Qiu Shaoyun and Yao Ming – Icon Vs. Entertainment – What a nation follows as example

The following is a guest post by Matt Sawtell



Qiu Shaoyun and Yao Ming – Icon Vs. Entertainment – What a nation follows as example
By Matthew A. Sawtell, a.k.a. Uncle Laowai – January 25, 2008

As a laowai, it has been interesting to observe the history of P.R. China from an outside perspective – especially in the terms of icons and entertainment that have come into the national consciousness since the early 1950s to today.  From a personal perspective, a couple of larger than life characters come to mind, Qiu Shaoyun and Yao Ming.

For the folks that do not remember or do not know about Qiu Shaoyun, here is some background about the man.  He has born in 1931 in the Sichuan Province, he joined the PLA in 1949 and was deployed in Korea in 1951.  In 1952, while in attempt to attack a U.N. position with a group of 500 other soldiers by stealth – he died by slowly burning to death when fire was used to identify the groups location.  For this act, Qiu Shaoyun was posthumously awarded the Hero Medal, First Class by the Chinese Government, along with posthumous Hero of the DPRK from North Korea.

To most people in today’s China, and in the basketball circles around the world, Yao Ming should need no introduction.  But for those who do need some background, Yao Ming was born in 1980, the son of Fang Fengdi, who played with the 1976 womens Asian Championship basketball team.  After spending five years in the Chinese Basketball League – Yao became the first Chinese NBA All-Star.  The rest of his story can be found in sport section of any national or international newspaper.

Observing from a distance, and sometimes up close, the Chinese people and their love for Yao, I cannot help but wonder if a change is beginning to take root in P.R. China.  In the past, the remembrance of men like Shaoyun as icons – for the deeds and the sacrifices that they made – helped fuel the people to achieve great things in all walks of life.  As it stands now, the Chinese people are being to adapt to an American/European attitude towards entertainer worship.

I mention this idea of worship of entertainers, because of the effects that too much worship can occur to the national mindset.  At the time I am writing this article, there are three or four cable network stations that are dedicated to sports, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It has been my observations that while the average sports fan in America, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and parts of South America/Africa/Middle East can remember the smallest detail about their heroes and teams – they can barely remember who their representative is in government or who how to vote for said representation.

And this has filtered down from the professional sports leagues to the educational systems in many countries – where most colleges are recognized not for their academic achievements, but for how well their amateur sports teams are doing on television.  From there it has filtered down to the high school level, where school districts that cannot afford to have books or working classrooms have boosters building 1 to 2 million dollar football stadiums or basketball counts.

It is from this high school perspective that I think about Qiu Shaoyun and Yao Ming.  I went to De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren, Michigan.  The biggest claim to sports fame for De La Salle during my time there was fellow by the name of Mike Peplowski.  He played center/forward for the basketball team, much like Yao Ming.  Unlike Yao, Mike’s career could be described as more as a journeyman – playing for various minor league teams in North America and Europe, while playing for 4 NBA teams in 3 seasons.  Regardless, Mike has had his number retired and hung up in the rafters of the school gym.  His jersey rests in a glass case in the school hallway, considered one of the best examples of the school’s motto: “Builders of Boys, Makers of Men.”

That jersey, along with other items of local athletic achievements, replaced another item that used to hang in a glass picture frame the school hallway, but without much fanfare.  Something that harkened back to another level to the schools motto.  It was a letter from the United States Army, a citation for the Medal of Honor, for one 1st Lt. Robert Poxon, an alumni of De La Salle.  The citation read that:

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 1st Lt. Poxon, Armor, Troop B, distinguished himself while serving as a platoon leader on a reconnaissance mission. Landing by helicopter in an area suspected of being occupied by the enemy, the platoon came under intense fire from enemy soldiers in concealed positions and fortifications around the landing zone. A soldier fell, hit by the first burst of fire. 1st Lt. Poxon dashed to his aid, drawing the majority of the enemy fire as he crossed 20 meters of open ground. The fallen soldier was beyond help and 1st Lt. Poxon was seriously and painfully wounded. 1st Lt. Poxon, with indomitable courage, refused medical aid and evacuation and turned his attention to seizing the initiative from the enemy. With sure instinct he marked a central enemy bunker as the key to success. Quickly instructing his men to concentrate their fire on the bunker, and in spite of his wound, 1st Lt. Poxon crawled toward the bunker, readied a hand grenade and charged. He was hit again but continued his assault. After succeeding in silencing the enemy guns in the bunker he was struck once again by enemy fire and fell, mortally wounded. 1st Lt. Poxons comrades followed their leader, pressed the attack and drove the enemy from their positions. 1st Lt. Poxons gallantry, indomitable will, and courage are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army."

While this may be viewed as just an extreme example in a broader whole – it is still something that is troubling.  The U.S. Medal of Honor is not an award that is not bestowed on a whim – while the chance at playing in the NBA is slim, it is not rare.  Yet, it is slights like this, whether intentional or not, that tell the younger generations a simple but dangerous message – you will be best remembered as an entertainer than an icon.  I would like to think that a nation like P.R. China would not follow a train of thought like this – to subvert generations of children to aspiring to be merely entertainers – but I do not know.  Yet for nothing else, as an outsider looking in – let this observation be a warning – never confuse entertainers as icons.

Qiu Shaoyun
Zhiyuanjun yingxiong zhuan sanji {Accounts of Heroes of the Volunteer Army vol. III} (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1956) via translation by Stefan Landsberger
Shao Wu et al. (eds), Gongheguo qunyingpu {Register of heroes of the Republic} (Beijing: Zhongguo shaonian ertong chubanshe, 2003) via translation by Stefan Landsberger
Yao Ming
Yahoo Sports, ESPN, NBA
Leslie Poxon
Vietnam War Medal of Honor Recipients (M-Z). Medal of Honor Citations. U.S. Army Center of Military History
Mike Peplowski
NBA, Wikipedia

  1. China’s just experiencing growth and development, the same kind that the States has before, it’s just history in the making. This is China’s transition period, so it’s bound to exhibit characteristics of Western countries. No one should be so self-righteous to think that other people shouldn’t be superficial and you’re not. The Americans still exhibit such traits. Capitalism is just working its disgusting magic in China, alongside with Urbanization, Modernization and Industrialization, also Globalism, Americanism and Modernism. Don’t think that China’s gone all materialistic, it’s just transitioning and like the States, it might become an arrogant prick or something different, but don’t BS and say the States is better than anyone else and has learned to be objective, honouring the ones who need it and not the ones who don’t. That’s a load of BS… like that guy who landed the plane on the Hudson River, you guys have hero worship to a state of idolatry, to a state where you exaggerate a person’s deeds, showering them with copious, unnecessary, excessive, extraneous, superfluous amounts of praise when they don’t deserve so much. “sarcastic tone” America the Beautiful, the Brave, the Free… my ass!!! “Oh other countries are superficial, materialistic, false, well we’re Americans, we don’t have that in our own countrie, nooooooooo, we most certainly don’t.” How arrogant and ignorant can you fucking be!!!!!! “Oh no, I’m American, I don’t have that sorta thing where we don’t … See Morevalue people who’re less physically attractive as much in our own country, oh no we aren’t corrupted by capitalism in our own country, no that doesn’t happen in our land, cuz we’re Americans!!!” Load of Bull Shit!

    1. Tian-Yuan Zhao,

      You didn’t actually read or comprehend the article above, did you? I know electronic dictionaries seem very useful, providing copious, unnecessary, excessive, extraneous, superfluous synonyms for writing English rants, but when it comes to understanding language, they leave too much to be lost in translation.

      Please calm down, improve your English, and come back to the discussion once those two things have been accomplished.

  2. It appears this is a sensitive topic for some, does it not? Sorry, but the question of “quality of ‘hero worship’” has been a very relevant issue for countries through out history, as well as today. While the Caesars were content to keep the folks in Rome content and distracted in “Bread and Circuses”, it bankrupted the Roman Empire – both economically and politically. The same could be said of the various Imperial Families that held court in Beijing over the centuries – culminating in the revolutions that brought about the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

    Now P.R. China is beginning to face that same “Bread and Circuses” question. Whether it will succumb to it like the Caesars/Emperors of the past, or wrestle with it (poorly) like the U.S. is doing right now, remains to be seen.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Seems as if modern China is embracing Panem et Circenses as we have in “the West” for many centuries. It works without a flaw as well. Who needs Machiavelli?

  4. Christ,, 2 comments I didn’t bother to read and my Panem et Circenses comment was already put to use. What’s the odds?? Sorry Matt.

    1. No problem lop, you managed to get in Machiavelli before anyone else – because the longer this comment string gets – I figure everyone from Sun Tzu to Machiavelli could be cited.

  5. the difference between Yao Ming and Qiu Shaoyun is that yao ming became famous naturally from popular appeal whereas the story of qiu shaoyun was fed to the people by the government as propaganda. i wouldnt be surprised if the story had been fabricated by some communist thinktank. i mean, come on- a guy burns to death during a battle, how would anyone even know that he didnt move “in order not to give up his position”. they would just find him burnt to death and for all they know, he died instantly or couldnt move because of the pain. did he leave a note, explaining his heroism?

    1. Oh… I can see some of the P.R. Chinese commenters simply reply that my fellow alumni, Lt. Poxon, was also “an artifical product of propaganda”, or some other snide comment about how he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

      Let’s face it – I could have used Lei Feng as the Chinese Military example – but then again, I would of had to use an American counterpart like Audrey Murphy or Alvin C. York – instead of Lt. Poxon.

    2. You don’t believe because your soldiers are hired by the government like the soldiers in Chinese Song Dynasty. The soldiers join the army just for money not for religion. I don’t want to compare PLA soldiers with Taliban because clearly the former is the most lovely people in China and the latter is attacking common citizens all over the wold. But one thing is in common. Some people can die for their religion or belief.

      Another essential difference between east Asian and western people is the trade-off between self and group. East Asian like Chinese people pay more attention on group. With this premise, it is not strange that a soldier can burn to death slowly just for the safety of the troop. It is not important whether Qiu Shaoyun’s story is fabricated or not (though I believe it) because there were, are, and will be actually tons of soldiers like Qiu Shaoyun in China. It’s the tradition of Chinese culture. You Americans just don’t understand it.

      1. Sorry, but it appears that you are referencing the conversation that I had with Lop – and not the article itself, yes? If not, then it looks like I have another fellow that is having a bit of trouble with the article – and the context of referencing soldiers vs. entertainers (in this case, basketball players).

      2. But there is another tradition in Chinese culture – the amoral opportunist who does whatever is expedient in order to get ahead. Or are you saying that someone like 曹操 was acting for anything other than his own self-interest?

        1. Cao Cao? I was trying to keep this article within the timeline of P.R. China, and not the “5,000+” history nonsense, given that it involves Imperial China and “Warring States Period”. In this case, Mao could be used as a replacement for the Cao Cao question. As for Mao… honestly, whatever was his original intentions – he seemed damned sure to take P.R. China with him in his later years, with the Cultral Revolution.

          Who in the modern day entertainment field in P.R. China can claim an influence getter than Mao that are involved in sports? Han Han?

        2. Hi Al, what are we talking about? I think we are talking about some positive characters in Chinese culture, either Qiu Shaoyun, Wen Tianxiang, or Yao Ming, etc. And we are talking about whether the great deed of the hero Qiu Shaoyun is believable or understandable. Why do we want to talk about someone who are usually considered as an amoral person like Cao Cao? Any culture has its hero and trash. I don’t think Cao Cao is trash. Actually he is a great person although not very moral. And morality does not help save millions of people’s lives in the end of East Han Dynasty. Cao Cao, whatever his aim was, did prompt the progress of re-union of China. But we don’t want to talk about Cao Cao here, because we are talking about another thing — Chinese traditional morality.

          1. Hate to say it ustcbbs, but when people try to shoehorn in the “5,000+”, you will get a long list of rogues, anti-heroes, and historical question marks along with it. Cao Cao is part of that list. That reminds me… ustc in ustcbbs stands for what?

    3. Since you come to Chinahush, it means you might be interested in China. So many Chinese people died for their belief in the past thousands of years of Chinese history. I can just show you a famous poem written by Tianxiang Wen (Jun 6, 1236-Jan 9, 1283), the famous Primary Minister of Chinese Song Dynasty. In those years, Song was attacked by Mongolian army led by Genghis Khan’s offspring Kublai Khan, and finally conquered by Mongolians. After being arrested by Mongolians, Tianxiang denied the allure of wealth and official position from the Mongolian, and was later killed. The poem 《过零丁洋》was written by Tianxiang in the jail of Beijing which was the capital of Kublai Khan.


      Here is the translation which I found in the internet. The translation only introduces the approximate meaning of the poem. You will never understand the conciseness, art, and dignity of ancient Chinese nor the Chinese culture unless you learn Chinese hard from now on.

      I am meeting with the fortune all by mastering classics diligent and diligent,
      Being in flames of war I hurried to national calamity, silent to spend time for 4 years to fall.

      The mountains and rivers are broken, just as that is drifted catkin flying arbitrarily by wind; Drifting everywhere or wandering about as a refugee, like being cold to be drenched with rain.

      I had said on the terrified beachhead in those years fierce waves of dangerous shoal were terrified; It is orphaned and helpless that the way I can’t help sighing my own by Ling-Din Ocean now.

      In a century in life, who can escape from death and be remembered since ancient times?
      Why not act patriotically and loyally, shining the annals of history and illuminating descendant.

      1. Okay, this definitely appears to be a reaction to the conversation with Lop, and not the article. But, in the context of the article, I pose a question: how many folks in P.R. China can actually identify this minister Tianxiang Wen – versus citing how many P.R. Chinese are members of the NBA? I have a feeling that numbers will lean towards the latter than the former (which may be a disappointment for some folks in P.R. China). Quite honestly, given the uphevals of the last 50 years, I expected a citation of poetry from a CCP founder – instead of Imperial servant.

        1. Well, I don’t have any statistics. But I can tell you Tianxiang Wen’s story appeared in both the history textbook and the Chinese (语文) textbook of China’s middle schools. Students were required to recite the article in the Chinese textbook. As time goes by, many people may not be able to tell each sentence of the poem《过零丁洋》which they can recite in their childhood,but the last sentence (人生自古谁无死,留取丹心照汗青, see the last paragraph of the translation that I introduced above) is so famous that I believe any literate Chinese should know it. And this famous sentence is so popular that it often appears in Chinese TV series or Chinese movies related the topics of ancient Chinese dynasties. So I bet even some illiterate Chinese should know this sentence if they like to watch TV and movies. Of course, since I am 30 years old this year, I have to say I know nothing about the middle school textbooks in China nowadays. I am not 100% sure if children in China today still can learn Tianxiang’s story like we did in our childhood. However, one thing I am sure is that my children will certainly know these anyway.

          1. Wife’s taking a look at the translations – and she confirms your story about seeing this poem in school – but she thought it was in elementary class. Regardless, I stand slightly corrected about what is being taught in P.R. Chinese schools – in terms of “Politically Correct” curricular subjects.

            As for the observations from the “street level” in my travels to Beijing and Guangdong… I stand by my article.

  6. Okey, here’s my Chinese perspective.

    It doesn’t sound like a sensitive or an interesting topic, but, a weird comparison. Qiu is a martyr while Yao is a sports star. What’s the biggest similarity between them? Well I guess both of them are Chinese. Comparing two figures that were/are “worshiped” (I would rather use “treated like a role model”) in different times, by different groups of people and for quite different reasons doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe this kind of comparisons arise interesting thoughts other than “Oh how time changed” in a different culture? I have no idea. BTW, Yao is surely big in China but there are quit a few people bigger than or as big as him in other careers in China, and sometimes people worship (no doubt I’m using the right word) totally awesome folks like Furong Jiejie and Xiao Shenyang 🙂

    This is a peculiar comparison, and is giving you a peculiar conclusion.

    1. No shame in having a peculiar reaction to the topic, given that professional sports has not grown (thankfully) too deep enough level in P.R. China, as it has in the U.S.. Folks like Miss Jiejie (Dancing) and Mr. Shenyang (Stand Up) would not get the level of recognition as Mr. Ming (Basketball) – certainly not in amount of money, or air time on television or advertising.

      As I said in the article – it comes down to a matter of perspective. From my perspective, I see professional sports beginning to exert an influence on P.R. Chinese Youth. From your perspective, that influence has not.

  7. Hm… “The Greatest Arousal Ever” To Chinese Patriotism? Have to wonder if others are catching the same vibe I have about the use of sports in P.R. China?

    http://www.zonaeu ropa.com/201002a.brief.htm#026


    After a thirty-two years without a win, the Chinese National Soccer Team finally pulls off a 3-0 win against South Korea. Gooooollllllll!

  8. I think all of you have missed the point of the article. To “ALEX” you talk about China’s soldier saying it’s propaganda. I can assure you my brother Robert L. Poxon’s Medal Of Honor citation is not “propaganda”. I think Matt Sawtell makes a very good point that a basketball players accomplishments are more important in a Catholic high school with the motto “Builders of Boys, Makers of Men” than a former graduate of that high school giving his life for his country! You are born with athletic abilities and with practice can become even better. But how do you “practice” to give your life for your fellow soldiers and your country? The Medal of Honor is not given out to just anyone, since the inception of the MOH during the Civil War which also had the most recipients (almost half) till they tightened the requirements for the award their have been 3510 Medals awarded. Now if you stop to think about the millions of men and women who have served our country during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam, and wars since only 3510 MOH’s have been awarded. In the Vietnam War alone out of all the men who were drafted or enlisted only 10 Michigan men were awarded the Medal. I think that is a far better example of a “man” than a professional sports player. And since the requirements for receiving the Medal are so high most of the Medal’s were awarded posthumously. De La Salle shows how screwed up our morals have become that we put a basketball player above men and women who leave their families and put their lives on hold to serve in some country some of us have never even heard of. You are putting the millions of dollars professional players make over a soldier who earns $38,000 a year to be ready at a moments notice to give up their life for our country.

    1. Warren DeLaSalle is merely an example of a much, much larger issue that many countries have failed to deal with. Living in the Chicagoland Area, I have witnessed more than a few examples of putting entertainment ahead of education – whether it be proposing a 65 Million Dollar Middle School complete with a College Level Athletic Field or having another school go to the State Supreme Court because the built a Bleacher Section for their High School Football Field that was against the local and country building code ordinances.

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