When last monthâ€™s Sichuan earthquake struck in the early hours, Fan Meizhong was teaching a literature class at Guangya high school in the town of Dujiangyan. â€œItâ€™s an earthquake,â€ he shouted at the top of his voice, before legging it out of the door, down the stairs and on to the playing field.
On reaching the middle of the nearby football pitch, Fan later confided to his blog, â€œI found none of my pupils were with me.â€ And when, back in the classroom, those pupils â€” none of whom, thankfully, was harmed in any way â€” asked why he had not tried to help them escape, he replied: â€œI have never been a brave man, and Iâ€™m only really concerned about
Fanâ€™s refreshing frankness has sparked outrage in China, with bloggers dubbing him â€œRunner Fanâ€ and demanding his immediate dismissal. â€œBut the fact is,â€ the teacher told
the local newspaper Changjian Times, â€œat 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. Run like hell.â€
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 out of their wits.
Even JBruce Ismay, â€œthe greatest coward in historyâ€, who as managing director
of the White Star line abandoned the sinking Titanic as one-thousand-and-five-hundred of his
fellow travelers 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 Cervantesâ€™ Don Quixote; think Flashman; think Shaggy from Scooby Doo.
Ernest Hemingway (he would) reckoned cowardice was merely â€œan inability to suspend the functioning of the imaginationâ€. But if, as Mark Twain said, â€œthe human race is a race of
cowardsâ€, you have to be a pretty brave one to actually admit it.
Perhaps the last word should go to A.E. Housman (Mr Fan, are you listening?): â€œThe man that runs away/ Lives to die another day.â€