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The Legend of Yu Fei

Ethan McGuire

The Legend of Yu Fei

“I would like to be my own posterity, to witness what a poet would have me think, feel, and say.” – Napoleon Bonaparte, as quoted by Abel Gance in the epigraph to his great 1927 film, Napoléon


China’s three-hundred-year Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) brought a new and unique period of abundance and manly greatness to Chinese history. The Song Dynasty was founded by the Emperor Taizu, who overthrew the Zhou Dynasty emperor, conquered the Ten Kingdoms, and united China, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of ancient Chinese unrest. The Song Dynasty’s legacy looms large, even to this day, as it ushered in one of the most culturally and politically prosperous eras of later imperial China—a golden age of artistic, economic, engineering, mathematical, philosophical, scientific, and technological progress, much of which came about in service of the Song Dynasty’s wars.

This dynasty represents a long calm before the chaotic storm that Chinese history would become. A height of flourishing China would never reach again. Yet weak men were bred there too. Jealous rodents who tilted the Song Dynasty toward decadence, or were even traitors to the kingdom. One of the Song Dynasty’s great men was the general and poet Yue Fei. But he was deviously conspired against by political plotters and eventually assassinated.

Yue Fei has long stood as a paragon of military strength, martial excellence, and true patriotism to faithful Chinese people, and they still revere his poems. So, unsurprisingly, Maoist China initially suppressed his legend—the Red Guards desecrated his tomb, and, for many years, history teachers were not allowed to refer to Yue Fei as a “hero.” Only recently has the Chinese Communist Party begun allowing his name to be sung—for its own purposes, of course.

I mean to bring Yue Fei’s name, story, and translations of his poetry together, so that non-Chinese men can know of his reputation and be inspired—to both bring him to new readers outside China and to revive his story among Song Dynasty descendants who have forgotten what it means. I must also do my part, now that I know his history, in preventing his misappropriation by the current Chinese government. It is both an inspiring and a cautionary tale, with many conclusions to be drawn, but not to be made too explicit, since this is poetry, after all.


A Mighty Warrior Poet

Chinese folk hero Yue Fei 岳飛 (AD 1103-1142) was a warrior poet of the highest order, a man who possessed both andreia and phronesis, seeking both physical and intellectual strength and beauty. He was both an advocate for and a partaker in the aristocratic morality of might executed responsibly and well. Even from an early age, he worked to emulate the poetry of the heroes of past dynasties. He was a great military strategist; a warrior of one-hundred twenty-six battles; a renowned, ambidextrous archer, spearman, and horseman; a master, and even a founder, of multiple martial arts; a learned Confucianist, who nonetheless considered Confucianism alongside the other important philosophies of his day including Taoism and Buddhism; a practitioner of a medical qigong for his and his soldiers’ health; and, after his death, an honorary deity. But it is primarily as a general, a poet, and a man of great martial virtue for which he is remembered in China today.

We do not have much from Yue Fei firsthand. We have his poetry, and we have the records of his military exploits in the Jin-Song Wars. We also have the martial arts he invented or innovated—especially the Eagle Claw style for his soldiers and the Xingyi Quan style for his officers, both of which are aggressively offensive, rather than defensive, syntheses of Buddhist and Taoist based fighting styles. And we have the praise his men heaped upon him for his six army deployment methods: clear commands, strict discipline, faithful fellowship, just recompense, deliberate selection, and rigorous training and fitness requirements. These things speak for themselves, and they tell us a grand, courageous tale.

Take, for example, this short lyric, written as Yue Fei explored one of the mountainous pavilion and pagoda towers built at the city of Chi Zhou on the Yangtze River. The pavilion—green, with a delicate appearance but of strong construction—sat overlooking Mount Jiuhua, one of Chinese Buddhism’s four sacred mountains. The poem illustrates both the militaristic and spiritual aspirations of the general.


“Chi Zhou’s Green Pavilion”



Still uniformed for combat,

Still covered by the mud of battlefields,

I turn my warhorse uphill

Toward Cui Wei Pavilion—jade.

Surrounded by deep hills and streams,

The tower watches—staid,

But I’ve no time,

For urging my return come moonlit guards.


As an acclaimed and effective Song general in the Song Dynasty’s wars with the invading Jin Dynasty, Yue Fei began to experience bouts of rage after the 1127 “Humiliation of Jingkang,” a turning point of the Jin-Song Wars in which Jurchen forces from the Jin Dynasty conquered the northern Song capital of Kaifeng, captured Song emperors Huizong and Qinzong, and isolated Emperor Gaozong to the south. A few years later, against Yue Fei’s admonitions, the partially defeated Song forces signed the Treaty of Shaoxing, renouncing all their lands north of the Huai River and paying tribute to the Jurchens.

Amidst these troubles, the thirty-year-old Yue Fei wrote some of the best and most memorable poems to come out of the Song Dynasty. The most famous of these is “Man Jiang Hong”: “The River is Full and Red.” The masterful Chinese director Zhang Yimou (always carefully placing anti-CCP sentiments into CCP-approved films, if we apply an esoteric reading to his filmography) even made a highly successful 2023 blockbuster movie called Full River Red about this poem, which shows its lingering cultural power.

“Man Jiang Hong” expresses Yue Fei’s indignation at the Jingkang Incident and his desire to win back the Song Dynasty’s northern lands, despite his rulers constantly thwarting his plans to do so, since many of his strategies were in violation of developing Jin-Song agreements and other Southern Song Dynasty political machinations.


“The River is Full and Red: Reflections of Sorrow and Rage”

滿江紅 寫懷


The hair beneath my helmet bristles.

I lean against the parapet.

The rain stops for a moment.


I turn to face the clouds

And shout strong curses, toward the gods,

From deep within my aching chest.


At thirty years, now, are my deeds and fame still nothing—dust?

My journey—cruel—brought me eight thousand li beneath the moon.


“Fool, sit ye not by idly,” mocks the sage, “and let black hair grow white!

Young men grow gray despairing.”


The crushing Jingkang Shame

Still lingers—winter snow.


When will oppressive hearts

Melt and bring on Spring?


No more waiting! Let’s break out our chariots and ride for Helan Pass!


There we shall carve out freedom from those slopes—ambitious hunger!

There we shall laugh and spill red Jurchen blood—drink to our fills!


Let us restore these mountains and these rivers for ourselves, made new,

And here rebuild our thrones.


In other words, “Make China Great Again!” Or, as Yue Fei repeated often: “Loyalty to the Native Land” and “Restore Every Lost Territory.”

Yue Fei fought a long and fierce but highly successful campaign against the invading Jurchens—partially to defend the Southern Song people as they rallied and rebuilt, but especially, for Yue Fei’s purposes, in an effort to retake northern Song territory and even lands that had belonged to the Chinese people before the Song Dynasty. He and his army made many daring advances into Jurchen territory. Yet just as he was positioned to retake Kaifeng, Emperor Gaozong and Song Chancellor Qin Hui recalled Yue Fei to the new capital at Lin’an to seek peace with the Jin Dynasty. The Emperor also sought to ensure Emperor Qinzong remained in captivity so that he would not threaten Gaozong’s claim to the new Song throne, and to prevent the potential civil war if the northern Song territory were regained.

The Emperor sent Yue Fei the golden edict to return eleven times, with no response from the general. Finally, at the twelfth edict, Yue Fei returned to Lin’an, thinking he could convince the southern Emperor to continue wresting territory back from the Jin, having heard that Emperor Gaozong was beginning to favor his counsel over the desires of Qin Hui’s Peace Faction.


The Death of the General

On his journey back, Yue Fei stopped to visit his friend Master Dao Yue of Jinshan Temple, a poet, sage, and scholar with whom Yue Fei enjoyed debating the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, as well as the other philosophies and religions. Dao Yue was, himself, beset by political turmoil, living in the far territories when he could to avoid persecution from various political parties who wanted his head for past allegiances.

As they visited, the two discussed the kind of Chinese lyrical poetry—called “cí” (“song lyrics”) or “chángduǎnjù” (“lines of irregular lengths”)—that Yue Fei loved and employed most, based on various standard models at the time and using a variety of meters with fixed rhyme, rhythm, tempo, and tone based in traditional musical tunes and with line lengths of specific but varying numbers of characters. The arrangements of characters, tones, and rhyme were based on one of approximately eight hundred different set patterns, which corresponded to tunes to which each poem could be sung.

They discussed what relevance these forms have on life itself and the spirit, with Yue Fei making investigations into manly spiritedness, and they exchanged poems, in the manner of the ancient Chinese and Japanese writers. Yue Fei shared “The Soul of Youth,” whose ideas the two thoughtful men had just been debating:


“The Soul of Youth”



The heart and mind of youth

Are stretched, tight, like a rain-bow,

The spirit flying arrow-like.

No target is too far.

Regardless of position,

Youth’s ambition soars.

Its young complaints must reach their marks.

Its new advice must pierce some flesh.


The young should travel North and South

To every country’s corner

(Damn every peak and stream!),

Their journeys’ purpose strong.

Yet as the Autumn wheat fields ripen

And paths of life are cleared,

They will take notice of the world

And how their hair grows gray.


Since it was the cold season and both men longed for the warmth of Spring, Yue Fei shared another poem to discuss, one he had written in a previous Spring after meditating:


“Facing the Snow”



The willow trees stand green.

The tranquil river runs snow-clear.

Among the warbling orioles:

The youthful Spring returning.

Without a thought, I sit

Upon this bank and shed one tear—

How can it be? Invading dusk

Creeps down the hills still burning.


At the end of their visit, Master Dao Yue begged the General to leave the military and devote his life to study of The Way. Yue Fei refused, citing his foremost duties to his people’s protection, encouragement toward greatness, and development of excellence. He explained his understanding that the noble and the rulers must protect the people from monsters and demons, clearing out hostile spaces for civilization, in addition to gaining the love of the people so that the their good name can live on.

Sad but not surprised, Dao Yue wrote an esoteric, heavily-coded poem and gave it to Yue Fei as a warning. The Master had heard certain rumblings about the current Emperor and Chancellor, though he was not sure. Yue Fei did not understand the poem’s meaning and insinuations until it was too late for him to act upon them. The poem read:


“A Lyric for General Yue Fei”



The waters underneath the storm pavilion surge,

And they will bring ten thousand hardships with their churn.


When you set out to sail those waters, hold the rudder firmly,

Be always wary of your traveling companions,

And push the body down until you are next to the Tao.


To reach the last day of the year is not enough.

When heaven cries, two points to poison people come.


The treacherous old man still moves around—why pester people?

His bumblings may soon be stopped, but soon enough?

Be careful now. Be sure to watch the sails and watch the storm!


In the evening, as Yue Fei pondered the visit, he thought of another poem which he had written months before:


“Among the Small Hills”



Last night, the air was ice,

But crickets kept on chirping through the cold.


They woke me from one thousand li of dreams—

I saw the third watch moon.


The moon outside my curtains shone like silver—

“Silver is the mark of honor,” I thought.


Shivering, I stepped out to pace the silent courtyard, alone—

I could not see a soul.


Experience, ancient hills, old pines, bamboo—

These block my journey home.


I wish I could express my deepest longings on the guqin,

But these days my friends seem few,

So who would listen to my broken strings?


As The Book of Rites says, “A gentleman does not go far from home without his guqin.”


When Yue Fei arrived in Lin’an, Emperor Gaozong imprisoned him in compliance with treaty requirements and on false charges of insubordination, fabrication of military intelligence, and blasphemy drummed up in a plot led by Song Chancellor Qin Hui. Eventually, Yue Fei was killed on January 28, AD 1142. He was thirty-nine years old.


Qian Cai wrote in his Yue Fei biography:


General Yue Fei strode in long, strong steps to the Winds and Waves Pavilion. Two wardens on both sides grabbed ropes and strangled him to death—kicking. As Yue Fei started his return to Heaven, a fierce wind arose, extinguishing the fires and lamps nearby. Black mist filled up the sky. Both sand and pebbles twisted through the air.


As if from The Tao Te Ching—a vision of apocalypse. From chapter thirty-nine:


When men disregard the standard against which all things are judged, The Tao, by violating the fundamental truths of nature and the natural order, the sky turns dark and the light fades, the earth cracks and quits yielding fruit, the spiritual equilibrium is agitated, the rivers become bone-dry, and kings and princes grow feeble too soon, their kingdoms decaying.


When Yue Fei fell to the ground, his jacket ripped, revealing a tattoo on his back: the four Chinese characters which mean “With the Utmost Loyalty, Serve the Nation.” He had made his mother tattoo these characters on his back.

Yue Fei may have died young and unjustly, but his poetry and patriotism made him immortal in the Chinese imagination. Nine hundred years after his death, many Chinese people still revere him. His death had more immediate consequences, too.


A Legacy in Legend

After Yue Fei was first arrested, several anti-Peace Faction leaders petitioned the Emperor and Qin Hui to release the general. Qin Hui then tortured Yue Fei for two months, trying to get him to admit treason. But Qin Hui received nothing for his troubles. Yue Fei remained forever resolute. The Emperor decided that if Qin Hui could not get a statement of treason from Yue Fei soon, they would have to let him go, due to rising political and social pressures.

Desperate to be rid of Yue Fei, whom Qin Hui saw as the only barrier to peace with the Jin Dynasty, Qin Hui’s wife, Lady Wang, devised a plot to kill the general. Lady Wang was eager for her husband to gain more power and to be rid of a rumor that the two of them were Jin Dynasty pawns, having been among the only members of the Northern imperial court to escape Jurchen captivity. She had Qin place an order of execution under the skin of an orange and send that to Yue Fei’s judge, causing the judge to execute Yue Fei before the Emperor or anyone else influential could discover and rescind the order, which had previously happened.

When other generals came to confront Qin Hui about Yue Fei’s death, Lady Wang advised her husband simply to say, “Though it is not certain whether there is something he did to betray our dynasty, perhaps there is.” That final phrase “perhaps there is” (in Chinese as 莫須有) eventually became associated with a Chinese proverb to refer to setups and framings. The twisting of the phrasing is obviously worthy of this idiomatic mockery.

Qin Hui and Lady Wang did not pay for their treachery in life, but their legacy suffered, unlike Yue Fei’s. Immediately after his death, Yue Fei’s friends hid his body and began work to restore his legacy. The Emperor reluctantly allowed this, due to the people’s love of the general and his poetry.

Twenty years after Yue Fei’s death, the new Emperor Xiazong posthumously dissolved Yue Fei’s charges—partially urged on by evidence from Yue Fei’s grandson Yue Ke, partially compelled by the ultimate failure of the Peace Faction and the decisive victory over Jurchen forces by Yue Fei’s armies, especially the new navy. This victory secured the Song Dynasty for another century, until they were conquered by Kublai Khan. The Song Dynasty held back the magnificent Mongols sweeping down from the steppe for a half century longer than the Jin Dynasty had. Emperor Xiazong officially restored Yue Fei’s honor and had statues of Qin Hui, Lady Wang, and the two of their men who had carried out their plot made and placed kneeling in front of Yue Fei’s tomb with a short inscription beside them, a couplet:


This green hill is honored to hold the body of a loyal general.

This iron is innocent despite being cast in the form of traitors.


It seems Yue Fei may have foreseen some of these events, as implied in his Yellow Crane Tower poem:


“The River is Full and Red: Thoughts Upon Climbing the Yellow Crane Tower”

滿江紅 登黄鹤樓有感


As I survey the Central Plain

Beyond the smoke of battlefields

I see my city’s fallen walls.


Remember better days

When willows and bright blossoms shielded

Phoenix towers, dragon pavilions?


Beautiful men and women danced around eternal hills.

The melodies of singing and laughing spilled out from the palace halls.


Alas, see now: our shame!

The ironclad Jin horsemen trample peace—

Their dust blots out the sun!


Where are our boasting warriors?

Impaled on swords and spears!

Where are our singing crowds?

Their bodies fill the valley!


Jade mountains, rivers

Still flow with the Tao—

Where then are the thousand villages?


The Emperor must let go of the leash he grips so tight

And give me whips to lash, bind, hang the Jurchens breaching Yellow River.


One day I will resume

The Hanyang campaigns and fly out like my name—

Riding the Yellow Crane.


The History of Song says Yue Fei was named Fei, “to fly,” because when he was born a large swan landed on the roof of his house to commemorate his birth, and the Yellow Crane Tower is a traditional Chinese tower overlooking the Yangtze River in current day Wuhan.

The Yellow Crane Tower currently stands on Snake Mountain but has existed in one form or another since AD 223. It is a sacred Taoist site because legendary Taoist poet and scholar Lu Dongbin is said to have ascended to Heaven there after living two-hundred twenty years. It is also said that an immortal named Wang Zi’an left Snake Mountain flying a yellow crane and that the tower was constructed in his honor. Another legend says that the famous third century Three Kingdoms general Fei Yi also became immortal after being assassinated by a spy in his court, and he forever rides a yellow crane, regularly resting at Snake Mountain. Many famous Chinese poets have written about the tower, including Tang Dynasty literati of renown like Cui Hao and Li Bai. “Thoughts Upon Climbing the Yellow Crane Tower” was also written to the same form as Yue Fei’s most famous poem, “The River is Full and Red.”

Only a few years after his death, Yue Fei’s legend elevated him to the status of a hero in myth. He became a symbol of patriotic fidelity and resistance to foreign invaders, a defender of honor and a revenger of disgrace. He was the subject of many popular poems, operas, histories, novels, and biographies. For Chinese men, he has often been seen as an ideal model. For Chinese men and women both, he has even been seen as a god—in the folk religions as a Menshen, a divine guardian of doors and gates; among some Chinese Buddhists as the Dapeng Jinchi Mingwang guardian god born into human form; among some Taoists as a ghost master of the demigod Monkey King.

As Yue Fei said in an address to his soldiers:


“Immortal Heroes”



True heroes never truly die.

Their deeds are sung through history.

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