How stories of heroes rallied a nation

In late January 2020, the Chinese government decided to lock down Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged. All transportation to and from the city was stopped. Officials further locked down several other cities in Hubei Province, eventually quarantining over 50 million people. Most buildings have security guards monitoring temperatures of anyone going in. Residential compounds are closed to all but their inhabitants (Lin, 2020). As public discontent grew over the handling of the outbreak, questions started to be asked about why updates on the situation had not been released earlier. In addition, during the outbreak’s height in Wuhan, the Chinese internet saw an unprecedented outpouring of rage at the authorities and their attempts to conceal the virus.

However, the authorities employed a number of approaches, including retelling heroic stories to overcome the trust crisis. At the beginning of outbreak, the heroic deeds of frontline workers and Wuhan’s “warriors in white coats” was reported across state-run media. The narratives highlighted the contributions made by doctors, soldiers, scientists, community workers, and volunteers in overcoming difficulties together. Many tear-jerking moments were also captured on camera. These include moving love stories of dispatched medical workers; the beautiful moment where an elderly patient and a young doctor watch the sunset together; a hospital leader who insisted on working despite battling his own chronic illness; and exhausted doctors limped through overwhelmed hospitals and comforted mourning relatives. It emphasized that these heroes have carried out their missions at the cost of their lives, protecting the people with their love and building a strong screen to safeguard lives. Regular reminders of heroes behaving in ways that benefit the common good may help us to follow suit and give a sense of group solidarity (Kinsella et al., 2015). Therefore, these pictures and videos may serve the purpose of promoting national solidarity and make ordinary citizens to compliance with and support for strict restrictions.

As the epidemic has been brought under control, critical voices also seem to be fading away (Zhang, 2020). A national award ceremony was held to recognize heroes of the coronavirus pandemic and to draw inspiration and boost the national morale to march forward in the face of new challenges. However, there is no mention of the whistle-blowers who were punished for warning friends about the virus. A new TV series, Heroes in Harm’s Way, about the heroes who fought to contain the spread of Covid-19 was released. Days and Nights in Wuhan, an upcoming documentary which records the city’s fight against Covid-19, including doctors, nurses, patients and their families who experienced this tough chapter of everyone’s life, will also be released in January this year. The relative success of containing the outbreak in China have created an opportunity for the authorities to push a positive narrative and it comes as no surprise that these stories of heroes boost nationalism.

How Chinese people perceive those who speak out against wrongdoing? If people are not recognized or promoted by authorities, are they heroes? Fang Fang, the Chinese novelist, expressed distrust in the Chinese authorities, lambasting them for having concealed information about the human-to-human transmission of the virus in the early stages of the city’s outbreak in her articles. She wants Chinese culture to change, for people to be more willing to admit error, to stand up and take blame. She gradually become a national hero and her articles have been viewed by more than 100 million people online. However, Chinese media and netizens have condemned Fang Fang as a “traitor” after a movement to publish the compilation of her articles took root in Europe, the United States and Japan. Some people thought that some part of articles might be true and fair, the translation of her work for a Western audience means betrayal (Garner, 2020).

Zhan Zhang, a 37-year-old former lawyer turned citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese people’s hunger for unfiltered information about the epidemic. She abruptly stopped posting in May, and the police revealed she had been arrested, accused of spreading lies. “But as someone who cares about the truth in this country, we have to say that if we just wallow in our sadness and don’t do something to change this reality, then our emotions are cheap,” Zhang said (Wang, 2021). Is she a hero in Chinese people’s view?

Heroes play an important role in everyday life and during societal crises. Research has identified the prototypical features of heroes and ways that heroes influence individuals psychologically. But it is unclear whether these findings apply to Eastern cultures. It would be more important and very useful to explore the differences in perceptions of heroes in different cultures.


Garner, D. (2020). ‘Wuhan Diary’ Offers an Angry and Eerie View From Inside Quarantine. From

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015a). Zeroing in on heroes: A

prototype analysis of hero features. Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology, 108(1), 114–127.

Lin, L. (2021). How China Slowed Coronavirus: Lockdowns, Surveillance, Enforcers. From

Wang, V. (2021). She Chronicled China’s Crisis. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies. (2021). From

Wuhan lockdown diary effectively banned in China, author says. (2021). From

Zhang, C. (2021). Covid-19 in China: From ‘Chernobyl Moment’ to Impetus for Nationalism. From

About the Author

Yuning Sun (@Yuning4444) is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick (UL). He graduated from the MSc in Psychological Science at UL in August 2020. His research focuses on cultural differences in heroism.

Keen to learn more about this topic?

If you enjoyed this blogpost, please consider registering for the Third Biennial Heroism Science conference hosted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick taking place on May 27th and 28th 2021. For more details and to register, click here:


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