Loyalty was a common virtue in ancient China, but hardly anyone reached the extent of the official in the story below.
Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283 A.D.) was a Chinese poet and politician in the last years of the Southern Song Dynasty. He is a well-known symbol of patriotism and uprightness for protecting the Song Dynasty and refusing to yield after being captured by the Yuan Emperor, Kublai Khan .
Wen Tianxiang showed literary talent at an early age. At 20, he was awarded first place by Emperor Lizhong of the Song Dynasty at the imperial examination after passing both local and regional examinations. He subsequently held several positions in the government of Southern Song.
In 1275, the Yuan (Mongol) army led by General Bayan invaded the Song and took over numerous cities. The defense of Song collapsed with a number of Song generals killed or captured. Wen raised an army of 30,000 soldiers with his family fortune to fight the Mongols. When the Mongols were closing in on the capital city, Wen was promoted to the chancellor and ordered to negotiate peace with the Mongol army. He was later arrested by Bayan, but he escaped and returned to Fuzhou, where he led the Song army into many battles.
Bayan’s army took over much of China and forced the Dowager Empress to issue an order to surrender in 1276. The Song royal family, including Dowager Empress and the child emperor, was sent to Dadu (today’s Beijing), the capital of the Yuan Dynasty. However, Wen continued to fight the Mongols until he was captured in 1278.
Wen made two attempts at suicide after being captured but was unsuccessful. He was offered a position in the Yuan government, but he refused adamantly. He wrote the famous classics of “Zheng Qi Ge” (The Song of the Righteous Spirit) and “Passing by Lingdingyang.” The latter ended with the following lines,
“All men are mortal, but my loyalty will illuminate the annals of history forever.”
In 1279, Wen arrived in Dadu under armed escort. Knowing that Wen was well-respected and influential among Han regions, the Yuan Emperor tried to gain his allegiance for four years during which time Wen was imprisoned. But Wen rejected all of Kublai Khan’s inducements.
One day in 1282, Kublai Khan asked him personally, “What would you like to have?”
“I only wish for a quick death,” Wen replied. Wen was executed the next day at the age of 47.