What Myths Tell About Myth Tellers

Useful insights into cultural differences.

Studying mythology helps you understand a culture.  Observing which myths are passed on to children and which are not passed on tells you a lot about the people who spread the myths.

American Loners

American myths tend to glorify individual heroes.  We tell tales of the Lone Ranger, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, and Daniel Boone.  We glorify men who were tall, two-fisted white-hats singlehandedly righting wrongs and putting the black-hats six feet under.  We have few tales of group heroism, and even in those, we remember one primary leader.

Our habit of celebrating individuals continues even in this day of corporate teams where bosses try to get their overly-individualistic employees to engage in activities that encourage bonding.  Our modern heroes include such luminaries as Spider-Man, an individual righter of wrongs, along with The Mighty Thor, Captain America, The Mighty Hulk, and of course Superman.

Although Marvel Comics, which originated Spider-Man, tried to promote the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers, these group-oriented heroes didn't gain anything like the following of Spidey.  Americans could cite "The Magnificent Seven" as an example of group-oriented heroism in America, but they'd have to admit that the story was derived from a Japanese myth about "Seven Samurai" who hired themselves out to protect a farming village from a group of bandits.

Although the story gained something of an audience in America, the tale of a group of heroes didn't have the staying power of the archetypical lone heroes.

Japanese Groups

The Japanese tell far fewer stories about individuals.  Their most famous tale is the saga of the 47 ronin or masterless samurai.

There was a young nobleman who had 47 retainers.  His late father had aroused the enmity of a local teacher of etiquette.  Out of spite, the teacher taught the young noble incorrect protocol for claiming his title at the imperial court, so the young man made a fool of himself.

He drew his sword to avenge the destruction of his honor but was prevented from killing the teacher by alert guards.  Drawing a sword in the imperial palace was extremely impolite, sort of like firing a pistol in the White House.  Because of his rank and the circumstances, he was permitted to commit suicide at a nearby temple instead of suffering the disgrace of decapitation.  This left his followers without a master - they were now ronin.

In group-oriented Japan, lacking a master was the worst fate that could befall an honorable swordsman.  The teacher expected them to seek revenge and kept his household alert.  The ronin scattered and took up dishonorable professions to lull suspicion.  Their leader even became a drunkard to give the impression that he had forgotten about revenge.

The Japanese say, "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold."  After ten years the ronin got together, surprised the teacher, and cut off his head.  They washed the head at the temple where their master had died and set it on his gravestone as if to say, "We got him, boss!"

Murder even for the sake of vengeance was a capital crime and they, not being nobles, wouldn't have been given the privilege of committing suicide when they were caught.  Concealing the crime would have negated their act of revenge, so they all sat down in a row and committed suicide together.

The 47 ronin embody everything that's virtuous and honorable in Japanese culture.  Their gravestones are the combined Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Iwo Jima Flag Raising of Japan.  There's usually incense burning on the graves, put there to soothe the souls of the 47 ronin.

Japanese Heroes

Even the group-oriented Japanese need individual heroes.  Some time back, a Japanese bicycle salesman died in the Peruvian Andes.  His car got stuck in the snow, but he kept going.  He froze to death in a snowdrift, headed toward the customer with his sample case over his shoulder.  He gave his life to complete the sales call.

Ink flowed in Japan.  The general tenor of the editorials was, "Folks, that's what we mean by a real Japanese.  Nothing remarkable - we expect that each and every one of you would do your duty if it became necessary."  That might seem funny until you realize that the Japanese don't think it's funny.  Those of us who compete with the older post-war Japanese know that many of them would.

Is it any wonder that Japanese excel at team activities such as running businesses?  Even though the story of the determined salesman is well known, his name isn't.

Chinese Heroes

The Chinese are a bit less group-oriented than the Japanese and do have stories about individual heroes - some of whom, like Confucius and Sun Tzu, have gained traction in America.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu has become popular in America, and Confucius institutes are springing up at American colleges.

We Americans have the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans to defend us.  We've never been seriously invaded, so we're not particularly inclined to make heroes of military figures.  General George Patton is something of an anti-hero.  Davy Crockett at the Alamo and General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn are remembered, but they lost instead of winning.

The Chinese, in contrast, have always had long land borders with powerful nations such as India and the Mongol hordes to the north.  Given that the barbarians could sweep down at any time and spread havoc, it's no wonder that successful military practitioners would gain the stature of mythic heroes.

The story goes that before Sun Tzu became famous, he told the emperor that he could teach the emperor's concubines military drill in a few hours which would prove that he was suited to command the Emperor's army.  The Emperor was skeptical, but told him to go ahead.  The general divided 180 of the prettiest women into two platoons and appointed the emperor's two favorite concubines as platoon leaders.

When he explained the drum signals that meant "right face," "left face," and "march," the women just laughed.  When he ordered a maneuver, the women ran in all directions and laughed harder.

After the second attempt, the general summoned the two platoon leaders, commanded them to kneel, and chopped their heads off for failing to maintain order in their commands.  After that, the women drilled as flawlessly as well-trained troops.

Basic Leadership - First Demonstrate Sincerity

It doesn't matter whether this story is true or not, what matters is that the Chinese have passed on the story since the 6th century BC.  It's elementary leadership - to get anything done, step 1 is to convince the troops that you're serious.

Given American culture, neither the Lone Ranger nor Batman could get away with chopping even guilty women's heads off without demolishing their heroic sheen, much less decapitating more-or-less innocent girls.  The fact that Sun Tzu gained stature through this maneuver rather than losing it illustrates some of the differences between Chinese culture and American ways.

Whenever you hear a myth, you learn a great deal about the person telling the myth.  As with tales of the heroes of Islam, what you learn might not be particularly pleasant, but if you seek to understand a culture, seek out its myths.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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