Zen and the Art of Heroismby Sean Hillman
Zen and the Art of Heroismby Sean Hillman
Column 5: Zen and the Art of Heroism
Welcome to the Fifth Installment of the column. So far I am fairly happy with the feedback people are giving though I do think I need to address the "Why" question better then I did in the first installment.
Why write an article about Heroes since defining Heroes is all about personal or cultural perspective? Is it not futile to do so? Those are some good questions (paraphrased from several responses to the Column.) Let me go ahead and address these before we move into the Mystical East.
There was a point in reading Forum articles both here at RPGnet and over at the Forge (www.indie-rpgs.com) that I saw the Protagonists being referred to as Heroes. Much literature on RPG's in general do the same thing. In some of the RPGA's Living Campaigns, those based on D&D, one cannot be of "evil" Alignment because they are considered the Good Guys. Thinking like this sort of started seeds in my own mind: Are all Good Guys Heroes? Are all Bad Guys Villains? Isn't Heroism relative or is a Hero not a moral definition but an Action definition.
For most people, Heroism is a judgment call and despite this article it may very well continue to be so. However, I am asking the question: is not Hero a definition of someone who acts in a certain way, instead of being a Judgment of the actions that they take?? The word Hero finds broad use in our language and it describes a broad range of people but it carries with it the Aura of Good Guy.
I believe a Hero is not necessarily a Good Guy (or Girl) but someone who acts in a Larger then Life model.
Let me premise this with the statement that I am not an expert on Eastern Religion, History, Beliefs, and peoples. I have studied dribs and drabs and quite possibly the conclusions I draw are dead wrong. I invite those who know more then I to interject and clear up any misconceptions or misrepresentations.
Philosophies are just words. To truly appreciate how a people feel and think I believe you need to look at the characters they idolize. In that vein I am going to examine a few of those that are considered Heroes in the primary cultures of the region.
Hua Mulan: Hey you have to be cool if Disney makes a movie about you...
Well as one might suspect, Mulan is far cooler then we can imagine from Walt's bloated cinematic legacy. She was indeed a young Chinese girl born in a rural village that even today seems to have only this woman (girl really) as its only claim to fame. There came a point when the Emperor called upon men from all over the country and Mulan made a fateful decision. According to the legend, Mulan's father was too old and her brother too young so she disguised herself as a male and fought in the service of her Emperor for twelve years. Twelve years of physical martial service, ladies and gents. That means she would have seen The first Gulf War and likely would have lived to see the second one (making an assumption there will be a second one). She would have fought in Somalia, Croatia, and Afghanistan if she had been a US Soldier during a similar time period.
When Mulan finished her tour of duty, however, she apparently wanted to return home. The Emperor had other plans, offering her a High Post of some sort. Mulan refused, despite being detained by the Emperor and in protest she hung herself. In her life and death Mulan is an example of dedication to country but more over it seems that it is her dedication to family that is most cherished and respected. (1)
Lu Bu: Lord Death on a Horse(2)
I admit that my fascination with Lu Bu grew after playing the PS/2 game Dynasty Warriors 3. I was impressed enough to make him a late edition to the column. During the late 2nd and early 3rd Century, China was embroiled in the Three Kingdoms Era of its History. Lu Bu had a very long career of fighting for one Lord after another and usually killing them before moving on to the next Lord. He was matchless in combat and was just as skilled in large-scale battles of the period. Lu Bu was an extremely tragic figure though, for it seems he could never rest and was constantly under barrage of one ambitious Minister or Lord after another. Very much the Anti-Hero, he was loyal to his Master until the moment when he got a better offer. Also he was courteous and generous but often to the most traitorous of followers. Although not a good man, Lu Bu was a man of action and for many years his very appearance on a battlefield would cause his enemies to retreat. Sadly (or perhaps not) he also met a bad end, at the age of 43 killed and abandoned by old enemies and former allies. (3)
Of course the Three Kingdoms period itself is a veritable treasure trove of Chinese Heroes and larger then life characters.
Next we turn to another real life person, closer to our own time, but from a country who we think of as forever divided.
Admiral Yi Sun-Shin: Korea's Greatest Military Leader
Did you know that the first true ironclad boats were designed not during the American Civil War but during a war between Japan and Korea in the 16th Century? Admiral Yi was determined to stand against the invading Japanese even though Korea's land armies suffered brutal and swift defeat. For years he lead his fleet in an almost guerilla campaign against the invading Japanese and before his death in battle in 1598 kept the Japanese from ever subduing his homeland. He believed in virtue and action as well as loyalty to one's nation. He is a Korean national Hero and its mainly because of the current state of his homeland as well as centuries of domination by Japan and China that we know so little of him. (4)
Finally we come to a personal favorite of mine.
Miyamoto Musashi: Japan's Greatest Samurai
As with many we discuss here, Musashi is surrounded by myth and half-truth and it is very difficult to be sure of every fact and figure. Apparently he fought, and won, his first duel at the age of 13. He was born and grew up during the same time that Japan was fighting Korea and Admiral Yi was developing his "Turtle Boats". Throughout his long life and career, Musashi often tangled with those of supposed great skill then he. In his most famous battle against Sasaki Ganryu Kojiro, he used a wooden sword he had carved from a boat's oar and in one strike, mortally wounded Kojiro. He made his reputation by dueling, not always to the death, and was focused on his Fencing skills more then killing people. Eventually he formed his own Fencing school and after a later life personal set back, spent 18 months in a cave and wrote a book called the Book of Five Rings.
You noticed the equation has made no appearance in this article. Well I think the equation is pretty well set and I tried to pick these particular figures with the equation in mind. They act boldly and in many cases contrary to popular opinion (or common sense in some cases.) How do they differ from the Western Heroes? Well my impressions of Asian Myths, at least Northern Asian ones, is that Heroes are like Pearls. The facts of their life are put into the Oyster of History and Legend, then ground around until a mythic Hero is born. All are very much large then life but my guess is that at least two of them are not common household names, and Mulan would not be if not for the movie about her.
Another observation is that dignity plays a very real role in the life of these Heroes, who all (except apparently Lu Bu) die on their own terms. Of course Asia has plenty of more peaceful Heroes as well, Confucius and Buddha being two who have had profound effects. I focused on several more martial Heroes as I think their lives have more relevance to most role players.
Now my apologies to the Heroes of the Southern Asia areas. Clearly your myths and beliefs are just as diverse and relevant but because of space limits I chose to concentrate on more familiar areas.
The Eastern views of Heroism bare a closer look and I encourage anyone interested to do so, they make for great campaign material as well as being worthwhile in their own right.
Indeed the whole world is full of such people and we have barely scratched the surface of the available Heroics. In the next essay (getting close to the end) we will touch on the Sons and Daughters of Africa, no not the descendants brought against their will (or those who later voluntarily immigrated) to America but their predecessors and those who struggled against European domination in the later centuries of the Second Millennium. Also I hope to have a bit more discourse on the values of Asian and African Heroes.
Notes- These are the main sources (though not only ones) I used in my research. They make good reading and give a feel of the various figures I mentioned above.
2. For those who may not know, the leader of the Kingdom of War in the mythical land of Glorantha is called Lord Death on a Horse. More on Glorantha can be found at www.glorantha.com