Zhao Jiaming (1229-1279): The Last Defender of the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty, although an economically prosperous period in China, suffered countless defeats against invaders.  The inability for the Song military to defend its northern territories left the court with no other choice than to retreat to the south and secure peace through annual payments.  Hopes of recapturing the empire’s lost land became a possibility under General Yue Fei, who made successful incursions into the Jurchen Jin Dynasty.  But his demise under the hands of Qin Gui, a government official, removed any chances the Song possessed in re-conquering its former territories: “Fighting with the Jin dynasty continued until 1141, when the Song emperor signed a humiliating treaty with his Jin counterpart.  Eventually people realized that Hangzhou would have to be more than a temporary capital…”[i]  With the loss of the great general, it appeared as if the Song army would never receive another able commander.  But in the mist of this military chaos, one man emerged with enough skill, charisma, and bravery to provide the Song Dynasty with a final fighting opportunity.

In the year 1224, the Song Dynasty received its last great military commander.  Zhào Jiāmíng, born in Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song, belonged to a prestigious military family, renowned for their dedication to the protection of the Chinese state.  At the age of five, he began receiving a thorough education, becoming quite knowledgeable on Confucian teachings, poetry, as well as historical texts throughout the years.  Showing great academic potential, Jiāmíng soon considered pursuing a life as a government official in order to improve the empire, which delighted his mother, but brought sadness to Jiāmíng’s father, who had hoped his child would bring honor to the family through military victories, as he and his father had done.  Although set on taking the civil service examinations, Zhào Jiāmíng would soon choose a different path after an event that shook both his life and the Song Empire.

In 1234, messengers brought news to the family of the successful conquest of the Jin Dynasty by a joint Song-Mongol invasion, as well as the unfortunate death of Zhào Jiāmíng’s father during the conflict.  After the funeral, Jiāmíng decided to abandon the path of a civil servant for career as a soldier in order to show respect for his father and the family.  Growing up, Zhào Jiāmíng constantly heard stories of his father’s accomplishments during the wars against the Jurchens as well as his grandfather’s service under the famous General Yue Fei.  Remembering his family’s history helped to ensure his decision in joining the military.  Fearing for the death of her son, Jiāmíng’s mother originally voiced opposition, pleading with him to reconsider.  Eventually, after realizing that she could not change his mind, reluctantly agreed to his resolve.  At the age of ten, he began training in martial arts and studying military tactics.  Aside from his own family, Yue Fei served as the young boy’s idol: “Legends of Yue’s heroism continued to grow.  In some places, especially near Hangzhou, temples were erected to his memory.”[ii]  At eighteen years old, Jiāmíng enlisted in the Song army, with hopes of not only bringing honor to his family, but to outdo Yue Fei.  Although his dream of improving the Song Empire as a government official no longer existed, Zhào Jiāmíng hoped to accomplish the same task through military victories.  He now sought to protect his homeland and to keep its citizens safe, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Since Zhào Jiāmíng’s entry into military life, the young man could not restrain his eagerness to engage in battle.  Jiāmíng’s commanders noted his overconfidence, and although were pleased at his enthusiasm, constantly lectured him on the importance of refraining from arrogance in the battlefield.  Zhào Jiāmíng would receive the opportunity to prove his skills when assigned to defend the border against the new Mongol invaders, who begun waging wars with the Southern Song after the fall of the Jin.  These defensive campaigns proved beneficial for Jiāmíng, who was continuously awarded honors for his bravery and skill.  By the age of twenty-five, he rose to the rank of general and received his own force to command.  For the next five years, General Zhào Jiāmíng would continue to engage the Mongol forces, winning the admiration from his soldiers.  Despite his titles, Jiāmíng remained humble and kind towards his army, training as well as eating the same meals with them.  During battles, the general did not retreat behind the ranks, rather remained in the front lines and fought alongside his troops.  Aside from the techniques learned from his father and grandfather, Zhào Jiāmíng also looked at Yue Fei for inspiration: “But Yue, dripping with blood from the battle, rallied his troops with a fiery speech reminding them of their obligation to repay with loyalty the dynasty’s benevolence to them, of their chance to gain undying fame if they stood fast, and of his own orders to behead anyone who fled.”[iii]  Although not as extreme as Yue Fei, Jiāmíng’s modest personality as well as his prowess in creating strategies and leadership won him the loyalty of his army.  Even when his enemy’s forces outnumbered his own, General Zhào Jiāmíng remained calm and patient.  His fellow commanders often noted his practice of drinking a cup of tea, followed by a prayer to a small ancestral shrine prior to every battle and questioned his ability to relax.  He always replied that creating panic would lead to defeat just as likely as being crushed by the enemy.  Zhào Jiāmíng’s success in commanding armies and repelling invaders soon earned him the greatest honor of his entire family’s military heritage.

In 1254, at the age of thirty, General Zhào Jiāmíng received an imperial edict, requesting his presence at the Song court.  Unaware of the purpose of his summoning, Jiāmíng feared the worst, remembering the fate of Yue Fei, and hoped he would not endure a similar demise.  But his worries soon disappeared after learning the reason for meeting Emperor Lĭzōng.  Until the rise of Zhào Jiāmíng, no soldier or commander ever possessed the abilities as General Yue Fei.  Realizing the potential Jiāmíng held, the Song court, decided to promote the general to supreme commander, which gave Zhào Jiāmíng full control over the Song Army.  In addition, Emperor Lĭzōng bestowed further honors on the Zhào family and ordered the general to return to Hangzhou in order to assume the role as a personal bodyguard to the imperial family.  Filled with joy, Zhào Jiāmíng bowed to the court and offered his undying thankfulness for their generosity.  After leaving the palace, Jiāmíng returned to his home and paid respects to his family.  The general expressed great pride for being able to bring honor to his ancestors, especially his father and grandfather.

Six years later, in 1260, Kublai Khan rose to rule the Mongols and established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271.  The new Mongol leaders now sought to conquer the remaining part of China.  General Zhào Jiāmíng realized the dire situation, and helped supervise the greater fortification of Xiangyang, which defended the waterways that ran through South China.  Jiāmíng understood the loss of the city would allow the Mongol armies to take the empire with ease.  When news arrived of Xiangyang’s entrapment by Mongol forces, Zhào Jiāmíng left the capital to engage the Mongols in an attempt to lift the siege.  The campaign unfortunately ended in disaster, as Song engagements constantly ended in retreat.  Although showing great skill, the general could not defeat the superior cavalry of the Mongols: “By the thirteenth century, the Mongols controlled most of the supply routes, limiting the Song to purchases of only ten thousand horses a year.  The horses they managed to buy were short, sickly, sometimes as small as large dogs, and woefully unfit for fighting the Mongol horses.”[iv]  Before leaving for the Hangzhou, Kublai Khan sent a message to Zhào Jiāmíng.  The Mongol leader admired his abilities and offered to spare his life if the Song general surrendered and joined his forces.  Jiāmíng refused the Khan’s proposal, responding that no threats, honors, or riches could persuade him to betray China.  By 1273, the Battle of Xiangyang ended with a Mongol victory.  News of the fall of Xiangyang as well as Fengcheng alarmed the court as Kublai Khan now possessed the ability to conquer China.  Despite his efforts, Zhào Jiāmíng could not push back the Mongols and in 1276, fled the capital with the Song court and the remaining army.

By 1279, the Song forces prepared for the final assault against the Mongols at Yamen.  At this time, Zhào Jiāmíng shared military power with a fellow friend, Zhang Shijie, and together constructed a massive fleet.  Despite earlier defeats, the Song court remained confident that their superior technology and naval skills would lead to victory: “With their ships outnumbering those of the Mongols three to one, the Chinese anticipated victory and mistakenly believed the Mongols would attack quickly.”[v]  After witnessing battles against the Mongols, as well as suffering previous defeats, Zhào Jiāmíng knew the enemy’s strength and ability to adapt new weapons into their arsenal, thus understood that victory could not be achieved.  The general as a result, came to the conclusion that his end was near.  With the arrival of the Mongol naval forces, the Song prepared their fleet, forming a line consisting of thousands of ships.  Despite outnumbering the enemy, the Mongols successfully surrounded the Chinese ships and cut off their supplies of fresh water and food.  Although expecting defeat, Zhào Jiāmíng made one final speech to his soldiers, quoting the words on the back of Yue Fei: “It was said that she had tattooed on his back four characters, jin zhong bao guo, ‘exhaust all your loyalty in repaying your debt to the ruling dynasty.’”[vi]  He reminded his troops of their duty to fight to the end, as they were the last remaining force defending the Song Dynasty as well as to die with honor.  His words were motivational, but received little enthusiasm, as hunger and thirst proved an even greater force than encouragement.  On the morning of the Battle of Yamen, while drinking a cup of tea, Song generals alerted Jiāmíng of the Mongol attack.  The general remained calm, as he always did during battles, despite the screams of death surrounding him.  Looking back at his life, Jiāmíng only regretted getting caught up in military affairs to the extent that he could not find time to marry and raise a family.  As his father’s only son, the childless Zhào Jiāmíng could not continue his family lineage or legacy.  After his final act of praying to his ancestors, Zhào Jiāmíng drew his sword and charged the enemy.  Rallying his troops, Song forces desperately fought back.  Jiāmíng witnessed his soldiers fall one by one, and in the distance, saw Emperor Bing and his mother jump into the sea.  Although accepting the fact that the loss of the emperor meant the end of the dynasty, Zhào Jiāmíng refused to surrender.  Despite the Song troop’s inability to defeat the Mongols, he could still resist.  The general sought to give as much opposition as he possibly could in order to create greater difficulty for the Mongol’s to achieve victory.  His first injury came in the form of an arrow to the leg, but Jiāmíng continued to fight.  A spear to the shoulder became the first lethal strike, but still the general resumed his ferocious attacks, killing dozens of Mongol troops.  It would take several more sword wounds before bringing down the general.  The Battle of Yamen ended with a Mongol triumph and over one hundred thousand Chinese deaths, with the fifty-five year old General Zhào Jiāmíng among them.

In 1279, three conclusions emerged: the fall of the Song Dynasty, the death of General Zhào Jiāmíng, and the end of the Zhào family.  Future generations would remember Zhào Jiāmíng as the second greatest military commander of the Song Dynasty, subordinate only to Yue Fei, and one of the most prominent figures in Chinese history.  Stories of his inspiration, loyalty, and dedication to his country continues to survive even after his death.  When visiting modern-day Hangzhou, one can pay respects to the great general at a temple dedicated in his honor.


[i] Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 289.
[ii] John E. Wills, Jr., Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1994), 179.
[iii] Wills, 172.
[iv] Hansen, 348.
[v] Ibid, 348.
[vi] Wills, 175.

Thumbnail: Garwin Leung

I am Garwin Leung, and I study history as my college major with a focus on East Asia.  I was born in New York and in my free time, I enjoy spending time with friends. More by Garwin