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5 Legendary Chinese Female Warriors and Heroines. How Many Existed in History?

Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Was there a real Hua Mulan? Or is she but another of China’s many fictitious legendary female warriors?

Was there a real Hua Mulan? Or is she but another of China’s many fictitious legendary female warriors?

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 also been several film and television adaptations of her story since the 1920s.

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 presented herself as a woman that her comrades discovered her secret. As most depictions put it, even those closest to her in the military didn’t know right till the end.

Historically, though, there is no affirmative proof that such a Chinese female warrior or heroine existed. Instead, most of what is depicted in pop entertainment today is based on The Ballad of Mulan, an extended poem composed before the 11th Century.

Notably, 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 piety nonetheless earned the enduring admiration of the Chinese race. Today, the legendary woman warrior’s story is widely celebrated within Chinese communities as a classic folktale about self-sacrifice. Few, if any, Chinese are concerned with historical veracity.

Classic depiction of Hua Mulan, the most famous legendary Chinese female warrior worldwide.

Classic depiction of Hua Mulan, the most famous legendary Chinese female warrior worldwide.

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) as well as the daughter-in-law of Xue Rengui (薛仁貴), a respected early Tang Dynasty general.

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 in absorbing 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.

As an allegory for feministic heroism, though, Fan Lihua’s story was still widely embraced, resulting in numerous operatic and television series adaptations in modern times. Of note, the original tale does not ignore the fact that Fan 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.

Poster for a 2011 television series adaptation of the story of Fan Lihua.

Poster for a 2011 television series adaptation of the story of Fan Lihua.

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 met her husband in combat. Originally the daughter of a brigand, Mu effortlessly subdued Yang Zongbao and even her future father-in-law when the Yang family came demanding the handover of a treasure. Thereafter, as most such Chinese legends go, she fell in love with the righteous (and hopelessly obstinate) young general.

After marrying Yang, Mu tirelessly assisted her husband in his military affairs and adventures. 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 is the saga of The Twelve Widows Defeat The West (十二寡婦征西).

Without surprise, however, this colorful heroine didn’t exist in history, although there are historical records depicting the 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.

For Chinese historians, Mu is thus regarded as a composite character based on various female Yang leaders. In many ways, a summary of the virtues the family represents too.

In modern Chinese pop entertainment, Mu Guiying is 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.

Veteran Hong Kong actress Ling Bo as Mu Guiying in the 1972 Shaw Brothers movie, The 14 Amazons.

Veteran Hong Kong actress Ling Bo as Mu Guiying in the 1972 Shaw Brothers movie, The 14 Amazons.

4. She Saihua (佘賽花)

She Saihua, commonly referred to as She Taijun or just Taijun, was the matriarch of the above-mentioned 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.

Like her daughter-in-law Mu Guiying (see above), Taijun 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 expedition is 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, this legendary female warrior is believed to have indeed existed in history, although not all historians are convinced. Her husband, General Yang Ye (楊業), was a prominent Song Dynasty 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 also continue to be celebrated in Chinese cinematic and television productions for many years to come. In fact, just her title of “Taijun” already invokes imageries of feminine might and honor.

Typical Peking opera depiction of She Saihua.

Typical Peking opera depiction of She Saihua.

5. Liang Hong Yu (梁紅玉)

Born AD 1102. Died AD 1135.

Lady Liang, wife of Northern Song Dynasty 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; she was eventually able to redeem herself. While in servitude, she also met her future husband, and after marriage, the couple valiantly resisted Jurchen invasions till the Northern Song Dynasty fell.

After the establishment of the Southern Song Dynasty, Liang and her husband continued to serve the court, with the lady general famously rescuing the first Southern Song Emperor after the latter was held hostage following a coup.

Her most renowned accomplishment, however, is the famous 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.

In the face of a superior army, Liang did not falter and continued to direct Song troops by beating drums. She even personally led her forces into battle, ultimately trapping and repelling the invaders.

Today, this legendary episode is celebrated in Chinese culture and language as Liang Hong Yu Ji Gu Tui Jin Bing (梁紅玉擊鼓退金兵). She and her husband are also widely considered by the Chinese to be among the most courageous couple to have defended China. Needless to say, they are frequently viewed as historical embodiments of patriotism too.

Classic depiction of Liang Hongyu beating the drums to rally Song Dynasty troops.

Classic depiction of Liang Hongyu beating the drums to rally Song Dynasty troops.

References and Further Reading

  • 其宗. (2001). 中华上下五千年. (赵机, Ed.). 宗教文化出版社. ISBN: 9787801233721.
  • Haynes, S. (2020, September 11). Is Mulan Based on a True Story? Here's the Real History. Time.
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, January 7). Fan Lihua. Wikipedia.
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2020, November 8). Mu Guiying. Wikipedia.
  • She Saihua. Wikiwand. (n.d.).
  • C.C. Low (Ed.). (1991). Liang Hongyu. (Wong Lit Khiong, Trans.). Canfonian. ISBN: 981002780X.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ced Yong


Ced Yong (author) from Asia on July 07, 2020:

Hey Alexander!

Well, many would, LOL. But in the Chinese world, we joke about:

- How Mulan had to be phenomenally manly and ugly to pull the masquerade off

- How the male soldiers must be been blind or moronic, thus why they needed a woman to lead them

- That everybody actually knew, but nobody bothered. Gender equality was that widely embraced, back then.

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on July 07, 2020:

I wanted Mulan to be real.