The Punisher, the Breaker of Armies Yue Fei: 岳飞 1. A Wheat Stalk in a Storm

During the darkest phase of China'a struggle with Japan in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese Nationalists widely distributed a propaganda pamphlet that featured the blueish profile of a Chinese Nationalist soldier- easily distinguished by his German imported Stahlhelm and white sunburst insignia, and beneath the soldier's face- in a poster that was entirely splashed in blue (for blue was the color of the Chinese Nationalist Party) was four letters written in bold red: 還我河山: "Return my rivers & mountains" or (to the western audiences) "Reclaim our mountains & rivers."

Though the exact written calligraphy was eventually proven to be a composite forgery to elicit nationalistic fervor, nearly all the Chinese at the time would still have knew the context of these stark words: for many knew when this exact phrase was first spoken, and the man who first uttered it in a patriotic poem. The man whose entire career, whose entire life encapsulated this exact sentiment. The man who- in another time not unlike this bitter black struggle with the Japanese invaders, fought ferociously, and would continue to resist fanatically until every inch of his lost nation was restored.

Above: 還我河山 "Return my rivers and mountains, a composite calligraphy forgery, the letters of which were rubbed from the carving of Yue Fei's own handwriting. Aside from being a field marshal and great military theorist, Yue Fei was also an adept scholar. 

It could easily be argued that General Yue Fei- the man who first uttered the phrase occupied a special place within the Chinese people's imagination. Like all great heroes, Yue Fei rose in a time of great calamity, against a great seemingly hopeless onslaught was able to stand tall and not only persevere but also restore much hope and ardor to his demoralized people. But beyond these bare bones requirements for heroes, Yue Fei's life- even without any storytelling embellishment still possessed so much "savory" little details for lovers of history that they maybe glad that this dynamic and poetic personality was at the center of it all.


One of the most significant factors about Yue Fei would probably be the fact that from the surface, the real, historical Yue Fei was extraordinarily...average. In fact- perhaps to most of the general's contemporaries, the man would have very much looked less than average in most respects.

Broad faced, slightly pudgy and squat in stature, Yue Fei had the look of a typical provincial. But- there was also something else, an irreducible quality of a student about him. For despite his squarish looks, his mind was unparalleled. Like this contemporary portrait belies, Yue Fei possessed a sharp mind with a calm, studious disposition. If he wished, he could affected the demeanor of a consummate courtier, but he preferred to be direct to the point of bluntness.

For one thing, he had the look of of a typical provincial. He was broad faced and squat. He had the look of a man who will loose his hair in his middle age, and a body that would be easily corrupted into corpulence. And for anyone who reasoned that the man came from the peasant class- usually too poor to pay for education and too busy making ends meet, in this respect they would be 100% correct.

Music: ← Service and Sacrifice


General Yue Fei was born to a poor tenant- farmer's family in Tangyin County, in Anyang prefecture of modern Henan province. In other words, Yue Fei- the man who would one day become the field marshal of an entire Dynasty- was born to the labor stock whose family for generations didn't even owned the land they endlessly toiled on and were little more than house servants.

When one think of the tenant farmers during the Song dynasty- the circumstances Yue Fei grew up from would have scarcely looked too different from the dilapidated shacks of black and Irish sharecroppers in the Post Civil War American South. Though Yue Fei and his family were not serfs- i.e chattels that could be bought and sold as properties- they were scarcely above that nightmare. Tenant farmers were the migrant workers of his day and served to contribute endless labors for the landlords- who truly owned the lands. For most tenant farmers, to survive meant an endless toil to just make enough to pay for their rent and have a roof over their family- this headless, tailless cycle of labor was the fate of Yue Fei's father and grandfather. Worse yet, in some regions, whole families of tenant could be evicted at whim of their landlords and replaced with more desperate families that underbid themselves.

Yue Fei thus toiled in seemingly endless cycles of labor during his childhood years. Though it had been a grinding experience of constant drudgery, whenever both he and his father were free, his father Yue He (岳和) would teach the young Yue Fei the ability to read and write.

However, one uniquely Chinese element most definitely saved Yue Fei from an entire life within this station. That is in the meritocratic Scholar-Bureaucratic system of the Song dynasty: anyone- be they born of nobles or the sons of peasants could take the annual Imperial Exam, and if they passed with good marks would be made into an official upon three-tiered ladder from local to provincial all the way to the to imperial courts.

Thus there was a genuine- fundamentally practical incentive for even the poorest farmers to have their sons educated. Yue Fei would recieve most of his primary education from his father. But when the Yellow River flooded in 1119 and ruined most of the farmlands along the Yellow River's- including Yue Fei's family's plots. The young Yue Fei's life was changed irrevocably.


With the possibility of continuing as a tenant farmer effectively snipped off, Yue turned his attention to the military. Yue Fei had always loved to read military classics. He favored the Zuo Zhuan commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals and the strategies of Sun Tzu and Wu Qi. Although his literary prowess afforded him the chance to become a scholar-official, a position that paid astronomically more than the soldiers and held in much higher regard than the common soldiery (who were very poor and almost always underpaid,) Yue chose the military path instead.

Despite Yue Fei's disadvantageous slow start, he was able to find his footing with a series of remarkable teachers. The Biography of Yue Fei states, Yue Fei learned archery from the renowned veteran archer Zhou Tong, a local hero of the same county in Anyang, his tutelage was sought after to continue Yue Fei's military training in archery after the boy had rapidly mastered spearplay under his first tutor.

Under Zhou's tutelage, "Yue Fei was able to draw a bow of 300 catties (400 pounds (180 kg)) and a crossbow of eight stone (960 catties, 1,280 pounds (580 kg)). Whatever the old master demonstrated the young Yue Fei eagerly absorbed, it was recorded Yue learned everything and could shoot with his left and right hands." Yue Fei also mastered the art of archery, and legend has it that he could shoot 9 out of 10 arrows into a bullseye at 240 yards.

Both the Biography of Yue Fei and E Wang Shi mention Yue learned all from his two tutors before his adulthood. The Chinese character representing "adulthood" in these sources is ji guan 及冠; literally: "conferring headdress"), an ancient Chinese term that means "20 years old" where a young man was able to wear a formal headdress as a social status of adulthood. Meaning Yue gained all of his martial arts knowledge by the time he joined the army at the age of 19.

In addition to the future general, Zhou accepted other children as archery pupils- many would become Yue Fei's sworn brothers. Shuo Yue Quanzhuan states that Zhou taught Yue and his sworn brothers archery and all the eighteen weapon of war. Zhou was even recorded to have rewarded Yue with his two favorite bows because the boy was his best pupil.

Zhou continued to teach the children until his death in late 1121, prior to Yue's legal adulthood (20). Following his passing, Yue became extremely depressed since Zhou had been the greatest influence on his early life. Yue would regularly visit his tomb on the first and fifteenth of every month with sacrifices of meat and wine- even during days of heavy rain and heavy snowstorms and would shoot three arrows in succession with one of the two bows his tutor had presented him with.


Yue Fei joined the Song military in 1122, where he participated in suppressing the various peasant rebellions across the empire. Before being inducted into the ranks of minor officers he most likely also attended military academy and graduated with high scores. A lower score and non-prestigious education would not have landed him his rank. Just Henan alone was swarmed with armies of hundreds of thousands of disgruntled rebels and refugees and it was near his homes that he received his first taste of fighting.

At this point, the Song dynasty was rife with corruption and the court was staffed full of greedy flatterers. The affairs of the northern countryside was left in disarray, there were massive famines, and by 1122, there were several rebellions across the interior of the realm all headed by bandit- turned warlords. To make matters worse. In the northern frontier of the empire, the Liao Empire- the steppe archnemisis of the Song became suddenly restless.

Music: ← Ten Thousand Arrows


Imagine if you will, two foes that were locked in at least a century long tug of war since time immemorial, something akin to the struggles of US and Russia but with much more enmity and open warfare but neither was able to decisively defeat the other nor entirely subdue them. Something akin to the struggle of the Kingdom of France and that of the Holy Roman Empire along the Rhine- Alsace boarder. Such was the endless wars between the Song and the Liao to the Song's north. Then, to imagine all of a suddenly, without any warning to have one of those eternal foes to be utterly thrashed, defeated, and then totally crushed within merely half a decade on the battlefield.

Its once dangerous dynasty utterly uprooted, the vast majority of its native citizenry driven out and banished in the cold winds, where they wouldn't stop running until they are in what would be modern Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Within only 1 decade, the Liao- who had terrorized the Song for more than a century was all but a distant memory.

Of course the Song in the 1120s wouldn't have been totally surprised at this turn of events. For they knew well of those very people who were responsible for the Liao's down fall. They were both allies at this point after all. In the Alliance Conducted at Sea, signed in 1115, the Song and these upstarts: who styled themselves as "Jin" had agreed to attack the Liao together. The Jin- like the Liao were both nomadic horse riding peoples, and though they had served the Liao in previous centuries, had by this point grew ambitious enough to cast off their masters.

The Song/ Jin gambit for the north. In the scramble for Liao lands in the collapse of the Liao government and the exodus of the Khitan (Liao) people. Both the Song and Jin agreed to parcel out the remaining territories between themselves- that is, if they could conquer them. The areas of the 16 Prefectures (circled) would mark the new bondaries between the 2 empires. Because the Jin were an upstart power and the Song were the senior member of the alliance, the Song were promised the majority of the area. 


Under the alliance, the Song and Jin both agreed to jointly invade the Liao, split captured territories, and cede the Sixteen Prefectures to the Song, and forswore making any unilateral peace with the Liao. In 1121-23, the Song would faltered in their military campaigns northward, but the Jin succeeded in driving the Liao all the way to Central Asia. The Jin- though triumphant, would handed over several of the Sixteen Prefectures to the Song including modern-day Beijing. In territorial matters, the Jin had totally replaced the Liao as the new neighbors along the entirety of the old Liao frontier.

→ Music: ← The Black Desert 

Prince Wuzhu's 兀朮, despite being only in his mid 20s in 1126 was one of the senior
Jin commanders. Like his father Emperor Aguda, Wuzhu would spend his entire life as a conqueror in the saddles. In December 1121, Wuzhu, then only a teenager, participated in battle that almost captured the Liao Emperor. Though this initial daring bid failed. He would eventually capture not one, but two Song Emperors, along with the Song imperial capital and all of the royal retinue. 


There is nothing more embarassing, or more revealing than entering into a mutual contest and have your own side loose to an upstart.  For the upstart Jin army, it must have looked like an object lesson. Though on paper, the Song boasted a huge army, with many regions numbering well over 150,000 each, in reality, all the Jin had detected from this embarrassing contest was the observation that the Song are weak and cripplingly disorganized. In this bid where both sides contested for the same lands, and wanted the same ultimate objective, the Song would have counted their lucky stars that the Jin would let them keep the 16 Prefectures as their initial treaty promised. 

The Song was a paper tiger. And it was made clear to both the Jin as well as the Song. In private, many of the senior Song commanders (including the likes of the young veteran general Han Shizong) complained of the under-supplied nature of the Song forces caused by decades of internal peasant rebellions. For those who knew the evanescence of peace and have gauged the strength of themselves and their foes it was quite clear that should one day the uneasy watchfulness ends, that the Song would get hurt a great deal before it gets better.

As for the their uphill struggle against their former Khitan (Liao) masters, they had formed a veteran army and a staff of trusted warrior Princes- each of whom would one day lead more than a hundred thousand soldiers. One should add, warrior princes that in the decade to come would have repeatedly and singlehandedly destroy many of their Song counterparts and the whole of their armies.


Despite the general ineptitude of the Song army, Yue Fei the recruit was able to receive the first taste of battle in this early scramble. On a personal level, thought Yue Fei did have not yet interacted with this emerging Jin army, most of the Northern Chinese farmers were well familiar of the ferocious reputation of the Jin's barbarian warriors. The Jin empire were ethnically a nomadic people called the Jurchens- and like the semi- nomadic Liao Khitans they originated from the north eastern region of what would be known as Manchuria in modern China.

During the centuries of strife between the Liao and Song, the Jin had served the Liao as vassals until they chose to rebel in 1114. And throughout all the time they had served the Liao in the decades before their ultimate usurpation, they had acted as Liao vanguards and raided deep into the Central Plains, including much of Yue Fei's ancestral Henan province. If anything, it was probably worse to have these proven, restless warriors on the back of the empire. If they had only been herder- rebels in the nameless north, the Liao wars made them into restless conquerors.

Records placed Yue at the northern section of Henan, Hebei, Shanxi regions throughout 1122 and 1123, taking and guarding several outlying military depots against Liao forces. Nearly all of the battles were inconclusive, and were part of the inept overall Song maneuvers in the region. Regardless, he seemed to have been well liked by his commanders and by the time he returned to the army again in 1127 Yue was elevated with the rank of an officer.

The Song army possessed a very centralized command structure. Because the Song had emerged from the 70 year plus civil war where various warlords constantly feuded with each other, they were keen to reduce the risk of having their governors form their own power bases. A consequence of this concentration of forces was that the frontiers frequently suffered. The army was thus divided between poorly trained levies and a caste of professional and well equipped imperial army. But despite the advanced level of innovative weapons employed by the Song like grenades, rockets, and piston flamethrowers, the imperial court constantly hamstrung the generals and meddled in their affairs. 

Compared to the likes of veteran Jin general, Prince Wangyan Zhongbi (Wuzhu,) Wangyan Zhonghan (Wolibu) who made exponential gains and rose to become both the pillars and the founding fathers of the Jin state, all Yue Fei had to show for his first campaign was the spare experience of fighting as a halberdier. Though anticlimactic, these would be the first of his over 120 battles he would engage in. In this first great storm of excitement, he had ended it as small and insignificant as a stalk of shivering wheat.

After a year of service, Yue briefly left the army when his father died in 1123, but returned in 1126 after observing the 3 year customary mourning period in the Confucian tradition. The family's crushing debts, its future fortunes, its welfare was laid upon his shoulders. After this, in order to meet these demands, Yue Fei reenlisted in the Song army- an emergency national muster has just been issued, for a fatal crisis was already threatening his entire nation apart.


At this point, aside from his poverty, his lessons, and his familial duties, there was still very little known of the historical Yue Fei's personality. Since his career was made later when the Song was near the brink of total collapse. However- what Yue Fei did next before he enlisted in the army revealed much about his character. 

A biography written in the succeeding Yuan dynasty mentioned that: before his departure to the Song army, Yue had four Chinese characters (盡忠報國; pinyin: jìng zhōng bào guó; literally: "serve the country with the utmost loyalty") tattooed across his back (legends say by his mother.) Tattooing at this point has always been rather taboo for the Chinese citizenry- for the idea of inking was usually reserved for criminals, or among lifelong outlaws to be "branded" in this manner. In fact most of the Song citizenry considered this practice as "barbaric," but to have proactively and so devoutly mark oneself in this manner- was both strange and puzzling. 

Above: 盡忠報國 "serve the country with the utmost loyalty" Yue Fei's own calligraphy

Though, like 還我河山: Return my rivers and mountains, the tattooed words: 盡忠報國: To serve the country with the utmost loyalty~ both phrases would become quite poignant at the end of our story and would be now known by almost all Chinese in and outside of China.

The Kaifeng Jews, one of many pockets of Chinese Jews living in ancient China, alludedto this tattoo in two of their three stele monuments created in 1489, 1512, and 1663. The first mention appeared in a section of the 1489 stele referring to the Jews' "Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince." The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were "boundlessly loyal to the country."


But the inept Song government proved to be both duplicitous and extremely vacillating to their new northern neighbors. Barely one month after the Song had recovered its northern claims, Zhang Jue (張覺), who had served as military governor of the Liao prefecture of Pingzhou about 200 kilometres (120 mi) east of the northern counties, killed the  Jin official in that city and turned it over to the Song.

The Jurchens defeated his armies a few months later and Zhang took refuge in Yanjing. Even though the Song agreed to execute him in late 1123, this incident put tension between the two states, because the 1123 treaty had explicitly forbidden both sides from harboring defectors.  In 1124, Song officials further angered the Jin by asking for the cession of nine more border prefectures. The new Jin emperor Taizong (r. 1123–1135), Aguda's brother and successor, hesitated, but warrior princes Wanyan Zonghan and Wanyan Zongwang (完颜宗望) vehemently refused to give them any more territory. Taizong eventually granted two prefectures, but by then the Jin leaders were ready to attack their southern neighbor. The following year near the Ordos Desert, they captured Tianzuo, the last emperor of the Liao, putting an end to the Liao dynasty for good. Ready to end their alliance with the Song, the Jurchens began preparations for an invasion. On 1125 the facade of peace was dropped and the Jin launched a full scale unprovoked invasion of Song with over 250,000 soldiers.

Music: ← The Will of Tengri

The chaotic world Yue Fei returned to was nothing less than a sinking whirlpool of chaos. The empire was steps away from (in hindsight) of being shattered into pieces, almost the entirety of its imperial clan rooted out. Within the very year of Yue's return the Song had suffered a crippling series of defeats along its northern boarders. The various peasant rebellions of the previous decades had severely diverted much needed resources away from the Song's military, and to the shock of nearly everyone, the coming Jin invaders were unlike anyone they have ever faced before. For their new foe had proven themselves to be worthy of being called apex predators of the medieval world.

If the Song court could have only have imagined their own complete slaughter and enslavement, it was almost certain that all of them would have bent their knees to Heaven to revert their mistakes. But it was also in these wars that Yue Fei would become not only the central figure of the Chinese consciousness, but also one of the lynchpin in the great storm as well.

It was in these wars that the unknown soldier, son of a tenant farmer would make his name. Where Yue Fei would spent nearly 20 years as a soldier, rising from the rank of private to to Overall Commander of Imperial Forces and a name renowned throughout two realms.

It was when his realm was on its last legs, when the emperor and nearly all the army were on the run that Yue Fei and a brilliant cast of generals saved the falling realm from total destruction. They would form the thin red line of resistance that not only saved the broken empire but instead defied the belief of all who are involved. We will examine why he became the legend preserved by nearly a millennium of Chinese memory.


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