The Maiden of the Southern Forest was a citizen of the State of Yue during China's Spring and Autumn era. She lived during the reign of King Goujian (r. 496-465 BCE).1 According to "Spring and Autumn of the Wu and Yue states", a history text written by Zhao Hua of the Eastern Han Dynasty, King Goujian wanted to wage a war of vengeance against the state of Qu, and asked his Prime Minister Fan Li for advice.2 Fan Li said, "Your servant hears that among the great kings of old, there is not one who did not train his troops well. In a battle, the outcome is determined by an army's quality of training." Fan wanted the king to hire the best trainers for his army. He said that he heard that there was a maiden in Southern Forest, skilled in swordfighting and "well-spoken of by the people of (their) nation". The king took up his suggestion and invited the maiden for an audience "so he could consult her about the art of weaponry."3
On her journey up north to visit the king, the maiden met a strange old man along the way. The old man called himself "Old Man Yuan" and said to the maid "I've heard that you are skilled with the sword. I wish to have a glimpse of your skill." The woman replied, "I do not dare to withhold my knowledge. The Old Man is free to test my skills." The old man broke off a stick of bamboo to use as a weapon. But "before the bamboo leaves could fall to the ground, the woman counter-attacked with great speed. She broke through his defenses thrice and raised her staff to hit Old Man Yuan."4 Yuan recognized his defeat and departed.
During the maiden's audience with King Goujian, the king asked her how she acquired her sword skills. The woman replied, "Living alone in the deep forest, it is necessary to practise a wide range of skills... I learned my skills from no one, but developed them on my own." The king then questioned her on the philosophy and methods of her fighting arts. The maid explained the fundamentals of a fighting system designed to handle multiple attackers. Goujian was greatly impressed with her answers. He gave her the title of "Lady of Yue", and appointed her to train his best officers so they could instruct the army in turn. Her swordfighting system became widely known as "The Sword System of the Lady of Yue" to the people of that time.5
This nameless maiden from ancient history has inspired the imagination of later generations. The Maiden of the Southern Forest appears in many works of literary fiction, including "The Sword of the Maiden of Yue" and "The Swordfighters' Saga", and the Ming Dynasty work "Romance of the Kingdoms of the Eastern Zhou Empire", in which she is described as having almost superhuman fighting prowess.6
The Maiden of the Southern Forests is quite unlikely to be the only case of a woman in military service during the Zhou Dynasty. The Book of Lord Shang, written by Shang Yang (390-338 BCE), recommends dividing the army into three units - strong men, strong women, and the weak and old of both genders. The strong men were to serve as the first line of defence against the enemy, the strong women defend the forts and build traps, and the 'weak' soldiers control the supply chain.7