“Let us drive our chariots through the Helan Pass,
My bold aim is to eat the flesh of the nomads.
Laughing while I thirst for the blood of the Xiongnu,
Wait until we can begin again,
Recovering our old rivers and mountains,
And paying homage again in the imperial court.”*
Yeah, but how do you really feel, General Yue?
Never one to hold back whether in battle or at court: patriot, general, and case study in why it’s never a good idea to antagonize the emperor (even if you’re right),Yue Fei lived a life devoted to serving the Song dynasty, and it was in a Song prison that he was killed on this date in 1142.
Yue was a military man in a dynasty founded on the principle that military men had no business in state affairs. When the Jurchen invaders of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) invaded North China (more on this in a moment), Yue Fei argued passionately against those who sought to trade peace with the Jin for a detente that meant the partition of China. Officials at court, including the notorious Qin Gui (1090-1155)** urged the young and recently enthroned Gaozong Emperor (r. 1127-1162)–the emperor’s father and uncle having been carted away in the Jin invasion–to accede to the Jurchen demands and concentrate on consolidating his rule in the part of China still under Song control.
How did the Song manage to lose two emperors, most of their army, and half the country? Easy, they picked the wrong friends.
When the Zhao family founded the Song Dynasty in 960, they weren’t able to dislodge a northern people known as the Khitan, whose Liao Dynasty (916-1125) controlled parts of north China, including the area around Beijing. The Song found it to their advantage to negotiate with the Khitan–in essence, buy them off–exchanging goods and gold for a promise to limit raids and incursions into Song territory. But foreign occupation of even a small part of China proper remained a thorn in the side of the Song. Enter a new power to the north of the Khitan: the Jurchen tribes who came together in the early 12th century and declared a new dynasty, the Jin, in 1115.
Following the policy of “Using barbarians to control barbarians” (A.K.A. “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), the Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126) reached out to the Jurchens in 1120 to form an alliance against their common foes, the Khitan. The US followed a similar policy in the 1980s, providing such beloved figures as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden with lawyers, guns, and money against the Iranians and the Soviets, respectively. We all know how well that strategy worked out, and arguably the Song fared even worse.
Long story short: The Jin conquered the Khitan and kept right on going, sacking the Song capital of Kaifeng in 1126 after a two-month siege.*** The emperor and his chosen heir, along with 3000 members of the imperial family, were trundled off to the north to be held as ransom. Unfortunately, Huizong died in captivity like a pet goldfish left on the dash of a parked car in the noonday sun.****
What was left of the Song bureaucracy and army regrouped in the southern city of Hangzhou, with a younger son of Huizong ascending the throne as the new Gaozong Emperor. He immediately fell under the control of a former courtier of his father’s, Qin Gui. Qin Gui had been captured in the sack of Hangzhou but had then somehow (miraculously, he said) escaped and made his way back to the south to serve his dynasty. Popular tales portray Qin Gui as a double-agent of the Jin and Qin Gui’s duplicity as a Jin stooge became a widely accepted part of the Yue Fei legend, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.
Yue Fei marshalled his troops in service to the southern court, and he won an impressive series of victories, beating back the Jin advance southward while also vigorously suppressing groups of bandits and rebels taking advantage of the chaos to rise up and challenge Song rule in the south.***** The new emperor faced a choice: accept the fact of Jin control in the north and consolidate his shaky rule in the south or take his chances, continue the war against the Jurchen, and fight to regain lost territory and imperial prestige.
For five years, an uneasy stalemate emerged in a divided China. The Jurchens would periodically go on the offensive, hoping to pressure the Song court into signing a treaty conceding Jin control of northern China. Yue Fei insisted that not only should the Song keep fighting, but that their armies should take the battle to the Jurchens and advance north. More cautious officials, including Qin Gui, urged the emperor to concentrate on protecting his position in the south, and ordered Yue Fei to spend his time suppressing rebels rather than antagonizing the Jin. In any event, Yue did little to help his own case. The audacity and courage he displayed in battle came across as abrasive and arrogant at court. He would offer unsolicited advice to the emperor, helpful things like “Why haven’t you chosen a successor?” and “The country needs moral leadership right now.” Officials also didn’t trust Yue very much either. He was clearly not one of them, and they looked down on Yue’s lack of education. (Yue Fei’s supposed literary tendencies were mostly the stuff of later myth and legend.) Moreover, the founding emperor of the Song had made it clear that the military officials would be subordinate to the civil bureaucracy.
Yue eventually got the break he was looking for. In 1140, the Jin launched a major offensive and through strategy and luck, Yue was able to turn back the attack and press home his advantage to move north. But even as Yue enjoyed his greatest successes on the battlefield, pushing the Jurchen back and coming close to re-capturing the original Song capital at Kaifeng, forces at court were conspiring against him.
In 1142, the Song court took advantage of Yue’s offensive and negotiated a treaty with the Jin that formalized Jurchen control of north China and required the Song to pay tribute to the Jin emperors, as they once had done to the Khitan Liao. Faced with the choice of a war they might not win or a peace struck while the Song had the initiative, Gaozong agreed to peace. Yue Fei was recalled from the front. Heartbroken at being ordered to hand over hard won land still wet with the blood of his troops, he withdrew sullenly to the south saying, “My ten years of effort are destroyed in a single day! It is not that I have not been able to fulfill my responsibilities, but that the power official Qin Gui truly has deceived his majesty!”
Back in the capital, Yue Fei was accused of insubordination. His fellow generals either turned on him to save their own skin, or watched idly as the great hero of the Song was stripped of his ranks and thrown in prison.
According to one story, the Jin made Yue Fei’s execution a condition of peace, but his death was not so easily acheived. At his trial, Yue Fei was forced to kneel and stripped of his clothes, revealing four characters tatooed on his back long ago by his mother: 尽 忠报国 (Serve the country with your utmost loyalty.) Such a display awed the judicial officials and they recommended acquitting Yue. Legend has it that Qin Gui’s wife mocked her husband, scolding him “that it was easy to catch a tiger, but how do you get rid of him?” Somebody figured out how. Just before the end of the Lunar Year, Yue Fei was found dead in his cell either poisoned or strangled depending on the account, allegedly on the orders of Qin Gui.
In Chinese historiography, Yue Fei is a great hero and patriot whose battle cry to “reclaim our mountains and rivers” (還我山河) echoed through the ages, especially during the wars to drive out the Mongols in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the war against Japan in the 1930s.
Yue is generally seen as the ultimate paragon of loyalty, but like a lot of paragons Yue’s story evolved over the ages, changing to suit the times. It was first recorded by his grandson, Yue Ke, sixty years after Yue Fei’s death. The Yue legend reached its zenith during the Ming, who in their own struggles against foreign rule saw themselves as latter-day versions of the Song hero. The Qing (1644-1911), being foreign rulers and descendents of the Jin, obviously took a dimmer view of Yue. Present day nationalists, on both sides of the straits, emphasize Yue Fei’s single-minded insistence on the unity of the country. The Republic of China even named a missile after the general, a gesture thatYue Fei probably would have appreciated.
In Chinese historiography Qin Gui is the villian of this story and retellings of the Yue Fei legend accuse Qin Gui of nefarious dealings with China’s enemies and condemn him as an appeaser and capitulator. Yue blamed Qin Gui, not the emperor, for his misfortune, and today in front of Yue Fei’s tomb in Hangzhou, there are two iron statues of Qin and his wife. Visitors to the tomb spit and curse at the statues, punishment for Qin Gui’s treachery and cowardice. Historian James T.C. Liu, however, argues that the Gaozong emperor must have been more than a little complicit in the Yue Fei debacle. Gaozong feared the Jin might install his brother, still in Jurchen captivity, as a puppet ruler in the north, weakening Gaozong’s legitimacy. Gaozong also seemed quite content to be the ruler of Jiangnan (south of the river) and was unwilling to risk losing power, preferring to keep his armies in the south consolidating his rule.
So why blame Qin Gui? Well, the story of Yue Fei’s selfless devotion the dynasty loses some of its punch if the emperor is the one setting him up. Early Confucian thinkers, such as Mencius, argued thatoffiicals had a right, even a responsibility, to remonstrate against emperors they felt had made bad choices. But in reality, the Chinese pantheon had no room for a patriot whose ideals put him in conflict with his sovereign. A scapegoat was needed. I think it’s pretty clear that Qin Gui was a bad guy, but letting Gaozong off the hook, while making the story politically and even psychologically more palatable, makes the story less interesting and, perhaps, less meaningful.
Yue had the best interests of the nation in mind, but he couldn’t separate the fate of the people from his duty to the emperor. It’s not unlike a problem in present-day China as well. In the United States there is a notion that criticism of the wrongs done by government is a form of patriotism, but in China, the system of ‘patriotic education’ inculcates the idea that the nation/people are indivisible from the party and the state. To attack the government is to attack the nation. It’s why criticism of CCP policies is seen by many Chinese as ‘China bashing.’
Yue Fei was the ultimate patriot as well as the consumate tragic figure: His devotion to an ideal and his loyalty to a flawed monarch ultimately sealed his fate. While Chinese may celebrate Yue Fei, the loyal general, it might be worth thinking about what it means, as a people, to occasionally question whether the state is worth the kind of blind loyalty demanded by those in power.
* Though recent scholars have argued that this poem is not the work of Yue Fei. See James T.C. Liu, 1972.
**秦檜 Alternately rendered as Qin Hui and Ch’in Kuei
***Amazingly enough, the Song made the same mistake twice. When a new force, the Mongols, emerged north of the Jin, the Song persuaded the Khans to go to war against the Jurchens. Not good times, bad times.
****We’ve lost a number of goldfish here at the Studio. Seriously,we’ve killed more fish than the Exxon Valdez. I can’t figure out what we’re doing wrong.
*****It was Yue Fei, covered in blood from battle, who rallied his troops to save the city of Jiankang (Nanjing) from the Jin invaders.
Patricia Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996)
James T. C. Liu, “Yueh Fei (1103-41) and China’s Heritage of Loyalty” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2. (Feb., 1972), pp. 291-297.
John E. Wills, Jr., Mountains of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 168-180