During the Northern Song Dynasty, Han Qi and Fan Zhongyan led the armies to defend against the menacing Western Xia Dynasty. Both influential dignitaries were held in very high esteem by the military. Upon their first arrival in Shaanxi, an official recommended the unknown Di Qing to them. He was a brave and courageous fighter and was considered to have the talent, skills, and aptitude of a general. At that time, military strategist Fan seriously needed people who were capable of being generals. Upon hearing this recommendation, Fan became interested, so he asked his subordinates to elaborate on Di’s deeds and abilities.
It turns out that Di had initially been a regular soldier of the imperial guards. He had been good at martial arts, horseback riding, and archery since his childhood. Because of his courage and skills, he later got a promotion as a junior officer.
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After Li Yuanhao became the first emperor of the Western Xia Dynasty, Emperor Renzong of the Northern Song sent out the imperial army to defend the border. Di was sent as a security guard to Shanxi Baoan (now Shanxi Zhidan). Quickly, the Western Xia army attacked and defeated the Baoan security troops many times. The commander in charge of the Song’s defenses, Lu Shouqin, became anxious about the situation.
Because of the urgency of the situation, Di voluntarily asked to be at the vanguard to fight against the Western Xia troops. Lu was impressed that Di was willing to take the post to fight, so he allocated troops to him to fight against the invading Western Xia army.
Before going into battle, Di first changed his outfit. He loosened his bun, disheveled his hair, and wore a copper mask on his head, showing only two piercing eyes. With a spear in his hand, he took the lead and rushed into the enemy’s lines, maneuvering from side to side. On seeing Di’s fearsome battle attire, Western Xia soldiers became terrified. At the border, Di, leading the Song army, engaged the Western Xia troops in heavy combat. Eventually, the Western Xia troops were overwhelmed, fell into chaos, and retreated. Di’s troops rushed in, routed the enemy, and won a significant victory.
When the triumphant news reached the court, Emperor Renzong was very pleased. Di was promoted four ranks higher. Renzong asked an artist to paint a portrait of Di and have it send to the court.
In the following years, Western Xia soldiers continued to invade and harass all across the border, making the region uneasy. In defense of the homeland, Di fought in 25 battles. He suffered eight arrow wounds but never lost a battle. Anytime Western Xia soldiers heard Di’s name, they were too scared to confront him.
Hearing his subordinates’ recommendation, Fan immediately summoned Di and asked him what books he had read. Di was born into the ranks of a regular soldier so he never read very much. Di felt embarrassed and did not know how to answer the question.
Fan advised him: “You currently are a general. If a general cannot learn from history, it will not be enough to rely on personal bravery.” So Fan introduced some military books for Di to study.
Di was grateful to Fan Zhongyan for encouraging him in this way. From then on, Di spent all his spare time, between battles, studying, as well as learning military history and tactics. After a number of years, he learned the art of war from famous generals in the Qin and Han dynasties. Because of his military exploits and success, he received continuous promotions, and his reputation grew. Later, Emperor Renzong transferred Di back to the capital where he served as the deputy commander of the cavalry.
In the Song Dynasty, soldiers were tattooed on their faces as punishment if they were caught running away from the army. And Di was no exception; when he was a soldier, he was punished with a tattoo on his face for running away. More than 10 years later, Di became a general, but the black ink was still on his face.
One time, Emperor Renzong summoned Di. Renzong asked Di to apply medicine to get rid of the tattoos when he returned home.
Di said: “Your Majesty doesn’t think of me as being from a humble background. I appreciate that Your Majesty promoted me to this position based on my military merits. As for these black tattoos, I would rather keep them to motivate the soldiers!” After listening to his logic, Renzong admired Di’s insights and valued him even more.
Later, Di was promoted to Privy Council, Chief Executive, and commanded the Northern Song’s armies. A man who was once a humble soldier became Chief Executive. This had never happened before in the history of the Song Dynasty. Some ministers thought that Di’s background was too lowly, so they advised Emperor Renzong not to raise Di to such a high position, but Renzong did not listen to them.
When Di became the Chief Executive, some people always felt that his poor background did not match his status. An official who claimed to be a descendant of Di Ren Jie, a famous prime minister in the Tang Dynasty, took a portrait of Di Renjie and gave it to Di and said: “You might boast to others that Di Renjie is your ancestor!”
Di smiled modestly and said: “I was originally from a low background. How could I pretend to have such a high status as Di Ren Jie just because I happened to get a high position?” The official said nothing and left embarrassed. This small incident shows that this general from lowly roots was truly extraordinary.
Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Michael Segarty