Founding Myths Matter in Chinese Law

Yesterday, the China Law Translate website posted an article entitled ‘Not Heroes of Free Speech‘. In discussing a set of five model cases published by the Supreme People’s Court of the PRC, China Law Translate observed how the Court noted that

(…) questioning the truth of many, even unimportant, details of the story [of the 5 Warriors of Langya Mountain injured] not only the individual reputations of the late heroes, but the societal public interest as well (…)

The Five Warriors of  Langya Mountain (狼牙山五壯士) were five soldiers of the Eight Route Army (八路军) who, in 1941, deceived the Japanese army drawing them up Mount Langya and fought to death, while allowing the main force of the Chinese army to escape and regroup. The model case  involved an article published on the November 2013 issue of the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu by historian Hong Zhenkuai, who challenged some details about the Five Warriors of Langya Mountain, and as a result was sued by the heirs of the only two soldiers that survived – Ge Zhenlin and Xong Xueyi.

The endeavor of Ma Baoyu, Ge Zhenlin, Song Xueyi, Hu Decai and Hu Fucai has been re-enacted through movies, and military parades. It has been portrayed in pictures, carved in stone and sculpted in bronze. The story of the Five Warriors of Langya Mountain is a story of exceptional evocative power. I have written earlier about the power of symbols, explaining how

Values that belong to a cultural tradition are literally embodied by those symbols most representative of that tradition.

Carved, painted, or photographed images, industrial manufacts such as flags are only some of the tangible objects that can be infused with social, moral or political signification, and thus act as a symbol. A symbol is nothing else than a receptacle of meaning. Similar to a cup, which can be used to store and transport liquid, a symbol stores and transports signification. A symbolic function can be played by all that which lends itself to the carrying and conveying a of certain meaning. In truth, everything – from the written word to paintings, from photographs to mosaics, from music to movies – can convey a meaning that goes beyond its literal, its physical or visual form.

Myths as Symbols and..

Of all products of human creation, stories are the privileged channel to convey meanings. Readers may recall how Ancient Rome was founded by the feral twins Romulus and Remulus who, abandoned to die, were miraculously rescued by a she-wolf, of how Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes, and the tianxia was created by Fu Xi and Nüwa.

Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung held a deep mistrust of any literal reading of myths. No one today believes that Romulus and Remulus were really rescued by the she-wolf. Yet, while a graffiti depicting Pope Francis was quickly removed by the Decorum Squad of the City of Rome, graffiti representing the she-wolf were left untouched.

lupaAccording to Jung, the cognitive structures of our mind are similar across cultures and times, and man has a deep-seated need to express his fundamental experiences. This need arises in part  from the will to transmit knowledge, and is in part motivated by the need to find reassurance in one’s identity. It is a need satisfied by drawing on a rich repertoire of cross-cultural, timeless images. Similar to letters in the alphabet, these timeless images are the building blocks of myth. While letters compose words, and words are used to express one’s thoughts through language, symbols compose myths, and myths express those deeper truths words cannot convey:

…myth is the primordial language natural to psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery.

Figurative language allows to reproduce psychic processes in “the best and most succint way” but mythical images find an additional avenue of expression through the composition of poetry and works of narration. Poetry and narration recount shared human experiences through an allegorical language. The story of Fu Xi and Nüwa, who created their offspring by modeling clay figures, for instance encodes a deeper meaning related to early cosmological beliefs of the Chinese people.


This meaning is accessible only if the myth of Fu Xi and Nüwa is taken to be an allegory. Any literal reading of the myth would produce very different results. These results would still be valuable: mythical stories play a very important role in accounting for processes or that would otherwise be difficult to understand, or in providing answers to questions pre-modern science could not explain. Neglecting the allegorical dimension of stories  leads to missing what is perhaps the most interesting possibility – translating the symbolic components of myth into ordinary language. Once the author of a myth has encoded meaning through the use of symbols and allegories, however, the task of deciphering myth becomes fraught with piftalls. Our decoding of myths can never be univocal. It can never be complete, and interpreters of myth cannot profess an absolute certainty in the correctness of their interpretation.

A similar logic applies to understanding what the historical episode of the Five Warriors of Langya Mountain means to those who were outraged by Hong Zhenkuai’s article. The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain are an important component of the network of symbols that, together, shape and define the identity of a political community. This network of symbols is highly heterogeneous. It includes figures from classical Chinese cosmology, Fu Xi and Nüwa, the mysterious author of the work of rhetoric known as Guiguzi, huabiao pillars, flags, cities…and also persons who are still living. The contrast between the mythical nature of some classical figures, and the actual existence of the Five Warriors of Mount Langya raises the question of


What is different about the Story of Langya Mountain

If the perils of interpretation are to be avoided, the search for an answer to this question has necessarily to start from the explanation provided by the Haidian District Court in Bejing.

In adjudicating the civil dispute, the court wrestled with the problem of whether and why the historical episode of the Five Warriors of Langya Mountain had to receive the protection of the law, and gave the following solution:

In the first place, the Anti-Japanese War is an important component of the Great Victory of the Chinese Communist Party in leading the People of every Chinese ethnicity in overthrowing Japanese imperialism and realizing the New Democratic Revolution.The Chinese Communist Party was the Tower of Strength in the Anti-Japanese War. The heroes and the heroic deeds that occurred during this process have already become part of the common historical memory of the People of every ethnicity in our country. The spirit of utter fearlessness and self-sacrifice of those heroes and their steadfast national moral integrity have already become important contents (内容) of the sentiment and the spiritual world of the Chinese ethnicities. The Five Warriors of Langya Mountain are their model representatives. (…) It must be said that the article injured the national and the historical sentiment of the public to a definite scope and to a definite extent.

The Supreme People’s Court further weighed in, adding that the historical episode of the Five Warriors of Langya Mountain has a model meaning (dianxing yiyi):

In the present case, in analyzing whether the defendant bears civil responsibility, the People’s Court emphasized how “The Five Warriors of Langya Mountain” represent national heroes, heroic deeds and their spirit, and have already become part of the common historical memory of the Chinese ethnicity, and important contents of the sentiment and of the spiritual worlds of the Chinese ethnicities.

Commentaries by Xinhua further linked the case to the societal public interest (here and here). The fact a link between the societal public interest and “The Five Warriors of Langya Mountain” was established should not come as a surprise. The difference in the case of  “The Five Warriors of Langya Mountain” was not constructed by the courts. A linkage between the societal public interest and Anti-Japanese War existed well before Xinhua and the courts made this nexus explicit.

Pre-modern nation states traced their roots back to mythical ancestors, whose historical existence may be disputed. Modern nation states trace back their roots to historical figures – the founders of a nation, and to personified moral values and principles, such as the public interest. China is a Socialist country, where the “prolonged revolutionary struggle against imperialism” led by the Chinese Communist Party,  saw the participation of “the People of all ethnic groups in the country“…and, still today, the People is the repository of a power (权利) exerted according to the specifications made here.

In this sense, the historical episode that took place on Langya Mountain was one of the many foundational events that culminated in the foundation of the PRC, and the Five Warriors can be considered among the founding fathers of that nation, a point visually conveyed by the following picture, courtesy of Xinhua.

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