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Well now, was he a poet? Did he write poems? Most likely he did, for everyone did. Can we call him a poet? Not sure, but 2,000 years Ma Yuan, the 伏波將軍 Wave Calming General, has inspired many, many poets to write poetry about him, his victorious exploits, his arrogance and his failures. Even the Vietnamese, who suffered from his invasions seem to have held him in high regard. This statue of Ma Yuan stands at the foot of 伏波山 Fuboshan, a mountain named after him in Guilin, Guangxi Province.

At the beginning of Later Han imperial authority was confirmed by the campaigns of Ma Yuan against the rebellion led by the Zheng (or Trung) sisters in the region of the Red River between 40 and 43 AD. The heroic sisters are still remembered in Vietnam as symbols of national independence and resistance, but Ma Yuan, titled General Who Calms the Waves, who enforced Chinese culture at the point of the sword and melted the sacred bronze drums of the Yue chieftains in order to cast a triumphal horse for presentation at Luoyang, was celebrated centuries later as a god and a hero. And still today, throughout Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan, one finds temples dedicated to his memory.

More detailed biography:

"馬援 Ma Yuan (14 B.C.E.-49 C.E.), known as the 伏波將軍 Wave Calming General began his adult life as a herder in the area of what is now Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. These were the years when Wang Mang 王莽 had usurped the throne from the Han dynasty and had established his own ruling house (9-23 C.E.). This dynastic enterprise, however, did not survive Wang’s death, for with his demise, two claimants to the Han throne, Gongsun Shu 公孫述 and Liu Xiu 劉秀, seized the occasion and contended to restore their dynasty. Ma Yuan, who by this time had become somewhat of a regional leader, visited both of these men before finally pledging his allegiance to Liu, and assisting him in defeating Gongsun Shu and restoring the Han.

Ma Yuan then faithfully served Liu, now Emperor Guangwu 光武, first by campaigning against the Qiang 羌 people in the northwest, and then by suppressing the Trung sisters’ rebellion in the far south. Such loyal service was enough to please the emperor, but it did not satisfy Ma. In 48 C.E., he volunteered yet again to campaign on the emperor’s behalf. This time the expedition was to be against non-Han peoples in what is now central China. Emperor Guangwu objected though, noting that Ma was already in his sixties. Ma, however, insisted, and demonstrated his fitness by posing on horseback in full battle gear before the emperor. To this the emperor could only laugh and say, “How hearty this old timer is!” The campaign, however, ended in disaster. After suffering terrible loses, Ma fell ill and died.

Not long after Ma’s death, some of his rivals began to defame him at court. They claimed that Ma had brought a carriage full of pearls back from his campaign against the Trung sisters. Ma’s supporters countered that these had been the seeds of a plant called “y di/yiyi” (薏苡, Coix lacrymae/Job’s Tears) and that Ma had brought them back because they were effective in alleviating various ailments. Other charges, however, proved more damaging. First there were suspicions about his loyalty, for early in his career he had vacillated in deciding which claimant to the Han throne he should support (i.e. Gongsun Shu or Liu Xiu). Then there were charges that he was vainglorious, for late in his career he had rashly insisted upon leading a campaign that he was unfit to partake in, one which ultimately brought upon Ma his own death.

These charges against Ma made Emperor Guangwu furious. He rescinded the title of marquis that he had granted Ma after his successful campaign against the Trung sisters, and prohibited Ma’s family from giving him a formal burial. In addition, somewhat later, when the emperor had paintings of the key figures who had supported his effort to restore the Han dynasty placed in Cloud Terrace in his palace at Luoyang, Ma was not included.

This fall from grace, however, was not absolute. Ma Yuan had a daughter who became empress, and then later, empress dowager. She worked hard to clear her father of the charges against him. One of her accomplishments was to see that the documents presented to the emperor by Ma’s supporters were preserved. Fan Ye then made use of these texts when he compiled Ma’s biography for his History of the Later Han. To later generations of Northern literati, the favorable comments of Ma’s supporters and the outline of Ma’s life as one that revealed undying dedication and service to the emperor, were in stark contrast to the treatment that he ultimately received from that emperor. As such, Ma came to represent a figure with whom countless literati could associate and sympathize. Ma Yuan was a loyal servant who had been betrayed.

For a hundred years after Ma Yuan put down the rebellion of the Trung sisters, the imperial authority remained largely intact, despite endemic small-scale rebellion which was blamed most commonly on the corruption and greed of the alien governors from the north. In 136, however, there was a great uprising, chiefly by the Cham people from the south, which overwhelmed the greater part of Rinan commandery, and made heavy inroads into Jiuzhen. Moreover, when troops were raised in Jiaozhi to oppose the rebels, these men in turn broke out in mutiny, and the whole imperial position in the region was threatened."*

*page 102 of Liam Kelley's great book Beyond The Bronze Pillars, Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship, U Of Hawaii Press

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