The Spartans and Endurance: Through a Chinese Lens
Michelle Sijia Ma
Following the launch of the action film “The 300 Hundred Spartans (300)” in December 2006 and up to as recently as November 2011, an image titled “I am a Spartan” was released on multiple social media platforms across China, including China Daily, WeChat, and the video-sharing platform Youku. The word “斯巴达”(Sparta) quickly became popular and was officially documented in the Xinhua Network Language Dictionary to describe prolonged endurance produced under emotional and physical oppression.1 Intrigued by this image, this article investigates the rise of “Sparta” in contemporary China represented through photographs. The obsessions with the Hollywoodized Sparta brings forth the notion that China’s post-socialist society is continuously recontextualizing Spartan values, which not only reinforces historical Spartan and Chinese culture but is also a way of grasping for one’s identity.
The image “I am Spartan” combines scenes from China Central Television News (CCTV) and the film “300.” On August 10, 2006, CCTV featured a reporter shouting painfully “I am collapsing” while struggling to stand under Typhoon Saomai (fig.1).2 One creative netizen replaced the reporter’s face with King Leonidas yelling during the final fight sequence in “300,” and modified the phrase into “I am a Spartan” (fig.2). In the aftermath of the image release, “I am Spartan” was mass-produced into emojis and began to appear in advertisements and press releases for technology products, sports competitions, and video games. Meanwhile, Chinese netizens are using the slang “斯巴达” (Sparta) in everyday life to describe a sense of shock and perseverance under affliction.
The word “斯巴达”(Sparta) emblematizes a playful, ironic combination of “endurance under oppression,” which shares similarities to Confucian practices of “endurance as the foundation for feudal society.”3 Yet the association between “endurance” and Sparta emerged in China much later: it was during the Late Qing dynasty (1900-1930) when universities implemented world history courses. In 1908, Shanghai Guangzhi press published the first world history textbook titled 东西洋史教科书(Western and Eastern History).4 According to historian Bi Wan, the book Western and Eastern Art History gained its popularity and was published to the nineteenth editions. The textbook documented an anecdote of a Spartan woman who felt shameful because her son died from military training. While the account lacked historical evidence, it emphasized Sparta as a nation of “pride, endurance, and bravery.” The desire to stress these characteristics reflects the imperial state’s ambition to propagandize individual sacrifice and endurance. However, these conceptions toward Sparta are not without historical basis. For instance, Greek biographer Plutarch once wrote about Argileonis, the mother of Spartan officer Brasidas (who died during the Peloponnesian War). Plutarch wrote:
“when they lionized him (Brasidas), declaring that he outshone all the other Spartans in feats of courage, she(Argileonis) replied, ‘Strangers, my son was brave and true, but Sparta has much better.’”5
Although Plutarch’s account was considered mythologies, it revealed Argileonis’s endurance to pain as well as the importance of individual sacrifice over societal goods. Interestingly, classical historian Andrew Scott argues that Spartan achieves military success through its “military interchangeability and replaceability.”6 Drawing evidence from Xenophon’s account The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, Scott noted that Spartan believes that whenever a soldier died at a battle, “there was always a fellow citizen who could aptly serve as a replacement.” In connection to Argileonis’s remark “but Sparta has many a better,” Spartan achieves military endurance not within the individual level but at a societal level. Endurance becomes the building block and the underlying goal of a successful Spartan military. In the context of the communist system in China, I further speculate that the concept of “endurance” aligns with Maoism ideals, especially the method of practicing unity and perseverance toward outside resistance.7
Endurance is honored in ancient Sparta. Art historians specializing in ancient Greece, such as Paul Christesen from Dartmouth College, noted that Spartiates (male Spartan citizens) who were considered cowards were excluded from endurance contests such as wrestling. According to Xenophon’s account, Sparta sports competitions value empowerment and resistance. Thus participating in these contests represents bravery and endurance.8 In connection to post-modern China, endurance is regarded as “斯巴达精神”(Sibada Jingshen). Refers to “Spartan spirits,” the phrase describes the spirit of prolonged self-bearing that is encouraged during social-political or mental turmoils. For instance, post-cultural revolution painter Huang Yongyu, in his biography “黄永玉：把自己活成历史”(Huang Yongyu: Living as History), described himself as a man-made with “Spartan spirit of torment and tribulations. Endurable, with numerous wounds on the chest.”9 Surprisingly, Chinese writer Cheng Nan honored Huang’s “Spartan spirits” by comparing it with sorrows portrayed in the poetry of Song dynasty poet Lin Chong, and described the spirits as sensations “encompassed by detachment, a form of self-awakening after suffering.”10 In this case, Huang defined his virtue by borrowing Spartan values. Furthermore, his identity and characteristics are romanticized as a state of awakening and self-awareness.
Both the phrases “I am Spartan” and “Spartan spirits” are fascinating. By comparing local and historical interpretations, Spartan culture is not simply one involving simplicity or frugality; rather, it embeds representation of individual and societal expectations as well as Chinese romanization toward Spartan endurance. By associating ourselves with Sparta, whether it is through language or images, these gestures are a metaphor of breaking down Spartan’s westernized appearance, seeking to express our individual characteristics and identities.
1 Lei Wang, Xinhua Network Dictionary (Xinhua Press, 2012.)
2 Gu, Xiaoyan. China Central Television News, 2016.
3 Chen Shaoming, Zheng Shuhong, (Brill Press, 2008), 343.
4 Bi Wan. “Sparta and China: Modern Chinese Textbook and Chinese’s Conception Toward Sparta.” (China’s Institute of Modern History, 2008), 12.
5 Plutarch, and A.E. Stallings. “Laconic Women.” (Poetry 198, 2011), 1.
6 Scott, Andrew. “Spartan Courage and the Social Function of Plutarch’s Laconian Apophthegms.” (Museum Helveticum, 2017), 47.
7 Jacob Eyferth, “”Liberation from the Loom: Rural Women, Textile Work, and Revolution in North China.” In Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism” (Harvard University Press, 2015), 132.
8 P. Christesen. “Athletics and Social Order in Sparta in the Classical Period.” (Classical Antiquity 31, 2012), 241.
9 P. Christesen. “Athletics and Social Order in Sparta in the Classical Period.” (Classical Antiquity 31, 2012), 241.
10 Cheng Nan, Huang Yongyu: Living As Histories, (Zhong Xin Press, 2015), 55.
Bi Wan. “Sparta and China: Modern Chinese Textbook and Chinese’s Conception Toward Sparta.” China’s Institute of Modern History (2008).
Cheng Nan, Huang Yongyu: Living As Histories. Zhong Xin Press, 2015.
Eyferth, Jacob. “Liberation from the Loom: Rural Women, Textile Work, and Revolution in North China.” In Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism”., 131-53. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Gu, Xiaoyan. “Typhoon Saomai Live Coverage on Wenzhou, Zhejiang.” China Central Television News, Beijing, China. August 10, 2006.
Hadas, Moses. “The Social Revolution in Third-Century Sparta.” The Classical Weekly 26, no. 9 (1932): 65-68.
Plutarch, and A.E. Stallings. “Laconic Women.” Poetry 198, no. 4 (2011): 390-96.
P. Christesen. “Athletics and Social Order in Sparta in the Classical Period.” Classical Antiquity 31, no. 2 (2012): 193-255.
Shaoming, Chen, and Zheng Shuhong. “Endurance and Non-Endurance: From the Perspective of Virtue Ethics.” Frontiers of Philosophy in China 3, no. 3 (2008): 335-51.
Wang, Lei. Xinhua Network Dictionary. Xinhua Press, 2012.
Scott, Andrew G. “Spartan Courage and the Social Function of Plutarch’s Laconian Apophthegms.” Museum Helveticum 74, no. 1 (2017): 34-53.