Chinese Women Warriors

Seven hundred years before young Scythian women died in battle and were buried with weapons as grave goods, General Fu Hao (ca. 1200 BCE) flourished and fought to defend the Shang dynasty in Bronze Age China (ca. 1600–046 BCE)—the earliest woman warrior I know of for whom we have a name and a story. She was one of three major wives of the emperor Wu Ding and a successful military commander in her own right. Traditional Chinese histories, written centuries after the fact, tell us that Wu Ding, the twenty-third ruler of the Shang dynasty, was a powerful emperor who ruled for fifty-nine years, but they don’t mention Fu Hao at all. We know her history from a true primary source: inscriptions on some 250 oracle bones, the earliest Chinese written records.

Various oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang period refer to Fu Hao as a royal consort, a general, and a landholder in her own right. She led military campaigns and presided over sacrificial ceremonies in the emperor’s name. Some oracle bones, inscribed during her lifetime, ask questions regarding her health or the tactics to pursue in a specific military campaign. Others, inscribed on behalf of the emperor, ask whether he should send Fu Hao or another general on a specific campaign, or if he should assume command himself. The inscription on one oracle bone suggests she led a force of thirteen thousand men on a campaign—an interpretation some scholars contest, since most Shang forces ranged from three thousand to five thousand troops. Other oracle bones document sacrifices made on her behalf after her death.

Chinese archaeologists established Fu Hao’s place in history without doubt in 1976, when a team under the direction of Zheng Zhenxiang discovered an undisturbed Shang tomb near Anyang, the site of the Shang capital in modern Henan province—the same region where most of the oracle bones were found. Because it had never been looted, the tomb included a larger quantity of grave goods than any previously excavated Shang tomb. At first, the richness of the grave goods and the large number of weapons led archaeologists to assume it was the tomb of a male ruler. Inscriptions on some of the seventy bronze vessels found in the tomb identified the site as the tomb of Fu Hao. Her grave goods included more than a hundred weapons, as well as thousands of ornamental objects in bronze, jade, bone, opal, and ivory, and the remains of sixteen slaves, buried with her to serve her in the afterlife. The bronze goods alone totaled 1.6 metric tons.

Scholars have pieced together a picture of Fu Hao’s career from sources that were never intended to provide a narrative. It appears she not only directed her own troops but also served as the ancient Chinese version of a task force commander in campaigns that included forces led by other generals. She participated in virtually every important military campaign at the height of Wu Ding’s reign. She led an army against the Tu Fang, a tribe of invaders from the north who had been a problem since the beginning of Wu Ding’s reign. For a year and a half, Fu Hao and other Shang generals, including Wu Ding himself, led repeated assaults against the Tu Fang. With the Tu Fang defeated, Fu Hao then led Shang forces against three more attacking forces: the armed horsemen of the Qiang Fang in the northwest, the Yi Fang in the southeast and southwest, and, sharing the command with her husband, the Ba Fung in the southeast. Soon after she returned, victorious, to Anyang, Fu Hao fell ill. She died shortly thereafter.

Fu Hao was not the only woman warrior during the Shang dynasty. The oracle bones give us the names of at least a hundred women who were active in Shang military campaigns. Most were the wives of Shang kings or powerful local lords or officials. Unless (until?) we find one of their tombs, we are unlikely to know more. It is not impossible. In 2001, Chinese archaeologists reported the discovery of a tomb of an unnamed woman who was buried with a large cache of weapons, dating from the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–1071 BCE).

After her death, Fu Hao vanished from Chinese history until Chinese scholars discovered that oracle bones were historical documents in the late nineteenth century, but the idea of the woman warrior never entirely vanished as a possibility. From the Warring States period (246–221 BCE) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese women§ led armies in unsettled times, with the expectation that once the crisis was past they would return to their traditional roles as daughter, wife, or mother. Some were teenage girls; some were tough old broads. They defended the border against invasion by barbarians and, like their counterparts in other times and places, organized the defense of besieged cities. They led peasant uprisings and helped put them down. (One woman who led a peasant revolt declared herself empress.) They helped defend existing dynasties and establish new ones. They raised armies and inherited them. Sometimes they held official ranks in the Chinese military or government. Qin Liangyu (1574–1684), for instance, began her military career by following her husband as the “pacification commissioner” of Shizhu, an area in modern Sichuan province, and eventually attained the rank of regional commander, the highest military rank under the Ming dynasty. More often, their heroism was recognized after the fact with a commemorative title—at least if they were on the winning side.

The stories we know are shaped by the sources in which they appear. Many of these examples were included in collections of biographies of “exemplary women” rather than in the official Chinese histories. One such collection includes short biographies of fifty-five “remarkable women,” most of them women warriors. These accounts are closer to parables with morals than biographies as we know them today: the women who are highlighted fit a number of standard categories, such as filial daughter or chaste widow. As a result, we get incidents, or a series of incidents, in which a seeming transgression of the social norm is shown as being rooted in Confucian ethics of filial piety and loyalty. Most of the examples we know begin their military careers as the mothers, wives, or daughters of Chinese officials, and they either fight beside their kinsmen or in place of male relatives who are unable to carry out the tasks.

China also produced women warriors who were less malleable. Lady Qi Wang (c. 1530–1588), for instance, who led the defense of a coastal fort against Japanese pirates in 1561, was described by her contemporaries as “rude, unreasonable and aggressive”—not an exemplar of Confucian ideals of womanhood.1 The stories of rude and aggressive women don’t make the collections of exemplary tales; instead they are hidden in plain sight in the biographies of others.

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