Yue Fei (Yueh Fei) - Chinese General

Yue Fei (Yueh Fei) - Chinese General

Yue Fei is one of the most famous and admired figures in Chinese history. His parents were farmers in present day Henan (Honan) province. Growing up he was acutely aware of the brutal power of the nomadic Jurchens, who frequently raided his region. In 1122 he joined a daredevil corps of the army.

In 1127 the Jurchen Jin (Chin) dynasty sacked Kaifeng (K’ai-feng), the Song (Sung) dynasty capital, carrying off to the wilds of Manchuria Song; Huizong (Hui-tsung), his heir; and 3,000 members of his family and court.

One of Huizong’s younger sons escaped capture and rallied loyalists in resistance against the Jurchens, retreating to South China, until they established a government in Hangzhou (Hangchou) near the coast in modern Zejiang (Chekiang) province 10 years later.

That prince reigned as Gaozong (Kao-tsung) of the Southern Song dynasty. Yue Fei was the most courageous, popular, and successful general, who trained and led a well-disciplined army of over 100,000 men. Volunteers flocked to join his ranks, his soldiers calling themselves the “Yue Family Army.”

They campaigned against local bandits who had risen in the wake of the collapse of central authority, earning gratitude of people in affected areas. They also took the offensive aggressively against Jin troops, recovering lost territory into the Yellow River valley, raising morale among the Chinese and hope of recovering lost lands.

Yue’s actions and popularity did not suit Gaozong and his chief councilor Qin Gui (Ch’in Kuei), who secretly began peace negotiations with the Jin in 1138, because his successes stood in their path. Gaozong might have been genuinely doubtful of ultimate success in war. He also stood to lose personally if Yue defeated the Jin and forced them to return the captive Huizong and his heir (who was Gaozong’s elder brother, and therefore the rightful ruler).

Yue Fei

Qin Gui was by all accounts a power-hungry politician who staked his future on peace with the Jin, who may have demanded Yue’s elimination as their condition for peace. In 1141 Yue was relieved of his command (as were several other successful anti-Jin generals) and jailed for insubordination and malfeasance.

No credible evidence could be produced against him, so Qin Gui gave an order to have him poisoned in jail, and his eldest son, a promising young officer and a key lieutenant, was executed. His widow and remaining children were sent to harsh exile. The Song government destroyed most documents concerning his official career.

Qin Giu retained power until he died in 1155. In 1661 changes in court politics led to the total rehabilitation of Yue Fei and surviving members of his family returned from exile. Yue’s body, secretly taken from the prison by sympathetic jailers, was exhumed and buried with honor.

Thus began the cult of Yue Fei, as a great patriot and a rallying hero of Chinese nationalism. His mother was also honored as an unselfish role model; she had tattooed four characters on his back that read, “Requite the state to the limits of loyalty.”

His wife was also admired for helping the families of those who served under him, and for keeping the family together after the tragedy of his death. Popular opinion made Yue a semimythical figure, Gaozong less than a filial son and courageous leader, and Qin Gui and his powerful wife despicable moral cowards.

Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism

Zen is a form of Buddhism that concentrates on calm, reflective forms of meditation in the quest for enlightenment. The word Zen, by which the school is known in Japan, derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means “meditation.” Dhyana took root in China and was translated into the Chinese character ch’an.

Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of ch’an, while it is also known in Korean as Seon and in Vietnamese as Thien. The same basic principles and provenance of the school apply to each country where Zen Buddhism has come to be practiced, although it has developed slightly differently in each country over the years.

The essence of Zen Buddhism is that the capability to attain the Buddhahood—to recreate the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha—exists within all people but remains latent because of ignorance of its presence. It is, consequently, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

To liberate the potential for enlightenment, the best method is to penetrate mundane, rational thought to achieve a sudden transcendent understanding. Training in the way to achieve this should be transmitted from a Zen master to a student individually and is known as satori.

All other activities, such as studying scriptures, proper behavior, and charitable works, prescribed by different schools of Buddhist thought are held to be less valuable approaches to enlightenment and may in fact be worthless.

The originator of Zen Buddhism is believed to be the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who resided in China in the sixth century. Bodhidharma is said to be the 28th patriarch of the Indian meditation school that was founded by the monk Kasyapa, to whom the lord Buddha revealed his enlightened nature directly. Bodhidharma continued the practice of passing authority over the school through subsequent patriarchs, the first of whom was Hui-ko.

By the end of the reign of the fifth patriarch, the school began to suffer from schisms and it was a branch of the so-called Southern school that took root in Japan. This featured students’ concentrating on koan (or kung-an in Chinese), which are apparently contradictory aphorisms, which, when resolved, can lead the mind to sudden enlightenment.

In some schools, the focus on koan was assisted by the Zen master’s slapping the face of the student or emitting unexpected shouts to help intensify the mind’s activity. Other schools favored the zazen method of sitting quietly.

Zen spread slowly from China and was established in Japan in the 12th century. Many of the warrior class practiced Zen and lent their support to its protection. The monk Dogen, who founded his own temple in Japan after having achieved enlightenment in China while in the zazen position, led further development.

Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin)

Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin)

Zhao Kuangyin, founder of the Song (Sung) dynasty (960–1289), is better known by his posthumous title Song Taizu (T’ai-tsu), which means “Grand Progenitor of the Song.” China was plunged into half a century of turmoil after the fall of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in 909. From 909 to 960 five ephemeral dynasties contended for power in North China while 10 regional kingdoms struggled with one another in the south.

The last of the five dynasties was called the Later Zhou (Chou); it only lasted for 10 years (951–960) because when the founder died, he left the throne to his young son under the boy’s mother as regent. When a nomadic people called Khitan invaded, she ordered General Zhao Kuangyin commander of troops to battle against them.

After one day on the march the troops mutinied and demanded that Zhao become emperor. He agreed on condition that they did not harm the Later Zhou royal family, then they marched back to the capital city Kaifeng (K’ai-feng) and Zhao was proclaimed emperor of the Song dynasty.

Taizu was a military commander and understood that he owed his throne to his officers, who could just as easily unseat him. He also understood that he needed the army to reunify China because parts of the north and the entire south were not under his control. He took care of his dual problem immediately in the following way.

He held a banquet for his top officers and, after much drinking, persuaded them to hand over their commands in return for retirement on generous pensions. After securing their agreement he allowed them to build lavish mansions in the capital (where they were under surveillance) and ensured their continued allegiance by intermarriages among their respective families.

He promoted loyal junior officers to command, rotated units to secure imperial control, and proceeded to reunify China with relatively little bloodshed. Taizu’s mother was a wise woman.

She feared overthrow of the new Song dynasty should Taizu (who was only 32 when he became emperor) die and be followed by a young and inexperienced son, as had happened to the Later Zhou.

Therefore she made her family agree to her plans on the succession on her deathbed in 961—that Taizu would be succeeded by his younger brother, who was also an experienced general. By the time the younger brother, who ruled as Taizong (T’ang-tsung), died in 997, the Song dynasty was well established.

The brothers were able administrators who worked to centralize the administration and to establish civilian control over the military. They expanded the examination system and recruited civil officials down to the county level from those who had passed the exams, which were based on the Confucian Classics.

Taizu was content not to attempt the reconquest of northeastern and northwestern China, which had been under the Tang empire, but were then ruled by nomad states. The institutions and the tone of government set by the Taizu would endure through the Song dynasty.

Zheng He (Cheng Ho) - Chinese Explorer

Zheng He (Cheng Ho) - Chinese Explorer

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family named Ma in Kunying, Yunnan province. At the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a number of generals fighting on the frontiers were put in charge of recruiting eunuchs for the court. When Yunnan was pacified in 1381, Zheng He, then aged around 10, was castrated and assigned to the retinue of Prince Zhu Di (Chi Ti) in Beijing (Peking).

As a young man, Zheng He accompanied Zhu Di and distinguished himself in a series of military campaigns against the Mongols. During the rebellion (1399–1402) by means of which the prince usurped the throne, Zheng He played an important role, culminating in the capture of the capital city Nanjing (Nanking).

Amid the conflagration, the dethroned emperor Zhu Yunwen (Chu Yun-wen) reportedly escaped. The suspicion that he might have been wandering abroad became one of the reasons Zhu Di, now Emperor Yongle (Yung-lo), launched a number of maritime expeditions led by his trusted eunuch, who was given the surname Zheng in 1404.

Preparations for the first voyage included the construction of oceangoing vessels of various sizes and the recruitment and training of the crew and staff of specialists. In 1405 more than 300 vessels and a crew of 27,800 men set out from the lower Yangzi (Yangtze) estuary and headed south along the coastal waters of Southeast Asia. After pacifying the troubled waters of the Malacca Strait, the fleet crossed the Indian Ocean and reached the port of Calicut on the Malabar coast of southern India.

The second expedition (1407–09) followed the same route as the first, adding visits to several states along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Java, and the nearby islands as well as Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The third expedition (1409–11) explored the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Sulu Archipelago, and Borneo before reaching the same destinations as the previous voyage.

Zheng He's Ship in comparison to Columbus' Ship
Zheng He's Ship in comparison to Columbus' Ship

The fourth voyage (1413–15) expanded its reach to include the Maldives, Hormuz, the Hadramaut coast, and Aden. During the fifth voyage (1417–19), Mogadishu, Brawa, and Malindi in East Africa were added to the itinerary, and many rare species of plants and animals were brought back to the capital Beijing. The sixth voyage (1421–22) ventured south along the East African coast with visits to Zanzibar and probably Kilwa, located below the equator.

In 1424 Emperor Yongle died and criticism of the expensive voyages grew louder in the court. However, the new emperor, Xuande (Hsuan-te), wanted to launch yet another expedition in order to revive China’s tributary relations with the many states established heretofore. After many delays, Zheng He departed on his seventh and last voyage in 1431. His death in Calicut in 1434 ended the whole enterprise.

During a period of 28 years, China displayed a remarkably advanced maritime technology, which led to increased contact with scores of states and regions from the Malay Archipelago in the east to East Africa in the west.

Besides establishing diplomatic relations through the exchange of gifts and visits by foreign rulers to the Chinese capital, more markets were opened up for Chinese products, especially silks and porcelains. A brilliant commander, diplomat, and explorer, Zheng He made voyages that broadened China’s geographical horizons, and the maritime trade enriched its domestic economy during the heyday of the Ming dynasty

Voyages of Cheng He

Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) - Chinese Scholar

Zhu Xi was a prominent Song (Sung) dynasty Neo-Confucian scholar who taught at the White Deer Grotto Academy and, by completing the second wave of canonizing Confucian learning, created a program of education and self-cultivation that became the official standard for the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 until 1905.

The son of a Confucian scholar-administrator, Zhu proved a highly precocious youth who in his teens was attracted to Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism, while concurrently preparing himself for the civil service examinations. Passing the highest regular examination (jinshi) at the age of 18, he embarked on a career combining periods of official service with longer periods of teaching and writing.

Zhu’s greatness consisted in his ability to formulate a unified system of thought integrating both the contributions of his Song predecessors and the popular Buddhist and Taoist principles that had made significant inroads into China with the long line of traditional Confucian teachings.

Moreover Zhu codified as basic texts of the Confucian school the Four Books—the Meng-Zi, Daxue (Great Learning), Zhong Yong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Analects—and wrote exhaustive interpretations of every sentence in the Four Books, called the Annotations.

His philosophy, often identified as the Cheng-Zhu school (since his most influential predecessor was Cheng Yi), emphasizes the doctrines of li (principle), qi (vital force), Xing or hsing (the nature of all things), xin or hsin (the human heart-mind), and Tai-Qi (tai-chi or the Great Ultimate) in an attempt to reorient education toward moral practice.

Zhu argued that li is the unchanging and eternal principle of being, order, and pattern (encompassing both universal and particular elements) that brings all essences into being and comprises the moral structure of the universe.

These essences are actualized by qi, the psychophysical vital force or simultaneously material and immaterial substance of the universe, which animates or fills out the individual patterns created by li.

Zhu Xi statue
Zhu Xi statue

The source and sum of these two universal elements (li and qi) is the tai-qi, which also causes qi to move and change in the physical world, resulting in the division of the world into the two energy modes (yin and yang) and the five elements (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth).

Hence qi is not found equally in all things (including humans), and the fact that people have various endowments of qi accounts for their ethical differences (for example, some understand and follow morality easily, while others must strive to realize moral principles).

Zhu’s system is a modified dualism because li and ch’i are interdependent, where a symbiotic relationship between the two furnishes the constitution of human beings. By defining humanity as the conjunction of Mencius’s concepts hsin and hsing, or the original heart-mind, and then identifying hsin-hsing with li, Zhu rendered human nature as intrinsically good, yielding the four moral sprouts of loyalty, respect, obedience, and honesty, and a microcosm of the supreme ordering principle resident throughout the universe. Resembling the idea of a Buddha-mind, Zhu claimed, all humans have the potential for perfection, but evil arises through the clouding effect of li being shrouded by ch’i.

For Zhu the mind of every person contains two dimensions: the mind of the Way, or the original intrinsic principled goodness that links the person directly with the tai-qi, and the human mind, or the ch’i-filled arena, where conflict arises between hsin-hsing (the original mind) and carnal desires.

Zhu’s method for overcoming this psychophysical imbalance consisted in the investigation of things and internal cultivation. Following the Daxue, Zhu held that the investigation of things was a fourfold process.

First one must apprehend the principles of things, or affairs such as matters of conduct, human relations, and political problems, that makes them one. Second one must read and reflect on the literature in which such principles are revealed, including the 13 Confucian Classics, and live according to an active ethical regimen that could develop to the fullest the virtue of humaneness, or jen.

It is through jen that one overcomes selfishness and partiality, enters into all things in such a way as to identify oneself fully with them, and thus unites oneself with the Mind of the universe, which is love and creativity itself. Through his discussion of the traditionally impersonal T’ien, or heaven, as an intelligent Mind or ordering will behind the universe, Zhu introduced a quasi-theistic tendency within Confucianism.

Third, one must become a lover of learning and study history; here we see in Zhu a kind of positivism that affi rms, contra Buddhism, the reality of things and reinforces the traditional Confucian emphasis upon the objective validity of scholarship. Fourth, one must study one’s own experience, or perform an “exegesis of one’s life,” by making oneself aware of the principles that cause things to happen.

By internal cultivation, Zhu meant that one must spend part of each day in contemplation and self-reflection upon one’s daily behavior in light of what one learned from the Classics, and that one must develop a reverence or sense of awe toward the universe and an inner-mental attentiveness through the technique of quiet sitting (reaching stillness of thought through meditation).

Zhu-Xi Memorial Museum
Zhu-Xi Memorial Museum

Although Zhu’s service at the royal court was brief, with much of it limited to lectures and memorials conveying the most general sort of advice to the emperor, he spent considerable time in local administration as a social reformer.

His work included the improvement of agricultural methods and schools, the establishment of charitable granaries, famine relief, and community organizations, and the rehabilitation of local academies. As a result, Zhu suffered severe political persecution from the more conservative authorities, such that the canonical status of his teachings, albeit widely accepted by contemporary scholars, would not be officially certified for some years later.

In the 14th century Zhu’s teachings became the official orthodoxy of China (an assessment lasting until the early 20th century) and likewise became accepted in Japan and Korea as the most complete and authoritative exposition of Confucianism. Therefore, they exerted a profound influence on the whole cultural development of East Asia well into the modern period.