Despite every obstacle from 5,000 years of patriarchy, these twelve women were able to become rulers, warriors, pirates, scientists, spies, and more, leaving a legacy that turns on its head a history that insists that only men held roles of importance.
Empress Wu Zetian
The only woman to ever single-handedly run China, Empress Wu Zetian from the Tang Dynasty steals a lot of the focus when it comes to China’s badass historical women. The focus is well deserved, of course. Wu’s rise to power began when she was serving as a young concubine of Emperor Taizong. Though pledged to the emperor, she quickly started an affair with his son, Li Zhi. Upon Taizong’s death, Wu shaved her head and was sent to live out the rest of her days in a temple, as was customary at the time. Li Zhi had already fallen in love with her, however, and beckoned her back to court, where she rose to Li’s greatest favor, sparking jealousy in his wife and first concubine. She gained power without a title and ruled from behind the scenes until Li’s death, after which she declared herself Empress and changed the name of the dynasty to Zhou. Though a controversial figure, Wu Zetian helped extend China’s boundaries far west into Central Asia and is seen by some as one of the great leaders of ancient China.
Though history has not remembered Lin Siniang to the same degree it has Empress Wu, Lin’s story is one for the books. When Lin was just a girl, her father taught her how to wield a sword. She wielded it so well that she is said to have had deadly precision with the weapon by the young age of six. Lin came from a lowly background, however, and turned to prostitution after her family died. It was during this time that she caught the attention of the feudal lord of the Qingzhou state, Zhu Changshu. Zhu made her his lady and was so impressed by her martial arts prowess that he asked her to teach such skills to all of his concubines. Not only did the concubines learn, they became a full-fledged, all-female army. And when Zhu Changshu was captured by rebel forces, it was Lin and her army that rescued him. Unfortunately, Lin and her women died in battle but were given heroes’ burials by Zhu upon his return to the throne.
Empress Dowager Cixi
One of the most controversial figures in Chinese history, Empress Dowager Cixi is often blamed for the downfall of the Qing Empire. Similar to Empress Wu, Cixi started her days as the emperor’s concubine. Her son with the emperor ascended to the throne after his father’s death, making Cixi the Empress Dowager. It is from this moment onward that she ruled China from behind the scenes for a full 47 years until her death in 1908. During those 47 years, she supported fiscal and institutional reforms that would have turned China into a constitutional monarchy. Due to forces largely outside of her control, however, the imperial system couldn’t be saved, and China was soon ushered into a new era of republican rule.
Fighting against patriarchal customs of 18th-century China, Wang Zhenyi successfully educated herself in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, geography, medicine, and poetry. Wang not only studied the work of other scientists but conducted her own research as well, publishing several papers that have stood up to modern scientific knowledge. Wang is most remembered, however, for her poetry, which was largely inspired by her travels around China. After her untimely death at the age of 29, her nephew compiled her work into a book that he called Simple Principles of Calculation.
Born to missionary and businessman Charlie Soong, Soong Ching-ling received an international education, first from Shanghai’s McTyeire School for Girls and later at Wesleyan College in the United States. This education would prove to be invaluable to her later in life, as she would eventually become the de facto Head of State of the People’s Republic of China. Her rise to political prominence began with her marriage to Sun Yat-sen, often referred to as the “Father of Modern China.” Sun was 26 years her senior and died ten years after their marriage. Soong was then elected to the Kuomintang’s Central Executive Committee, a committee on which she did not serve for long, as she broke away and joined the Communist Party. She held many positions in the Communist Party over the years but maintained a fraught relationship with it. Nevertheless, she was posthumously named an “Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China.”
Were it not for Princess Pingyang, there would have been no Tang Dynasty, remembered as the golden age of imperial China. Pingyang was one of 18 daughters of Li Yuan, a nobleman in the short-lived Sui Dynasty. Together with her father, Pingyang fought to overthrow the ineffectual Sui. She herself fought in many of the battles and was hugely instrumental in their ultimate victory. Li Yuan declared the Tang Dynasty with himself as its first emperor and made Pingyang his princess, the only one of his daughters to receive that title. Though a woman, she was honored with a grand military funeral upon her death, much to the disgust of the Ministry of Rites, who said that women’s funerals were not supposed to have bands. She was no ordinary woman, her father argued.
It’s no coincidence that Soong Mei-ling shares a last name with Soong Ching-ling. They were sisters, though their lives turned out wildly differently. While Ching-ling went on to support the fledgling Communist government, Mei-ling remained fiercely loyal to the Nationalist Kuomintang. She was, after all, married to its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. She represented the Republic of China throughout her life, even conducting a speaking tour throughout the United States in 1942 to rally support against the Japanese. Of the Soong sisters (there were three in total), it is said that “One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country.” The first refers to the third sister, Ai-ling; the second to Mei-ling; and the third to Ching-ling.
Jackie Chan and Yip Man, among others, have Ng Mui to thank for their martial arts success. This legendary woman is credited as the founder of the Wing Chun, Wu Mei Pai, Dragon Style, White Crane, and Five-Pattern Hung Kuen styles of martial arts. Ng was trained at the Shaolin Temple and was one of Five Elders who survived its destruction by Qing forces. Upon Shaolin’s destruction, Ng fled to the White Crane Temple, where she encountered a fifteen-year-old girl who was on the run from a forced marriage. She taught the girl, Yim Wing-chun, how to defend herself using a style that Yim could learn quickly and didn’t require great physical strength.
Not only was Ching Shih a pirate, she is considered to be the most successful pirate in history. At the peak of her reign, she commanded a fleet of over 300 ships, manned by 20,000-40,000 pirates. Her rise began with her marriage to notorious pirate Cheng I. Six years after their marriage, Cheng I died, and Ching Shih really began to command power. Through a series of political maneuvers, she entered into conflict with the British and Portuguese empires as well as the reigning Qing Dynasty, out of all of which she exited triumphant. She has been portrayed several times in pop culture, including in the blockbuster film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Like a little Arya Stark, Xun Guan was a child warrior who went into battle at age 13 and saved her father’s city from invasion. She lived during the Western Jin Dynasty, shortly after the Three Kingdoms Period. Xun was the daughter of the governor of Xiangyang. When she was 13, one of Xiangyang’s officials attempted a coup. He surrounded the city with troops, blocking in the governor and the loyalists. Xun Guan was the only person brave enough to breach the enemy lines, which she did successfully, helping save Xiangyang from the traitors.
No list of badass Chinese women would be complete without the famous Mulan. Far from being just a Disney heroine, Mulan was likely a real person who lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty. Her story was first recorded in ballad form, namely the Ballad of Mulan. In the ballad, similar to the Disney film, Mulan takes her father’s place in the army. Unlike in the film, however, Mulan serves twelve years in the army and refuses any award for her service. It is possible that Mulan never existed or was a compilation of several women, but regardless, hers is a story that has been told a thousand times and will be told a thousand more.
Though not a woman by birth, Shi Peipu deserves a place on this list for his remarkable story, which involves romance, intrigue, and deception. Shi was an opera singer in Beijing in the 1950s when he met a Frenchman named Bernard Bouriscot, an employee at the French Embassy in Beijing. The two met when Shi was dressed as a man, but Shi successfully convinced Bouriscot that he was actually a woman being forced to dress as a man to satisfy his father’s desire to have a son. The two started a love affair, in which Shi was able to maintain his ruse that he was a woman. Through Shi, Bouriscot released over 150 classified French documents to the Chinese government, for which both were arrested and charged with espionage in 1983. During the 2o-year affair, Shi adopted a son, whom he convinced Bouriscot was their biological child. It is unclear if Shi ever identified as a woman, but he lived most of his life as one, and what an incredible life it was. Shi’s story is forever immortalized in the play M. Butterfly, which was made into a film in 1993.