The Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.) was not a high point in Chinese history. The first Sui emperor, Wen (541-604), did reunify China after nearly four centuries of internal discord but the second, Yang (596-618), left a lot to be desired. Yang, was as an overly-ambitious tyrant who (it is believed) gained the throne by poisoning his father, before embarking on a reign that would make him a figure of hatred across China.
Yang, emperor, tyrant, connoisseur of fine hats
Yang committed himself to massive construction projects, most notably the completion of the Grand Canal and reconstruction of the Great Wall. Both projects were bought and paid for in blood – the blood of 6 million peasants, to be more specific. Add to that Yang’s inept military forays into Korea and Vietnam and you might have some idea why the Chinese people hated him so much. To say that he was an unpopular would be a vast understatement.
The Grand Canal
But for every Goliath, there’s a David.
Pingyang (at this point she was yet to become a princess) was the third-born daughter of Li Yuan – a highly successful general in the emperor’s army. So successful, in fact, that the insecure emperor ordered his execution. Li responsed by declaring rebellion against Yang.
This posed a problem for Pingyang, for while her father was a safe distance away, she (along with her husband, Cai Shao) were still living in the capital city, along with a few thousand imperial loyalists. Realizing that they needed to make themselves scarce, Pingyang and her husband fled – but not together. Knowing that escaping as a pair would attract too much attention, she told Cai that she would travel separately from him. Being a woman, she would attract less suspicion, she reasoned.
Bear in mind that China was in a state of war by now. The country would have been crawling with mobilized warlords and lawless bandits eager to profit from the disarray. That Pingyang opted to make the journey alone was brave, that she made it home unscathed was downright heroic.
But she wasn’t done yet. Far from it. It was time to overthrow the tyrant emperor.
The region around her home estate was suffering from drought, which in turn was causing starvation. Opening up her home’s extensive food stores, Pingyang fed the people and, in turn, the most able-bodied agreed to fight for her. Thus began her “Army of the Lady”.
Selling literally everything her family owned, Pingyang set about binding various other rebel factions to her command. Her method was always the same. First, she would offer the rebel leader an officer’s position in her army. If that failed, she would try to bribe him with food or money. By that point most acquiesced, but for those that didn’t, she had one last ploy: destroy them on the battlefield and offer the survivors a choice: join or die.
They tended to join up at that point.
To put Pingyang’s diplomatic skills into context, bear in mind that not only was she a woman in ancient China, but that she was doing all this at the tender age of 20. Getting battle-hardened warlords to even take note of her was impressive enough. Getting them to submit to her leadership was astonishing.
Even more incredible is how successfully she exerted control over her army. Pingyang kept her men in line, making sure that when they conquered a village or town, none of the locals were harmed. By contrast, pretty much every other army of the time exercised a strict policy of raping and pillaging. Oddly enough, peasants seemed to prefer Pingyang’s way of doing things, especially when – more often than not – she would give them food upon her arrival.
With 70,000 men at her back, Pingyang marched across China. By this point, emperor Yang had realized that he would do well to take her seriously, and so sent his forces against her.
Pingyang tore her way through everything he could muster.
Meeting up with Cai Shao, the couple merged their troops and routed the last of the Sui forces. Recognizing that he was finished, Yang (who had courageously spent the war living in a palace filled with beautiful women) fled with his tail between his legs. He would later die at the hands of his own men (Literally).
Learn about more badass heroines from ancient China or read about The Greatest Pirate That Ever Lived.