Golden Week is over, and we’re back with another installment of “Badass Ladies.” Every Friday, we’re taking a look at the diverse women who’ve held up half of China’s sky for the last 3000 years. So far, our series has spotlighted a ruthless emperor and a brilliant physician.
Today we’re uncovering the truth behind Princess Zhao of Pingyang, military mastermind, who in 617 C.E. commanded 70,000 troops and helped overthrew the Sui Dynasty, at the age of 20. Like any good Disney story, Princess Pingyang was born a commoner. Her path to princess-hood was no fairytale, however, unless your idea of a fairytale is “allying with gangsters and bandits to lead a brutal peasant rebellion.”
But let’s start at the beginning. The end of the Sui Dynasty was a terrible time to be a peasant. You could be one of the six million workers who died during Emperor Yang’s construction obsession, on either the Great Wall or the Grand Canal. Or you could be living under the relentless fear of local bandit chiefs, who destroyed your crops for fun and kidnapped your family members. And there was no chance of your government helping you out with the bandits–they were too busy throwing money at the Great Wall.
As Emperor Yang learned he was losing public favor, he began to get paranoid. He ordered the execution of several successful army generals, including a guy named Li Yuan–the father of Pingyang. Li Yuan was justifiably upset that the emperor wanted him dead, so he responded by declaring rebellion.
Meanwhile, Pingyang and her husband were living far away in the capital city, surrounded by imperial loyalists. When she got word that dad declared rebellion, her reaction was probably something along the lines of, “Well shit.” Pingyang and her husband quickly fled the capital, travelling separately to avoid attention.
Pingyang didn’t hide out and wait for things to blow over. Instead she went back to her home province and sold everything her family had. She used the money to help peasants who’d been hurt by natural disasters or bandit raids, winning their favor. Several military leaders joined her, and soon they’d amassed a small force.
Pingyang knew a thing or two about strategy; she knew that she needed numbers, fast, as well as seasoned fighters. Before taking on any imperial troops, she led her peasant army against the neighborhood bandits that had been terrorizing them. Pingyang had a system–first she’d approach a local warlord and try to bribe him with food or money to fall in with her troops. If he refused, she had her army kill as many bandits as necessary until their leader surrendered and joined her.
Eventually, Pingyang commanded over 70,000 soldiers. She had a strict “no raping or pillaging” policy when her army conquered a new town, which unsurprisingly made her extremely popular amongst peasants. Pingyang’s discipline was intense–remember, many of her recruits were former bandits, and raping and pillaging was what they did best. Pingyang’s “Army of the Lady” (娘子軍) was actually known to hand out food after a battle. Her popularity soared and people clamored to join her, since she worked to help them when the Emperor had not.
Pingyang’s army eventually met up with her father’s, and together they captured the capital and forced Emperor Yang to hang himself. Her father took over as the new emperor, and appointed Pingyang to official military martial, as well as making her a princess and giving her the title “zhao,” meaning one who is wise, virtuous, and, quite, probably badass. (Zhao is frequently misconstrued as her family name.)
Sadly, Princess Pingyang didn’t live long after her rise to power. Records don’t say exactly how she died, but only two years after her father becoming emperor, palace scholars wrote about her funeral. She is frequently credited as the only woman ever to have an imperial military funeral.
For more badass ladies, check out the lost art of subversive women’s writing, or this meditative, gender-bending artist.
Image courtesy of Cultural China – still from the movie “Legendary Amazons” . (X)