Wang Lifang (1108-1180): A Chinese Man among the Jurchens

wong_isaac_finalThe Song dynasty struggled militaristically against its Northern rivals, the Liao, and later the Jin. A series of military defeats led the Song to sue for peace. Forced to pay high war indemnities, the Song dynasty was plagued by fiscal problems. “The government also needed to raise money to support its army of one and a quarter million men, where costs were enormous. In 1065, defense expenditures took 83 percent of the government’s annual cash income.[i]” Officials were divided between two prominent political parties, each with contrasting views on how to solve the fiscal crisis. The first group, the historicists, advocated for incremental reform policies. They used the previous Tang dynasty of as a model dynasty and promoted gradual improvement of already existing infrastructure. The second group, the classicists, advocated for radical reform policies. They used the legendary age of the Sage Kings as a model dynasty and promoted a campaign of massive and radical reform. The classicists gained a strong majority and implemented a series of reforms called the New Policies, of which the Green Sprouts reform was a main component. The failure of the Green Sprouts reform influenced the then Dowager Empress Xuanren to dismiss the classicists, and promote the historicists. The historicists implemented harsh measures against their opponents that banned them and their relatives from sitting for the examinations and from publishing any of their writings. In 1100, Emperor Huizong revived the New Policies and dismissed the historicists. The back and forth political shifts created internal hostility among government officials.

The powerful families had traditionally relied on their sons to pursue careers in officialdom. However, factional infighting forced many to turn away from bureaucracy and towards local society. Many prominent families supported religious institutions, helped the community, organized local militias, and enhanced their reputation by building infrastructure, distributing grain, and making loans.

In 1108, Wang Lifang was born to an aristocratic family of historicists in Changde in Hu’nan province. The classicists had made it almost impossible for anyone to obtain a career path in the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wang Lifang began studying for the exams at an early age. His teacher was a Neo-Confucian, and heavily stressed the study of the Confucian classics such as The Analects, Mencius, and the Book of Rites. Wang Lifang was a gifted scholar and learned quickly. He soon moved on to study the rest of The Five Classics and The Four Books, of which the Classic of Poetry was his favorite. At the age of 14 he sat for the local examinations and passed without the use of the shadow privilege. Wang Lifang celebrated by studying even harder for the provincial exams. He was upset that he did not score as high on the exams as he had hoped. For the next few years, Wang Lifang devoted his life to studying. At the age of 17, he sat for the provincial exams and passed with the seventh highest score. The Wang family celebrated with a giant party where Wang Lifang’s father died of alcohol poisoning. Wang Lifang, in observance of Confucian filial piety, entered a period of mourning the death of his father for three years, and did not seek an official position.

In 1127, the Jin invaded the northern territory of the Song dynasty. The Song power structure was crippled, and a power vacuum was created throughout the northern territory. Jin armies took land from the fleeing Song. Bandits roamed unchecked. Song officials were unable to consolidate their power and landholdings. The war also caused shortages of food as farmers fled, or were killed. Wang Lifang and his family fled to a Daoist temple at Dongting Lake for safety.

The temple was the site of a popular religious group that “used various forms of magic and promised their followers prosperity and good health.[ii]” Wang Lifang’s motivations for fleeing to the temple were not for religious reasons, but for safety reasons. The closest Song stronghold was too far away. Even if Wang Lifang and his family would reach it, the city was home to too many political enemies. Wang Lifang would most likely be conscripted into the army. The Song army was currently losing almost all of its battles against the invading Jin; fighting in the army would be a death sentence. If Wang Lifang was forced into the military, not only would he have a higher chance of death, he also wouldn’t be able to continue his studies, an inconceivable thought to Wang Lifang. Staying on the family estate would leave them vulnerable to bandits and the Jin armies, of which the local militia was inadequate for defense. The Wang family had previously donated large amounts of money to this particular temple and so were welcomed.

While at the temple, Wang Lifang received basic military training. Most importantly, though, he was able to continue his studies of Chinese literature and poetry. The temple retained an extensive library of religious texts, which fascinated Wang Lifang. Despite not being a Daoist, Wang Lifang extensively studied the religious texts at the temple. In 1130, he married the daughter of another wealthy family who had been forced to flee under similar conditions to the Wang family. Wang Lifang and his wife had one son. This was the extent of Wang Lifang’s family. Too preoccupied with learning as much as he possibly could, Wang Lifang had no time at all for family. Over the course of his stay at the temple, he also began composing poetry. The worst parts of his stay at the temple was when Wang Lifang was forced to go on missions to defend the temple and the surrounding marshes from bandits and the Song forces because they separated him from his studies.

Wang Lifang didn’t have any particular goal with his studies other than to learn for the sake of knowledge. He didn’t aspire to become an official in the government. He found tutoring the younger residents of the temple to be somewhat enjoyable as it gave him an opportunity to share his love of knowledge. The older residents were too caught up in Daoist magic and military affairs to care about knowledge.

Starting in 1133, the temple’s forces began losing key battles to Song forces. Wang Lifang had previously not cared for things not directly related to learning. He was able to reside within the library and study almost all day without contributing to the temple’s upkeep because he was well liked by a particular high ranking Daoist monk. However, this Daoist monk had been killed by Song forces and so Wang Lifang’s privilege was revoked. Forced away from his books and put to work, Wang Lifang hated living at the temple. His wife, however, was very spiritual and enjoyed the rebel-temple lifestyle and convinced him to stay. In 1135, Yue Fei launched a campaign against the temple rebels to bring them under Song control. Living conditions at the temple sharply declined, making Wang Lifang unhappy. The tipping point came when he saw a group of rebels burning some of his books for warmth because they couldn’t be bothered to get firewood. Outraged, Wang Lifang packed as many books as he could carry and left to surrender to Yue Fei.

The Song dynasty had a foreign policy consisting primarily of appeasement. They were wary of the expense of prolonged war and powerful generals, and preferred methods of pacification. “They assumed, not without reason, that the imperial state could wait out the leaders of a rebellion, that leaders and followers would eventually prefer the rewards and full rice bowls of garrison life to the hardships of resistance in the mountains or marshes, and that the imperial bureaucracy could manage the surrender of the rebels, move them around, and in the long run tame them.[iii]” Wang Lifang could probably have waited out Yue Fei with an adequate supply of books. However, seeing as this precious supply was in danger, Wang Lifang’s hands were tied, and he had no other choice.

Wang Lifang was integrated into Yue Fei’s army and made a soldier. From 1135 to 1137, Wang Lifang participated in many, mostly successful battles, against the Jin armies. He often carried small books into battle as good luck charms. In one instance, an arrow narrowly missed him because he had his head bowed reading a book. In 1137, the Jin and Song made a peace treaty. Wang Lifang was stationed to a remote defensive outpost. While many would be unhappy about the isolated location, Wang Lifang was overjoyed because it gave him peace to study his books.

In 1140, the Jin broke the peace treaty and invaded Song territory. Wang Lifang was assigned to a military unit indirectly under command of Yue Fei. After a series of victories with “Yue Fei and his son personally leading cavalry charges[iv]”, Yue Fei’s army had reclaimed land all the way North to Kaifeng. Anticlimactically, the army was recalled by Emperor Gaozong. In 1141, another peace treaty was made between the Jin and Song.

In 1141, Wang Lifang, angry at the Song dynasty for his conscription, decided that he and his family would defect to the Jin.

Wang Lifang quickly took the civil service examinations and scored the highest out of everyone else that sat for the exam. Because the Jin wanted to consolidate their landholdings, they were desperate for officials but they weren’t always able to fill every position with a Jurchen. Wang Lifang was appointed magistrate of a small province.

Wang Lifang inspired the residents of the province with his love for learning. Wang Lifang retained his love of studying and reading even across borders. However, the residents found that disturbing Wang Lifang’s studies with matters pertaining to government often resulted in severe punishments. The residents also found that as long as nothing bad happened that would disturb Wang Lifang’s studies, he allowed them to do almost anything they wanted. This style of absentee government proved very beneficial for all parties involved. Wang Lifang got more time to study and read. The residents were able to govern themselves with more autonomy than what the surrounding provinces received – as long as all major laws were followed. Between Wang Lifang and his son, the rest of the magistrate related work was easily done. The general happiness of Wang Lifang’s province resulted in more trade and better crop harvests, which generated more tax for the Jin government, which reflected favorably on Wang Lifang.

In 1155, Wang Lifang moved to the city of Beijing and was promoted to a high ranking official position in the revenue department of the six boards, established by the Prince of Hailing as an attempt to introduce a more traditional bureaucracy modeled on the Chinese states[v]. Finally satisfied with his extent of learning, Wang Lifang spent more time actually doing his job and less time studying. He easily learned to speak Jurchen. This skill would prove useful during the reign of Emperor Shenzong, who “saw signs of the weakening Jurchen identity all around him” and wanted to increase Jurchen identity. Emperor Shenzong ordered all residents in court to only speak Jurchen[vi]. Wang Lifang, being an amiable fellow and a good teacher, taught the Jurchen language to many ethnically Jurchen youths who had not learned the dying language. These youth would then be able to use their new language skills and gain favor from the older Jurchen generation who did not like the decline in Jurchen tradition.

Wang Lifang was very happy performing his job. “Short lived as their dynasty was, the Jurchen made a crucial breakthrough in Chinese history. Under their rule, the best educated Chinese scholars could serve a non-Chinese ruler and still feel they were advancing the cause of Chinese civilization.[vii]

In 1180, Wang Lifang died of old age at the age of seventy-two.


[i] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China Through 1600.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Page 244
[ii] Wills, John. Mountain of Fame: Portraits of Chinese History. Princeton University Press, 2012. Page 174
[iii] Wills 175
[iv] Wills 177
[v] Hansen 295
[vi] Hansen 297
[vii] Hansen 306

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ISAAC WONG is a freshman at the University of Rochester who plans to major in microbiology. Isaac is from Phoenix, Arizona and is happy not living in a desert.  He is on the university’s club volleyball team. More by Isaac