Ying Le (1120-1175): A Life of Emotions

Depending on the reason, being remembered in history can be a great honor.  People are often remembered for leaving an impact on others, winning a great battle, or making a large contribution to society.  Ying Le always had an impact on others.  Though Ying did not accomplish anything great or drastic during his lifetime, he did respect and care for his friends. Ying was a notoriously good friend. Ying would always put others before himself, and he would consistently drop anything to help a friend.

Under this guise of happiness, Ying’s life was a roller coaster full of emotions. There were times of great happiness, times of great sorrow, these times forming together a yin and yang of negativity and positivity creating a balance of good and evil in Ying’s life. During tough times, Ying’s two most influential people in his life were Yue Fei and Wang Zhe. Whenever he needed, Ying would always approach either Fei or Zhe, where he would find solace and wisdom. In return, Ying was always a great friend, and was always there for either man if they needed. Because of this kindness and hospitality, these men, even in their afterlife, will always remember Ying. This brief anecdote shows the impact that Ying had on his friends and family.

Ying was born in 1120, during the Song Dynasty.  His father was Dar Le who was a civil official and his mother, Shi Le, stayed at home.  They were living in Kaifeng when Ying was born, which was the capital at the time.  They were not a rich family, but they were better off than the average family at the time.  Dar decided to name his first-born son Ying, due to its meaning of “eagle”.  When Ying was born, his cry was so piercing and powerful that it reminded his father of a one-time encounter with an eagle.  The eagle had no real effect on Dar but its cry will forever be ingrained into his memory.  Thus, when Dar heard Ying crying, he immediately thought of this eagle and named his son Ying.

Shi Le stayed at home because she practiced foot binding.  Foot binding was becoming better known at the time.  According to one historian, Victoria Hansen, foot binding began with “adult dancers binding their own feet in the tenth century, but then mothers began to bind the feet of their daughters, because the feet were more malleable before puberty.”1 Shi’s mother was the one to actually bind her feet.  Fortunately, Shi’s mother was quite skillful at foot binding, and so Shi was still able to walk short distances without feeling much pain, as opposed to many other women at the time. “If done poorly, walking was always painful,”1 Hansen reports, and so Shi was very lucky that this was not the case. Foot binding “meant that a woman’s feet became a private part of her body, viewed only by herself, her mother when she was young, and her husband after marriage.”1 Ying always thought that foot binding was nonsense.  He did not see any applicable uses of the trend and thought it was more impeding than desired. Thus, Ying always viewed foot binding in a negative light.

Ying’s parents loved him and wanted the best for him.  Out of devotion to their son, they began making him study for the civil service exams at the age of five.  At first, he questioned his parents why he had to study. He was too young, too inexperienced, and lacked the maturity necessary to prepare for these grueling exams. Ying’s parents responded that they were trying to give him a bright future, especially since other families had shadow privilege.  Shadow privilege, also known as yin privilege, “was granted to the male kin of officeholders.  Depending on one’s rank, one’s sons, grandsons, nephews, sons-in-law, brothers, and cousins could sit for an easier examination with a higher pass rate – often close to 50 percent – than the open examinations.”2 This meant that other people could take an easier exam just because they were related to an official.  Thus, Dar and Shi wanted their son to be prepared for the harder exam, and thus believed their son should start preparing early. They knew that he had an unfair disadvantage compared to the other boys who had shadow privilege. Ying never fully understood the logic, but he reluctantly complied with their wishes.

In 1127, the Jurchen invaded northern China. This invasion forced the people of the Song Dynasty to move south.  Hansen reports that “hundreds of thousands of people including twenty thousand high officials, tens of thousands of their office staff, and over four hundred thousand military and their families moved to the new capital of Hangzhou and its surrounding towns.”3 This migration included the Le family.  They gathered their belongings and headed south with everyone else.  The journey was not easy, especially since Shi had her feet bound, but they arrived in Hangzhou to assimilate into the new capital.

To continue their lives from Kaifeng, Dar and Shi had Ying continue his studies for the civil service exams.  At this point, Ying began feeling resentment towards his parents.  He did not want to study all day, as he would rather explore the new city he resided in. However, his parents forced him to focus on his studies. In his free time, Ying always had to study, and never had time to have fun and explore Kaifeng. Ying soon realized that there were a lot of people who moved south to Hangzhou – buildings would be cramped full of people during nights, and streets would be filled during the day.  The city was not ready for this sudden increase in population, and thus this overpopulation caused a lot of poor peasants and beggars to fill the streets since there were more people than jobs and available housing.  Ying preferred Kaifeng and wished to return, but his parents informed him that it was not possible at the time. Ying did not understand why and blamed his parents for moving south.  This increased his resentment toward them.

At the age of fifteen, a horrible incident occurred to Ying’s family.  While Ying was out playing with friends, bandits attacked his household.  The bandits killed Dar and Shi and burned the house down.  Ying came home to only ashes leftover from the fire.  He had no more family and no home to go to.  He had to live in the street and start taking care of himself from now on.  Ying realized how much his parents meant to him.  He now understood that they only wanted the best for him.  A fire sparked within him and he desired revenge on the bandits responsible.  Unfortunately, the bandits were unknown so was never able to take his revenge.

After a few months of searching for them with no luck, Ying witnessed military soldiers walking down the street.  Seeing the soldiers gave Ying an idea that he had never had in the past – the prospect of joining the military. Ying weighed the options, the costs and the benefits, and decided that he would join the military.

In 1136, Ying Le officially became a soldier for the Song military.  He was merely a foot soldier and was stationed just outside of Xianyang.  This is where Ying met Yue Fei for the first time. Yue Fei, a prominent general of the Song dynasty, was a smart and powerful leader.  Ying was inspired by Yue Fei’s presence and wished to be like him someday.  A year later, Yue Fei and Ying reunited to remove bandits from a building. Ying demonstrated great heroism in this battle. Yue Fei noticed that Ying had the potential to be a great warrior, and so he recruited Ying to join his squadron.  This began a strong friendship between the two.

In 1139, Yue Fei “led a lightly armed party to investigate the condition of the tombs of the Northern Song emperors.”4 This was actually an excuse to survey the area.  This party included Ying, as he was always ready for combat.  This was the first of many adventures for the two of them.  They began a tradition where they would drink tea together after a battle. At many times, Ying would often mention Yue’s wounds, and would make sure that Yue was fully healed before accepting another mission.  Ying truly cared for his friend’s health, and he would constantly tell Yue to be more careful in battle.

Qin Gui summoned Yue Fei to the capitol in 1140.  Qin Gui was a high-ranking official who thought that fighting the North was troublesome. Qin Gui only wanted peace.  He had “Yue and two other powerful provincial generals kept at the capital, where they were given high-ranking posts in the military bureaucracy.”5 Yue tried to retire from his office, but his request was refused.  A year later, Yue Fei was imprisoned for possible treason and killed by either poison or strangling while in prison.  Ying heard the sad news of his beloved friend.  He continued to drink tea after every battle to show respect towards Yue Fei.

Ying Le was promoted to Colonel in the year 1148.  He still aspired to be general just like Yue Fei.  In 1150, Ying met a person he thought he would never meet.  This person was Xi Fan, and the two of them fell in love.  They were married two years later and Xi gave birth to their only son, Gu.  At this point in his life, Ying was truly happy.  He no longer felt the hatred that he felt when he was fifteen, ever since his good friend Yue Fei died.

Unfortunately, in 1165, Xi and Gu both died from an illness, an illness similar to the common day malaria.  Ying felt like he had just lost everything in the world.  Unsure what to do with his life now, Ying left the military and began to wander from city to city.  He expected to somehow find an answer for this cruelty that occurred to him.

Ying eventually ended up in Shandong, in the year 1167.  Here, Ying met Wang Zhe, the Daoist Monk.  Wang Zhe taught about the Inner Elixir, which is a teaching where “the elixir could be prepared by purification and concentration of essences already present in the boy, without the preparation and ingestion of drugs.”6 Ying became inspired by Wang Zhe and decided to stick around and study under Wang.

Ying spent a lot of time with Zhe over the next few years.  He officially became a Daoist monk in 1170 and lived at the temple.  Ying spent a lot of time having long conversations with Zhe, often enjoying some tea.  He wanted to understand more about life, and Wang was able to help him with this.  “Out of many who honored him and followed his teachings he judged only seven to be fit to be his disciples,”7 and Wang did not consider Ying one of these disciples.  Wang thought Ying of a good friend who is seeking guidance.  Le often talked about his own personal life to Wang.  The two men became good friends over the next years.

Ying Le was robbed and stabbed while coming home from a friend’s house.  He died in the year 1175 at the age of 55.  Ying is known in history thanks to Wang Zhe.  His friend remembered his stories and passed them on through generations.  Wang even passed his stories down to his seven disciples, including the Daoist Monk, Qiu Chuji.  Ying’s story depicts suffering and joyfulness.  He suffered when his parents, wife, and son died.  But he also had happiness in his life with his wife, son, Yue Fei, and Wang Zhe.  The impact that Ying leaves with good friends is so huge that they honor him with their memory.


Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 262-263.
Hansen pg. 243
Hansen pg. 257
Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, Print. Page 177.
Wills pg. 179
Wills pg. 186
Wills pg. 189

Thumbnail: Henry LeHENRY LE is from Rochester, NY. He is a senior at the University of Rochester. He’s studying physics and his minors are math and computer science. Henry enjoys playing euchre in his free time. More by Henry