Is this really China's biggest coward?

Jon Henley: Teacher Fan Meizhong admits to being a coward after leaving a classroom of pupils as the Sichuan earthquake struck

When last month's Sichuan earthquake struck, Fan Meizhong was teaching a literature class at Guangya high school in the town of Dujiangyan. "It's an earthquake," he shouted, before legging it out of the door, down the stairs and on to the playing field. On reaching the middle of the football pitch, Fan later confided to his blog, "I found none of my pupils were with me." And when, back in the classroom, those pupils - none of whom, thankfully, was harmed - asked why he had not tried to help them escape, he replied: "I have never been a brave man, and I'm only really concerned about myself."

Fan's refreshing frankness has sparked outrage in China, with bloggers dubbing him "Runner Fan" and demanding his dismissal. "But the fact is," the teacher told the Changjian Times, "at the instant of an earthquake, a teacher is weak, too. Neither the state nor the school taught me life-saving or rescue techniques. I was scared, and my instinctive response was to run."

Such candour is rare. History does not abound with tales of men happy to record that they turned tail and ran because they were frightened. Even J Bruce
Ismay, "the greatest coward in history", who as managing director of the White Star line abandoned the sinking Titanic as 1,500 of his passengers perished, never attempted such a bold justification of his actions. Cowardice is, in any case, a moral maze: how much courage did it take to be a conscientious objector?

Fiction, though, loves cowards: think Don Quixote; think Flashman; think Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Hemingway (he would) reckoned cowardice was merely "an inability to suspend the functioning of the imagination". But if, as Mark Twain said, "the human race is a race of cowards", you have to be a pretty brave one to actually admit it.

Contributor

Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

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