More than a few empresses and princesses have taken up arms over the long course of Chinese history. Here are five kick-ass royals from China’s past.
Khutulun (around 1260-1306) was a Mongol princess who was unmatched in her wrestling ability. She was the great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, the niece of Kublai Khan, and the daughter of Kaidu, who ruled the Central Asian Chagatai Khanate.
Khutulun grew up with fourteen brothers but came to excel them all at horseback riding and archery. She was her father’s closest confidant and military advisor, aiding him in his decades-long fight against the Yuan Dynasty. At one point it looked as if she might even succeed him on the throne.
Khutulun steadfastly refused to take a husband, much to Kaidu’s chagrin. Eventually she made a clever bargain: She would agree to marry any man who could beat her in the wrestling ring, but if the suitor lost he would have to forfeit up to 100 horses. By the time the contest was over she had won over 10,000 horses.
2. Princess Pingyang
Princess Pingyang (598-623) didn’t start her life as a princess. Instead she was the daughter of a provincial governor and military commander named Li Yuan. At the age of 20, when her father rose up in rebellion against the Sui Dynasty, Princess Pingyang returned to her family’s ancestral home of Taiyuan and began gathering an army.
Unlike the bandits and raiders that had been terrorizing the countryside for decades, Pingyang imposed strict discipline on her soldiers, forbidding them from rape and pillage. Because of her integrity she gained the trust and admiration of the peasantry, and her army soon swelled to over 70,000 soldiers.
Pingyang united with Li Yuan’s army, and together they marched on the Imperial Capital. Her father then took the throne for himself and initiated the Tang Dynasty, still viewed. Pingyang was made a princess. Unfortunately she didn’t enjoy her new status for long. In 623 she died of unknown causes, and on her father’s orders she was given a military funeral fit for a general. She was the first and only woman of the era to be given that honour.
3. Fu Hao
Fu Hao was one of the most formidable women of China’s ancient Shang Dynasty. Living around the thirteenth century BCE, she was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding. From ancient inscriptions made on turtle shells, we know that she controlled the largest military force of her time and personally led campaigns against neighbouring tribes. She was also given the authority to conduct religious rituals on behalf of her husband, something that was previously unheard of.
Fu Hao’s tomb was uncovered by archaeologists in 1976. Miraculously, it had remained untouched by looters for over 3000 years. A huge number of priceless artefacts, including 600 jade statuettes, 400 bronze vessels (some of which were already antiques when she was buried), 500 bone hairpins, an exquisite ivory cup inlaid with turquoise. She was also found next to a pit of human and dog skeletons, most likely sacrifices performed at her funeral. But most significant of all was the massive battleaxe laid at her, a symbol of her military prowess and authority.
4. Lady Xian
Lady Xian (512-602) was a noblewoman of the Yue people. She came from a long royal lineage that ruled over 100,000 households in what we would now call southern Guangdong province. She was trained in leadership and the art of war, and when her father died she effectively took over as ruler of her people.
Xian was a key ally to the succession of dynasties that ruled southern China in the 6th century. Time and again she led her forces to put down rebellions against the imperial government, all the while maintaining order and peace among her people. She was eventually recognized as the “Sacred Mother” of the whole Lingnan region.
Lady Xian maintained her position for her whole life, outlasting ten southern emperors. At the age of 78 she was reported to have strapped on her armour and personally guarded imperial envoys to the Lingnan region. Even at the age of 90, with her military days behind her, she was still able to control the local commanders through force of personality alone.
5. Xiao Chuo
From 907 to 1125, Northern China was ruled by the Khitan Liao Dynasty. One of the many ways the nomadic Khitan differed their settled Chinese subjects was in their much more egalitarian approach to gender roles. Women were considered full partners in marriage, meaning they entered into it by choice and had the legal right to divorce and remarry.
They were also trained to hunt, to fight and to manage property, and no woman better exemplified that then Empress Xiao Chuo (953-1009). Xiao’s husband Emperor Jingzong was a sickly man who didn’t involve himself in government, so it fell to her to manage the day-to-day affairs of state. When at age 30 her husband died, she ruled as regent on behalf of her 11-year-old son.
Xiao was by all accounts an exemplary ruler. She built roads, centralized the government, liberated slaves, and passed a new legal code which was free of racial inequality. She was also a military commander at the head of her own 10,000-strong cavalry army. In 1004 she led an invasion of the neighbouring Song Dynasty, and forced them to accept a humiliating treaty where they were forced to pay tribute and recognize the Khitans as equals.