Yue Fei's Different Goals and Ideals in the Chinese Song Dynasty, 960-1279

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

Since most of Gaozong’s advisors were full-fledged scholar officials, they became increasingly jealous of Yue’s honors and glory (Ai, 1994, p. 54; Liu, 1972, p. 292). In the eyes of the intellectual elite, Yue was an un-educated rural outsider. Unlike during Tang times, the Song’s increased emphasis on creating an intellectual elite class dictated more educational training, leading the scholar’s education to become more complex. Even if Yue Fei did not comprehend all of these complexities, he still had respect for Confucian moral values, literary tradition and learned scholars (Ai, 1994, p. 54; Liu, 1972, p. 292). Not only did Yue himself embody many Confucian ideals, but because he mostly educated himself, he deeply appreciated education and the literary tradition.

As one might imagine, the quibbling among the intellectual advisors created cutthroat competition to gain Gaozong’s attention. To make matters more complicated, there were two main conflicting ideologies on how the state should be ruled. Confucianism advocated advising the ruler, as well as aiding the common people. On the other hand, a combination of metaphysics and ethics argued that one’s moral self-cultivation was more important than advising the ruler (Ebrey, 2009, p. 132). It appears that Yue belonged to the latter group because his main duties did not involve advising the ruler. Rather, he advised his comrades on the battlefield.

In the Song government, accommodation was arguably the most prominent way to rule. In his article “Southern Song Politics of Accommodation and the Tragedy of Yue Fei,” Chinese Historian Gong Wei Ai details (1994):

…among the officials in general, although there might be a few idealists who managed to stay on in the bureaucracy without compromising their high Confucian standards, most of the scholar-officials were more concerned about their personal careers and advancement. Under pressure they would rather sacrifice their Confucian ideals in order to conform to the requirements of accommodative politics (p. 52-53).

Although he was a military general himself, Song founder Song Tai Zu always had a scholar-official as his main advisor during his rule from 960-976. Whether this scholar-official was qualified or not did not matter because, as accommodation stresses, personal loyalties were more important. It is likely that animosity developed on the part of the public, as Tai Zu prohibited the killing of scholar officials (Ai, 1994, p. 52). From the time of Tai Zu’s reign, all of his Song ruling successors had scholar-officials at hand, ready to dispense advice. Although Yue Fei was a skilled leader, because he was not part of the intellectual scholar class, he was held in contempt by many of Gaozong’s advisors. To make matters worse, these advisors outnumbered Yue, which made their accusations against Yue much more effective.

In 1139, the Song were the closest they had ever been to defeating the Jurchen. Yue Fei proudly proclaimed to Gaozong in a letter: “The people long to submit to the court. The Jin are consistently being defeated. Wu Zhu and others are ordering the old and young to go north. This is truly the moment for the Restoration!” (Foster, 2002, p. 105). However, Yue soon received an order from Gaozong to return to the Song Court immediately. Upon reading the order, Yue’s heart was thrust into a tug-of-war between the Confucian concept of political loyalty (Liu, 1972, p. 292). In his mind, while he did have a personal commitment to the Emperor, he also had a devotion to the best interests of the state. While both seemed complementary to one another, he would have to choose just one. In obedience to Gaozong, he returned to the Song court, but not before lamenting in a letter, “…ten years of effort, lost in one morning” (Foster, 2002, p. 105).

During the late 1130s and early 1140s, it appeared that the Song Court had virtually given up on any hopes of defeating the Jurchen. Since the Song were not militarily-oriented, it was unsurprising that it appeared that they were building a new society from the ground-up. The transition was tumultuous because of invasions by the Song’s enemies. During battles, it hardly seemed unusual that the Song would want to take every step possible to ensure that they retained governmental control. However, Yue Fei appears to have disregarded all of the Song focus on rebuilding the government with less emphasis on the military. When asked by one of his soldiers when the empire would have peace again, Yue replied, “When the civilian officials do not love money, and when the military officials are not afraid to die, the world will get peace all by itself” (Wilhelm, 1975, p. 219).

When Yue arrived at the Song Court after being recalled from the battlefield, he was accused of by one of Gaozong’s advisors, Qin Gui, of planning an uprising against the Emperor. Although a surprising allegation at first glance, it could be plausible because Yue’s military power was rapidly increasing. Given that his troops were unquestionably loyal to him personally, Yue did have sufficient military strength to launch a formidable uprising against Gaozong if he chose to do so. In addition, a rumor began circulating among the members of the Song Court that, in order for the Jurchen to agree to a peace settlement, Yue had to be killed (Foster, 2002, p. 104). Although there was no hard evidence to prove treason, Yue’s case still went to trial in front of Emperor Gaozong.

The charges brought against Yue included three of the ten abominations: rebellion, sedition and treason (McKnight, 1985, p. 97). Since Yue’s alleged crime was worse than a crime only requiring penal servitude, interrogation was required (McKnight, 1985, p. 98). During his interrogation, Yue could only sit down, shaking his head. When pressed further, he tore off his shirt and revealed a tattoo that read, “Repay the nation with the utmost loyalty” (Foster, 2002, p. 106). Since Qin Gui could not coax a confession out of Yue after three separate questionings, Huizong’s legal code called for the accused to be tortured. Ironically, Yue was not spared from judicial torture, even though the code freed high-ranking officials and imperial relatives (McKnight, 1985, p. 97). While being tortured, Yue renounced his innocence to stop the agonizing pain he was experiencing. Subsequently, Yue was promptly thrown in jail. In light of public admiration for Yue, Gaozong and Qin Gui did not want him executed in public. Instead, in late-January 1142, Qin Gui stepped in to Yue’s cell and fatally poisoned him out of public sight. Thus, the Song lost arguably their best military leader amidst bitter imperial politics.

In the years following, to prevent desecration of Yue Fei’s grave by groups affiliated with Gaozong and Qin Gui, a sympathetic guard by the name of Kui Shun reburied Yue Fei’s remains at the Jiuqucong Temple in Hangzhou (Donglan, 2004-2005, p. 75). Long after Qin Gui and Emperor Gaozong had died, Yue’s heroic military deeds became well-known. In the 1160s, about 20 years after his death, Yue Fei started to receive posthumous honors. As Historian Edward Kaplan (1970) writes in his doctoral dissertation on Yue Fei: “Civilizations rarely turn their most up-to-date figures into gods” (p. 16).

In conclusion, Yue Fei’s ideals and actions were more conducive to the preceding Tang dynasty, than they were in the Song dynasty in which he lived. His early background afforded him little money to be trained as an intellectual. Likewise, although prepared, he did not have the opportunity to take the civil service exam. These two disadvantages proved to be a liability because his frequent conflict with intellectuals was a common theme in the intellectual-dominated Song dynasty. The rapid rise in population during the middle of the Song dynasty dictated that more resources be used to expand the government, rather than the military. The prestige-focused Song intellectuals shunned Yue Fei because he proved to be what they felt was unneeded competition for Emperor Gaozong’s attention. Furthermore, since Yue Fei was a gifted military leader, he unhesitatingly gave un-solicited military advice to Emperor Gaozong, which further infuriated the Emperor’s intellectual aides. Most accounts suggest that he could have easily defeated the Jurchen if he had not been recalled by Gaozong. However, since his goals and motivation were at odds with the emperor, he was executed quietly to avoid any public outcry.


Ai, G.W. (1994). Southern Song Politics of Accommodation and the Tragedy of Yue Fei. Chinese Culture. 35 (4), 49-64.

Ebrey, P. (1984). Conceptions of the Family in the Sung Dynasty.The Journal of Asian Studies. 43 (2), 219-245.

Foster, R. Yue Fei, 1103-1141. (2002). The Human Tradition in Premodern China. ed. Kenneth J. Hammond. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

Golas, P.J. (1980). Rural China in the Song.The Journal of Asian Studies. 39 (2), 291-325.

Kaplan, E.H. (1970). Yue Fei and the Founding of the Southern Song. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1970.

Liu, J.T.C. (1972). Yue Fei (1103-41) and China's Heritage of Loyalty.The Journal of Asian Studies. 31 (2), 291-297.

McKnight, B.E. (1985). Song Legal Privileges. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 105 (1), 95-106.

Wilhelm, H. (1975). From Myth to Myth: The Case of Yue Fei’s Biography.” In Confucianism and Chinese Civilization (pp. 211-226), edited by A.F. Wright. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Further Reading

Chang, K.C. (1955). Poetry of the Sung Dynasty.The Hudson Review. 8 (1), 113-123.

Chaves, J. (1982). Not the Way of Poetry: The Poetics of Experience in the Sung Dynasty. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 4 (2), 199-212.

Goncharov, S. (1984). Yue Fei as a Historical Personality and the Struggle of Ideas in China.Far Eastern Affairs. 1, 80-93.

Huang, D. (2004/05). Shrines of Yue Fei: Spaces for Creation of Public Memory.Chinese Sociology and Anthropology. 37 (2-3), 74-112.

McKnight, B.E. (1975). A Sung Device for Encouraging Speedy Trial. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 95 (3), 483-485.

Sun, L.K. (2002). The Chinese National Character: From Nationhood to Individuality. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

West, S.H. (1984). The Confiscation of Public Land in the Song Capital.Journal of the American Oriental Society. 104 (2), 321-325.

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