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Badass heroines from ancient China

2014-04-18 16:37The World of Chinese Editor: Yao Lan

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, from the Pre-Warring States to the Qing Dynasty. In 1700 BCE, China began expanding its power along the Yellow River. In the following 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 the 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 (1700 BCE-1027 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 (1700 BCE- 1027 BCE). The warrior was 妇好 (Fù Hǎo), queen consort of King Wu Ding, high priestess, and military leader. In the era of the Pre-Warring States, 妇好 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 Era (770 BCE-221 BCE), 越女 (Yuènnǚ) 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 越女 prowess with a sword. She became teacher and mentor, sharing techniques that influenced Chinese martial arts for the coming centuries.

History waits hundreds of years before another female military general emerges. From the time of Lady Yue, until the next female military leader, China goes through eight different ruling eras: the Qin Dynasty to the Sui Dynasty. Around 618 BCE, the dynastic forcibly changes hangs once more. The emergence of the Tang Dynasty can be largely accredited to Princess Pingyang 平阳公主 (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ). The daughter of 李淵 (Liyuān), soon to be 唐高祖 (Táng gāozǔ) or Emperor Tang, led the army that defeated the Sui Dynasty. Princess Tang formed the 娘子軍 (Niángzǐjūn) or Army of the Lady, gathering thousands of men to fight in the name of her father.

The Northern Song Dynasty is marked by a conflict between the Song Dynasty and the northern armies of the Jin Dynasty (1115 BCE–1234 BCE.) Liang Hongyu 梁红玉 developed her martial arts skills as a slave, working as a female wrestler. Eventually, she married the general 韓世忠 (Hánshìzhōng). She proved her military knowledge and skill through successfully executing war strategies, winning battle after battle. She earned the distinction of a title separate from her husband, Noble Lady of Yang, 杨国夫人 (Yáng guó fūrén,) which was extremely rare during that time period. 梁红玉 continued to fight along side legends, such as General 岳飞 (Yuèfēi), until she heroically died in battle in 1135 BCE.

The Ming Dynasty (1368 BCE-1644 BCE) boasts several warrior ladies. 林四娘 (Línsìniang) lived as a prostitute on the banks of the Qinhuai River. 林四娘 was also adept at martial arts. Drawing the attention of the king Zhu Changsu, he asked 林四娘 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, 林四娘 and her troops sacrificed their lives to save the king.

While 林四娘 saved her prince, 唐賽兒 (Táng sài er) fought to save peasants from a tyrannical rule. The peasants were forced into slave-like labor, under the rule of an early Ming emperor. 唐賽兒 killed the emperor's envoy, causing him to send his army after her. 唐賽兒 outwitted and escaped the army, but her life after the escape is lost to history.

吳梅 (Wú Méi) was a nun in the Qing Dynasty (1644BCE-1911 BCE) who mastered the art of Shaolin martial arts. A member of the Legendary Five Elders, 少林五祖 (Shàolín wǔ zǔ), who survived the destruction of 少林寺 (Shàolín Sì) or the Shaolin Temple in the Qing Dynasty. 吳梅 created several styles of martial arts, including Wu Mei Pai or Wu Mei Style. She is also credited with establishing the Five Pattern Style, 五形洪拳 (Wǔ xíng hóng quán).

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.


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Article by Kendall Tyson



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