The Tattoo on Yue Fei’s Back
Yue Fei (1103-1142) was a famous general in the Song Dynasty and a national hero. He was best known for defending the Southern Song against the Jin invaders. He was also a noted strategist, but it’s not his military talent that made the most profound impact on the Chinese people. His loyalty and devotion to the country became a model for Chinese youth.
As general of the Northern Song Dynasty, Yue Fei was awe-inspiring. His army, known as “Yue’s army,” was unassailable. The mere mention of it caused the northern Jin invaders to quake in their boots. The Jin moaned that it would be less sweat to move mountains. That aside, Yue’s army was also very disciplined, and had the reputation for not disturbing the civilian population under any circumstance, even when they were starving. When the army stayed at an inn, they always tidied the place up the next morning.
In 1140, when Yue was about to drive all the Jin invaders out of the Han region, and regain all the lost ground, the then Emperor Zhao Gou and corrupt minister Qin Hui, fearing Yue’s victory would bring back the previous emperor and threaten their stranglehold on the throne, gave orders forcing Yue to retreat and go back to Lin’an, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. As a result, the Song land was lost once again. After Yue returned to Lin’an, he was arrested under some trumped-up charges, locked up in Dali Temple, and tortured. On New Year’s eve of 1142, Yue was executed at the age of 39, along with his son, Yue Yun, and another general, who was also his son-in-law.
To commemorate the national hero, people later made four statues, including likenesses of Qin Hui and his wife, kneeling in front of Yue’s tomb in Yue Fei Temple in Hangzhou, to have them atone for their sins. They have been condemned to kneel there for hundreds of years since.
While extolled as a national hero throughout China’s history, the most widely told story about Yue is how his mother placed a tatoo on his back. On account of this story, the idea of devotion to one’s country has become firmly incorporated into the genes of the Chinese people.
It is said that one year when the emperor sent Yue Fei to resist the Jin invaders, Yue was in a dilemma–there was no one to take care of his elderly mother if he went. When his mother learned of her son’s predicament, she told him that the country’s needs should take precedence. She then tattooed four Chinese characters, “jin zhong bao guo,” meaning "Be totally devoted to your country," on Yue Fei’s back to exhort him to fight for his country.
In fact, Yue’s devotion to his country is not simply a matter of safeguarding the then Song’s territory, but more importantly the preservation of thousands of years of Han Chinese culture. Yue knew in his heart that if Song should succumb to alien occupation, the broad and profound Chinese culture could very well be destroyed. Unfortunately, he fell prey to corrupt officials and was unable to save the Song Dynasty in the end, which was taken by the Jin in 1279.
However, the Jin did not destroy the ingrained Chinese culture, but instead were to a considerable degree assimilated into it.