>In an act of moral foolhardiness, Fan Meizhong set out on a blog his guiding principle: in matters of life and death, it’s every man for himself.
When the quake struck, rather than overseeing an orderly evacuation, he said he just shouted “Stay calm, it’s an earthquake!” and ran for it without looking back to see if his pupils were following.
“I ran towards the stairs so fast that I stumbled and fell as I went. When I reached the centre of the football pitch, I found I was the first to escape. None of my pupils was with me,” wrote the man now known across China as ‘Runner Fan’.
When his pupils began to arrive, they asked: “Teacher, why didn’t you bring us out?”
His explanation was simple. “I have a very strong sense of self-preservation,” he said. “I have never been a brave man and I’m only really concerned about myself.”
While newspapers have largely followed instructions to concentrate on uplifting tales of rescue work since the earthquake, the internet has seen a wild variety of tales emerge.
It was internet sites that first reported the quake, and where some of the first pictures of collapsed schools were posted. Internet users have debated how to apportion blame for shoddy building work, as well as rallying praise for emergency services and politicians seen to have done a good job.
Other local officials have been vilified by name for a variety of offences, some relatively trivial, such as smiling too much during visits by their superiors.
Some plotlines have been wild, such as those which have discussed whether fortune-tellers could have foretold disaster, but few have hit upon such a sensitive topic as Mr Fan.
He was not the first to raise the issue. Many news reports have focused on stories of teachers putting children first, almost certainly representing the vast majority, such as that of another teacher, Tan Qianqiu, whose body was found shielding four of his pupils, all of them alive.
But some schools were uneasy that their teachers had a higher survival rate than pupils.
One such was Juyuan School, where hundreds of pupils died – parents say 500 to 700 though the official number is 278 out of 900 – but only six out of 80 teachers. Parents pointed out that teachers stood nearest the doors.
But Mr Fan went further, attempting to justify his abandonment of his pupils, who all survived the quake.
“I didn’t cause the earthquake, so I have no reason to feel guilty,” he said in an interview. “When I got back to the classroom, the students were all fine.”
He also risked angering those closer to him, saying he would not have tried to save his own mother if she had been present, though he might have made an exception to his general rule for his one-year-old daughter.
He pointed out that education law does not demand that a teacher save his pupils during an earthquake.
“If every teacher was like Mr Tan, then we’d have no more heroes,” he said. “I admire heroes like Mr. Tan, but I can’t do that myself. I love my life more.”
Now the head of the private school where Mr Fan worked is under pressure to fire the teacher, and publicly questioned Mr Fan’s wisdom in being so frank. Running might be a normal reaction, he said, but talking about it afterwards was something else entirely.
One commentator in a state newspaper, the Shanghai Daily, described Mr Fan as a “courageous coward” for admitting what happened – but added that his courage was not sufficient to exonerate his cowardice.
Mr Fan may as he said have been trying to prick the hypocrisy of “insincere tears”, the commentator said.
“Yes, there are insincere tears but you, Fan Meizhong, should have challenged hypocrisy with sincere tears,” he wrote.