Heroes of Ancient China: General Yue Fei

Yue Fei joined the Song military in 1122. (Image:  Morio via  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
Yue Fei joined the Song military in 1122. (Image: Morio via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

The progression of the Chinese dynasties through 5,000 years may be compared to a magnificent tapestry of incredible intricacy. All the characters found in the legends are woven into the rich fabric of ancient China’s social and cultural history. General Yue Fei is a vivid character whose splendid leadership contributed greatly to the country’s precious heritage.

A paragon of loyalty

Yue Fei was a Han Chinese General of the Southern Song Dynasty. He was named “Fei,” which means “to fly,” because, when he was born in 1103, a large bird landed on the roof of his house in Tangyin County, Henan.

As a young boy, Yue Fei grew up poor, working as a farmhand. Legend has it that he later learned some excellent martial arts techniques from a Buddhist hermit living nearby.

The 12th century was a turbulent time in the history of China; there were frequent wars. Yue Fei, now grown up, suddenly found himself torn between caring for his elderly mother and serving in the military. These two qualities were regarded with the utmost importance by the Chinese — filial piety and loyalty.

When Yue Fei was born, a large bird landed on the roof of his house. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Lady Yue took her son aside and said to him: “I know you passed up a chance to join the army.” She told him that she would tattoo her answer to her son’s predicament on his back so that he would understand what needed to be done, and also to remind him in times of doubt. She tattooed “jing zhong bao guo,” which means “serve the country loyally.”

Southern Song and Northern Jin wars

The Jin-Song Wars lasted from 1115-1234. Yue Fei joined the Song military in 1122.  In 1127, the Song capital, Hangzhou, was laid waste by the nomad Jin calvary. The Grand Emperor Huizong, his son Qinzong, along with the entire royal court, were shamelessly kidnapped and taken away. The incident was immortalized in General Yue Fei’s famous poem The River Runs Red. 

Yue Fei turned out to be a brilliant general, conqueror, and resistance fighter. He established his own army in Northern China with 10,000 ordinary men that he personally trained. He called them “The Yue Fei Army.” There was an astonishing feat in which he defeated 100,000 invaders with only 500 soldiers! It is also well-known that the Yue Fei Army never lost a single battle. As much as he was ruthless, Yue Fei was known to be kind-hearted, and he cared deeply for his soldiers and civilians alike. Yue Fei’s intelligence and courage were even seen off the battlefield when he would unassumingly offer advice and strategy to the emperor.

The betrayal and demotion

The Yue Fei Army won back hundreds of lost cities for the Song empire. But in a huge setback, just before he was to push North to recover all of the Chinese territories back to the fold of the Song, he was summoned home. Emperor Gaozong and the wicked traitor Minister Qin Hui had signed a peace truce with the Jin regime, and Yue Fei was basically used as chips.

General Yue Fei was sold out by Qin Hui. (Image: Morio via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yue Fei and his army could have easily pushed forward and established a new kingdom for himself, but out of loyalty to his ruler, he turned back, on the cusp of victory. It is said that when the Yue Fei Army left the territory, one could hear civilians crying by the mountains and rivers.

The next year, the same thing happened. Again, he was just about to lead his army in the final battle to the North when he was stopped. The Jin regime had apparently broken the peace truce.

Consequently, General Yue Fei was sold out by Qin Hui. He had just signed a binding pact with Jin on the condition that Yue Fei would be charged with treason.

Yue Fei lost everything, was arrested, and cruelly thrown into a filthy prison cell. He died tragically, without trial, under questionable circumstances in 1142.

The Song Empire never recovered their lands, and there never was another hero like Yue Fei.

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