SPEAKER 1: Tonight we're welcoming one of our own. Annetta Fotopoulos joined the PhD field of Asian literature, religion, and culture in 2008 and has been working here since then except when she was off in China doing considerable field work. She is now finishing her PhD, which is a study of several sites where various groups contest with one another to make-- take control of narratives about China's past. And she's speaking to us about a subset of that study tonight in her talk on the latest retelling of the Ye Fei Story.
Annetta has published in China in the [CHINESE] series special issue dedicated to historical memory and has a new article on the 12-- the repatriation of the zodiac symbols that were variously looted and taken around the globe from China in-- about a century ago that is just appearing in the November issue of Modern China. It's already online, but will be in print in a matter of weeks as well. And as I said, is completing her PhD with us now. So please help me welcome Annetta.
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: Thank you. First, I just want to say that I've been to many of these talks as a student here and it's really quite a privilege to be standing up here now. And I'm very grateful to all of you for coming today. So thank you.
So without further ado. The title of my talk is Projecting Multi-ethnicity Into the Past-- The Latest Retelling of the Ye Fei Story. And so apparently what I want to talk to you today about is Yue Fei, who was a 12th century general from the Song state-- Chinese state of Song.
But actually, what I'm interested in is not the historical facts of this figure but rather the stories that have been told about him. And these stories are quite diverse. They've been communicated in many forms-- from oral legends, to plays, to novels, to even modern television series today. And the story has changed quite significantly over time, both in its narrative content and thematic emphases.
To start with, to give you a preview of what some of these stories are, I want to show you some of the ways Yue Fei has been depicted over time. So going to this first picture, this is a woodblock print from a 1923 edition of a novel about Ye Fei. And the reason that I picked this is because Yue Fei is depicted here in a group photo-- sort of. This is Sun Tzu, one of his mentors and Li Gang, another official, one of his mentors. And you can tell that this is the emperor because he has a named character fanning him.
And the reason I picked this is because you can see that this picture is very reminiscent of the performative tradition in China. The Yue Fei story, pretty much since the Song dynasty in which Yue Fei lived, has repeatedly seen performances of the Yue Fei story. And this is one of the rare photos where you'll see him in a group photo. Generally, you'll either see him alone or depicted in a scene from the story. And so I thought it was interesting, because this attests to the performative edition. And it's almost as if he's in a cast of characters here.
So moving forward, this is another very different depiction of Yue Fei. This is from a Ming dynasty scroll by an unknown artist. And the reason I picked this picture is because Yue Fei is depicted as seated reading a book, which is very odd if you're used to contemporary visions of Yue Fei in which he is usually depicted as a martial figure in armor, with weapons, on a horse.
And so my only explanation of this is that in Yue Fei's biography he's been known to have loved to read martial classics, such as Sun Tzu's Art of War. And so in this depiction of him, he looks like a bookworm scholar, which is very different than the later depictions you'll see.
The next depiction I want to show you is from a mural that's actually at the-- on the wall of the temple to Hangzhou in-- the temple to Yue Fei in Hangzou today. This is a classic photo of Yue Fei as the filial son. He's kneeling before his mother-- this is his mother-- who is tattooing characters on his back. And in attendance, of course, is his wife. This sort of image of Yue Fei becomes very iconic later. And from pretty much the Qing period on, you see repeated depictions of this as Yue Fei, the filial son.
The next photo I want to show you is a much more recent photo. This is from 2001, this statue. And as you can see, it's the martial image of Yue Fei in his-- in armor, in full armor, with weapons on a horse. And this is actually in front of the martial arts museum in Dalian in Northeastern China.
And so the mythology that they're drawing from here is this image of Yue Fei as a martial arts expert. And he's actually supposed to be the founder of several martial arts traditions, including Xingyi martial arts and Eagle Claw martial arts. So this is drawing on that mythology and presenting him at the front of the museum.
Another picture I wanted to show you is a contemporary rendition of Yue Fei. This is Yue Fei the action figure. And as you can see, he's in his martial uniform with a weapon. Even comes with a horse. This is his banner, because he became a high-ranking general in the Song army. And you can even swap out his head and hands here and his weapons. So we'll talk more about this later, but this is the contemporary image of-- one of the contemporary images of Yue Fei that I want to talk to you about.
So as the old adage goes, everyone loves a good story. And some 873 years after his death, stories about Yue Fei are still in wide circulation. And virtually every person who grew up in the People's Republic of China-- and many who did not-- have heard some kind of story about Yue Fei. In this talk, I'll begin to address why this is and show that each retelling of the Yue Fei story has had unique ideological implications for the time and place in which it was retold.
At the same time, each retelling has carried with it some material from previous iterations. And so over time, the Yue Fei story has expanded, carrying many layers of associations from different time periods that only someone familiar with the genealogy of the story would be able to distinguish.
So there's a tendency in modern historiography for us to want to pin down the original and separate what is authentic or historically accurate from what is fictional. But in fact, the power of the narrative comes primarily from its mutability, its ability to be reinterpreted and revived within new social frameworks and situated within new discourses of meaning.
So in this talk, I will give you several examples of how the Yue Fei story has evolved and through evolution managed to stay relevant and powerful to different audiences and different ages. I will then analyze the Yue Fei narrative in the context of contemporary China. But first, let me give you some historical background.
Yue Fei lived from 1103 to 1142 in the state of Song, during the tumultuous transition period from the Northern Song to the Southern Song. During the Northern Song, the state of Song shown here was ruled by people who considered themselves to be inheritors of the previous Chinese dynasties. From their point of view, Song was the Chinese dynasty while the surrounding states of Liao and Western Xia which were ruled by Khitans and Tanguts respectively, were foreign, non-Chinese states
It's important to note that at this time, distinctions between these different groups of people were not drawn in terms of the contemporary category of ethnicity. Nor was there yet a concept of the Han ethnicity, which was not introduced into China until the late 19th century as part of the conceptualization of the Chinese nation-state. Rather, the people of Song thought of themselves as the center of civilization and culture and other groups as uncivilized barbarians, what they called [CHINESE], who could potentially be adopted into the empire, but only if they learned the proper Chinese ways.
Liao was a big problem in this context, because the Khitan rulers occupied lands that had been part of the previous dynasty's territories, which the Song saw as theirs by right and desperately wanted to win back. At the same time, the Liao was militarily stronger than Song. And as one of the conditions of a non-aggression treaty, Song had reluctantly agreed to pay annual tributes to Liao, which they considered completely humiliating.
Thus, after the Jurchens, who were under Liao rule in the Northeastern part of the territory here, rebelled and formed their own state of Jin, the Song entered into an alliance with them in hopes of overthrowing Liao and winning back what they saw as Chinese territories. However, this backfired terribly.
The Jurchens proved to be militarily stronger than anticipated, and not only were able to take the main Liao capital and conquer much of Liao territory, but they continued to proceed south, and broke the treaty with Song. And in fact in 1127 they seized the Song capital of Bianjing, which was in this area, which is modern day Kaifeng. And they-- along with it, they seized the song Emperor Qinzong and his father, the previous emperor, Huizong. This event was later remembered in Chinese history as the "humiliation of Jingkang" or the [CHINESE]. The transition to the Southern Song took place when the new emperor moved the capital further south and took the reign title Gaozong.
So moving on. According to the earliest extant biography of Yue Fei, The Chronicles of the Life of the King of E, the [CHINESE], which is widely considered the most important historical source on Yue Fei, Yue Fei was a military officer at the time and was set on reclaiming the territories lost to Jin and wiping out the humiliation of Song. Through numerous military accomplishments, Yue Fei was able to rise through the Song military ranks and become a great general with a sizable army under his command nicknamed the Ye Family Army, the [CHINESE].
However, in 1141, after a series of major victories, and just as he was on the verge of reclaiming the Northern Song territory that had been lost to Jin, Yue Fei was abruptly ordered to withdrawal by imperial edict. A high-ranking court official Qin Hui, who was advocating for peace with the Jin, had Yue Fei thrown into prison under false charges and then executed. Qin Hui then proceeded to have Yue's son Yue Yun and his loyal subordinate Zhang Xian also executed and the family lands confiscated.
Although many scholars view this account as basically historically accurate, since much of it is based on historical documents, it is also regarded as somewhat biased, since it was written by Yue Fei's grandson, Yue Ke, about 60 years after Yue's death, 40 years after Yue Fei had been pardoned by the Xiaozong Emperor in 1162.
Yue Ke was strongly motivated by the desire to clear his grandfather's name and to prove his grandfather's virtue. The account presents Yue Fei in an extremely positive light as the epitome of the hero. He is extraordinarily talented, morally irreproachable, and undyingly loyal to his home state of Song. The account also downplays the tensions between Yue Fei and the Gaozong Emperor, placing the blame for Yue Fei's death almost exclusively on the unscrupulous official Qin Hui. Many scholars have speculated that this is because Yue Ke wanted to avoid any political repercussions that might have come from criticizing the previous emperor.
Well, this is actually a scroll from the Song and is one of the earliest portraits we have of Yue Fei. It's called the Four Great Generals of Zhongxing. Can you tell which one Yue Fei is?
So as you can see, there are these taller figures and then there is these smaller ones. The smaller ones are all unnamed servants. So we know that the taller ones are the generals. Yue Fei is actually here, the one to the furthest left, which is interesting because he's actually depicted as a little bit short and pudgy compared to the other generals.
This here is Zhang Jun, who was another contemporary of Yue Fei's. And in fact, in Yue Ke's biography he's part of the conspiracy along with Qin Hui that ended up framing and killing Yue Fei. So it's interesting that they're depicted together here. On the other hand, this is Han Shizhong, who was-- who, according to Yue Ke, defended Yue Fei and demanded to know why he had been thrown into prison. This is another general, Liu Guangshi, who isn't very central to the story.
So moving on to the Yuan. In the Yuan, numerous dramas were produced about Yue Fei based on popular legends. Nearly all of them shifted the focus away from Yue's accomplishments as a general in the fight against Jin to his wrongful death at the hands of the treacherous official Qin Hui. For example, the play Crime at the Eastern Window, written by Kong Wenqing and still quite famous today, describes how after Yue Fei's death at the hands of Qin Hui and his wife Lady Wang their crimes against Yue Fei are exposed and they are punished eternally in hell.
The Nanjing University Scholar couple [INAUDIBLE] have pointed out that this shift in emphasis likely had to do with the fact that the Yuan dynasty was ruled by Mongols, a northern group traditionally considered non-Chinese, whose rule of China was strongly contested by Song loyalists. Thus during the Yuan, popular drama tended to avoid highlighting conflict between Chinese and others, as in Yue Fei's fight against the Jurchen state of Jin, and instead focused on Yue Fei's wrongful death as a critique of both the traitorous official Qin Hui and the previous Song regime.
So here we have a modern rendition of the Crime at the Eastern Window. And these are the three main conspirators behind Yue Fei's death. In the middle, we have Qin Hui. This is his wife, Lady Wang, who is supposed to have convinced Qin Hui to commit this heinous crime. And this is another official, Moqi Xie, who had a grudge against Yue Fei and so conspired with them to kill him.
And in fact, this story of the villainy of Yue Fei is preserved in the modern day. These are stone statues of Qin Hui and his wife Lady Wang at the current temple to Yue Fei in Hangzou, which was built in 1979. And as you see, they're in a perpetually kneeling position actually facing Yue Fei's tomb in eternal penance. And so you see that the narrative of Qin Hui's villainy that was emphasized during the Yuan actually carries on to the modern day.
In the Ming, the rulership of China reverted back to Chinese, who saw themselves as reclaiming the territory from alien rule. And the story again changed. In 1449, the Ming emperor Zhengtong was captured by the leader of a Mongol tribe in what was called the Tumubao incident. This recalled the humiliation of Jingkang from the Song when the Song emperor was captured by invading Jurchens from Jin. Thus, the Yue Fei story was revived with plays, novels, and poems about him proliferating.
The narrative emphasis of the story again shifted, this time away from Yue Fei's death at the hands of Qin Hui to his life as a great general who fought many battles against the invaders from Jin and was nearly able to reclaim the lost territory of Song. Many plays from the previous Yuan dynasty were heavily revised or rewritten, with more emphasis on Yue Fei's heroic fight against the Jin and staunch loyalty to his home state of Song.
The poem "The Whole River Red," [CHINESE] attributed to Yue Fei himself, also became extremely popular at this time. In the poem, Yue Fei expresses his burning ambition to take back Song territory from the Jin invaders, as illustrated in the following lines. "Longing to feast on the flesh of the barbarians, and laugh as we drink Jurchen blood, we await the day when once again, we will restore the old mountains and rivers, and present ourselves to the emperor."
The poem is perhaps Yue Fei's most famous work today and has been set to music by many different artists over the last several decades. However, in 1958, the scholar [INAUDIBLE] proposed that the poem was likely forged in the meeting because it does not appear in writings before this time and its style and content are suspect. [INAUDIBLE] argument that the poem was forged was supported by subsequent scholars, including [INAUDIBLE] in the 1960s and [INAUDIBLE] in the 1990s.
However, there have also been numerous scholars who have refuted [INAUDIBLE] forgery hypothesis, most notably the reigning Yue Fei authority Deng Guangming and his students [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE], who have poked holes in [INAUDIBLE] theories and argued that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that [CHINESE] was forged. The fact that the authenticity of the poem has elicited such heated debate in Yue Fei scholarship today is a testament to the enduring importance of the resisting invaders narrative of the Yue Fei story.
Moving onto the Qing. In the succeeding Qing dynasty, the situation again changed, since rulership passed from Ming Chinese emperors to the Manchus, another northern group who actually claimed descent from the Jurchens of the state of Jin.
Beginning with the Yongzheng Emperor, the Qing emperors sought to reinterpret the Yue Fei story to bolster their own legitimacy as rulers of China. They did this by attempting to show that Yue Fei's loyalty was not to one group of people-- the Chinese from Song-- against another-- the Jurchens from Jin-- but specifically to the emperor of China, a position now occupied by the Manchus on account of their virtue and by the will of heaven. Thus, in Qing poems, plays, and novels, Yue Fei is represented as the embodiment of the Confucian vassal, filial towards his family and unwaveringly loyal to the emperor.
During his reign, the Qianlong Emperor had the temple to Yue Fei in Hangzhou, where Yue's tomb was enshrined, renovated and ordered court officials to conduct biannual sacrifices there. He even visited the temple in person on three separate occasions and dedicated no less than nine poems written by his own hand to Yue Fei.
So I'm going to show you a line from one of them. It says, "Reading history, I often think of loyalty, filial piety, and sincerity."
It might seem a little odd for a Manchu emperor, a descendant of the Jurchens of Jin-- whom Yue Fei fought-- to be praising Yue Fei in this manner. However, when analyzed as a political narrative meant to reinforce the Manchu emperor's legitimacy to rule over China, it makes sense that he would praise Yue Fei, a traditional Chinese hero, in this manner, emphasizing the virtue of Confucian loyalty.
Another major version of the Yue Fei story that came out during the Qing was Qian Cai's vernacular novel Telling the Complete Biography of Yue, or [CHINESE], which combines historical fact with popular legends to give an exciting action-packed and episodic account of Yue Fei's adventures from his youth to his death. Although initially banned during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the novel enjoyed great popularity during the reign of his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, and is still quite widely read today, especially in an abridged version for youths.
One scene in particular that appeared for the first time in this novel was a scene in which Yue Fei's mother tattoos the character [CHINESE] here onto his back, meaning "serving the country with the utmost loyalty." This scene, which in the Confucian tradition explicitly unites the two concepts of filial piety towards one's parents and loyalty towards one's country, later became a cornerstone of subsequent popular memory of Yue Fei.
So this here is actually a picture from a 1935 edition of the novel. And as you can see, Yue Fei is, as traditionally depicted, kneeling before his mother, who has just tattooed the four famous characters on his back. And as I said before, this is an iconic image Yue Fei that gets reproduced over, and over, and over again up until the modern day and for some people is actually the dominant association that Yue Fei has.
However, towards the late Qing, the Yue Fei story was used for very different purposes by anti-Manchu who blamed the alien Qing government for China's failure to stand up to foreign imperialism. Secret societies, like the [? King ?] [? Yue ?] Society, the [CHINESE], and the Restoration Society, the [CHINESE], reemphasized the self-other differentiation in the Yue Fei story and the notion of reclaiming one's territory from outside invaders that had been prominent during the Ming. Members conducted secret blood rituals before temple statues of Yue and swore to reclaim the motherland from the Manchu invaders.
The historian Prasenjit Duara pointed out in his 1995 book Rescuing History from the Nation that although secret society ideology based on traditional Confucianism was incompatible with liberal revolutionary ideas based on Western theories of progress, the populist underground societies and elite revolutionaries were able to find common ground in their anti-Manchu sentiment.
For the revolutionaries, anti-Manchu feeling was based on social Darwinist models of racial superiority and a vision of a mono-ethnic Han Chinese nation. But for the underground societies, it was based on a more traditional notion of reclaiming the empire from illegitimate outside invaders embodied in the spirit of Yue Fei.
This strange marriage of traditional ideas of Chineseness as a cultural and territorial category, with newly-formulated ideas of nation-- [CHINESE]-- and nationality-- [CHINESE]-- led to a new conceptualization of Yue Fei by a student from Hubei studying abroad in Japan as "The first national hero in 5,000 years of Chinese history." The term "national hero" here-- [CHINESE]-- national hero [CHINESE] caught on and it became a standard appellation for him and other historical figures throughout 20th century-- the 20th century.
So moving on. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the period of chaos that followed, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, down eventually consolidated power and continued to promote the image of Yue Fei as a national hero or a [CHINESE]. Yue Fei became a regular feature in national history education. At the same time oral storytelling, performed dramas, and vernacular novels about him continued to be extremely popular.
In 1914, President Yuan Shikai ordered that rituals be performed for historical martial heroes. Yue Fei and the Three Kingdoms hero Guan Yu were considered the two highest ranking martial deities, worshipped side by side at temples, both popularly and through state-sanctioned rituals.
As Japanese aggression towards China escalated in the 1930s, Yue Fei was once again invoked as a symbol of protecting one's homeland against outside invaders. The slogan "Return our rivers and mountains"-- [CHINESE]-- supposedly uttered by Yue Fei when going into battle against the Jin became extremely popular in the 1930s and '40s in the context of the Chinese war of resistance against Japan.
According to a 2004 article by the former head of the Song History Research Institute, [INAUDIBLE], the phrase was actually invented in 1931 by a philologist named [INAUDIBLE] who wanted to use Yue Fei to inspire nationalist sentiment after the Japanese invasion of Northeast China. [INAUDIBLE] copied each of the four characters in the phrase from various rubbings of Yue Fei's writings and combined them to make a false calligraphic inscription to which he attached Yue Fei's name and seal.
[INAUDIBLE] forgery was extremely successful, and the phrase "Return our rivers and mountains" is still frequently associated with Yue Fei today, and in fact is featured prominently on a calligraphic plaque above Yue Fei's statue at his temple in modern-day Hangzou. So as you can see, this is his statue in the temple in modern-day Hangzou. And here's the calligraphic plaque, which is a direct imitation of the calligraphic style that was forged. And compare this to the temple statue from the Republican period itself and you can see that the statue is noticeably different in style. And they were actually placed in exactly the same place in the same shrine in the temple.
So after the communist victory in the civil war against the nationalists and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Yue Fei's national hero status began to be called into question on the mainland. Guided by Marxist-Leninist notions of class warfare and historical progress, some writers argued that although Yue Fei exhibited elements of national spirit by showing concern for the common people and wanting to drive out the invaders, this spirit fell short of national hero status, since Yue Fei was ultimately a blindly loyal pawn of the emperor and subscribed to feudal slave ideology.
Two specific examples were given to support this argument. The first was that, according to Yue Fei's biography, he put down a peasant uprising at the command of the Song emperor. And he was thus suppressing peasants in an anti-revolutionary way. The second is that Yue Fei-- although Yue Fei was on the brink of reclaiming Song territory from the Jin, and thus following the will of the people, he ultimately obeyed the emperor's command to withdraw from the battlefield. And thus, his feudal slave mentality outweighed his national consciousness.
At first, these accusations spurred furious academic debate with many defending Yue Fei's national hero status. However, the negative view of Yue Fei ultimately won out. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, Yue Fei was severely criticized as an enemy of the people. Works about him ceased publication and his temples, including the one in Hangzhou that enshrines his tomb, were demolished.
So this is a picture of the temple and tomb before it was just destroyed. And this is a picture from the modern temple, which was restored in 1979. And as you can see, they're very similar. And so by reconstructing the temple according to the original picture, we actually create an illusion of unity between the two, and in that way almost negate the destruction that happened during the Cultural Revolution. So you would actually not realize that the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution unless you really dug into the history.
After Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Yue Fei was almost immediately rehabilitated and regained his status as a great popular hero. As I mentioned, his tomb and temple in Hangzhou that had been almost completely destroyed were restored in 1979 based on pictures of the old temple. Publications about Yue Fei, both in popular literature and in academia, proliferated in the 1980s and continued on to the 1990s and the 21st century.
Despite this general acclaim of Yue Fei, there was also a new discourse, at first confined to intellectuals, that began to question the political correctness of the Yue Fei story in the context of the multi-ethnic Chinese nation. The problem was that Yue Fei, now retrospectively considered to be of the Han ethnicity, had fought against the Jurchens from Jin, who were retrospectively considered to be ethnic minorities, since they were the claimed ancestors of the Manchus, today one of China's 55 minority groups.
In 2002 this view was publicized when an official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, Beijing Youth Daily, published the following passage reprinted from the 2002 program for middle and high school history education produced by the Ministry of Education. Here-- quote "we only call those outstanding personages who represent the entire Chinese nation's interests in opposing foreign invaders "national heroes"; as far as outstanding personages like Yue Fei, although we also affirm their effectiveness and role in opposing ethnic exploitation and oppression, we do not call them "national heroes."
This passage immediately elicited heated controversy across mainland China, and even in the independent territory of Hong Kong and in the nation of Singapore. Public opinion pieces flooded the national media as well as local and school publications, academic journals, online news websites, and blogs.
In support of the abolishment of the national hero title were some people who agreed with the view that it was no longer appropriate to call Yue Fei a national hero because it was insensitive to the feelings of minorities. Another group in favor of abolishing the title pointed out that since Song people had no concept of nation at all, the title national hero was ahistorical.
However, the majority of voices who spoke out passionately defended Yue Fei's right to the national hero title. These can be summarized into three major arguments.
Some argued that patriotism and Yue Fei's other virtues are universal. Although Yue Fei historically fought the Jurchens, there's nothing wrong with calling him a national hero, they said, since he exemplified virtues-- especially patriotism, but also discipline, loyalty, and concern for the common people-- with which all Chinese, regardless of ethnic affiliation, can identify.
A second view held that to change Yue Fei's historical assessment, which since China's founding has been a national hero, would be to use the politics of the present to distort Chinese history. And so the politics of the present should not prevent people from recognizing Yue Fei and other historical heroes' achievements.
A third view held that national hero should be an ethnically syncretic category. Yue Fei was undeniably a national hero because he made notable contributions to Chinese history in defending his homeland. So were heroes of other ethnicities, such as Yue Fei's rival general Wuzhu, who loyally fought for the Jin.
But just one day after the original news came out, a Ministry of Education representative stated in a press conference that there had been a major misunderstanding in the media. The statement about Yue Fei had not been part of the 2002 educational program. In fact, the passage the media was referring to was only part of a supplementary set of study guidelines written in 1996. And it was quote "merely the opinions of some scholars in academia" who thought that calling Yue Fei a national hero would be detrimental to the feeling of minorities.
However, the official maintained, these academics had nothing to do with official education policy, and Yue Fei's official status remained unchanged. Interestingly, this did very little to stifle the debate and opinion pieces continued to pour out for several months, especially on online venues.
So to give you a sense of how heated and drawn-out the debate was, I'm going to give you an example of some of the headlines from the debate here. "Are Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang National Heroes or Not?" Quote "The Third Yue Fei War of Tongues-- Chinese Textbooks Also Cause Controversy." "Forget about Yue Fei. Go on Living Your Life." "Yue Fei is a Loyal Vassal of Old and a National Hero." "Also Discussing Yue Fei's 'Being a Loyal Lord' and 'Loving his Country.'" "Stop Arguing about Whether Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang are National Heroes."
So as you can see, people actually got sick of the debate after a while. But one of the major effects of the national hero debate was that there was a noticeable surge in academic inquiries into Yue Fei's life, history, and legacy in the following years. Another side-effect was that people started to look critically at how Yue Fei was being taught in school and were surprised to discover that in fact Yue Fei had long since ceased to be called a national hero in history textbooks.
Although after the founding of the PRC in 1949 the nation was officially declared multi-ethnic and the ethnic classification-- or [CHINESE] project-- of the 1950s categorized the entire national populace into 56 official ethnicities, this contemporary vision of the multi-ethnic Chinese nation was slow to be embraced in historical representations.
This included history textbooks, which through the 1950s continued to interpret Chinese history as primarily the history of the Han people and other ethnicities, such as the Mongols and Manchus-- who ruled China during the Yuan and Qing dynasties respectively-- as barbarian others. In this narrative context, Yue Fei could unproblematically be depicted as a national hero, defending the more-civilized Han Chinese Song against invasion from barbarian Jurchens of Jin.
However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ministry of Education officials became more aware of this discrepancy and made conscious efforts to depict the ancestors of today's ethnic minorities in less-alien terms. Thus, Yue Fei's national hero appellation was removed from textbooks. Instead, he was described more soberly as a general of the Song in the historical conflict with Jin.
History textbooks from the late 1970s began to project the modern borders of the Chinese nation backwards in time, reimagining imperial China as a multi-ethnic but basically culturally-unified territory, and including both traditionally Chinese dynasties and other states arising in territory currently considered China as part of Chinese history.
By the 21st century, this teleological vision of China as historically always multi-ethnic and Chinese history as characterized by increasing ethnic integration was brought to completion in the narratives of history textbooks. The Haifa University Scholar Nimrod Baranovitch illustrates this phenomenon very clearly in his 2010 article "Others Know More-- The Changing Representation of Non-Han Peoples in Chinese History Textbooks."
And in it, he features these two maps, a 1956 map and a 2003 map. As you can see, in the 1956 map, the only three territories that are depicted are of the Song here and the Western Xi and the Liao. So it's primarily Song-centered, because these were the only two states that Song was interacting with at the time. And as you can see, Song is separated from the Western Xia and the Liao in this map by solid black lines, implying that they're-- that these three are all autonomous territories not belonging to the same entity.
Compare that to a 2003 textbook map of the Song period and you see that the entire area of contemporary China is depicted. And Song here is only one among several different parts of this territory, including the Western Xia the Liao, but also other territories that are now within the boundaries of contemporary China. And these are all separated by dotted lines, implying that they are not autonomous states but in fact all parts of one unified entity.
So in this contemporary narrative of perennial multi-ethnic China, Yue Fei's national hero status becomes problematic. And as the 2002 national hero debate underscored, Yue Fei-- either the narrative either has to be rejected or justified in the way that Yue Fei is represented.
So now that you have all the historical background, I'm going to talk to you about the most relevant part of my research for us today, namely how Yue Fei is being represented in contemporary China. In the 21st century, it seems clear that the multi-ethnic composition of the contemporary People's Republic of China, like the rule of China by Mongols during the Yuan or the rule of China by Manchus during the Qing, has necessitated a narrative shift in the story in order to erase the tensions of the Song-Jin self-other narrative, while continuing to harvest the positive patriotic energy of the figure of Yue Fei.
1970S Ministry of Education officials had hoped to achieve this narrative shift simply by erasing Yue Fei's appellation "national hero" in textbooks and redefining him as a historically-sanitized general who loved his country. However, the 2002 debates illustrated that there is considerable popular pushback to this kind of narrative intervention, largely because national hero has already become such an entrenched part of the story, just as the villainization of Qin Hui was entrenched during the Yuan and persists to the present day.
Here I want to propose that there is an alternative way in which the Yue Fei story is being rewritten, one in which Yue Fei gets to keep his national hero status and embrace multi-ethnicity too. This is done, on the one hand, by claiming to represent the authentic historical Yue Fei, thus implying that the account is objective and accurate, unlike previous politically-motivated distortions of the story. On the other hand, it is done by reframing Yue Fei's fight against the Jin somewhat ahistorically as not just on behalf of Song but in the future interests of a greater multi-ethnic China. I'll give you two examples of this.
As my first example, I want to turn to the 2013 television drama [CHINESE], or rendered in English, Patriot Yue Fei. The 69-episode epic follows the life of Yue Fei from his early career as a common soldier, through his meteoric rise to the position of general, to his tragic death at the hands of Qin Hui and the Gaozong Emperor. The script was written by Taiwanese screenwriter Ding Shanxi before his death in 2009 and directed by Hong Kong director Kuk Kwong-leung, known primarily for his Kung Fu movies. Chinese heartthrob model and actor Huang Xiaoming stars as Yue Fei, shown here.
The movie was marketed as a historical drama that was, for the most part, based on historical fact. In the words of Huang Xiaoming, quote "Patriot Yue Fei is pretty much loyal to the original. Everyone wants to see the most historically realistic Yue Fei" end quote.
Perhaps because of this claim, many of the drama's critics have focused on the ahistorical elements of the movie and its extensive use of fictional material from unhistorical sources as their points of attack. One such ahistorical element is in the portrayal of the enemy Jurchens from Jin, which clearly attempts to follow the contemporary ethos that so-called historical minorities should be portrayed in a less-negative light. So this is the Jin, the Jurchens.
For example, Yue Fei's arch-nemesis, the Jin general Wuzhu, who is traditionally portrayed as a bloodthirsty brute, in Patriot Yue Fei repeatedly displays curiosity towards and a respect for Han culture and people. He rescues a Han literati from his soldiers, hires him as this Chinese tutor and cultural advisor, and is deeply affected by the Confucian notion that legitimate rulership should be based on the will of the people. At the end of the drama, after Yue Fei's death, Wuzhu even burns incense before a shrine to Yue Fei and expresses his gratitude for having known such a worthy opponent.
Thus, the TV series implies that minorities too can be positive characters. However, this only seems to be true insofar as they exhibit proper respect for the superiority of Han Chinese culture.
So here we have the Song side, the Han people. That's Yue Fei. This is Yue Fei's wife, Xiao'e. This is Qin Hui, the treacherous official who frames Yue Fei. And this is the emperor, Zhao Gou.
On the Jin side we have Jin Wuzhu, the emperor and Prince from the Jurchens. And you see all of his cronies here. We can tell that they're Jurchen because they're wearing fur. And there's also this fictional character [? Ling ?] who is Jin Wuzhu's main love interest and wife. So it's another way to humanize him by giving him a romantic love story.
So complementary to this more positive depiction of minorities I mentioned is the opening theme song of the show, which remixes lines from Yue Fei's famous poem "The Whole River Red"-- [CHINESE]-- which you might recall was extremely popular during the Ming in the context of resisting invaders. However, the song leaves out the lines about feasting on Jurchen flesh and laughing as we drink their blood, which were criticized by some people as barbaric and derogatory to Chinese ethnic minorities. So here I'm going to show you a clip from the title theme song so you can get an impression of what this TV series is like.
- [SPEAKING CHINESE]
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: So we have Yue Fei there, Huang Xiaoming.
- [SPEAKING CHINESE]
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: That's Qin Hui, the treacherous official.
- [SPEAKING CHINESE]
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: And that's Zhao Gou, the emperor.
- [SPEAKING CHINESE]
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: That's Jin Wuzhu.
- [SPEAKING CHINESE]
ANNETTA FOTOPOULOS: So as you can see, it really dramatizes the story and brings it to life.
So another manifestation of this contemporary discourse of multi-ethnicity that I pointed out is that in fact the object of Yue Fei's legendary loyalty is reinterpreted in the drama. Rather than being loyal to the Song as a territorially-defined state-- as in the Ming version of the story-- or loyal to the emperor as the embodiment of that state-- as in the Qing version of the story-- in this version of the story Yue Fei is instead depicted as loyal to something beyond the Song territory or state, a higher ideal or vision of a more inclusive country in which various peoples can live in peace.
This is articulated in Patriot Yue Fei's rendering of the iconic moment where Yue Fei's mother tattoos the four-character phrase onto his back, [CHINESE]-- serving the country with the utmost loyalty-- which, if you remember, first appeared during the Qing in Qian Cai's fictional novel.
In Patriot Yue Fei, Yue Fei's mother-- before Yue Fei's mother takes up the needles and ink to tattoo the characters, she explains what she means by these words. Quote "The character for 'country' in 'protect one's country' doesn't just mean the Great Song, it means the brothers of all countries within the four seas, it means a country where all people are able to coexist in peace with one another."
This is a critical moment in the television series because it takes a well-known trope and subtly reinvents it to speak to the contemporary discourse on ethnicity and justify the continued celebration of Yue Fei as a national hero, despite the fact that he was fighting for what is now considered one ethnic group against another. It does so by making Yue Fei's war about more than just driving out the invaders from his home state of Song or showing his steadfast loyalty to the throne, which was, of course, the point in the Qian Cai novel.
Here, the writers, through the voice of Yue's mother, make his fight above all about his moral convictions and a higher good that serves the interests of all within the proto-Chinese nation. The rhetoric here supports a modern interpretation of Yue Fei as a prototypical patriot of modern greater-multi-ethnic China, the first true hero of the nation. Thus, the writers of the show offer an alternative to the deletion of the national hero appellation and justify his continued celebration as a national hero by redefining country [CHINESE] from Song to a more far-sighted vision of greater China.
The other contemporary telling of the Yue Fei story I want to examine is in the way Yue Fei is depicted in the Temple to Yue Fei in Hangzhou. The origin of the Hangzhou Temple to Yue Fei actually dates all the way back to Northern-- to the Northern Song, when the Emperor Xiaozong posthumously pardoned Yue Fei for his crimes in 1162 and had his remains moved to a mountain on the northeastern banks of the West Lake in Hangzou, where his family was allowed to build a shrine.
This temple was rebuilt, renovated, and expanded many times over the course of imperial history. As I mentioned previously, during the Cultural Revolution, it was almost completely destroyed. And in 1979, it was rebuilt based on the-- based on pictures of it from the Republican period.
So this is the modern-day temple. The temple was renovated in 2000 and remained more or less the same until 2012. Then from December, 2012 to March, 2013, over a four month period there were a series of renovation to the temple that were characterized in the media as minor modifications. However, as I will show you, these minor modifications subtly shifted the way Yue Fei is represented in the memorial.
So, mimicking the structure of the previous Republican era temple, the contemporary Hangzhou temple has three main areas. Here is the [CHINESE] shrine area or the loyal martyr shrine; the tomb area here, which-- as the name would suggest-- contains his tomb; and the [CHINESE] shrine area here, the inspiring loyalty area.
So the [CHINESE] shrine area and the tomb area were both reconstructed in 1979. And inside the [CHINESE] shrine area, we have the temple statue of Yue Fei, which you saw earlier, as well as the mural of the mother tattooing scene that I showed you at the beginning of my talk.
In the tomb area, we have the tomb of Yue Yue and Yue Yun that were restored that you've seen before. And we also have the kneeling statues of Qin Hui and his wife that have been recast repeatedly since the Ming. And in fact, these statues before had to be frequently replaced because people would be so angry about Yue Fei and his wife that they would spit and urinate on the statues, and even in the middle of the night come and take the statues, vandalize the statues, and throw them into the lake. So these statues had to be recast many times. So finally in the modern-day Hangzhou they put a fence around them so that people can't do that anymore.
The [CHINESE] area, this area, is what I really want to focus on. And this was constructed in 1981. And although the original building was actually dedicated to Yue Fei's parents and had religious statues of his parents, the modern temple in 1984 was converted into the Yue Fei Memorial Hall, which is essentially a museum to Yue Fei.
The Nanjing University Historian [INAUDIBLE] argues that this late 20th century reconstruction of the temple to Yue Fei, with its addition of the Yue Fei Memorial Hall, effectively transformed the temple from a ritual space-- centered on the tomb and Yue Fei's death-- to a modern commemorative space-- centered on the memorial and Yue Fei's life.
Here I want to show you in-- that in commemorating Yue Fei's life, the hall actually speaks to the contemporary concerns of multi-ethnicity and historicity. So here's what the Memorial Hall looks like today from the outside.
The Memorial Hall actually has three main exhibits and three different buildings. The main building, the [CHINESE] shrine, contains an exhibit focused on Yue Fei's background and life story, including his involvement in the fight against the Jin. The western building here contains an exhibit that outlines Yue Fei's acts of valor, nobility, and firm resolve in resisting the Jin and his wrongful death as a result of this.
According to [INAUDIBLE], speaking in 2004 before the renovations, the purpose of this exhibit was quote "to refute this school of thought that considers Yue Fei to have had a foolish sense of loyalty and to demonstrate his struggle to oppose conciliation and surrender" end quote.
The eastern building here contains an exhibit about Yue Fei's legacy, including some old photos of the shrine.
Before the 2013 renovations, these exhibits consisted mainly of sequential narrative plaques in plain text and glass frames-- like this-- along with illustrations of scenes from Yue Fei's life, which were also framed and in glass. All this text was exclusively in Mandarin Chinese characters, so excluding a different linguistic audience.
After the renovations, the narrative text was rewritten, restyled, and greatly expanded. English translations were also provided below the Chinese text, as you can see. Furthermore, pictures from before were supplemented with other kinds of visual media, like interactive tablets, wax figurines, and videos, and also dioramas. So this is a diorama of the [INAUDIBLE] Pavilion, which Yue Fei by tradition is supposed to have died at. And so the effect of these kind of new visual media is to make the narrative much more compelling and interesting to tourists.
Another major difference was that the emphasis of the textual narrative suddenly shifted. The previous narratives contained heavy Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and were geared towards proving that Yue Fei was not blindly loyal to the emperor because he opposed conciliation with the Jin. They thus directly addressed themselves to the discourse on Yue Fei from the 1950s to the 1970s that accused him of being a slave to feudal ideology.
The narratives further argue that Yue Fei was a national hero because he resisted the Jin, who were at the time a backwards nomadic slave society. He was thus preserving the superior and historically more progressive feudal agricultural society of the Song. In other words, these narratives recognize the Jurchens as ethnic minorities but defended Yue Fei's national hero status in terms of Marxist-Leninist notions of historical progress. So let's take a look at an excerpt from the epilogue.
So it actually begins with a quote from Lenin. And then it says "Yue organized and led soldiers and the people in resisting the Jin, pledged his life to protecting the unity and the progress of the fatherland, and embodied a loft popular integrity, and a magnificent patriotic spirit. He advocated employing a method of opposition in order to resist and purge ethnic invasion and oppression coming from without, and through this protected the progressive forces of production from suffering damage or even regression in accord with the shared interests of people of all ethnicities." And so you see here very heavy Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and also the idea of ethnicity comes in.
The current narratives put in place in 2013 preserve this historical progress argument as a justification for Yue Fei's warmongering towards retrospective minorities. But they tone down the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. In general, the new museum narrative is much more self-consciously grounded in historical evidence. It quotes heavily from Yue Ke's biography of Yue Fei written in the Southern Song as well as a later history from the Yuan and various collected historical documents to tell the life story of Yue Fei. The biggest difference in the epilogue is that Yue Fei goes from being an unequivocal hero to a more human character with admitted flaws, although it is not stated explicitly what these flaws are. So let's take a look at an excerpt.
Quote "Yue Fei was a patriotic general of the Southern Song Dynasty, also a hero of the nation. When the Jin army invaded the Song Dynasty, the highly developed farming Culture in the Central Plains was vandalized by the backward Jurchen nomadic acts; this was a historical regression. Yue defended not only the House of Song's territory but the interests of the entire China. His incorruptible integrity, arduous will and enduring formed Man's role model. Yue Fei had his drawbacks. But during his lifetime, his good deeds outweighed his defects."
So as you've seen, both narratives project the modern boundaries of the Chinese nation backwards, stating that Yue Fei's fight was not simply about territorial struggle but for the betterment of the entire multi-ethnic Chinese nation. Thus, in these 21st century temple narratives, what was once interpreted as Yue Fei's fight to reclaim his motherland from outside invaders is transmuted into a preservation of cultural and economic enlightenment that was actually to the benefit of all ethnicities.
On the other hand, the second narrative is subtly different in that it focuses on authenticated and factual statements of Yue Fei by citing historical texts and expresses a previously unseen ambivalence towards his legacy, perhaps colored by the national hero debate of 2002.
So so far I've argued that in contemporary times the Yue Fei story has taken on meaning every bit as political as that of previous eras, namely legitimizing the current boundaries of the Chinese nation-state by projecting them backwards into history. This is done on the one hand by reinterpreting Yue Fei's [CHINESE] or country as not Song but a greater multi-ethnic vision of China. On the other hand, it is done by returning Yue Fei to history through a reference to historical sources and documents.
But in the final portion of my talk, I want to complicate this picture a little bit. My analyses of various historical representations have focused on the political implications of each version of the Yue Fei story to explain why the story was retold over and over again and continued to exert such great influence. But there is another way in which the Yue Fei story is being retold today, quite separate from the political discourse on multi-ethnic China. And that is in consumer culture.
The Yue Fei story, and all of its rich associations, have been capitalized on in many different ways in contemporary China, and not just in the world of TV and film. There are dozens of graphic novels based on Yue Fei mythology as well as numerous episodes of children's cartoons holding Yue Fei up as a moral exemplar.
Yue Fei's martial and tactical prowess has not been lost on the video game industry. In one game by Japanese company Koei, based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and set in a fantastical vision of the third century AD China, Yue Fei is obtainable as a secret character, despite the fact that the historical Yue Fei lived in 12th century China, nearly a millennium later.
One of the effects of retelling the Yue Fei story in popular media is that it often decontextualizes Yue Fei from history and exploits the power of the narrative while actually failing to attribute any substantive meaning to it, which is the very opposite of what official narratives are seeking to do.
So one particularly good example of this is this action figure set which you can buy on the Chinese e-commerce website Taobao. So these are actually-- this is actually directly influenced from the TV series of Yue Fei. We have the figurine of Qin Hui. And this is Yue Fei-- the prisoner Yue Fei in his prisoner robes. So this is the scene where Qin Hui visits him in prison in order to taunt him. And we can tell that Yue Fei has been tortured because his robes have blood on them.
And the advertisement for this set points out that it comes with all this stuff-- it comes with two chairs and a table, teacups. You can get a pillory and manacles to put on Yue Fei as well as exchangeable hands. There's also a hat for Qin Hui, should you want him to wear a hat.
And so if all of this detail has not sold you, even get a calligraphic scroll with his famous words [CHINESE]-- "Give back my rivers and mountains," which we know were forged in the 1930s. And the calligraphic style is an exact replica of the one that you see in his temple today. And if that doesn't draw you, he even has the characters [CHINESE] that we know that his mother famously tattooed on him.
So anyway, why am I showing you this? What's fascinating to me about all this is that all of these minute details, which were ones hallmarks of political narratives-- the treachery of Qin Hui having Yue Fei framed and tortured, which was so central in the Yuan; or the words [CHINESE] that became such an important symbol of Yue Fei's resistance against invaders in the context of the 1930s war of resistance against Japan; or the tattoo by Yue's mother that united the Confucian concepts of loyalty and filial piety and the Qing-- all of these are capitalized on here not for political gain but for monetary gain. They are converted from political symbols to sales tactics, aimed at convincing Chinese consumers to spend 900 yuan, or $140, on these toys.
So instead of leaving you with a conclusion, I want to leave you with a question. Namely, how is modern consumer culture and 21st century hypermediacy going to affect the future of the Yue Fei story? Will it help keep it alive with the younger generation by presenting the story of Yue Fei in appealing new contexts like video games and comic books? Or, paradoxically, will it dehistoricize and decontextualize the narrative bit by bit until nobody remembers who Yue Fei was anymore or what the Yue Fei story is supposed to mean? Thank you very much.
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Annetta Fotopoulos (Ph.D. candidate, Asian Literature, Religion & Culture, Cornell University) traces the many depictions of a Southern Song Dynasty military general named Yue Fei throughout Chinese history to comment on contemporary debates over his national hero status. She complicates modern day attempts to project multiethnicity into China’s past in order to portray Yue Fei as a Han Chinese patriot. Recorded Oct. 19, 2015 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series.