When last month’s Sichuan earthquake struck in the early hours, Fan Meizhong was teaching a literature class at Guangya high school in the town of Dujiangyan. “It’s an earthquake,” 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, “I found none of my pupils were with me.” And when, back in the classroom, those pupils — none of whom, thankfully, was harmed in any way — 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 immediate dismissal. “But the fact is,” the teacher told

the local newspaper 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. Run like hell.”

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, “the greatest coward in history”, 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 Cervantes’ Don Quixote; think Flashman; think Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

Ernest 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.

Perhaps the last word should go to A.E. Housman (Mr Fan, are you listening?): “The man that runs away/ Lives to die another day.”