Certain prominent Chinese woman are behind some incredibly significant achievements – and sometimes notorious incidents – when you look back through history, often into ancient times. Among their ranks are pirates, a female emperor, and fearsome assassins. In this account, we discover some of the most remarkable Chinese women of history, whose exploits are – and often have been – incredible enough to inspire folk tales, myths, legends… and yes, even movies.
10. Empress Consort Wu Zetian
A controversial and immensely powerful female leader, Empress Consort Wu Zetian is known as China’s only female emperor to lead the country. While her achievements and exploits remain as some of the most dramatic moments in Chinese history and a testament to the power of bold female leadership, her reputation has at times suffered significant damage due to accounts of violence. However, the historical veracity of some accounts regarding her conduct is the subject of question, as those jealous of her power had a motive to discredit her. Originally just a concubine of the powerful Emperor Taizong, Empress Consort Wu married his son, who succeeded him upon his passing.
Compared to a wolf or snake in Chinese historical accounts, Wu held the Tang dynasty under a firm grip during times of great instability. She has been the subject of controversy in Chinese literature and thought. Modern suggestions have been offered suggesting those with reason to dislike her exaggerated her bad acts. Allegations in historical accounts from Wu’s time include killing her own child in order to frame a rival, but the truth about Empress Consort Wu remains an intriguing but elusive target for historical investigators. Her maintenance of a force of secret police is one fact that stands out, while her determined neutralization of rivalry may shock some first-time readers of her exploits.
9. Ching Shih
It might surprise Johnny Depp fans that one of history’s most intimidating and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring pirates was not another Blackbeard, Long John Silver, or other swashbuckling Englishman of questionable maritime conduct. The surprise is greater when the identity of the fearsome pirate is revealed as one petite Chinese woman named Ching Shih (who, speaking of Johnny Depp, actually did make an appearance in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Born in southern China’s Guangdong Province, Shih was originally a prostitute before she became a pirate, following her marriage to a male pirate. Becoming a notorious pirate in her time (but now still a lesser known sea marauder), the enterprising woman was in charge of more than 300 imposing pirate ships adapted from regular Chinese junks.
Ching Shih had her vessels equipped to carry a large crew that totaled numbers ranging from 20,000 to over 30,000 pirates serving her. Cutting a swath of fear in her bold raids in the South China Sea, she entered conflicts with British, Portuguese, and Chinese domestic fleets during the middle portion of the Qing Dynasty, which was unique as the final Imperial Dynasty in the history of China. Unable to be defeated, Ching Shih was offered amnesty by the Chinese government despite her notoriety, under terms that were finalized and then accepted after much negotiation.
8. Hua Mulan
A Chinese warrior may evoke an image of a kung fu master, just as a Japanese fighter may bring thoughts of the Samurai to mind. However, it is worth noting that a Chinese woman of legendary fame (albeit a subject of historical accuracy debate) is immortalized in a magnificent stone statue erected among Singapore’s Chinese Garden’s statue of heroes display. And exactly who is this woman of courage? The riches of 5th century Chinese literature contain reverential accounts of a brave woman going by the name of Hua Mulan, who took the battle armor that was her father’s and went into combat in his place, fearing for his death from age and limited fighting ability in the face of unavoidable conflict.
Hua Mulan is said to have concealed her identity as a female, leading males into battle and surviving. Upon being offered a reward by the Emperor upon the discovery of her identity post-victory, the mystery woman of war simply asked to go home. While her story is technically a legend and her existence is not a story that has been proven or disproven to be true for certain or not, her place in Chinese culture is strong as an image held in the consciousness of many in China to this day. By the way, if this all sounds familiar to you, the answer is yes: this was the basis for the Disney movie Mulan.
7. Princess Pingyang
Princess Pingyang is one noteworthy woman from Chinese history who is especially well known for working with her father to establish the revolutionary Tang Dynasty. Born to her peasant father Li Yuan in the year 600 AD, Princess Pingyang fought fiercely to overthrow Yangdi, the leader of the Sui Dynasty. Assembling an army of 70,000 known as the “Army of the Lady” and garnering respect and loyalty with gifts to the poor, her movement grew. Princess Pingyang’s husband Chai Shao was the leader of the Sui temple guard, but he joined forces with his wife to support the rebellion.
Princess Pingyang battled against the Sui forces successfully and the result was her father becoming Emperor Gaozu of Tang, and a time of great wealth in Chinese history. And how did the princess gain such a wide following? One approach was to treat peasants fairly, garnering their support, while also bribing local leaders with food and cash and then driving them into battle if they refused, being given a chance to join her movement or face its wrath. Unfortunately, soon after the victory, Princess Pingyang died at the age of just 23. When the apparent lengths he went to for a memorial of her life were questioned, her father’s reply was that, “She was no ordinary woman.”
6. Wang Zhenyi
A Chinese female polymath extraordinaire, Wang Zhenyi bucked traditional gender roles in becoming highly educated and independent in historic China. A prodigious learner at a relatively young age, Wang Zhenyi was born in the time of the Qing Dynasty in 1768. She tragically died very young at the age of 29, but not before writing copious volumes of material covering arts, sciences, and mathematics. Her intellectual riches were compiled after her passing, including works on astronomy, geography, and medicine. Interestingly, her work has stood the test of time, remaining relevant when evaluated through the lens of modern science.
Other pursuits in which this brilliant female polymath engaged included martial arts, archery, and teaching. In fact, her accomplishments include a dramatic reversal of traditional gender roles at the time in historic China where she taught male students, passing on the results of her research and discoveries. Interestingly, Wang Zhenyi was honored in modern times when a crater on the surface of Venus was named after her by the International Astronomical Union in 2004. Her approach to research included sampling of Chinese and Western texts and extensive self-teaching, while she passed on information in a very direct manner, often presenting findings in a poetic style.
5. Li Xianglan
It is better sometimes to admit to being of foreign origin when accused of being treacherous to one’s own country of apparent origin, if the story of Li Xianglan is considered. Born in 1920 in what was, at the time, known as Manchuria (later becoming a Japanese puppet state for a limited period of time), “Chinese” actress “Li Xianglan” was in fact the daughter of Japanese parents living in Manchuria. And she did this while apparently supporting Japanese interests, albeit in a way that was often hard to immediately pick up on due to the use of subtle messages that could influence the audience to more sympathetic views of the occupation, hiding what really constituted sometimes atrocious acts of Japanese oppression in China.
She was really a woman named Yamagachi Yoshiko, and worked in China as an actress in a variety of films, some of which were actually Japanese propaganda. In 1945, she was charged with treason and sentenced to death for acts including depicting Chinese women engaging in romantic relationships with occupying Japanese forces, considered to be acts treacherous against China. But when her family registry was snuck in, she was spared and simply returned to Japan, repatriated.
4. Ng Mui
Martial arts might seem to some people to be a favorite sport of males. And while it is true that men constitute a large number of martial arts masters, it must be remembered that martial arts excellence can also be the domain of women. China is no exception to this fact. One of the most skilled martial artists in Chinese history, Ng Mui, is a woman of special note due to her unusual status as a female fighting master and martial art form founder from China.
A figure of legend, Ng was a Shaolin temple Buddhist nun in the 1700s, and is said to have added a more intellectual and strategic twist to kung fu, developing what is now a fairly well known fighting form that was to be named Wing Chun. Ng’s fighting style is indeed admirable, reflecting great thought, reflection, and the ability to watch, consider, and learn before implementing a logical approach to combat. Her observation of a conflict between a mammal and a large bird gave her insight into how to perfect fighting with less brute force. Focused strength, coupled with agility, certainly stand out as requirements for excellence in this fighting style.
3. Huang Huanxiao
During World War II, US aviation forces known as the “Flying Tigers,” a renowned volunteer group known for their bravery in air battles, were based in Yunnan province in Southwest China. These fighter pilots and all associated crew were most fortunate to have the care of Huang Huanxio, the only Chinese nurse – and in fact the only female nurse – tending their group. A graduate of the Higher School for Nurses at Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, Huang entered service with the Chinese United Nurses Alliance in 1942. Following the end of World War II, numerous American veterans came back to China to visit her in the Kunming, Yunnan province where she settled. Living to the age of 95, Huang Huanxio had given up a home life in favor of professional education.
After Hong Kong fell under Japanese occupation, she decided to make a risky escape to Macau. After her successful getaway from occupied Hong Kong, the determined Huang Huanxiao traveled 600 miles to Chongqing to become a nurse with the American Flying Tigers group fighting against Japanese occupation. In the future, in recognition of her service, not only American airmen but also the grown-up children of historic Chinese aviators visited her.
2. Empress Dowager Cíxi
A leader known for being one of the all-time most powerful women in China, Empress Dowager Cíxi was famous for her plots that included advancing from concubine to ruler. Yet, she is also known with admiration, from certain sources, for her efforts to make China strong and resist influences from overseas forces during the Second Opium War. Like the famed female Chinese emperor of history long ago, Wu Zetian, Empress Dowager Cíxi is considered to be a hard-nosed leader, in whom’s path one would not want to stand. Often depicted with a stern gaze, she gained power from her position as concubine after giving birth to the Xiangfeng’s only child, a son, before his death. She then ruled “through” the young Tongzhi Emperor with the aid of her consorts, amongst various thoroughly plotted out coups designed to retain her hold over the Qing dynasty China.
When the Tongzhi Emperor died young, the ambitious Dowager Cíxi adopted her 3-year-old nephew, Zaitian, so he could assume the title of Guangxu Emperor. As struggles progressed, Empress Dowager Cíxi became a supporter of the now well-known Boxer Rebellion, a violent conflict in which many foreigners were wiped out during strong nationalist sentiments and concerns over colonization at the hands of western powers. Anger due to the effects of the two opium wars on China added fuel to the fire that became the face of the rebellion. After Beijing was surrounded by western forces, the once powerful woman had to face surrender, accepting less than favorable terms. A few years later, the Guangxu emperor died just before Empress Dowager Cíxi passed away. Poisoning had been suspected as a cause of death, confirmed by official reports in 2008.
1. Qin Liangyu
The Ming Dynasty of historic China may be well known, but lesser known is the fact that Qin Liangyu, a remarkable military woman who would become a general, began her career as the wife of military commander Ma Qiancheng in the Chongqing Municipality. The time being close to the end of the Ming Dynasty made for many changes and forces of conflict. As rebellions erupted against the government at the time, Qin Liangyu, who was born in 1574, was in the midst of the chaos given her marriage to a loyal military commander during the uprisings.
With the rebellion of Zunyi’s military commander, Qin Liangyu was soon leading battle units alongside her husband as part of what became known as the “White Stick Troop,” so-named after their spears fashioned from white wood. As Ma Qiangsheng led 3,000 fighters in battle, Qin Liangyu herself led a group of 300 combatants to support her husband’s fight. Several victories followed but later, when her husband was imprisoned on false pretenses and later died, she became the general responsible for military forces defending the Sichuan province from rebel groups and was soon assigned the rank of general. Qin Liangyu was the only female general to be officially listed in Chinese dynastic historical accounts, recognized for her loyalty and bravery.