Unrequited Patriotism: From Yue Fei 岳飛 to the USA

Despite decades of legal and social discrimination that included the Chinese becoming the first ethnic group to be excluded from immigration to the U.S., the percentage of Chinese Americans serving in WWII was nearly twice that of the population as a whole. And nearly half of them were not even citizens. 

Patriotism is easy for the privileged, but why would these people risk life and limb for a country that had treated them and their ancestors with distrust and hostility? As is often the case, a story from Chinese history can help deepen our understanding…

Yue Fei 岳飛 (1103-1142 CE) is the iconic figure of patriotism in China. When he was a baby, Yue’s parents legendarily saved him from the flooding Yellow River 黃河 by encapsulating him in a clay jar. Yue grew up working the fields as a peasant’s son and joined the army at age nineteen. His skill in archery was unsurpassed and he eventually received the highest score in the imperial military exam at the Southern Song capital of Kaifeng. But one year later, the Jurchen 女眞 people to the north (ancestors of the Manchus) conquered Kaifeng 開封 and took the Qinzong 欽宗 Emperor prisoner, ending the Northern Song Dynasty 北宋.  Thus, the emperor’s half brother proclaimed himself the Gaozong 高宗 Emperor and established the Southern Song 南宋 capital at Lin’an 臨安, the modern city of Hangzhou 杭州.

A painting at Yue Fei's tomb in Hangzhou
Yue Fei became one of the principal generals leading the Southern Song armies to push the Jurchen back north of the Yangtze River 長江. During this tumultuous era, many turned against the new emperor, but Yue Fei famously had the four characters “盡忠報國 serve the country with the utmost loyalty” tattooed across his back, some say by his own mother.

Just when Yue had scored a string of victories and was poised to attack Kaifeng, corrupt ministers advised Gaozong 高宗 to sue for peace and recall Yue, lest his success in battle win freedom for the Qinzong emperor, who would depose the upstart Gaozong. The great patriot obeyed the imperial order and reluctantly returned to the capital where the notorious official, Qin Hui 秦檜, had him imprisoned for treason, and later, executed. Today, one can visit his tomb in Hangzhou, where visitors spit upon and revile kneeling statues depicting Qin Hui and his wife.

San Diego Chinese youth enlist in the Army Air Corps, 1942 
Yue Fei expected no reward for serving his country, and indeed, he received the opposite. Had he vanquished the Jurchens and freed the Qinzong Emperor, he would have been a hero at the time, but his fame likely would have faded within a couple generations, and I wouldn’t be writing about him in San Diego today. It is precisely the tragic fact that Yue Fei sacrificed himself for an undeserving ruler that makes the story so compelling. Many claim that so many Chinese Americans and, even more so, Japanese Americans served in the U.S. Military to prove their loyalty to their adopted country. While this may be partially true, the lives of 57 San Diego Chinese American veterans recounted in Through the Eyes of Heroes: A Tribute to San Diego’s Chinese American Veterans― to be released Saturday, November 13, 2010­do not include any recollections of justifying or rationalizing the decision to serve. Indeed, the majority were enlisted rather than drafted, and none of the veterans interviewed mention any debate or hesitancy about fighting for the nation that had sought to exclude them and restrict their rights.    

 Guests at the 14th Annual Veterans Day Luncheon, 2009
Indeed, Chinese and other immigrants from Asian cultures share the Confucian values of duty and loyalty that have been ingrained through generations of retelling stories like that of Yue Fei, and it would appear that these patriotic values were readily transferred to a new nation. Thus, decades of exclusion and discrimination did not dampen Chinese Americans’ love for their new homeland, and they eagerly professed their patriotism and acted on it. The lessons of history had taught them that regardless of what this country had done or would do to them, it was still their duty to do all that they could for the USA.


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