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Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

The history of Chinese women is much more varied than the cliched Western portrayals of exotic concubines, oppressed wives or cute China dolls. It is true that the virtuous, supportive wife is a recurring theme in Chinese history, but let us not forget that supportive wives are also recurring themes in the histories of other societies, including European societies. Many of the ideal wives recorded in Chinese history are described as being extremely ugly in addition to being very wise. Their husbands loved them for their wisdom and respected them as equals. Stories like these which go against the Western stereotypes of both Chinese men and Chinese women, are of course seldom represented in Western media.

Of course, the avenues through which Chinese women in antiquity expressed themselves extended far beyond wifehood. History books by ancient chroniclers spanning the Zhou, Qin, Han and Three Kingdoms periods (approximately 1066 BCE through 280 CE) describe the employment of women as rank-and-file soldiers undertaking combat and defense duties.1 Rebel armies in later dynasties also included a high number of women - during the Taiping Rebellion, the sister of Hong Xiuquan had command of 2000 female soldiers.2 Common soldiers, men or women, are usually unnamed in the history books, but there were many women who reached higher ranks and made it into the pages of history. A few biographies of historical Chinese women who were known as scholars, career soldiers, armed rebels and government administrators are listed below:

Post-Imperial Era (1912- )
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Five Dynasties (907-979)
Tang Dynasty (618-907)
North-South Dynasties/Sui Dynasty (420-618)
Jin Dynasty (265-420)
Eastern Han Dynasty/Three Kingdoms Era (25-280)
Qin Dynasty/Western Han Dynasty (221 BCE - 23 CE)
Zhou Dynasty (1066-221 BCE)
Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 BCE)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the Chinese women who held positions of power in ages past, but rather a small sampling of the remarkable women from the pages of Chinese history.

Note: We make no claims as to the accuracy of translations of Chinese official titles and military ranks in any of the above articles.

  1. Heroines in Chinese History (Han Dynasty)
    Sun Quan's Battle Strategies
  2. Sightseeing in Jinjiling, Guangdong Province