Folk tales of real people: 《岳飞纹字》Yue Fei’s Tattoo

Song dynasty warrior-poet and folk hero Yuefei (岳飞) gets a tattoo to remind himself of his duty to his country. This is an “advanced” post for three reasons: one, there are some words in here that can’t be found in the dictionary, two, there are quite a few proper names, and three, to understand this, you need to know a little bit about Song history.

Long story sort, The Song dynasty had two main enemies, both on their northern border. The Liao (辽) to the Northeast, and the Jin (金) to the Northwest. The Song bickered with the Liao for 150 years, and then both the Song and Liao were invaded by the Jin who took the Song capital at Kaifeng and forced them to relocate it south, to modern-day Hangzhou. The pre-invasion period is called the “Northern Song”, because the song capital was in the north, and the post-invasion period the “Southern Song”, because the capital was moved south. The way history remembers it, the Song Dynasty was corrupt and broken, which is why the Jin were able to take the capital city, and the nation only survived thanks to heroes like Yuefei.

The story of Yuefei’s tattoo is full of machismo and to-the-death loyalty, and gossip is that gangsters or military will sometimes get this same tat.

Some language stuff

We’ve got a few proper nouns, here: we’ve got the dynasty names, the Liao (辽), the Jin (金) and the Song (宋); we’ve got the name of the Song capital Kaifeng (开封), we’ve got people like Yuefei (岳飞), his mother Madam Yaotai (姚太夫人), and Deputy Marshall Zongze (副元帅宗泽).

We’ve also got some things that no longer exist, such as 醋墨, which is a mix of vinegar and ink paste used to smear on wounds to seal them. There’s also an official / military rank, 秉义郎, which I’ve translated as “Minister of Righteous Justice”, which only existed during the Song Dynasty.

And finally, we have classical-ish Chinese being used in a quote: “智勇才艺,古良将不能过”. Breaking this down word-by-word clears its meaning right up:

智 – Intelligent
勇 – brave
才 – talented
艺,- artistic
古 – antiquity
良 – Good
将 – general (military)
不能 – cannot
过 – defeat

In other words, “Even the good generals of antiquity couldn’t have defeated [someone with] so much intelligence, courage, talent and artistry.”

Source here.









姚太夫人先在岳飞背上写了字,然后用绣花针刺了起来。但“国”字没有一点,象征国内无首。刺完之后,岳母又涂上醋墨。从此,”精忠报国”四个字就永不褪色地留在了岳飞的后背上。 母亲的鼓舞激励着岳飞。岳飞投军后,很快因作战勇敢升秉义郎。这时宋都开封被金军围困,岳飞随副元帅宗泽前去救援,多次打败金军,受到宗泽的赏识,称赞他“智勇才艺,古良将不能过”,后来成为著名的抗金英雄,受历代人民所敬仰。

Show English translation »
When Yuefei was fifteen or sixteen, the Northern Jin invaded [across] their southern [border]. Those who held power within the Song Dynasty were corrupt and incompetent, were pushed back through gradual defeats, and the country’s continued existence hung by a thread. Yuefei [had originally] joined the army to resist the Liao. But before long his father died, and he left the military to return to his hometown and pay his respects.

In 1126, the Jin launched a large-scale incursion into the central plains, and Yuefei once again enlisted. Before he set out, Madam Yaotai [Yuefei’s mother] called Yuefei before her, and said: “Right now the country is facing great difficulty, what do you plan to do?”

“Go to the front lines and slaughter the enemy, and serve my country with perfect loyalty.”

Madam Yaotai listened to her son’s answer, and was quite satisfied, as “serve the country with perfect loyalty” was precisely what she hoped her son would do. She decided to take these four words and tattoo them onto her son’s back, so they would be forever engraved on his heart.

Yuefei opened his shirt, exposing his thin back, and invited his mother to begin.

Madam Yaotai asked, “Child, tattoos are quite painful, are you afraid?”

Yuefei said: “Mother, a little needle is nothing. If I was afraid of a needle, how could I [face] going to war on the front lines?”

Madam Yaotai first drew the words on his back, then used an embroidery needle to tattoo him. But she left the dot off the character “国”, to symbolize that the country had no [real] leader. When she was done, she spread a mix of ink and vinegar [over the wound]. From then on, “serve the country with perfect loyalty” [were engraved], never-fading, on his back. His mother’s encouragement inspired Yuefei. After Yuefei joined the army, he was promoted quickly to the rank of Minister of Righteous Justice due to his courage on the battlefield. During this time, the Song capital of Kaifeng was surrounded by the Jin army, and Yuefei went to Deputy Marshall Zongze’s rescue, defeating the Jin army many times, and he won Zongze’s appreciation, who said of him, “Even the good generals of antiquity couldn’t have defeated [someone with] so much intelligence, courage, talent and artistry.” Later he became a famous hero of the anti-Jin resistance, and receive the admiration of later generations.

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