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Lady of the Drums

With the beat of her war drum, she led an army against overwhelming odds

07·11·2012

Lady of the Drums

With the beat of her war drum, she led an army against overwhelming odds

07·11·2012

The Song Dynasty (960 A.D. – 1279 A.D.) and the Jin Dynasty (1115 A.D. – 1234 A.D.) did not get along.

Since the beginning of the Jin Dynasty, political misunderstandings and complications ensured that the two dynasties were at each other’s throats. Relations really plummeted, however, when the Jin invaded northern China, pushing the Song beyond the Yangtze River and launching what became known as the Southern Song period.

The Jin’s success was owed largely to the absolute mess that was the Song military hierarchy. It had been organized to ensure that no high-ranking officer could ever use his influence to threaten the emperor. A sensible enough precaution, except that it left the army leadership confused and indistinct, crippling any military capability.

In the midst of such incompetence, it took a special type of person to achieve anything close to a military victory for the Song Dynasty. Fortunately, one such person existed: Liang Hongyu (梁红玉).

The details of Liang Hongyu’s early life lie somewhere between mystery and legend. Some say she was the daughter of a military commander who trained her in the ways of combat and archery, at which she excelled.

However, when her family fell on hard times, Liang was forced into prostitution, singing and playing the drums for Song soldiers, including one named Han Shizhong (韩世忠). She noticed the broody Han, they fell in love and eventually married. It is from this point on that Liang’s tale finally enters the realms of semi-reliable history.

Her bravery first showed itself shortly after the birth of her first child. While her husband was stationed in Xiu Prefecture, rebel forces captured the Song capital, trapping Liang and her child, along with the emperor and his entire court. While everyone else was sitting on their hands, Liang took action. The story goes that she approached the rebels and convinced them that if she asked, her husband would send his soldiers to join the rebel cause.

Either the rebels were extremely gullible, or Liang was very persuasive, because they actually allowed her to go. As promised, Liang rode out to her husband with her baby strapped to her back and returned with his soldiers—who promptly set about slaughtering the rebels.

In the winter of 1129, the conflict with the Jin escalated. A massive fleet, carrying an army of some 100,000 soldiers, made its way along the Yangtze River, pillaging as it went. Han and Liang were sent to intercept it. The only problem was that they were sent with 8,000 troops. To put that into perspective, every Song solider needed to kill 12.5 Jin soldiers (and not .5 of a soldier less) if they were to be victorious.

So what strategy did Liang suggest they use against a force twelve times larger than their own? Why, music, of course.

Folklore has it that the night before the battle, Liang suggested an elaborate scheme to her husband, wherein they would divide up their troops and attack the Jin forces from multiple sides. Liang proposed that Han should lead their ground forces, while she would take command of their river fleet and, using no more than some flags and her war drum, lead them in the offensive.

Incredibly, it worked. On land and on river, against a staggering number of foes, the Song troops won the day. Liang used different drumbeat rhythms to coordinate her troops perfectly, battering the Jin ships into a retreat and trapping their ground forces on the Huang Tian Dang plain.

Things would only have gotten better from there on out, had Han not decided, wrongly, that the battle was already won. He proceeded to get sozzled in celebration, during which time the Jin forces broke through the Song lines and made their escape.

Needless to say, Liang was a bit miffed. So much so, in fact, that she refused to be honored for her part in the battle, and instead requested that her husband be reprimanded for his failure.

He wasn’t—fortunately for him—but the gesture’s sentiment was well-received by the imperial court.

Over the next few years Liang and Han, along with another general, Yue Fei (岳飞), fought their way across China, forcing the Jin back time and again. By 1140, they were at the gates of the Jin capital, all but ready to smash their enemies and finally bring an end to the conflict. But on the night before their attack, the emperor ordered them back to the Song capital. The trio refused at first, but when the emperor threatened their families, they had little choice but to return.

Under the influence of the corrupt government official Qin Hui (秦桧), Emperor Gaozong (高宗) arrested Yue Fei and declared a policy of peace towards the Jin. Disgusted, Liang and Han foreswore their allegiance to the emperor and left the military to live in exile for the rest of their lives. For Liang, that wasn’t very long—she is said to have died of illness shortly thereafter.

Politics deprived her of her final victory and robbed her of the honor she deserved, but history continues to remember her as the woman that defied the odds and led her fleet to victory, all with the beat of a drum.

Illustration courtesy of Huang Shuo (黄硕)

Learn about more badass heroines from ancient China or read about The Greatest Pirate That Ever Lived