise. Lü Bu never turned away from any fights and seemingly had no fear of death nor injury.
Ding Yuan, a minor warlord in the Bing Province, was responsible for recruiting Lü Bu, and eventually became a father figure to the warrior. With his many victorious battles, Lü Bu caught the eye of Dong Zhuo, a general and powerful minister of the imperial government. Dong Zhuo wanted Ding Yuan dead so he could take control of his troops. He successfully persuaded Lü Bu to defect to his side. Lü Bu killed Ding Yuan and presented his head to his new leader, Dong Zhuo.
By this time, Lü Bu had earned his reputation of being strong and brutal. Dong Zhuo was afraid he would be a target for assassination and made Lü Bu his bodyguard. Through his time with Dong Zhuo, Lü Bu came to realise that Dong Zhuo was a pompous coward who did not care for Lü Bu as he claimed. In one of his outbursts, Dong Zhuo threw a dagger at Lü Bu, which he managed to dodge thanks to his quick reflexes. Lü Bu held a grudge against Dong Zhuo for this incident, and had no qualms killing his new master before defecting to another Minister.
Lü Bu eventually met his match at the Battle of Xiapi, where he surrendered to Wei warlord, Cao Cao. Even so, Cao Cao was wary of this powerful foe and ordered for Lü Bu to be executed.
Xiqu, or Chinese opera, often depicts the epic tales of folklore. Tune in to A Backstage Glimpse of Xiqu to find out the complexities of putting together a xiqu performance.
Bao Zheng, more famously known as Justice Bao, was an 11th century Song dynasty official who attained mythical status for his extreme honesty and sense of fairness. Although born into a scholarly family, Bao Zheng grew up amongst the working class. Witnessing firsthand their struggles and hardships caused him to hate corruption and long for justice.
After completing his formal education, Bao Zheng passed the highest level of the imperial examinations and was appointed as a magistrate, gaining a reputation as a wise and fair judge. Many accounts of his unconventional methods of determining justice were immortalised in traditional Chinese wuxia (martial heroes) and gong’an (crime fiction) stories. Promoted to Prefect, he was posted to Duanzhou in the south, an area known for producing exquisite inkstones. Manufacturers had to present a certain number of inkstones annually to the imperial court. However, Bao Zheng discovered that his predecessors had collected much more than required, pocketing the excess for themselves. He put a stop to this practice and when he left Duanzhou, Bao Zheng did not have a single inkstone in his possession.
Throughout his civil service of 25 years, Bao Zheng rose through the ranks, holding various administrative, judicial and scholarly posts. He endeavoured to bring down corrupt officials, even high-ranking ones. He also implemented several reforms so that justice could be served to the populace. The mythology of his infallible sense of justice carries on till this day. He is often depicted as a wise old man with a judge's hat and a crescent moon on his forehead.
If serving justice is your thing, join Sanzang and his three disciples as they battle a powerful, arrogant, child-eating demon in Journey to the West: The Tongtian River.
Illustrations by: Eko Pinanding
Featuring a wide array of live and digital programmes, the 17th edition of Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration returns with its annual showcase of traditional Chinese arts and craft forms.