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The Tradition of Mulan: Women in Chinese Warfare

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Abstract

Within Chinese literature, both historical and fictional warrior women have been characters that display the paradigm of feminine qualities, as ascribed by Confucian values based on the “three obedience’s and four virtues.” Within these, loyalty and filial piety were highlighted as their central themes. By keeping the character and actions of these literary heroines within the rationalizing boundaries of Confucian moral codes, the apprehensions of male authors and readers could be reconciled. In doing so, both imaginary and real-life women warriors could be accepted within the textual record of pre-modern China. Of the many tales of female heroism in warfare, The Ballad of Mulan (386-581 AD) is one of the most popularized and perpetuated stories, in which a woman takes up the sword of a man in order to fulfill the Confucian principle of filial piety and loyalty to one’s ruler. Through the lens of western biases, Mulan has been thought of by many as the only influential woman warrior in Chinese literature. However, this is simply not true. The record of women warriors, both real and imagined in Chinese literature is rich and vibrant.
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Lindsey Kathryn Carrier Spring 2009
Southern Methodist University
HIST 3398: Women in Chinese History
The Tradition of Mulan: Women in Chinese Warfare
Within Chinese literature, both historical and fictional warrior women have been
characters that display the paradigm of feminine qualities, as ascribed by Confucian values based
on the “three obedience’s and four virtues.” Within these, loyalty and filial piety were
highlighted as their central themes.1 By keeping the character and actions of these literary
heroines within the rationalizing boundaries of Confucian moral codes, the apprehensions of
male authors and readers could be reconciled. In doing so, both imaginary and real-life women
warriors could be accepted within the textual record of pre-modern China.2 Of the many tales of
female heroism in warfare, The Ballad of Mulan (386-581 AD) is one of the most popularized
and perpetuated stories, in which a woman takes up the sword of a man in order to fulfill the
Confucian principle of filial piety and loyalty to one’s ruler. Through the lens of western biases,
Mulan has been thought of by many as the only influential woman warrior in Chinese literature.
However, this is simply not true. The record of women warriors, both real and imagined in
Chinese literature is rich and vibrant.
As far back as the partially fictionalized historical account of Lady Fu Hao in service of
the King Wuding of the Shang (1324-1265 BC), the presence of warrior women in China has
been recorded.3 Even the canonical Art of War by the military master Sun-tzu mentions the
ability of women to be equally as capable as their male counterparts of learning military
1 Sherry J. Mou, ed., Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition
(New York: St. Martin's P, 1999) pg. 77-79.
2 Ibid., pg. 78-79.
3 Ibid., pg. 80.
2
discipline. In a demonstration of his excellence in the training of soldiers for the legendary King
Wu, Sun-tzu instructs the royal concubines of the court artfully to become an organized regiment
of soldiers with great success.4
The existence of women warriors in ancient China before the first imperial unification
under the Qin (221-206 BC) and later Han Dynasties is simply indisputable. This is supported
not only by literature, but by archaeological remains from rich burial finds as well. Several have
been uncovered in recent years that support this, such as those scattered in Chowhougou within
the Xinjiang region south of the Tien Shan Mountains,5 as well as the discovery of Fu Hao’s
tomb at Anyang in Henan province, which included among her grave goods an array of military
equipment engraved with her name.6
But, it is important to note that a great shift in China’s social framework re-shaped these
ladies of antiquity into new molds to fit a culture changing under the growing influence of
Confucian ideological principles and moral teachings promoted universally above all others for
the first time during the era of the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD).7 With the elevation of
Confucian morality came a strict distinction between the genders and their roles within the
community, in which the females of Chinese society where removed from the public realm and
confined within the household to carry out their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers.8
Another development to result from this shift with the promotion of Confucism was the
new emphasis placed on service to the state, wen (civil) over wu (military). In the wake of this
great cultural change, China experienced centuries of educational flowering in which its literary
tradition expanded rapidly. On the darker side of this shift was the tendency of the literati class to
4 Ralph D. Sawyer, trans. Sun-Tzu: The Art of War (Boulder: Westview P, 1994) pg. 80-82.
5 Jeanine Davis Kimball, Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History’s Hidden Heroines (New York:
Warner Books, Inc., 2002) pg. 242.
6 Mou, Presence and Presentation, pg. 80.
7 John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History. 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006) pg. 51-53.
8 Bret Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994) pg.10-11.
3
overshadow the writings on the subjects of warfare in Eastern antiquity with subject matter more
favorable to Confucian tastes.9 Thus, Han rule, along with the corrosion of time, saw a decrease
in military writings in general. As the records became less numerous, the reality of non-
Confucian female participation in ancient warfare was diminished greatly. But, the very fact that
such records remain to this day, even if they are small in number and altered to fit within the
constraints of Confucian ideology, indicate the tolerability of such feminine figures in later
Chinese literature.
Of the women who would emerge in later texts as warriors or great supporters of
warriors, there is a noticeable pattern that develops. It appears that the majority of these women
tend to materialize in waves that correlate with pivotal points in Chinese history. The first was
the pre-Confucian women of antiquity, mentioned above. Second, are those of the post-Han era
(220 – 581 AD), of which Mulan falls into; third, are those under the umbrella of the Tang
Dynasty (618 – 907 AD); and fourth, those of the late imperial era, the majority of which were
written during the Ming through Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1644 AD). Of these groups of women
warriors, each type differs as they reflect the signs of their times, yet all four are bound to each
other by the Confucian principles they uphold.10
The revival of the woman warrior in the literature of post-Han China, beginning with the
appearance of Mulan, coincides with the rise of rival kingdoms to emerge from the void created
from the collapse of a single unified state. During this period, interaction with “barbarian”
peoples of the north was heightened by the influx of nomadic mercenaries of Turkic origin
9 Roland Altenburger, "Is It Clothes that Make the Man? Cross-Dressing, Gender, and Sex in Pre-Twentieth-Century
Zhu Yingtai Lore." Asian Folklore Studies, 2nd ser. 64 (2005) pg. 180.
10 Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China, pg.79
4
within the ranks of armies in need of constant replenishment due to the continual infighting of
rival small states and power hungry warlords.11
The Ballad of Mulan is a direct result of the political turmoil of this chaotic era.12 Its
origins are traceable back to the Northern non-Han dynasties, where the literary themes had a
tendency to convey a martial spirit, which grew stronger as the oral traditions of the nomadic
tribes where written down by Chinese writers who came into contact with them. While heavily
influenced by the influx of foreigners, the Northern Dynasties also adopted the remnants of Han
culture from their interaction with the Southern Dynasties. This cultivated a new type of woman
warrior who fought like a man but did so for the reasons of a good Confucian woman, of whom
Mulan is a direct descendant.13
Mulan may have been one of the first of her line of revamped Confucian women
warriors, but she certainly was not the last. A long line of literary representations followed her in
several forms that remained idealistically Confucian. Of these, lady knights-errant appeared on
the scene, popularized during the Tang dynasty in the Chuanqi for their strict observance of xia,
which is a synthesis of Confucian integrity and honesty comparable to the values of chivalry
upheld by the knights of medieval Europe. The appearance of this third wave of females
illustrates the evolution of the women warriors among the literati, who had flourished within the
Tang court during an era that was for the most part politically stable. While their core reasons for
taking up the sword where similar to those of Mulan, their roles as individual protectors and
enforcers of justice operating under the principle of yi (righteousness) is a new element, yet still
acceptable within the patriarchal Confucian framework.14 These ladies also differ from Mulan in
11 Don J. Wyatt, ed., Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period (New
York: Pelgrave, 2008.) pg. 37-39.
12 Altenburger, Is It Clothes that Make the Man? pg. 180.
13 Mou, Presence and Presentation, pg. 78, 81-88.
14 Mou, Presence and Presentation, pg. 79, 88-95, 103-104.
5
that they are able to take up the sword without disguising their gender, as Mulan had found
necessary to do in order to make her presence on the battlefield acceptable to men.15
Thus, the development of lady knights during the reunified Tang dynasty signifies the
great changes that had occurred in China as a result of the stabilization of a single imperial
authority. Yet, these literary figures owe much of their initial inspiration to the many real life
women who played roles in military activity between the years in which of Mulan was developed
and these later literary figures would come into being.
The military history of China, like that of most civilizations, has always been considered
a male dominated affair, in both its practice and study; yet recent anthropological investigation
into this topic with the support of a wide array of material has begun to indicate the
inconsistencies of this misconception. Nowhere is this outdated viewpoint more extreme than in
the study of women in medieval Chinese warfare. Previously, the voices of real-life women
warriors where almost non-existent, the exception being that of a scanty collection of for the
most part illusory female figures who had been marginalized by the biased Confucian male
literati who recorded their stories within the compilation of Chinese literature from the Han
Dynasty onward.
It is important to emphasize once again that in a society dominated by the strict
ideologies of Confucianism, women were in fact removed from the public domain, in which
matters of politics and warfare were conducted wholly by their male counterparts, or so previous
scholarship has led us to believe. Living in an exclusionist, patriarchal world; in which great
emphasis was placed on filial piety and the feminine principle in marriage and motherhood as the
major components of the rigid expectations placed upon their gender, the majority of women had
15 Ibid., pg. 92.
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no opportunity to put themselves forward as individuals outside of the private household in any
capacity whatsoever, much less through the mode of military affairs.16
Under normal circumstances, the sacred balance between the separate spheres was not to
be disrupted; many women would live out their days satisfying only the acceptable roles of
daughter, wife, mother and mother-in-law, as ascribed to them by the Three Followings of
Confucius.17 Yet, upon closer examination of extraordinary circumstances, one can see the
culmination of unusual instances of female involvement in the public domain through
participation in military affairs. This is seen in two types: direct participation as leaders of troops
or indirect participation by acting as “support” for military endeavors. The distinction between
these two categories is in most cases directly related to the social rank of the individual within
both the hierarchy of the public sphere and the private sphere of the family.18
In the case of women who participated in warfare indirectly by supplying logistical
support, it appears they became involved out of support for both their male kin and their
emperor, or most often in defense of threats to their families and homeland, working alongside
their men-folk. It was not uncommon for urban defense strategies to employ all sectors of the
populace: vigorous men fought while women gathered and carried provisions, acted as nurses to
the wounded, built fortifications, and even guarded the livestock. A key example of this type
participation as logistical support can be seen in the roles carried out by the women of Lu in
defense of the invading Jin forces. These ordinary women played a vital role as they “toiled and
brought up supplies without resting.”19 The actions taken by two upper class Jin women
contemporaneous to one another are superb examples of this type of participation among the
16 Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China, pg. 33-35, 53.
17 Robin Wang, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the
Song Dynasty (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003) pg. xiii.
18 Bret Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China, pg. 98-100.
19 Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China, pg. 98.
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higher ranking women of society, who often acted as the leaders of the support crew and were
often the most enthusiastic supporters of their male kinsfolk’s military endeavors.20
Madam Han (b. ca. 378 AD) was a widow of junior officer and the mother of Zhu Shu,
who would later become a famous general under her guidance. She was made famous not only
because of her relationship to military men, but also her practical and far-sighted defense
strategy against the Qin army besieging her hometown of Xiangyang, in the province of Hubei.
In preparation for the a soon expected siege, Madam Han concluded that if there was to be any
hope of preserving her city from pillaging by Qin soldiers, preparations would need to be made
quickly to deter their success. She took it upon herself to assess the weaknesses in the city walls
and quickly developed an improvement strategy, and efficiently organized a party of over a
hundred other townswomen to build a sophisticated slant wall along the problematic areas. Her
wall held out against the onslaught, causing the people of the city to rename it “Madam’s Wall”
to commemorate her service.21
Madam Zhou Meng (b. ca. 380 AD) lived in Jiangsu as the wife of a military man named
Meng Chang. When a warlord named Huan Xuan staged a military cue and usurped the Jin
throne in 403 AD, Meng Chang went to the new court and soon decided against it, deciding to
risk his family’s good position to lead Jin supporters to restore Jin authority. As a dutiful and
supportive wife, loyal to the true Jin rulers, Madam Meng selflessly gave up her entire wealth
(which was a substantial dowry and her personal savings) to aid her husband’s mission of
restoration. Not only that, but she also furnished the military uniforms for her husbands troops by
20 Ibid., pg. 99-100.
21 P Barbara B. Peterson, Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (New York: ME
Sharpe, 2000) pg.150-153.
*NOTE: An account of Madam Han can be found attached to the biography of Zhu Shu in the Jin Shi
(Book of Jin)
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craftily collecting cloth without drawing attention to the men preparing a rebellion. 22 Without
the aid of Madam Meng, her husband’s prominent role in the 404 AD rebellion and its victory
over Huan Xuan would likely have never culminated. Thus, one could go so far as to say if it
where not for the support of a single woman, the Jin Dynasty would have been lost.23
Direct participation on the battlefront meant a completely different level of interaction
with men for the women involved. The ability to lead and to develop successful stratagems is
only seen among women of the upper-most class of Chinese society, who would have been
highly educated and far more likely to be in positions where they could actually assert political
and military power through their relationships with the high-ranking men in their lives. 24
Through the positions held by their male kinsfolk within the military and state bureaucracy, these
remarkable ladies climbed onto the backs of horses that would take them to the battlefront.
Notable of these rare women warriors who participated directly in the affairs of war is the
great lady Madam Xian (a.k.a. Consort Qiaoguo Ms. Xian, 520 – 601 AD), who came to her
position through her unwavering loyalty to her husband and sons and her careful cultivation his
family’s honor. Her appearance on the public stage is quite remarkable, but at the same time not
all too surprising, as unusual circumstances are often fostered in the choppy waters created by
the chaos of dynastic rivalries culminating in three different ruling powers (the Liang, Chen, and
finally Sui) over the span of her lifetime.25 Fearing the unknown future, leadership of a different
sort was welcomed with open arms by many of the common people within her territory if it
could ensure stability through truthfulness and righteousness, even if it was that of a woman.26
By displaying these qualities on a continual basis, Madam Xian was an amiable military and
22 Peterson, Notable Women of China, pg. 157-159.
23 Accounts of Madam Meng’s role in the restoration of the Jin Dynasty can be found in the Jin Shi (History of Jin)
and the “Biographies of Renowned Women” in the Zizhi Tongjian (“Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government”)
24 Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China, pg. 96, 100.
25 Wyatt, Battlefronts Real and Imagined, pg.14-17.
26 Peterson, Notable Women of China, pg. 165-169.
9
political leader who came to be revered by those she protected as their “Holy Mother”.27 Her
ability to keep order among the people and to ensure the protection of her husband’s family by
acting dually as a local chieftain as well as an intermediary between her people and that of the
ruling power at the time made her a model of propriety. In short, Madam Xian in many ways
broke off from many Confucian principles applied to women by asserting her agency perpetually
during her lifetime, but she did so out of moral convictions that where in line with Confucian
ideology on a larger scale. Thus, her rise to power as an atypical matriarchal Confucian mother
was not a result of luck, but rather her steadfast respectability as a wise woman.28
While Madam Xian is quite unusual, not only as a woman warrior and political leader,
she was not the only righteous lady to make it into the historical record. Like her, other women
followed her precedent of establishing authority in uncertain circumstances, though not all did so
in such a big way. It is important to acknowledge that she is not the only “great” woman to
become so influential within the ranks of both her family and the ruling dynasty.
Princess Pingyang (c. 600-623 AD) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) is an excellent
example of an individual who fits neatly into the category of real-life Confucian women
warriors. The daughter of the first Tang Emperor Li Yuan, Pingyang was instrumental in
overthrowing the Sui dynasty and establishing Tang authority. Her accolades are many within
the historical accounts of her life, but most interesting is the manner in which she dealt with
civilians caught in the crossfire of war.29
Prudently, she realized the importance of maintaining her credibility as not only a female
general, but an influential political entity as well. To maintain her support base and the growing
27 Wang, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture, pg. 261-264.
28 Wyatt, Battlefronts Real and Imagined, pg. 25.
29 Accounts of Princess Pingyang’s life can be found in several notable imperial histories: Tangshu, Hsin Tangshu,
and Zizhi Tongjian.
10
popularity for her father’s rule over that of the Sui emperor’s, she forbade the pillaging of
villages and the rape of women. When the countryside experienced a famine, she opened her
family’s estate food stores to combat the problem, thus making allies of the peasantry. This did
much to consolidate her authority among her fellow military men (including her husband Cai
Shao, her brother Li Shimin, and other notable figures, such as the martial arts expert Shi
Wanbao) as well as highlight the moral superiority of Tang rule over Sui.
Through Pingyang’s decisive actions geared toward overthrowing the Sui dynasty the
“mandate of heaven” was secured by Li Yuan. Thus, it was not only through victory on the
battlefield, but also the application of compassion (a very feminine characteristic) and justice for
the common people, that bears an unsurprising similarity to the lady knights-errant who would
become popularized during the dynasty she helped to found. Titled zhao (very wise) by her
father upon his ascension to the throne, Pingyang was an impressive military leader. Like Mulan,
she upheld the Confucian values ascribed to women as a filial daughter loyal to her father and his
authority as a ruler. By playing a pivotal role in the formation of the Tang Dynasty, Zhao
Princess Pingyang was a major contributor to the culmination of a “golden age” among the
literati of medieval China; who would foster the creation of a third wave of women warriors,
who would become popular figures within the literary tradition of China from the Tang period
onward.30
It is important to point out that these “Lady Generals” are rare in the historical record.
Contrary to the popular notion that women could never play a pivotal role in warfare, these
women did. Their abilities as leaders are highlighted by their close observance of xia and yi like
that of the lady knights who share these same qualities. Thus, the connection between both the
30 Barbara B. Peterson, Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, pg. 177-181.
11
real-life and fictional women warriors is closely linked by the principles they both strived to
uphold.
Following the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD, yet another intermediate period
of rival factions culminated in its wake. This was short lived and before the turn of the next
century the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) had risen in its place.
The Song period marks a drastic change in the lives of women. Chinese women at this
time experienced an even greater reduction in the amount of influence they had in the public
sphere. Now women could no longer participate in matters of war, even when they were
manipulating their actions to look like they were abiding by Confucian moral codes. This left the
memory of the warrior women of the past to become shadows of their own legacies.31 This great
change owes much of its influence to a single beauty ideal that would become increasingly
popular among all ranks of society: Footbinding.32
Footbinding first appeared in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). The
prevalence of this custom is partially linked to ethnicity, class, and a need to restrict women to
handiwork. However, the most accepted explanation for the cultural justification for this abusive
behavior had to do with making women more erotically appealing to Chinese men. Men liked
the way Footbinding made women seem weak, more easily dominated and sexually segregated.
It allowed men to keep women housebound and treat women as their sexual property. This
practice of breaking the arches of women’s feet, folding them back and binding them to conform
to a three inch beauty standard was popular in the culture of the time because it was thought to
portray a woman as possessing “Victorian like” self-control, moral virtue, and the sexual
chasteness which would enhance her chances to marry into wealth and lead a life of leisure and
31 Mou, Presence and Presentation, pg. 100-101.
32 Jowen R. Tung, Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield,
2000) pg. 2154-216.
12
privilege. Women accepted this male oppression and the pain and suffering of Footbinding in
exchange for the chance at being liberated from a life of hard work and poverty.33
In the fictional writings of this time one can see a similar theme when the element of love
introduced in Ming and Qing romances (The Heroic Lives of the Yang Family Generals and The
Thirteenth Sister) depicts these literary figures submitting to men and becoming domesticated,
unlike their predecessors, who kept their individuality while still upholding Confucian morality.
These two stories start out with women being barbarians. Then these lady knights-errant fall in
love and turn on their own people and leave their warrior ways to devote themselves to their
men. It is both striking and significant that this change in Chinese female values and behavior
portrayed in literature coincides with the appearance of Footbinding in the Chinese historical
record.34
All types of women warriors portrayed in the literature of traditional China reflect the
patriarchal culture enforced by Confucian ideology. The real life Mulans worked within this
same framework, emulating similar qualities, thus upholding the virtues and values depicted in
the fictional Ballad of Mulan and the literary figures that succeeded her. One might imagine the
Ballad of Mulan may have inspired great women warriors such as Princess Pingyang, through
their own reading of the poem, to live bold lives that challenged the limitations and constraints
normally accepted by everyday Chinese women. But this is not to discount the contributions of
everyday women who also participated in warfare indirectly as integral logistical support.
33 Laurel Bossen, Chinese Women and Rural Development: Sixty Years of Change in Lu Village, Yunnan (Lanham:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) pg. 37-41.
34 Mou, Presence and Presentation, pg. 103-104.
13
BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Altenburger, Roland. "Is It Clothes that Make the Man? Cross-Dressing, Gender, and Sex in Pre-
Twentieth-Century Zhu Yingtai Lore." Asian Folklore Studies, 2nd ser. 64 (2005): 165-205.
Bossen, Laurel. Chinese Women and Rural Development: Sixty Years of Change in Lu Village,
Yunnan. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)
Fairbank, John K. and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
2006.
Hinsch, Bret. Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
Holmgren, J. Myth, Fantasy or Scholarship: Images of the Status of Women in Traditional
China. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 6 (Jul., 1981), pp. 147-170
Kimball, Jeannine D. and Mona Behan. Warrior Women: an Archaeologists Search for Histories
Hidden Heroines. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 2002.
Mann, Susan and Yu-Yin Cheng, eds. Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese
History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Mou, Sherry J., ed. Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition. New
York: St. Martin's P, 1999.
Nelson, Sarah M. Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige. Walnut Creek, CA:
AltaMira P, 1997.
Peterson, Barbara B. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century.
New York: ME Sharpe, 2000.
Sawyer, Ralph D., trans. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China = [Wu jing qi shu].
Boulder: Westview P, 1993.
Sawyer, Ralph D., trans. Sun-Tzu: The Art of War. Boulder: Westview P, 1994.
Tung, Jowen R. Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse. Lanham:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
Wang, Robin. Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin
Period through the Song Dynasty, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003.
Wyatt, Don J., ed. Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese
Middle Period. New York: Pelgrave, 2008.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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