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Leo K. Shin

Associate Professor
Departments of
History and Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
 

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Work in Progress

The Uses of a Chinese Martyr:
Yue Fei (1103-42) in History and Memory

Comments and suggestions are most appreciated.

Outline

To even the most casual observer of China, the images of Yue Fei (1103—1142) loom large on the historical horizon. As every child in China would learn, it was Yue Fei the heroic general who led the Song-dynasty (960—1276) armies to repel the Jurchens and to rescue China from obliteration in the hands of the northern “barbarians.” In so doing, Yue Fei is deemed to have embodied the highest quality of courage and tenacity. But as every student would discover as well, it was Yue Fei the tragically-flawed minister who, on the brink of victory, allowed himself to be recalled by an cowardly emperor, imprisoned, and executed on the basis of trumped-up charges. As such, Yue Fei is seen to have exemplified the fundamental paradox in the Confucian ideals of loyalty and legitimacy.

That the story of Yue Fei is more complex is well known to historians. Yue Fei’s heroic image, scholars have argued, has been carefully cultivated both by himself and by observers of later times. Throughout his life, as Hellmut Wilhelm pointed out in an early study, Yue Fei “constantly and consciously worked toward producing an image of himself as a hero of mythological proportions, rigidly patterning himself after the myths of the past.” In part following Yue Fei’s script, scholar-officials of the Ming dynasty (1368—1644), who were themselves constantly concerned with the threats posed by the Mongols from the north, not only led efforts to construct and renovate temples dedicated to the Song-dynasty general but also attributed (falsely) to him the stirring piece “Redness All Across the River,” in which the author, with great poetic finesse, expresses his desire “to eat the flesh of the nomads” in order to “recover our old rivers and mountains.” Even Qing-dynasty (1644—1912) emperors, who traced their ancestry to the Jurchens, deemed it desirable to let stand in the imperial capital a temple devoted to Yue Fei, the one person who would no doubt have been their mortal enemy.

But even though historians have long recognized the significance of the uses of Yue Fei, they have left unanswered two central questions: how had such uses transformed over time, and how did the changing uses of Yue Fei reflect the shifting structure and dynamics of later imperial China? Although scholars interested in the practice and process of cultural transmission have focused on one aspect or another of the changing images of Yue Fei, a more complete and satisfactory investigation, this study argues, would need to take into consideration more broadly the intersecting worlds of politics, religion, literature, and lineage organization. By tracing and analyzing the political, religious, literary, and socio-economic processes through which Yue Fei became a national icon, this study aims not only to offer the first systematic and multifaceted account of its development but also to contribute to the lively debate surrounding the creation and transmission of beliefs and practices in later imperial China. As such, this project should be of interest not only to scholars of Chinese studies but also to a wider audience interested in the relationships between history, memory, and cultural identity.

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Grants

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) Standard Research Grant (2008-10)
  • Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange Research Grant (2007-09)
  • UBC-SSHRC Grant (2006)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Large Research Grant (2005)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Small Research Grant (2002)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences Grant to New Faculty, UBC (2001)
  • Harvard-Yenching LIbrary Travel Grant (2000)
  • President's Research Grant, Simon Fraser University (1999)

In the News

  • "Maxine & America vs The Chinese," The Frank Chin Blog (comment posted on 24 January 2008).
  • Anthony Kuhn, "Age-old Nationalist Hero Gets a Demotion in China," Los Angeles Times, 28 January 2003, p. A3. (pdf)

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Copyright © 2002-08 Leo K. Shin, University of British Columbia. Updated 1 July 2008