5 Legendary Chinese Female Warriors. How Many Existed in History?
1. Hua Mulan (花木蘭)
Hua Mulan is easily the most well-known legendary Chinese female warrior worldwide, thanks to movies such as Disney’s Mulan (1998) and the 2020 live-action remake. Within East Asia, there have been several film and television series adaptations of her story since the 1920s too.
In these, Mulan is always depicted as a filial daughter who dressed up as a male to replace her elderly father when the latter was conscripted to fight invading barbarians. Supremely skilled in Chinese martial arts, Mulan then thrived in the army for twelve years, all the while maintaining her masquerade. It was only when she turned down an official post after the war, and reverted to her true identity, that her comrades discovered she was a woman.
Historically, though, no such Chinese female warrior or heroine existed. Instead, the story is based on The Ballad of Mulan, an extended Chinese poem composed before the 11th Century. There were also two distinctively different versions of the story. One was set in the Northern and Southern Dynastic Period (AD 386–589). The other was set in the tumultuous Sui-Tang Era (Around AD 618).
Mulan’s selfless albeit fictitious piety nonetheless earned the enduring admiration of the Chinese race. Today, her story is widely celebrated with Chinese communities as a classic folktale about self-sacrifice. Few if any Chinese are concerned with historical veracity.
2. Fan Lihua (樊梨花)
A classic heroine and Chinese female warrior in Chinese opera, Fan Lihua was the wife of Xue Dingshan (薛丁山) and the daughter-in-law of the famous early Tang Dynasty general, Xue Rengui (薛仁貴).
Originally a citizen of the short-lived Western Liang State, Fan Lihua met her husband in battle and fell in love with him, thereafter even assisting him to absorb Western Liang into Tang territory. Later on in life, she was also instrumental in retrieving the remains of the Xue Clan after most clan members were executed by Wu Zetian for regicide. In this tragic epilogue, Fan’s son, Xue Gang (薛剛) caused the death of Emperor Tang Gaozong and a prince. This resulted in the Xue Clan being marked for extermination.
With the exceptions of Xue Rengui, Emperor Tang Gaozong, and Wu Zetian, though, all characters in this folktale are fictitious. The story was also written over a thousand years after the Tang Dynasty; specifically, during the middle of the Qing Dynasty.
However, Fan Lihua’s story as an allegory for feministic heroism was still widely embraced, resulting in numerous Chinese operatic and television series adaptations in modern times. Of note, the tale does not ignore the fact that Fan actually betrayed her birth nation for the sake of love. Fan’s son i.e. Xue Gang was said to be the reincarnation of Fan’s original betrothed. The Western Liang warrior was killed as a result of Fan’s betrayal.
3. Mu Guiying (穆桂英)
A beloved Northern Song Chinese female warrior and general, Mu Guiying was the wife of General Yang Zongbao (楊宗保), the latter a key leader of the patriotic Yang family. Her most “famous” accomplishments include the defeat of the fearsome “Heavenly Gate” military formation and the repelling of invasion by Western Xia.
Like Fan Lihua, Mu also met her husband in combat. Originally the daughter of a brigand, Mu effortlessly subdued her husband and even her future father-in-law when the Yang family came demanding the handover of a treasure. The fiery encounter, naturally, soon resulted in Mu falling for the righteous (and hopelessly obstinate) Yang Zongbao too.
After marrying Yang, Mu tirelessly assisted her husband in his military affairs. Following Yang’s death on the battlefield, she continued to lead the Yang army together with other widows of the Yang family. The most renowned of these later expeditions being the saga of The Twelve Widows Defeat The West (十二寡婦征西).
Without surprise, this colorful heroine didn’t exist in history, although there are records depicting the historical deeds of the Yang Family. Mu’s legend also largely originated from The Generals of the Yang Family, a collection of tales based on the family written during the Northern Song Dynasty. Mu herself was very likely a composite character based on various female Yang leaders.
Within modern Chinese pop entertainment, Mu Guiying is also hands-down the most frequently depicted folkloric heroine. Since the 1980s, there have been over ten depictions of her in East Asian pop entertainment, a number that places her renown above that of Hua Mulan.
During the Communist Great Leap Forward movement, there was even a woman-led brigade named after her. Mu Guiying as the embodiment of Chinese feminine valor will continue to be embraced by the Chinese for a long time.
The Venerable Mother of Mount Li
In the original sagas, Fan Lihua and Mu Guiying were described as the disciples of Lishan Laomu (驪山老母), an ancient Taoist Goddess. Both female warriors are thus often shown capable of fantastical martial arts and supernatural abilities in pop entertainment depictions.
4. She Saihua (佘賽花)
She Saihua, commonly referred to as She Taijun, was the matriarch of the Yang family. In Chinese opera and pop entertainment, she is invariably depicted as an elderly but feisty matron wielding a dragon-headed staff. The staff, as legend goes, was bestowed upon her by a Song Emperor himself.
Like her daughter-in-law Mu Guiying (see above), She was also renowned for her martial arts prowess and military insights. She met and defeated her future husband in combat. In her twilight years, she also co-led a major expedition against the Kingdom of Western Xia. The latter was the key story of the above-mentioned The Twelve Widows Defeat The West. This saga was most famously depicted in the 1972 Shaw Brothers production, The 14 Amazons.
In contrast to Mu Guiying’s tale, though, She Saihua is believed to have existed in history, although not all historians are convinced. Her husband, General Yang Ye (楊業), was a prominent historic figure. However, no records of his wife existed until several centuries later.
Regardless, and similar to Mu Guiying, She Saihua is today, a Chinese cultural symbol of loyalty, steadfastness, and feminine valor. The patriotic matriarch of the Yang family will continue to be celebrated in Chinese cinematic and television productions for many, many years to come.
5. Liang Hong Yu (梁紅玉)
Born AD 1102. Died AD 1135.
Lady Liang, wife of Northern Song General Han Shizhong (韓世忠), is the only historically verifiable legendary Chinese female warrior on this list.
The daughter of a disgraced Song General, Liang was sentenced to slavery after her father lost a major battle. However, she was eventually able to redeem herself. While in servitude, she also met her future husband. After marriage, the couple valiantly resisted Jurchen invasion till the Northern Song Dynasty fell. Liang was also credited with the rescue of the first Southern Song Emperor after the latter was held hostage following a coup.
In addition, Liang was instrumental in the Battle of Huangtianding in AD 1130. Unsatisfied with their gains and the capture of two Song emperors, the Jurchens continued to invade Song territory, reaching as far south as modern-day Nanjing.
Faced with a superior army, Liang famously directed Song troops by beating drums and personally leading her forces into battle, ultimately trapping and repelling the Jurchens. This episode is nowadays celebrated in Chinese culture and language as Liang Hong Yu Ji Gu Tui Jin Bing (梁紅玉擊鼓退金兵). Her husband and her are also widely considered by the Chinese to be among the most courageous couple to have defended China.
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