Over 5,000 years of empires, invasions, inventions and intrigue make up the fascinating and diverse world of Chinese history. While the Middle Kingdom’s men have oft been described as fearsome warriors, genius inventors and strongman emperors, Chinese women have been unfairly overlooked. Here are nine that have forged their way into the annals of time.
Wu Zetian: The Only Female Emperor
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The first and only Chinese empress, Wu was the only women to hold the title of huangdi, which meant that she was officially empress in her own right. Ruling from 690 to 705 AD, her reign may have been short but it was certainly important. A master of political intrigue, Wu was originally the favorite concubine of Emperor Taizong (r. 598-649). In this role she managed to increase her position considerably and at the time of Taizong’s death she married his son, and new emperor, Gaozong in 655.
Five years later Emperor Gaozong suffered a debilitating stroke which elevated Wu to the top of government. When Gaozong died in 684, Li Zhe ascended to the throne. Li, the third son, had been the dead Emperor’s third choice but Wu had poisoned the first son, Li Hong, and had their second son exiled. Wu thought that she could control Li Zhe but struggled, which forced her to depose of him six months into his rule. Replaced by his younger brother Li Dan, Wu controlled him until she finally forced the young emperor to vacate the throne for his mother.
This fast and vicious rise was in contrast to her reign where she made a number of intelligent decisions as well as expanding the borders of the empire. Under her rule, the state invested in religion, literature and education. Some historians regard her focus on education as having a real effect on modern Chinese scholarship. Now that is pretty kickass.
Wu Mei: Legendary Shaolin Martial Artist
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Namesake of the empress, Wu Mei – or Ng Mui – lived over 1,000 years after Wu Zeitan. One of the legendary ‘five elders’ in Shaolin martial arts, Wu survived the destruction of the Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty.
The Qing emperor (the dates are very unclear) accused the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng of supposed anti-Qing activities. This caused the Qing ruler (again, the reign cannot be determined) to order the destruction of the temple. In this brutal and bloody assault on the temple, the only survivors to crawl from the ruins were the so-called five elders. Wu Mei was one of them.
The legendary elders are credited with spreading martial arts across China, with Wu – perhaps the most skilled – inventing and perfecting some of the most famous and important styles. The styles include the Dragon style, Five-pattern Hung Kuen, Wu Mei Pai, Tibetan White Crane and the famous Wing Chun.
Wang Zhenyi: Astronomical Genius
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Science has always, it seems, been a man’s world. Combine that with Chinese feudal society and no one would blame you for thinking it impossible for a women to break into that world, let alone become celebrated. Well, that’s what Wang Zhenyi did. Despite only living until 29, this genius excelled in poetry, math and, of course, astronomy. Born in 1768, Wang grew up in a learned household and was taught to read and write by her father and grandfather.
By 27 she had published a number of works including Dispute of the Procession of the Equinoxes and her groundbreaking The Explanation of Pythagorean Theorem and Trigonometry. She is also famous for her experiments to study the lunar eclipse.
Not only a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, she was a great poet too. By the age of 13 she had written a number of poems which even gained praise from famous Qing dynasty scholar Yuan Mei.
What a tragedy it is then that the world never got to see Wang live past 29. She died in 1797 from illness, but not before she had given all of her works to her friend Madam Kuai for preservation.
Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate
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Not much is known about the early years of Ching Shih, other than that she was working as prostitute in Guangdong until she met pirate captain Zheng Yi, who asked her to marry him. Of course Ching Shih wasn’t going to become no trophy wife, so in return for her hand in marriage, Ching demand that Zheng split his entire fleet with her.
Part pirate, part privateer, Zheng and his new wife (and partner in crime) set off to fight in the Tay Son Rebellion. Fighting for the Tay Son rulers, Zheng didn’t find much success during the rebellion and left the uprising early after sustaining a number of losses to the fleet.
However, this moderate failure wasn’t the end of the Zheng’s Red Flag fleet, in fact it was the opposite, so when Zheng finally died in 1807 Ching inherited a pirate fleet of 1,500 vessels. Ching went on to continue her late husband’s legacy, taking on the Chinese, Vietnamese and even the British and Portuguese fleets. Respected by her men for her excellent seamanship as well as a ruthless streak, Ching was unusual as she eventually retired (rather than died on the job) with a small fortune to her name.
Zhou Qunfei: The World’s Phone Screen Kingpin
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A multi-billionaire in her own right, Zhou at one point was China’s wealthiest woman with a fortune of over USD10 billion to her name in 2015. (She now ranks as the fourth richest woman in China as of October 2018). Her company, Lens Technology, of which she is the founder and CEO, makes touchscreens for smart phones.
Originally working in a small watch factory for RMB120 a month, she handed in her resignation after becoming displeased with the working conditions. Rather than let her go, her boss promoted her and she stayed with the company until it folded.
At 22, she used all her savings (USD3,000) to establish her own company. The small company, which designed and produced high quality watch lenses, was started out of her bedroom with the help of her siblings and cousins. This small bedroom operation would eventually go on to become Lens Technology which started making phone screens for Nokia, HTC and Samsung. However, the biggest turning point for her was when she designed and manufactured the touchscreens for the original Apple iPhone.
Her ‘rags-to-riches’ story has become an inspiration to the millions of migrant workers across the country.
Wu Yi: China’s Iron Lady
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A three-time winner of Time Magazine’s 'Most Powerful Women in the World,' Wu Yi was one of most prominent Chinese politicians of the last decade. Vice premier between 2003 and 2008, Chinese media referred to her as the ‘Iron Lady’ due to her tough negotiations internationally.
She is also known for successfully containing the 2002 SARS outbreak when she was health minister.
An adept politician, Wu spent most of her adult life as a petroleum technician and party member, before being elected Beijing’s mayor in 1988. She eventually worked her way up through the party ranks until she was made a member of the politburo and vice premier.
She retired in 2008 and humbly asked that nobody remember her… Err, sorry about that, but you are kind of a badass.
Hua Mulan: Mythic Warrior Princess
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The inspiration for the Disney classic Mulan, the mythical Hua Mulan was known for her amazing kung fu and sword skills. The Ballad of Mulan tells the story of how Mulan took over her late father’s army and served for 12 years with distinction.
One of Mulan’s most noble characteristics was that she refused any rewards before retiring to her hometown.
Not much is known about her, probably due to her living in the 5th century, however, the tale of how she went to battle in the place of her father has caught the imaginations of Chinese and Western writers for hundreds of years.
Song Qingling: Mother of Modern China
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Originally the wife of Sun Yat-sen, Song Qingling went on to forge her own path away from her family following the Chinese Civil War. Elected to the KMT Central Executive Committee afer Sun’s death in 1925, she left the party and the country following the expulsion of the Communists from the KMT.
Her sister, May Ling married Chiang Kei-shek, but she chose to leave her family during the Chinese Civil War and side with the Communists. During the war, she helped raise funds for the Communist militias in the north of the country. After the war, she chose to stay on the Chinese mainland rather than flee to Taiwan with the rest of her family, thus leaving herself isolated due to her beliefs.
Held in great esteem, she was used to demonstrate the connection between Sun’s 1912 Revolution and the new People’s Republic of China. She went on to hold numerous senior positions in the Party during her time in politics, including vice president. She was heavily criticized during the Cultural Revolution but still managed to survive the period.
Following the Cultural Revolution, her public appearances were limited. With her political career at an end, she dedicated her life to humanitarian causes, primarily children’s welfare issues. During her final illness in 1981 she was awarded the special title of Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China. Very badass indeed.
Xun Guan: Teenage Tactical Genius
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Of the many warrior princesses who appear in Chinese history, our favorite has to be the 13-year-old Xun Guan. She lived between 265 and 316 AD with her father Xun Song, the governor of Xiangyang. For Xun all it took was one fateful night while her castle was under siege to cement her name in the history books.
Intelligent and a skilled martial artist, she convinced her father not to lead an assault on the surrounding forces, as she was afraid that him leaving the castle would affect the morale of the people. She instead pleaded that she should lead a team of crack troops against the sieging force.
Her father reluctantly allowed her to sally forth with the elite soldiers. Xun realized that there was a weak spot in the enemy’s line and swiftly defeated the opposing force. This brilliant and daring attack allowed the garrison to hold out until the relief forces arrived.
Not bad for a 13-year-old…
There are simply too many influential and important women to include in this list. Perhaps the biggest omission is Empress Dowager Cixi. The reason Cixi doesn’t make it on to this list is because her ‘reign’ ended in abject failure. Her large excesses and extraordinary privilege meant that there was no way she deserved to be among some of these women, despite her extraordinary power and influence over Chinese history.
While Sun Yat-sen’s wife makes it onto the list, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing doesn’t. Song Qingling managed to forge her own career after splitting from her family for her beliefs, whereas Jiang Qing’s position was entirely owed to Mao.
This article was originally published on March 8, 2017. It has been updated and republished on March 7, 2019. For more history articles, click here.