From the Avengers and the Justice League to Suicide Squad and the X-Men, moviegoers love it when superheroes team up to take on adversity. But as with a lot of Western inventions, the Chinese may have beaten everyone to the super-punch centuries ago.
Granted, modern comic books didn't enter the world till the 1930s (or possibly 1842, if you stretch the definition), but tales of super-powered humans are older than recorded history. Really, who are mythic heroes like Hercules, Arjuna and Samson if not the caped crusaders of old? Yet mythic heroes are often loners in their quests to placate the gods. Outside of epic family feuds, you rarely see heroes pool their magical resources for a greater good. The Chinese legend of the Seven Brothers bucks that trend entirely.
You've probably heard some version of the tale before, though the exact number of brothers varies. In the oldest known version of the tale, dating back to the 16th century, seven brothers each possess a unique magical power: super hearing, super sight, super strength, iron bones, stretchy limbs, cooling blood and flood-producing tear ducts. When threatened by the might of a tyrannical emperor, they triumph against overwhelming odds through teamwork.
It's quite a popular story, spawning multiple Chinese film and TV adaptations, children's books and of course an R.E.M. song. According to Cornell University Chinese history professor Robin McNeal, the tale makes its earliest known written appearance in a playful collection titled "Hanzi Zaju" by Ming dynasty author and scholar Tu Benjun (1542–1622). The proto-super team's oral storytelling roots may extend even further back through time, and McNeal points out that there are many precedents in Chinese folklore leading up to Tu's influential spin on super teamwork.
"There is, for example, a tradition in southern Shanxi about two sisters who use magical powers to save a member of the Song dynasty ruling family, and temples to the two abound even to this day in Shanxi," says McNeal. "This is but one example of a common motif of sisters or brothers who show great compassion and sometimes turn out to have spiritual powers. Perhaps Tu was working from a folktale that had origins in such stories. Still, his story does seem to be unique."
The ten-brother variant of the tale became popular in the 20th century, and many Western readers discovered the characters in Claire Huchet Bishop's 1938 children's book "The Five Chinese Brothers," though illustrator Kurt Wiese's yellow-face character depictions earned it a great deal of criticism in the succeeding decades. Margaret Mahy's 1990 book "The Seven Chinese Brothers" features vastly improved illustrations by Taiwanese artists Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng.
As a proto-superhero team, however, perhaps the brothers were always destined to land in the very comic books they preceded. In 2006, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison, known for his use of myth and counterculture, reimagined the 10 brothers as the Great Ten for DC Comics. With names like August General in Iron, Celestial Archer and Ghost Fox Killer, each member of the Great Ten draws on elements from both the world of superhero comics and the rich tapestry for Chinese myth. One team member can even split himself into seven identical clones, thus calling back to the original Ming dynasty tale.
In a 2005 interview with Newsarama, Morrison explained that the Great Ten were born out of a push for more international DC superheroes.* And not only did he generate a team of mythically charged and relatable Chinese superheroes, he also corrected some of the comic book world's previous failings in the depictions of Asian characters. While the character Egg Fu originally resembled a giant yellow egg with a hideous Fu Manchu face, Morrison rechristened this 1960s yellow menace character as Chang Tzu, a sort of tech-savvy mutant mad scientist.
The Great Ten made several appearances in DC's "New 52" series and even spawned their own nine-part series in 2009. The heroes haven't seen much action since then, but as controversy over white-washed Asian roles in comic book and anime film adaptations continues to stir up racially conscious audiences, perhaps it's time for this most recent incarnation of the legendary brothers to pool their strengths once more.
* This is hardly DC Comics' only push for Chinese heroes. They recently introduced a Chinese Superman, with a Chinese Batman and Wonder Woman on the way. Not to be outdone, rival Marvel Comics also rolled out a Korean Hulk.