Yue Fei (岳飞， 24 March 1103 – 27 January 1142), courtesy name Pengju, was a Han Chinese military general who lived during the Southern Song dynasty.
Yue Fei lived during the Song Dynasty, and failed in his quest to restore his kingdom to its former greatness. However, his loyalty and conduct has inspired generation after generation of Chinese.
The renowned legend says that in order to encourage her son to fight, Yue’s mother wrote the Chinese phrase jin zhong bao guo on the back of her son using a calligraphy brush. She then carefully pierced the lettering out with a needle, and then filled the wound with ink and vinegar.
According to historical records and legend, Yue had the four Chinese characters jin zhong bao guo (尽忠报国; literally: “serve the country with the utmost loyalty”) tattooed across his back. The Biography of Yue Fei says after Qin Hui sent agents to arrest Yue and his son, he was taken before the court and charged with treason, but
Yue ripped his jacket to reveal the four tattooed characters of “serve the country with the utmost loyalty” on his back. This proved that he was clearly innocent of the charges.
Later fictionalizations of Yue’s biography would build upon the tattoo. For instance, one of his earliest Ming era novels titled The Story of King Yue Who Restored the Song dynasty (《大宋中興岳王傳》) states that after the Jurchen armies invaded China, young heroes in Yue’s village suggest that they join the bandits in the mountains. However, Yue objects and has one of them tattoo the aforementioned characters on his back. Whenever others want to join the bandits, he flashes them the tattoo to change their minds.
The common legend of Yue receiving the tattoo from his mother first appeared in Shuo Yue Quanzhuan. In chapter 21 titled “By a pretext Wang Zuo swore brotherhood, by tattoos Lady Yue instructed her son”, Yue denounces the pirate chief Yang Yao (杨幺) and passes on a chance to become a general in his army. Yue Fei’s mother then tells her son, “I, your mother, saw that you did not accept recruitment of the rebellious traitor, and that you willingly endure poverty and are not tempted by wealth and status … But I fear that after my death, there may be some unworthy creature who will entice you … For these reason … I want to tattoo on your back the four characters ‘Utmost’, ‘Loyalty’, ‘Serve’ and ‘Nation’ … The Lady picked up the brush and wrote out on his spine the four characters for ‘serving the nation with the utmost loyalty’ … [So] she bit her teeth, and started pricking. Having finished, she painted the characters with ink mixed with vinegar so that the colour would never fade.”
The Kaifeng Jews, one of many pockets of Chinese Jews living in ancient China, refer to this tattoo in two of their three stele monuments created in 1489, 1512, and 1663. The first mention appeared in a section of the 1489 stele referring to the Jews’ “Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince.” The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were “boundlessly loyal to the country.”