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Lady Sun

Qing dynasty-era drawing of Lady Sun, Source

Lady Sun – Fabled Fierce Lady

Lady Sun (Traditional Chinese: 孫夫人; pinyin: Sūn fūrén; c. 200 AD) was a prominent Chinese noblewoman during the time of the late Eastern Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 東漢; pinyin: Dōnghàn; 25–220 AD). She was known to be astute, militant, and forceful of character, a match for the male warlords of her day.

Han provinces

By Yu Ninjie, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Lady Sun lived during the time of the end of the Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàncháo; 202 BC–220 AD; fall 189–220 AD) and the emergence of the Three Kingdoms period (Traditional Chinese: 三國時代; pinyin: Sānguó Shídài; 220–280 AD) when China was divided into the states of Cao Wei (曹魏) in northern China, Eastern Wu (東吳) in eastern China, and Shu Han (蜀漢) in southwestern China. Her parents were the warlord Sun Jian (孫堅; 155–191) and Lady Wu (吳夫人; d. 202).

Three Kingdoms

SY, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Three Kingdoms

Geographical drawing of the Three Kingdoms, Source

Sun Jian was one of the most prominent men in China. He was a brave and resourceful general who joined a coalition of warlords in eastern China in 190 to remove Dong Zhuo (董卓; d. 192), a tyrannical warlord who controlled the last monarch of the Eastern Han dynasty, the boy-ruler Emperor Xian of Han (漢獻帝; 181–234; r. 189–220). The coalition was defeated and brought to an end in 191. Civil war in China followed. Sun Jian died during the fighting, which saw the removal and death of Dong Zhuo. The Han central government continued to collapse, though.

Cao Cao (曹操; 155–220), who was a warlord, statesman, and poet, laid the foundation for the state of Cao Wei in northern China. He took the figurehead Emperor Xian under his custody in 196 and became the head of the central government. He held office as the last imperial chancellor or chéngxiàng (丞相) of the Eastern Han dynasty from 208 to 220. He used Emperor Xian to uphold his legitimacy as he eliminated rival warlords in a quest to reunify the Eastern Han dynasty under his control. Cao Cao's triumph seemed assured until the winter of 208–209, when his army and fleet were defeated on a southward drive at the naval Battle of the Red Cliffs, or the Battle of Chibi, (Traditional Chinese: 赤壁之戰; pinyin: Chìbì zhī zhàn) on the Yangtze River (長江; "The Long River") by the outnumbered forces of the southern warlords Sun Quan (孫權; 182–252) and Liu Bei (劉備; 161–223). The battle is thought to have taken place on the south bank of the Yangtze near modern county-level Chibi City (赤壁市) in southeastern Hubei Province (湖北省) in central China. The battle led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.

Chibi etchings

By Yeu Ninjie, CC BY-SA 3.0Link via Wikimedia Commons

Etchings on a cliff near at a accepted site of Battle of Red Cliffs, proximate to modern day Chibi City, Hubei province. Etchings dated to be over 1000 years old.

Battle of Red Cliffs 208 AD Map

By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Battle of Red Cliffs maneuvers and Cao Cao's retreat.

Following the battle, Cao Cao had himself created as the Duke of Wei (魏公) in 213. He held the title until 216. He reigned as King of Wei (魏王) from 216 until his death in March 220. He was succeeded by his son, Cao Pi (曹丕; c. 187–226). On November 25, 220, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, ending the Han dynasty. On December 11, 220, Cao Pi named himself as Emperor Wen of Wei (魏文帝; r. 220–226). The dethroned Emperor Xian received from Emperor Wen the title of "Duke of Shanyang" (山陽公). He lived in comfort and received preferential treatment until his death on April 21, 234.

Sun Jian was the father of Lady Sun's older brothers, the warlords Sun Ce (孫策; 175–200) and Sun Quan (孫權; 182–252), who founded the state of Eastern Wu in turn. Sun Ce established a regime in the Jiangnan (江南; "South of the Yangtze") region south of the Yangtze River in southeastern China, which served as the base for Eastern Wu. Sun Quan inherited the regime of Sun Ce in 200 at the age of 18 after Sun Ce was assassinated by the retainers of a rival warlord with whom he feuded. In 221, Sun Quan became King of Wu (吳王) as a vassal of the state of Cao Wei. In 222, Sun Quan declared independence from Cao Wei. In 229, he declared himself Emperor Da of Wu (吳大帝; r.229–252).

Lady Sun

Concept art of Lady Sun garbed for battle and wielding personal banner with family surname character of Sūn "孫", Source

Lady Sun, whose personal name was not recorded in official histories, has been popularly portrayed in folk legends as a wise, aggressive, and formidable woman. She regarded herself as an equal of her older brothers in terms of character. She was renowned for having over a hundred female servants trained as warriors who guarded her person and carried swords daily.

Jingzhou Province

Geographical location of the thirteen zhou (州) or prefectures/provinces of the Eastern Han dynasty. Jingzhou (荊州) or Jing Province highlighted in red, Source

After the Battle of the Red Cliffs, Sun Quan wedded Lady Sun to his ally Liu Bei in 209. Lady Sun was about 20 years old and Liu Bei was then aged 48. Sun Quan sought to enact a plan of Kòngzhì Liú Bèi (控制刘备; lit. "Control Liu Bei"). Liu Bei was the governor or (牧) of Jing Prefecture/Province or Jingzhou (荊州), a strategically vital territory in central China. Jingzhou roughly covered the areas of the modern provinces of Hubei and Hunan (湖南). Liu Bei would later found the state of Shu Han and name himself as Emperor Zhaolie of Han (漢昭烈帝; r. 221–223).

Liu Bei marries Sun

By Zhouyue School (Before 1640) - "The New Journal Corrected the Ancient Version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms". Enclosed with engravings. Two hundred and forty pieces. Ming Wanli nineteenth year Shulin Zhouyue school publication, public domain,Link

Drawing of Liu Bei's marriage to Lady Sun from 1591 Qing dynasty-era illustrated version of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Zhou Yuexiao.

At the time of the wedding, Liu Bei had a number of concubines but no principal wife. Lady Gan (甘夫人; died c. 210), his favored concubine and the mother of his then only heir, a boy named Liu Shan (劉山; 207–271), had died of an illness before the marriage. Liu Bei sought a new woman to manage his household and raise his son. Sun Quan hoped that Lady Sun would gain the status of First Wife or Dìyī Fūrén (第一夫人) in the household of Liu Bei, an influential position.

Suzhou location

Location of Suzhou on China's east coast, Source

East China

Location of city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province in East China, Source

Soochow map

Map of Suzhou (alternate Romanization: Soochow) and surrounding countryside in 1900 by British surveyor Thomas Ferguson, Source

Lady Sun journeyed from her residence in Suzhou (苏州市), a prefecture-level city in southeastern Jiangsu Province (江苏省) in east China. Suzhou lies on a lower reach of the Yangtze within the Yangtze River Delta (长江三角洲) region. Her wedding to Liu Bei was possibly held at the provincial capital of Youjiangkou (油江口), modern Gong'an County or Gōng'ān Xiàn (公安縣), which is part of the contemporary city of Jingzhou (named after the ancient prefecture of the same name) in southern Hubei Province.

Location of Jingzhou Prefecture within Hubei Province

By Croquant , CC BY 3.0, Link

Location of modern city of Jingzhou in contemporary Hubei Province.

Gong'an County

Location of Gong'an County (ancient Youjiangkou) within modern municipality of Jingzhou, Hubei Province, Source

Liu Bei was wary and terrified of Lady Sun from the start, though. Lady Sun behaved in a haughty, unrestrained fashion. She also gave her guards and servants leave to act in a lawless manner in Jingzhou. Liu Bei assigned his best general Zhao Yun (趙雲; d. 229), who was a dedicated subordinate, to supervise domestic affairs in Jingzhou, maintain order, and keep Lady Sun and her retinue in check. Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮; 181–234) who was chéngxiàng of Shu Han from 221 to 228 and 229 to 234 recorded: "When our lord [Liu Bei] was in Youjiangkou, he dreaded Cao Cao's influence in the north and feared Sun Quan's presence in the east. Even in home territory he was afraid that Lady Sun would cause trouble."

Liu Bei rarely shared the marital bed with Lady Sun and avoided having children by her. Fathering a son especially with Lady Sun would enable Sun Quan's plan of Kòngzhì Liú Bèi and offer Sun Quan the opportunity to take control of Jingzhou in the future in the event Liu Bei's natural (or otherwise) death. Liu Bei was also fearful of Lady Sun. The prospect of being under the watch of Lady Sun's armed female servants and being struck by a sword if she became displeased was a strong deterrent to Liu Bei.

After two years of fruitless marriage with no offspring, Lady Sun decided nothing further was to be gained and determined to return to Suzhou. During 211, Liu Bei set out on a campaign to attack a rival warlord, Liu Zhang (劉璋; c. 190s–210s), who was the provincial governor or cìshǐ (刺史) of Yi Province or Yizhou (益州) in southwestern China. He left behind Lady Sun and his heir Liu Shan under her supervision.

When Sun Quan learned that Liu Bei had journeyed to Yizhou, he dispatched a ship to retrieve Lady Sun on the Yangtze. Lady Sun brought the then two year old Liu Shan with her to serve as a hostage and pawn for her brother.

According to the biography of Zhao Yun, the Zhao Yun biezhuan (趙雲別傳), Zhao Yun and Zhang Fei (張飛; died 221), another general of Liu Bei's, led men in pursuit of Lady Sun. The two military officers were presumably dispatched by Zhuge Liang. They headed off Lady Sun at the Yangtze River and they recovered Liu Shan from her possession. The Sun-Liu political marriage and alliance thus ended.

Nothing further was chronicled in official histories about Lady Sun after she returned to Suzhou. Liu Shan went on to succeed Liu Bei as Emperor Huai of Han (漢懷帝; 223–263), the second ruler of Shu Han.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Zhouyuexiao (Before 1640) - "The New Journal Correction of the Ancient Version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms". With engravings. Two hundred and forty pieces. Ming Wanli nineteenth year Shulin Zhouyue School Edition, Public Domain, Link

Pages from 1591 Qing dynasty-era edition of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Zhou Yuexiao.

The 14th century historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms " (Sānguó Yǎnyì 三國演義) covers the stormy years of the fall of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period. Composed by Luo Guanzhong (羅貫中; c. 1330–1400 or c.1280–1360), a writer who lived during the Ming dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644), "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is considered to be among the Four Great Classical Novels (Traditional Chinese: 四大名著; pinyin: Sì Dà Míngzhù; lit. "Four Great Masterpieces") of Chinese literature. The story is part historical, part mythical, and part legend. Fictitious stories were added and true events were inflated for dramatic effect.

One of the fictional stories tells of Lady Sun's death, which is unrecorded in actual historical accounts. The historical background for the story begins in 219 when Sun Quan had seized land in Jingzhou as part of a territorial dispute with Liu Bei. The Battle of Xiaoting (猇亭之戰) was waged from about August 221 to October 222 as Shu Han invaded Eastern Wu to recover the territory lost in Jingzhou. In autumn 222, Liu Bei personally led an army against Sun Quan. Liu Bei was defeated and forced to retreat to Yiling District (夷陵区), a district of the prefecture-level city of Yichang (宜昌) in western Hubei Province. Liu Bei was deeply shamed by his loss. He ate poorly and drank often, bringing on his death in spring 223.

In the novel, Lady Sun set out to the bank of the Yangtze after hearing rumors of Liu Bei's death during the Battle of Xiaoting. She faced west and cried before drowning herself in the river in 221.

Though portrayed in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a fiery and resolute woman, she is named Sun Ren (孫仁; lit. "Benevolent Sun"). In the Japanese translation of the novel, she is nicknamed Gongyao Ji (弓腰姬; lit. "woman with a waist like a bow (which you shoot arrows with)"). During the time of Emperor Jiaqing (嘉慶帝; r. 1796–1820) of the Qing dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing Gurun; 1616/1636–1912), the prefecture-level city of Wuhu (芜湖), in southeastern Anhui Province (安徽省) in east China raised an ancestral temple to venerate Lady Sun, who was called Lady Lingze (灵泽夫人; lit. "Lady Spirit of Beneficence"). In contemporary Peking opera she is known as Sun Shangxiang (孙尚香 or 孫尚香; lit. "Esteemed Sweet Fragrance Sun"). In popular Chinese culture, she is named Xiao Ji (枭姬 or 梟姬; lit. "valiant woman").

Lady Sun's skill as an archer is mentioned in historical accounts, but she is not recorded as having used them in battle.

Lady Sun is a colorful, semi-mysterious, and semi-legendary part of China's tradition of female martial artists. Men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple in martial arts classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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