What is a hero? Does the hero have to look like a hero? Is the idea of the hero a moral idea? How does Chinese culture develop the idea of the heroic? Is courage the definitive element in the conception of the hero? Do heroes depend on struggles, dilemmas, and ironies to become interesting? What are the genealogies of heroes and anti-heroes in the Chinese tradition? This course proposes to trace the protean transformations of heroes in Chinese literature—i.e., how heroes become anti-heroes, and vice versa, when we move across boundaries of genre (e.g., history and fiction, elite genres and popular genres) and as we traverse historical periods. Marginality, dissent, and alternatives define a counter-tradition endemic to the literary presentation of heroes. The entwined genealogies of heroes and anti-heroes demonstrate how conflicting value systems shape literary works. We shall begin with a broad delineation of philosophical ideals and notions of exemplarity in canonical classics. Early historical writings create new heroic types by examining ideas of power and authority, success and failure. The ironic displacement and folk transformations of historical heroes bring us to the origins of Chinese fiction. We will concentrate on how liminal types, such as the knight-errant, the trickster, or the supernatural woman become dominant figures in Chinese fiction. From another perspective, literati and aesthetic ideals nourish aesthetic heroes that question the values of official culture. In the 20th century, a new violence, uncertainty, and nostalgia shape the anti-hero in modern Chinese literature.
Graduate students can also take this course with the instructor’s permission.