Ancient China had military generals who changed the course of history, leaving stories of legends that have been told for centuries. These stories are of endurance in battle, loyalty to their kingdoms, and tales of wise, brave young men. The most famous military general was Yue Fei, whose story is the most notable. When you read of his legendary exploits, if you listen carefully, you can hear the roar of men, and the sound of the hooves of galloping horses as they cross the field of battle.
Yue Fei lived during the Song Dynasty, and failed in his quest to restore his kingdom to its former greatness. However, his loyalty and conduct has inspired generation after generation of Chinese.
Yue’s journey was set in motion when Kinbyo, who led the Jurchen people, captured the capital city of Jian Kang (now known as Nanjing) toward the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Kinbyo spread turmoil with his raids, splitting the dynasty in two.
Yue made it his life’s work to retake what the Jurchen had conquered, thus restoring the Song to its original state. He was the son of a mere farmer when Yue saw the condition of the kingdom; he began to recruit soldiers, and any brave men who would fight for the dynasty. This was the beginning of the formation of the “Yue Family Troop” (Yue Jia Jun in Chinese).
It was what he stood for that meant so much to the people — unwavering loyalty and his commitment to returning the Song Dynasty to its former glory. Even though his mission was doomed, Yue Fei (1103-1142) carried out every command given to him, even when he knew the outcome could only mean death. He had earned the same devotion from his troops with his harsh measures, as well as kind ones.
The conditions his troops had to endure were harsh to say the least, with soldiers eating rice porridge with wild herbs for flavor. When night came, they slept outside in the cold, and used weapons that were made from cane. Yet Yue endured the same conditions as his soldiers, which was unusual behavior from a warlord in ancient China.
Yue had strict rules regarding his soldiers’ conduct during their campaigns. It is said that one rule was:
‘Never break into a house even if you’re freezing to death; never loot even if you’re starving to death.’
Those who broke any of the rules were executed.
This may seem hard to some, but Yue’s military character was just one side of him. He was also a tender and compassionate man.
When any of his lieutenant generals died in battle, he would adopt and raise their children, and then marry them to his own. Yue had his own wife give comfort to widows, and he was also known to sometimes personally tend to sick soldiers.
It is believed that because of this treatment, no one under Yue’s care died from malaria in the humid, hot provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong during the six years of battle. However, Yue suffered eye disease from being continuously overworked. When rewards were received from the royal court, he had them distributed among his men.
It was early in Yue’s military career when he found himself torn between his loyalties to his country and caring for his mother, and it is here where another legend started.
The renowned legend says that in order to encourage her son to fight, Yue’s mother wrote the Chinese phrase jin zhong bao guo on the back of her son using a calligraphy brush. She then carefully pierced the lettering out with a needle, and then filled the wound with ink and vinegar.
This is how Yue Fei received his legendary tattoo: ‘Serve the country with utmost loyalty.’
During battle, the Yue Family Troop was a force to be feared, and it commanded respect. Yue’s son, Yun, was made the commander of the Beiwei Army, which was the toughest group in the force, and this was before he had turned 20.
This elite troop had used just 800 soldiers to square off against an army of 120,000. To win the battle, Yun chose not to take them head-on, but to have his soldiers charge through the enemy’s line, slaughtering nearly 100 generals of the Jin (the dynasty taken by the Jurchens), which included the son-in-law of one of the most famous Jin military leaders.
The battle shocked the whole Jin Dynasty, with their leader, Wanyan Wuzhu, leading a force of 500,000 in revenge. After being constantly harassed by just 500 mounted soldiers from the Yue Family Troop, Wanyan was left astonished by the speed and strength of his enemy.
It was this that led Wanyan to give up on his expedition and for him to conclude: “Yue Yun defeated my 500,000 troops with 500 mounted soldiers.”
‘It’s easy for me to shake a mountain, but shake the Yue Family Troop? It’s so hard.’
During Yue’s fight to retake his country’s land that was still occupied by the Jurchen, he was called to return to the capital. All of his military achievements made a party of corrupt palace officials jealous of him. The corrupt officials found a way to remove Yue’s military rank; they imprisoned him and then later, using false charges, sentenced him to death.
Emperor Xiaozong acquitted Yue Fei two decades after his death, and had Yue reinstated as a loyal general. As punishment for the role of treachery the officials played, Emperor Xiaozong had iron statues cast of the guilty officials kneeling in front of Yue Fei’s tomb.
Yue Fei was asked about the principles that he led his army by: “Benevolence, wisdom, honor, courage, and strictness. All are indispensable.” It was these keys that led to Yue’s repeated victories.
General Yue Fei’s quest to restore his kingdom had ended in failure with his murder by a dishonest prime minister, and his troops being disbanded. Yet because of his famous determination, patriotism, strictness, and extraordinary dedication to his cause, he is one of China’s most celebrated heroes.