Wen Tianxiang, a Chinese national hero, was born in 1236 to an ordinary family in today’s Ji’an, Jiangxi province. It was an era shadowed by national crises, foremost among them was the Mongol attack on the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). For over forty years from 1235 to 1279, this war waged on throughout all of Wen’s life.
Wen Tianxiang’s father often discussed historical events and national situations while teaching him classical literature. In this way he acquired insight and knowledge. Also, while still a boy, he enjoyed reading biographies of loyal courtiers, hoping to emulate one of his own heroes such as Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), or Hu Quan (1102–1180).
In 1256, Wen ranked first in the national imperial examination at the mere age of twenty-one, and was given a post in the imperial court. However, because he was frank and outspoken, he did not have a smooth official career. In his third year as an official, Wuchang was besieged by the army of Khubilai Khaan (or Kublai Khan, 1215–1294). Disregarding the troops’ morale, Dong Songchen, a crafty and fawning courtier, proposed moving the capital. Wen Tianxiang unsuccessfully remonstrated against the proposal, and the next year he was transferred to a sinecure post. Three years later, after strongly objecting to the court’s reliance on devious and obsequious courtiers, he was banished from the central government to a local position. In the following year, he was dismissed for opposing Jia Sidao (1213–1275), a powerful courtier. Fourteen years after passing the imperial examination, Wen resumed his official career as prefecture governor of his hometown Ganzhou, where he demonstrated remarkable political talents. Under his governance, the town witnessed a short-term peace, and the population and crops both grew. Less than a year later, however, as the southward invasion of the massive Mongol army threatened the existence of the Southern Song, Wen Tianxiang embarked on a military career.
In 1275, under the imperial decree of protecting the emperor, Wen Tianxiang assembled a voluntary army. His friends advised him against going against the Mongol army, but he was determined to fight and die for the country. He donated all of his wealth to finance the military expenditures. Inspired by Wen’s patriotism, a troop of more than thirty thousand volunteers was rapidly formed. However, the war went unfavorably. An anti-war party took such dominance in the court that Wen’s strategy won little support. After Changzhou and Pingjiang fell, the Mongol army surrounded Lin’an, the Southern Song capital. Wen attempted to negotiate peace at the Mongol camp, but was detained for no good reason. With their last hope dashed, the Southern Song imperial court eventually surrendered.
Refusing to yield to the Yuan (as Khubilai Khaan’s dynasty was now known), Wen Tianxiang was escorted to Dadu (present-day Beijing), the capital of the Yuan dynasty. When the ship arrived in Zhenjiang, he managed to escape. Far from receiving him with open arms, the Southern Song officials believed he had betrayed the dynasty and intended to kill him. While evading the Yuan soldiers hunting for him, Wen Tianxiang, sick and exhausted, also had to be on the alert against being murdered by Song officials. Enduring hunger and cold, he drifted from Zhenzhou, Yangzhou, and Gaoyou, to Taizhou and Tongzhou. Although in peril, he took the dangers and difficulties lightly and wrote verses like “Oblivious of the dangers around, / By the window the traveler dreams as the boat is sent off.”
After Emperor Duanzong (r. 1276–1278) came to the throne in Fuzhou in 1276, Wen Tianxiang was appointed military governor of all armies. In Fujian and Guangdong, he raised the Southern Song banner and recruited an impressive dufu (regional) army. Nevertheless, each courtier had his own agenda and each of them posed a potential hazard. After the fall of Fuzhou the next year, the remainder of the Southern Song court was reduced to a government-in-exile at sea. In May 1277, Wen Tianxiang began to recover Jiangxi. The regional army under his command swept through southern Jiangxi and retook large tracts of lost land; but these successes did not last long. The regional army lacked combat experience and collapsed under raids by the Yuan cavalries. Only three members of Wen’s family survived.
After being captured, Wen Tianxiang was pressed to write to the remaining Song forces to convince them to surrender. He not only refused the request but wrote a poem “Passing Lingdingyang” which reads in part, “All men are mortal, / But loyalty brightly shines the annals of history”—a sentiment that must have been foremost in his thoughts at that time. After the remaining Southern Song court fell in 1279, Wen was escorted to Dadu. During his three years and two months in captivity, the Yuan tried every possible means to persuade, force, and lure him into surrender, but he withstood all these ordeals.
In 1282, Wen Tianxiang, still refusing to surrender, was sentenced to death at age forty-seven. After his martyrdom, people commemorated him in various ways. Anthologies of his writings and biographies spread widely among the people, inspiring in them pride.