Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Personal take on the history behind The Patriot Yue Fei + soothingly melancholic MV

The Patriot Yue Fei is the latest talk in Chinese TV. This grandiose bio-epic traces the life of one of the most venerated but tragic generals in Chinese history. He was the epitome of loyalty and revered by later generations for the next 800+ years. While the names of many imperial emperors are lost in the records of history, Yue Fei is still a celebrated name in China even till this day.  There are literally a plethora of temples erected in China to honor this man's military accomplishments and the Confucian virtues he personified. Unfortunately, Yue Fei also paid heavily for his loyalty and fame. He did not get killed by his enemies in the battlefield nor did he die from his war injuries. He died because he was too good at defeating his military enemies and failed to address his own political enemies at home. As a historical figure, Yue Fei is definitely someone I admire but not personally excited to learn about. Perhaps because of his tragic ending I developed a natural resistance to dig into his life. When I read about various people that graced the pages of history books, I can take different types of tragedies, but not tragic stories on national martyrs. I can only take tragedies to a certain level (hence, I avoid reading and watching anything about the Opium Wars). I honestly feel the loss of Yue Fei left a national impact on the Southern Song Dynasty that he campaigned so hard with his fellow countrymen to protect from the northern invaders.

Before I start to babble about the history, I highly recommend you check out the official MV of Patriot Yue Fei. I am a huge fan of traditional Chinese instrumental in songs and I love the female singer's voice.

Song Title: Jing Zhong Zhuan Qi - roughly "Patriotic Legend"
Singers: Huang Xiaoming and Tan Jing


Brief Background on the Song Dynasty:
The Song Dynasty (960-1290 A.D.) succeeded the glorious Tang Dynasty and unified the country after the hot mess called...I mean civil unrest during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. "Song Dynasty" is actually comprised of two eras known as Northern Song Dynasty and Southern Song Dynasty. Northern Song Dynasty was a happier time for the Han Chinese people because they got rule over both north and south of China. The Southern Song Dynasty was established in Lin'an 临安 (modern day Hangzhou 杭州) after their original capital Bianjing 汴京 (modern day Kaifeng 开封) was sacked by northern Jurchen 女真族 invaders and the Song government lost northern China. This incident in the year 1127 is known as the Humiliation of Jingkang 靖康之耻.

Compared to the other major imperial dynasties, Song Dynasty was most well-known for its economic boom (e.g. used paper currency, expansion of commerce into southern provinces), intricate bureaucracy, technological advancements (e.g. flamethrowers, incendiary devices made with gunpowder, movable printing types, etc.), as well as the growth of arts and culture, calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Unfortunately, the Song Dynasty was not so well-known for defending itself against invaders. They had plenty of capable men who could fight wars, except the government did not like them. When a threat of a foreign invasion existed, the Song government would rather use diplomacy and pay the enemies off with gold and silk than engage in warfare. This weakness was attributed to the fear of coup d'état by powerful generals. The military breakup of Tang Dynasty taught the founding Song Dynasty emperors a very memorable lesson. They distrusted the armed forces. They favored civil servants over military commanders. While military commanders were punishable by death, civil officials were immune from the death penalty.

Consequently, they had quite a few troublesome neighbors around its borders. First came the Kitans (契丹, think Qiao Feng's nationality in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils and Yang Family Warriors) of Liao Dynasty (辽国) in the northwest. Then came another challenge from west, the Ordos-based Targut (党項) tribal peoples who established the Western Xia Dynasty (西夏). And then came an even more powerful threat in the northeast, Jurchens (女真族), and created the Jin Dynasty (金国<-------Sounds familiar? Think Yang Kang in Legend of the Condor Heroes). The Jurchens were prototype Manchurians whose descendants would once again conquer China proper and established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Lastly, let's not forget the Mongols in the north!! However, the Mongols only became a serious force to be reckoned with toward the end of th Southern Song Dynasty.

So why weren't there any enemies in the east and south? China is surrounded by coastline in the east, but they did get a few pirates from Japan. The south was inhibited by mostly aborigines and viewed by the Song people as the unwanted frontier land populated by "uncivilized" and diseases.  In sum, the Song Dynasty was pretty much sandwiched in the middle. To protect its borders and threats of invasion in the north, the Song government attempted to "use barbarians against barbarians" policy, which ended in disaster. First Song Dynasty tried to ally with the Jin Dynasty/Jurchens to destroy the Liao Dynasty/Kitans. When the threat of the Kitans was eliminated, Song Dynasty became the Jin's next biggest target. Then Song Dynasty saw some potential in the Mongols and allied with them to destroy the Jin. As you may all know too well what happened when the Mongols and Genghis Khan entered the political scene, the alliance with the Mongols did not end too well either.  Mongols obliterated the Jurchens, but the Southern Song Dynasty was also swallowed up by the Mongol Empire as well.

Was Yue Fei an military aggressor or heroic patriot?
Anyway, back to our main topic. Yue Fei spent his life and energy to regain the northern territory his country had lost to the Jurchens after the Humiliation of Jingkang. This national humiliation involved not only the seizure of land but two abducted emperors of Northern Song (the last reigning Northern Song Emperor Qinzong and his father, the resigned Emperor Huizong). Yue Fei served under  Emperor Qinzong's younger brother, Emperor Gaozong, who was also the founder of the Southern Song. Many speculate that Yue Fei's death was mainly attributed to the Emperor Gaozong's reluctance to fetch his father and older brother back from the Jin. If Yue Fei succeeded in his military campaigns to reclaim the northern territory and defeated the Jin, it meant the Song Dynasty would have two legitimate rulers. Would the current Emperor Gaozong of Southern Song have to step down to yield power to his older brother? In essence, Emperor Gaozong did not want to stomach the huge political ramifications if Yue  Fei ever won the war against the Jin.

It is also interesting to note the two different perspectives I read regarding Yue Fei. Western historians tend to have a less than perfect picture on the guy while the Chinese source I consulted gave a more neutral take. An American historian deemed Yue Fei's military campaigns as "reckless." Yue Fei was adamant about regaining the northern territory and saw conceding to land to the northern "barbarians" as an absolute betrayal of the nation's best interest. Yue Fei advocated a belligerent policy against the Jin while the Emperor Gaozong and his chief councilor Qin Hui did not share his ideas.

In popular Chinese mindset, Yue Fei died from the machinations of the evil chief councilor Qin Gui, who clouded the Emperor Qinzong's judgement with his personal prejudices. Though I do not necessarily disagree with this popular belief, I feel Yue Fei's death was a direct consequence of his policy clash with the political clique in power. To protect the current comforts the status quo offered, the Southern Song court would rather sign a humiliating unequal treaty with the Jin than take military risks. The Jin government saw Yue Fei as a huge military threat. As a precondition for the peace treaty, the Jin required the Song court to kill Yue Fei before the peace talks could even begin. The Song court saw Yue Fei's military assertion as a danger that would invite a deeper invasion by the Jin. They preferred pacification and appeasement, not the use of military force. Despite Yue Fei's military successes, Southern Song court did not trust him.  Emperor Qinzong and his civilian ministers feared the growing power of the military, particularly they feared that Yue Fei's frustration may lead him to threaten the Song ruling house itself. In simple terms, Yue Fei and the Emperor Qinzong had a bad breakup over the issue of trust. In dynastic politics, when the question of trust arise, death is often the end result. To appease the Jin and sue for peace, the Southern Song court imprisoned Yue Fei on a trumped-up charge, and he was put to death in captivity at the age of 39. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Yue Fei paid for his patriotism with his life.

Random Trivia:
  • Unlike many influential men of his era, Yue Fei forbade his sons to take concubines. Even though he married twice, he never officially had a concubine. His first wife actually abandoned him and their two sons in a time of criss. She ironically ended up remarrying someone under the command of her ex-husband's friend, Han Shizhong. When Han Shizhong told his friend to fetch his ex-wife back, Yue Fei just sent her some money instead. Yue Fei's second marriage to Li Wa was a much happier union. 

  • Yue Fei spent most of his life fighting a war against the Jurchens/Jin Dynasty. Six centuries later, Yue Fei's direct descendant from his third son's line, Yue Zhongqi (岳钟琪), became a prominent governor-general under the Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng. A little remainder, the royal surname of the Qing emperors was Aisin Gioro in Manchu, which translate to Jin in Han Chinese. The Manchu are descended from the very same people Yue Fei fought brutally against while his great-grandson 23 generations later served as a distinguished military commander under their rule. History often gives us such irony. 
 Huang Xiaoming portrays legendary General Yue Fei
Love the armor!
The couple I look most forward to watch in Yue Fei - General Han Shizhong and his wife, Liang Hongyue, who was originally a slaved performer and later became a general herself.
Actress Viann Zhang as Liang Hongyu. Though Viann Zhang is surrounded by controversies regarding her personal life, I am still totally digging her portrayal. She looks absolutely gorgeous in this role.

Official MV dedicated to Liang Hongyu

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