1142: Yue Fei, paragon of loyalty

On this date in 1142, the great Chinese general Yue Fei was executed by the Song dynasty he had loyally served.

Loyalty is what Yue Fei is known for, so unbendable that going on nine centuries later it can still work as shorthand for understanding the daily paper.

Yue fought for the Song Dynasty against the neighboring Jin Dynasty. He was a disciplined commander, an honorable and well-studied man — the very Confucian ideal.

The tale about him — the reason he is so well-recalled as a model of patriotism — is that his counterattack after the Jin overran the northern half of the Song realms was so effective that it threatened to repel the invaders. On the cusp of conquering the old northern capital, Kaifeng, he was supposed to have been ordered to lift the siege and return — an order Yue obeyed for the safety of his kingdom, even though it meant fatally confiding himself to his enemy‘s power.

The story’s dramatics are to be doubted; he seems in fact to have been recalled (with other officers) after the battle and duly cashiered into a civilian post months before dying. Much of Yue Fei’s biography is recorded by undependable sources such as a fantastical biography written decades after his death, and a historical novel dating to centuries later. Even his death — whether execution or simple murder, and the means by which it was effected — is not reliably reported.

But his place in the firmament of Chinese heroes is well beyond dispute. Yue Fei was rehabilitated not long after his death, and a shrine built (still on public display to this day) with statues of his persecutors, often abused by visitors, carved kneeling in supplication.

Yue Fei’s mausoleum in Hangzhou.

And just as Yue Fei is a pinnacle of honor and loyalty, those who struck him down remain contemporary emblems of infamy. It is said that the Song minister Qin Hui, pressed for his reasons for ordering Yue’s execution, responded to the effect that “Though it isn’t sure whether there is something that he did to betray the dynasty, maybe there is.” As a result, the phrase maybe there is or it could be true denotes trumped-up charges in Chinese. In a more toothsome vein, the traitors who slew the general are also supposed to have given Chinese cuisine the fried-dough dish youtiao.

Update: The Yue Fei legend gets a skeptical inquiry in view of the political situation on the ground here.

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