The information we have about Yue Fei and his Song dynasty contemporaries come to us from histories collected during the later Yuan dynasty. As with all such histories it is sprinkled with a lot of myth.
We do know that Yue Fei was a great military leader who is credited with the creation of many qigong and martial forms including Xingyiquan, Eight Pieces of Brocade, and Eagle Claw Boxing. As a child he learned Shaolin martial art from a man named Zhou Tong, who had studied at the Shaolin temple.
Zhou entered his student in military exams where Yue Fei won first place by shooting nine successive arrows through the bullseye of a target. The stories go on to say that Yue was possessed with superhuman strength, and able to perform any feat with both his left and right hand. While those are probably legend, we do know that Yue was very accomplished with both the bow and spear before he became a military leader.
Yue Fei did not limit his education to physical forms, he studied the Art of War, and other classic texts. This history says that he could have chosen to be a Song dynasty scholar, but chooses military service, because there was no record of civil service in his family’s history. Yue took civil service seriously. One legend says that he had the words “serve the country with utmost loyalty” tattooed across his back. Later, when soldiers sought to leave his service, he would show them the tattoo and convince them of his sincerity; they would stay in his army.
Yue Fei was a master at maintaining the morale of his men. He would tell them stories of Chinese heroes, and would have scholars come into his camp and relate other heroic tales. During this period, Jurchen invaders threatened to overthrow the Song dynasty, which had been divided into two. Yue Fei carefully chose his army, gave them the best training and rewarded their success. He had learned much from his studies of the classic texts and been careful to give clear orders that was simple to follow. He developed a strict code of conduct, so that his army was not destroying the countryside and terrorizing the locals as they marched through. Finally, he ate and drank with his men, and did not set himself up a special shelter, but camped as they did. Because of this, Yue became successful and popular with the people. He was beating the Jurchen’s in the North, and the southern Song dynasty felt threatened by his success. The Emperor of the southern dynasty had him recalled, just as Yue was ready to deliver the death blow to the Jurchen invasion.
Some stories say that the court officials around the Emperor arranged false charges that lead to his execution. Others say that he was poisoned, or ambushed on the road home and murdered. The story of Yue Fei’s life and betrayal are legend, and profoundly influenced the development of many martial art schools.