The world of ancient warfare was the epitome of the traditional concept of masculinity. The term warrior often brings to mind hulking men with swords, rather than Xena-like warrior princesses. However, throughout ancient and imperial Chinese history, several women challenged this deeply rooted patriarchal system and kicked-ass while doing so. From prostitutes and slaves to princesses and nuns, these female military generals of China changed the course of history.
The military history of ancient and imperial China extends back several millennia. In the thousands upon thousands of years, wars, battles, skirmishes, and rebellions shaped China into its modern state. Only a handful of women are recorded as active participants in the blood and gore of these battles. Few women defied the traditional role of obedient housewife and caring mother. Yet, the role of woman cannot be overlooked in China’s military conquests. As early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE) women generals have been recorded taking up arms in defense of China.
One of the earliest records of female warriors comes from oracle bones found in a tomb. The bones told the forgotten story of a ruthless military general of the Shang Dynasty. The warrior was Fu Hao (妇好), queen consort of King Wu Ding (武丁), high priestess, and military leader. In Shang Dynasty, Fu Hao defended the Shang in several battles. At the time of her death, she was the first female Chinese soldier to be buried with the highest military honors.
In the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE-476BCE), Yuenü (越女) marked a place for women in the tradition of swordsmanship. The King of the Yue state bestowed the title the Lady of Yue or the Lady of the Southern Forest, after witnessing her prowess with a sword. She became teacher and mentor, sharing techniques that influenced Chinese martial arts for the coming centuries.
Hundreds of years later another female military general emerged. Around 618, the dynasty forcibly changes hands once more. The emergence of the Tang Dynasty can be at least partly accredited to Princess Pingyang (平阳公主). The daughter of Li Yuan (李渊), soon to be 唐高祖 or Gaozu Emperor of Tang, led the army that defeated the Sui Dynasty (581-618). She gathered thousands of men to fight in the name of her father.
The Northern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) is marked by a conflict between the Song Dynasty and the northern armies of the Jin. Liang Hongyu (梁红玉) was born into a family of military officials. However, her grandfather and father were executed after their army lost the battle, and as punishment, Liang was trained as a performer for officials. However, as the offspring of a military family, Liang was distinct from other performers and known for her exceptional strength and her capability to draw strong bows. During one performance, she met the general Han Shizhong (韩世忠), who bought her out and eventually took her as his concubine and then his wife. By assisting her husband in several battles, she earned the distinction of a title separate from her husband, Noble Lady of Yang (杨国夫人), which was extremely rare during that time period. Liang continued to fight along side legends, such as General Yue Fei (岳飞), until she died in 1153.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) boasts several warrior ladies. Li Siniang (林四娘) lived as a prostitute on the banks of the Qinhuai River. She was also adept at martial arts. Drawing the attention of the King Zhu Changshu, he asked Lin to become his royal concubine and teach his other concubines martial arts, essentially forming a harem that served as woman’s army to protect the king. During a siege that jeopardized the king’s life, Lin and her troops sacrificed their lives to save the king.
While Lin saved her king, Tang Sai’er (唐赛儿) fought to save peasants from a tyrannical rule. The peasants were forced into slave-like labor, under the rule of an early Ming emperor. Tang killed the emperor’s envoy, causing him to send his army after her. She then outwitted and escaped the army, but her life after the escape is lost to history.
Ng Mui (吴梅, Wú Méi; Cantonese: Ng5 Mui4) was a nun in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who mastered the art of Shaolin martial arts. A member of the Legendary Five Elders (少林五老), who survived the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. Ng is credited with creating several styles of martial arts, including Wing Chun (咏春拳), Ng Mui style (吴梅派), Dragon Style (龙形摩桥), White Crane (白鹤派), and Five Pattern Style (五形洪拳).
These woman heroes were truly the stuff of legends. Through carving their own path in life, they shaped history. In a time when violence was considered the archetype masculinity, they showed that feminism, nationalism and violence could form a potent mix.
Images courtesy of asianinfo.org, womenofchina.cn, and vingtusun.com, Master Imagery courtesy of hdwallpapers.com