Yue Fei, a well-known general who fought against the Jin (also known as Jurchen or Nüzhen), was born in 1103 to a peasant family in today’s Tangyin county, Henan province. Having developed a powerful physique from early farming life, he began studying spear fighting with a famous local master at age eleven. He was undefeated in the county. He also excelled in academic studies and eventually became both a military and a civil hero.
Yue Fei’s adolescent years coincided with the darkest period of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Internally, Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126) allowed himself to be influenced by treacherous courtiers while misusing the resources of the people. These resulted in numerous peasant uprisings around the country. Externally, the imperial court had to sue for peace by paying an enormous annual tribute to its powerful neighbors, the Liao (also known as the Qidan or Khitan state, 916–1125) and the Western Xia (also known as the Tangut state, 1038–1227). After the rise of the Jin (1115–1234), Emperor Huizong made a wild proposal to ask them to recover the sixteen Yan-Yun prefectures occupied by the Liao. In the end, the Jin not only plundered Yanjing (today’s Beijing), but also seized Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng), the Song capital. In 1127, over three thousand people, including emperors Huizong and Qinzong (r. 1126–1127), the imperial family, and the courtiers, were captured, and the Northern Song dynasty was thus overthrown.
Filled with patriotic frustration and fervor, Yue Fei was eager to join the army. However, he was worried that there was no one to attend to his mother. His mother encouraged her son to enlist, and tattooed “serve the country with utmost loyalty” on his back before he set off. In the army, Yue Fei defeated the Jin with his martial prowess and great strategies in Huazhou and Caozhou, among other places. Later, when the imperial court fled and the army was routed, he reorganized the dispersed troops in Yixing. He trained them into a strong anti-Jin army known as the “Yue Army.”
Yue Fei was a strong and intelligent military leader. He believed that “in military affairs, the best tool is strategy; the second best is diplomacy.” Strategy was the key to victory. Securing victory with surprise tactics was one of Yue Fei’s most important military principles. Disdaining the practice of using the standard battle formation every time, he stressed the importance of surprise tactics to adapt to specific situations. The motto of “know yourself and know your enemy” helped Yue Fei defeat many formidable enemies. After meticulous study of the enemy at the Battle of Dongting Lake, Yue Fei broke them up from within, and defeated the pirates and their leader Yang Yao in merely eight days.
The Yue Army was noted for its rigorous military discipline. Yue Fei set a good example with his own conduct and applied strict military regimen to lead his soldiers, most of whom had been a bloodthirsty and greedy lot. For instance, the regimen required anyone who trampled on crops in the field or forcibly bargained down the price in trading to be executed without exception. Passing through villages, the Yue soldiers would sleep outdoors. After leaving, no villager’s firewood would be missing. When stationed in Jiangzhou during severe supply shortages, the soldiers would rather kill their horses, sell their hair, wives, or children, than plunder the civilians. In this manner, this anti-Jurchen army marched through Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Hubei, and other places.
While Yue Fei won battles one after another, Qin Hui (1090–1155) and other anti-war courtiers encouraged Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–1162) to negotiate peace with the Jurchens. For fear that his father Emperor Qinzong would retake the throne upon his release, Emperor Gaozong sent edicts recalling Yue Fei from the front. Yue Fei resisted. “Time and events are all aligned in our favor. Such opportunity will never come again if we give up now on the cusp of victory!” To force Yue Fei to retreat, the emperor issued a series of twelve urgent edicts, each sternly ordering a retreat with no tolerance for defiance. Yue Fei came to realize that the imperial court would not allow an anti-Jurchen war to succeed. Many have felt sadness that when Yue Fei’s men hinted at an independent war against the Jurchens, Yue Fei remained loyal to the monarch, and, in the end, obeyed and retreated. Soon afterwards, the vast tracts of recovered land in Henan and Guanxi (west of Hangu Pass) fell into the enemy’s hands again.
On returning to the imperial court, Yue Fei was stripped of military power, court-martialed, and dismissed. Framed on false charges, he was imprisoned. Urged on by Qin Hui, Emperor Gaozong had the thirty-nine-year-old Yue Fei executed in prison in 1141. Before his death, Yue Fei wrote “the heavens and the sun understand, the heavens and the sun understand” as a way to express his indignation.
As the most determined general in the early Southern Song dynasty to fight against the Jurchen invaders, Yue Fei served the country with great loyalty and an unyielding will. He scorned influential officials and thought little of material gain. He was filial to his mother and strict with his sons. Yue Fei was not only highly influential in his time, but has been a role model ever since.