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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

Since his death in 1142 CE, Yue Fei of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) has been revered by the Chinese as a national hero. His skill as a military leader, bravery in battle, and Chinese national pride have made him one of the most popular figures in Chinese history. However, during his lifetime, his virtues were heavily criticized by allies, government officials and the emperor himself. Thus, a question emerges—even despite his great virtues, how could Yue Fei be victimized by his own people?

Perhaps the preceding dynasty can offer clues to this unusual turn of events. Prior to the Song dynasty, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a militarily powerful dynasty that expanded China’s geographic territory to roughly the same extent as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 CE). Unlike the Tang, however, Song leaders focused more on expanding their domestic economy, which favored the arts and educated scholar officials. Yue Fei’s military background, coupled with his insistence on conquering enemies and expanding the Song territory, was more akin to the preceding Tang dynasty. Since the main goals of the Song were domestic governmental expansion, Yue Fei was often at odds with Emperor Gaozong, one factor that contributed to his downfall.

Yue Fei trainingYue Fei was born in 1103 to a farming family in what is today Henan province. While the farming class constituted more than 80 percent of the Song population, they were not as influential as the much smaller intellectual class. Compared to the Tang, paper production had increased substantially, allowing a lively intellectual movement to flourish. In turn, this movement stimulated new kinds of books, art forms and competitive civil service exams. The civil service exams were particularly important because they were designed to identify the most capable civil service candidates, thereby accomplishing the Song’s goal of attaining a meritocracy (Golas, 1980, p. 291). In reality, however, the exams mainly served to increase the aristocracy’s power. Since the aristocracy commanded significant wealth and influence, this was sufficient to assure that their sons would become well educated.

Since Yue’s family was not wealthy, he was not privileged to receive a high quality formal education. Although he was not able to take the civil service exams, Yue nevertheless still learned much of the material that was covered in the exams. He avidly read books by candlelight, including Confucian and military classics such as the Tso Commentary and The Art of War (Kaplan, 1970, p. 7). If he did not understand underlying themes within his books, Yue Fei would often question and reinforce concepts amongst his wealthier peers. Yue’s hard work ethic soon gained the notice of the prominent Han family in North Honan. When he was older, he became a bodyguard for the Han family, where his physical strength and bravery won him great praise (Liu, 1972, p. 291).

In 1122, Yue enlisted in the military when the Song and Jurchen attacked the Liao to regain the Northern Yan-Yun territories (in modern day Beijing). Later during the attacks, the Jin and Liao noticed that the Song posed little threat militarily. Subsequently, the Jin and Liao formed an alliance and attacked the Song. Because the Song intellectual elite monopolized the government, the military carried little honor because it was seen as a lifestyle for men with little potential. An old saying from the Song encapsulates this belief when it reads: “Don't use good men as soldiers, don't use good iron to make nails” (Foster, 2002, p. 95). Rather than expanding the military, the Song wanted to further develop their territory and domestic economy in part because the Song’s population had doubled by the end of the 11th century (Golas, 1980, p. 295). Not only was the Song’s territory far less than the Tang’s, but a larger population needed to be served by the government. The Song leaders did not employ the Tang’s “equal field system,” which had contributed directly to the Tang’s formidable military power. Instead, Song leaders felt the best way to accomplish their goal was to actively recruit the best educated to help run the government. In the minds of Song leaders, the increased number of policies drafted by new civil service recruits would help maintain domestic stability (Golas, 1980, p. 307). Therefore, the leaders assumed that there would be less need for a large, powerful military. However, they apparently failed to realize that foreign states or kingdoms may not recognize or accept Song territorial boundaries.

Despite Yue Fei’s many military conquests, he was sometimes ridiculed by Song citizens. While many Chinese were frustrated at the Song’s lagging military power, they were also against war (Liu, 1972, p. 293). It can thus be inferred that men were supposed to stay within the Song’s territory and contribute to the rising economy. However, despite the negativity surrounding Yue Fei’s decision to pursue a military career, Kaplan (1970) observes:

Originally the ideal Confucian was supposed to combine the martial with the civil virtues. The disciples of Confucius were supposed to learn the techniques of bowmanship as well as the literacy and moral teachings of the sages. But the two types had long since begun to separate by Yueh’s time. The Sung had accelerated the process. It had deemphasized the role of [the] military. Simultaneously Chinese life was becoming more complex, more commercialized and hence unmilitary. Nevertheless even by the twelfth century it was still possible in the more agricultural and hence traditional areas of the north to maintain the fusion of the two types, for a man to be a good and even learned Confucian as well as a dedicated soldier (p. 8-9).

Yue Fei rose quickly through the ranks, displaying remarkable tenacity and skill in combat situations. It was not long before he gained command of several hundred troops. One of the keys to Yue’s success was his careful selection of troops. It is believed that, since Yue carefully trained about a hundred troops on an individual basis, his soldiers could defeat an enemy’s troops several times his army’s size, (Wilhelm, 1975, p. 217). Perhaps some of this extraordinary skill can help explain how Yue Fei later came to command several of his childhood friends. When he led his friends in battle, he would display the Confucian virtue of loyalty because he would often go into the heat of battle himself to protect them (Wilhelm, 1975, p. 8).

As history unfolded, Yue was thrust into the transition between the Northern Song and the Southern Song. The Northern Song lasted from 960 to 1127, while the Southern Song lasted from 1127 to 1279. In 1125, the Jurchen launched an attack on the Song’s northern territories. A year later, the Song surrendered and agreed to pay the Jurchens an annual tribute (Kaplan, 1970, p. 96). The Song’s government felt that the tribute was necessary, since even more resources would be lost if the Song went on the offensive against the Jurchen. This was somewhat predictable, since the Song’s military was weak. However, for Yue Fei and his troops, the tribute payments to maintain peaceful relations proved to be deeply humiliating because they showed weakness on the part of the government. Part of Yue’s anger stemmed from how he knew he could defeat the Jurchen. Although his troops were greatly outnumbered, Yue’s insistence on skilled soldiers led directly to many great battle victories during military campaigns. He was confident that his forces would prevail on the battlefield.

By 1126, the Song was experiencing economic decay. Since the Song realized (perhaps too late) that they had to start funding their military, a substantial tax increase was decreed by the Song Court to raise these funds. The tax increase drove many businesses out of the Song territory, leading inflation to skyrocket. Many citizens, barely surviving, became bandits and began looting Song villages in order to survive. Yue excelled at recognizing his enemy’s weakness. According to his grandson’s biography:

Yueh knew he had to lead them [the troops] by example and so he simply said: ‘Though these bandits are numerous, they are poorly organized. I’ll smash them for you gentlemen.’ With a bow and arrows under his left arm and an iron spear poised in his right hand, Yueh led several horsemen straight into the howling bandit horde, throwing it into further disorder. Taking courage, the rest of his men rode in behind him and fought desperately. They fought all through the first part of the afternoon and finally drove the bandits off (Kaplan, 1970, p. 90-91).

Many times during battle, Yue would give chase to the fleeing bandits. When his troops had cornered them, Yue offered mercy in exchange for agreeing to serve as part of his infantry. If the bandits refused, they would be executed on the spot (Foster, 2002, p. 95). It can be surmised that, since Yue increased his troop’s size as years passed, most of the bandits likely agreed to his proposition.

During the intermediary period between some of his battles, Yue would often be promoted to honorary governmental positions by the newly-enthroned Emperor Gaozong. Although honored, Yue was humble—to a fault. In almost every instance of promotion, Yue was hesitant to accept such positions because he had to leave his comrades and travel all the way to the Song Court. He was also reluctant to leave his command for any period of time because Yue strongly felt the need to defend the Song against the Jurchen, who were pressing Song borders at an alarming rate. Ironically, despite Yue’s humility, some of his actions and viewpoints could be offensive. For instance, Yue was known to use his promotion ceremonies in Court to try to persuade Emperor Gaozong to take specific military action. When confronted over his views, Yue would often ignore opposing viewpoints. Since Yue held loyalty in high regard, he expected Gaozong to side with him, even though Gaozong was in no way obliged to do so (Ai, 1994, p. 54; Liu, 1972, p. 292).

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