China’s military generals changed history era after era, leaving legends behind them. They endured the battles, were loyal to their kingdoms, wise and brave. They mastered warcraft and understood the hidden designs of fate. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the horses galloping across the battlefields.
Though Yue Fei of the Song Dynasty failed to restore his kingdom to greatness, the example of loyalty and conduct he left behind was great enough to inspire generations of Chinese.
General Yue Fei’s greatest ambition in life ended in failure — he was murdered by an unscrupulous prime minister while the troops he spent decades cultivating disbanded. And yet for his determination, patriotism, strictness, and extraordinary dedication to his cause, he is one of China’s most revered heroes.
What he stood for meant so much: unwavering loyalty. In Yue’s case it was a commitment to the revival of the Song Dynasty. It was a doomed mission, but Yue Fei (1103–1142) carried out everything commanded of him, even when he knew the outcome could only be ill. He earned that same devotion from his troops through harsh measures and kind ones.
Yue Fei’s adventures began toward the end of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), when Kinbyo, a leader of the Jurchen people, captured the capital city of Jian Kang (now known as Nanjing). Kinbyo had sown chaos with his raid, and the move cleaved the dynasty in two geographically.
It was Yue’s life work to attempt to retake what the Jurchen had conquered and restore the Song to their original state. The son of a mere tenant farmer, Yue saw the condition of the kingdom and began recruiting soldiers and simple, brave men who would fight for the dynasty. This was the founding of the “Yue Family Troop,” Yue Jia Jun in Chinese.
Their conditions were shockingly tough: soldiers ate rice porridge with wild herbs for flavour; they slept outside in the cold and used weapons made from rattan. Yue endured the same conditions as his soldiers — unusual behavior for a warlord in ancient China. During their campaigns, Yue laid down strict prohibitions on soldiers’ conduct. One rule said: “Never break into a house even if you’re freezing to death; never loot even if you’re starving to death.” Those who violated the rules were executed.
The gravity of Yue’s military personality was only one side of the coin, however. He could also be a tender and compassionate general.
Yue adopted and raised the children of his lieutenant generals who died in battle, and then married them to his own. He had his own wife comfort the widows. He sometimes personally tended sick soldiers. When rewards were sent from the royal court, he ensured that they were distributed amongst the men. Because of this exemplary treatment, no one under Yue Fei’s care died from the rampant malaria in the humid, hot provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong, in over six years of battle. Yue himself, however, suffered eye disease because he was perpetually overworked.
Early in his military career, Yue was caught between two competing loyalties: serve his country, or care for his mother who lived by herself in a thatched hut in the countryside. A famous tale goes that to encourage her son to fight, she wrote the Chinese phrase “jin zhong bao guo” on his back with a calligraphy brush, then painstakingly pricked it out with a needle and filled the wound with ink and vinegar — leaving Yue Fei’s legendary tattoo: “Serve the country with utmost loyalty.”
In battle, the Yue Family Troop were a force to be reckoned with. Before he had turned 20, Yue’s son Yun had won countless battles, and was made the commander of the Beiwei Army, the strongest group in the force. That elite troop used just 800 soldiers to square off against an army of 120,000 — but rather than take them head-on, Yun’s soldiers charged through the enemy’s lines and slaughtered nearly 100 generals of the Jin (the name of the dynasty taken by the Jurchens), including the son-in-law of one of the most famous Jin military leaders.
The episode shocked the whole Jin Dynasty. Their leader, Wanyan Wuzhu, led a force of 500,000 in reprisal, but were constantly harried by a mere 500 mounted soldiers of the Yue Family Troop. Their speed and strength was astonishing to the enemy, leading them to give up the expedition, and for Wanyan 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.”
For all of Yue’s progress in trying to retake the land occupied by the Jurchen, he was at the last minute called back to the capital. His military achievements had made a faction of corrupt palace officials jealous of him. They found a way to strip him of his military rank, imprison him, and, later, put him to death on false charges. Two decades after his death, Emperor Xiaozong acquitted Yue Fei and reinstated him as the loyal general. For their role in the treachery, iron statues were cast of the guilty officials kneeling in front of Yue Fei’s tomb.
During his life, Yue Fei was asked about the principles upon which he led his army: “Benevolence, wisdom, honor, courage, and strictness. All are indispensable.” These were the keys to Yue’s repeated victories.
Illustration by Mu Chuan