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Mu Guiying

"Mu Guiying in Command" (Mù Guì Yīng Guàshuài Píng Zhóu 穆桂英挂帅 屏轴, 1979) painting by Hua San Chuan (花三川, 1930–2004), Source

Mu Guiying – Heroine of the Northern Song Dynasty

Mu Guiying (Traditional Chinese: 穆桂英; pinyin: Mù Guìyīng; fl. 999–1004) was a famed warrioress. She lived during the Northern Song Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 北宋; pinyin: Běisòng; 960–1127) when China faced constant warfare on its northern and western borders with militant nomadic tribes. Rather than stay at home to tend after her children and household, which was the norm in ancient China, Mu Guiying rode out to numerous battles to protect her family and country from nomadic invasion. Mu Guiying is iconic for brave, dependable, and loyal women in China.

Mu Guiying 1786

1882 late Qing Dynasty-era print of Mu Guiying from early 17th century novel Popular Romance of Generations of Loyal and Brave Yang Family Members (Yángjiā Fǔ Shìdài Zhōngyǒng Tōngsú Yǎnyì 楊家府世代忠勇通俗演義) composed during middle Qing Dynasty, Source

The Yángjiā Jiāng (楊家將; "Yang-Family Generals"), a collection of Chinese folklore, plays, and novels, tells of four generations of Yang generals and warriors who protected China. The Yangs originated from Shanxi Province (山西省) in North China. The stories provide accounts of the steadfast loyalty and great valor of the Yangs as they fought against invading barbarian powers, especially the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty (Khitan: Mos Jælud; Traditional Chinese: 遼朝; pinyin: Liáo cháo; 907–1125) to the north and Tangut-ruled Western Xia (Tangut: mjɨ nja̱ or mji dzjwo; Traditional Chinese: 党項; pinyin: Dǎngxiàng; 1038–1227) in the northwest. The Yang family was sabotaged by Song court officials who favored capitulation and distrusted by the Song emperors, though. Mu Guiying was the wife of Yang Zongbao (楊宗保) of the third generation.

Mu Guiying's legend begins during the rule of Emperor Zhenzong of Song (宋真宗; r. 997–1022), the third emperor of the Song Dynasty. She was the daughter of Mu Yu (穆羽), a greenwood chief of Mù Kē Zhài (穆柯寨; lit. "Mu Ke Stronghold" or "Mu Ke Stockaded Village") that was populated by many families of the Mu and Ke clans. Mù Kē Zhài was located in a wooded mountain area of Shandong Province (山东省), a coastal province in East China. From a young age, Mu Guiying was taught martial arts to a high degree by her father. She attained great skills in civil and military leadership as well.


Boundaries of Song Dynasty, Liao Dynasty, and Western Xia empires in 1111, Source

When Mu Guiying was aged 19, the Liao Dynasty obtained the service of Lu Zhong (陸忠), a traitorous Han Chinese Song army advisor. Lu Zhong specialized in what he claimed to be an unbeatable battle formation: the Qīshí'èr Zhāo Tiānmén (七十二招天門; "Heavenly Gate of Seventy-Two Moves") or more simply the Tiānmén Zhèn (天門陣; "Heavenly Gate Array"). In addition to the canny tactical placement of troops by the employing side, the Tiānmén Zhèn was said to activate the illness and disaster stars of feng shui (風水), literally "wind-water." It purportedly caused enemies to go out of control and experience calamitous woes. Song soldiers encircled by the formation were said to lose their sensibilities and attack their fellows, taking them for foes.

Lu Zhong issued a challenge to the Song army to defeat the Tiānmén Zhèn within a hundred days. Failing that, the Song were to surrender the Central Plains, or the Zhongyuan (Traditional Chinese: 中原; pinyin: Zhōngyuán), China's heartland, which lay between the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River or Huáng hé (黃河). Yang Yanzhao (楊延昭) (c. 958–1014), who helped defend the northern border from repeated Liao invasions between 999 and 1004, led the Song forces to fight bravely and fiercely. Even so, all efforts to break the Tiānmén Zhèn failed. The armies of the Great Liao went on to capture the city of Youzhou (禹州市) in Henan Province (河南省) in Central China, providing the invading Khitans a bridgehead from which to thrust into the heart of the country.

As the hundred day deadline drew near, one of Yang Yanzhao's advisors recommended enlisting Mu Guiying, whose father, Mu Yu, had been friends with Lu Zhong and knew how to beat the Tiānmén Zhèn. Mu Yu, who had passed away, had taught Mu Guiying how to overturn the Tiānmén Zhèn as well. Additionally, the area of Mù Kē Zhài was rich with a type of precious and sacred Lotus agarwood called xiáng lóng mù (降龙木 "Dragon-taming wood"). The Lotus agarwood was viewed to have the ability to absorb negative energies and nullify disasters, converting them to positive powers and advantageous opportunities. Its qualities were considered to be so great and strong, they would tame evils even if they were as mighty as a dragon. Soldiers provided with a pendant made of xiáng lóng mù would therefore withstand and break the Tiānmén Zhèn.

Lotus agarwood pendant

Sample Lotus agarwood pendant, Source

Yang Yanzhao sent Yang Zongbao, his youngest son, to Mù Kē Zhài to obtain the xiáng lóng mù for the Song army and recruit Mu Guiying for the latest campaign against the Liao. Mu Guiying refused to supply the wood and join the Song army, though.

Intent on his mission, Yang Zongbao challenged Mu Guiying. The duel lasted several rounds. After a difficult battle, Mu Guiying finally defeated Yang Zongbao and took him prisoner. Yang Zongbao refused to yield, though, and demanded that he be executed.

As an old Chinese proverb or yànyŭ (谚语) goes: "When fate comes, the door cannot be blocked" (命運來臨時,門是擋不住的).

Mu Guiying consequently fell in love with Yang Zongbao. Contrary to Han Chinese custom, she proposed marriage to him. Yang Zongbao eventually accepted her proposal.

Yang Zongbao returned to his father and reported his incident. Infuriated, Yang Yanzhou placed him under arrest and ordered his execution.

In some legends, Mu Guiying departed Mù Kē Zhài and made her way to Yang Yanzhou's army camp to save her betrothed. She challenged the general to a duel and defeated him.

In alternate accounts, Mu Guiying fought two generals under the command of Yang Yanzhou in order to secure the freedom of Yang Zongbao. Yang Yanzhou directed his subordinates Jiao Zan (焦贊) and Meng Liang (孟良) to take Mu Guiying's challenge. The two officers were sworn brothers and fought together. A Chinese saying of the time referred to the two men: "Jiao doesn't leave Meng, Meng doesn't leave Jiao" ("焦不離孟,孟不離焦").

Mu Guiying faced and defeated Jiao Zan and Meng Liang in turn. Her indomitable spirit impressed Yang Yanzhou.

In all accounts, Mu Guiying offered a handsome apology to Yang Yanzhou following her victory for her presumption to offer a challenge and win. Yang Yanzhou finally agreed to her marriage proposal to Yang Zongbao. He welcomed her joining the Song military with a load of xiáng lóng mù as well.

Mu Guiying

Painting of Mu Guiying by Qian Xiaodai (錢小岱), Source

Mu Guiying's talent and skills soon made their impression on Yang Yanzhou and his subordinates. In her first battle, the Song gained their first victory against the Tiānmén Zhèn. Yang Yanzhou afterwards delegated authority and the command of armies to Mu Guiying. Exuding the composure and confidence of a veteran general, she called a muster roll of her officers and assigned them tasks she considered them suitable for. For the next battle against the Khitan forces, she taught her subordinates countermeasures for the various tactics of the Tiānmén Zhèn that she knew. Additionally, she detached a force of raiders to cut off the Khitan supply line and burn the enemy's supply of food and horse fodder to ashes. Lacking feed for their mounts in the hostile Chinese countryside, the Liao cavalry, which was the principal element of the invading army, would be unable to maintain an extended campaign far from its base in Youzhou and thus rendered helpless. Mu Guiying then dispatched another Song force that recaptured Youzhou and removed the Liao threat to the Song heartland.

In the climactic battle of the campaign, Mu Guiying led the Song army to victory over the Khitans. Mu Guiying, the Yang family, and the Song soldiers triumphantly entered the Song capital of Bianjing (汴京), present-day Kaifeng (開封) in Henan Province. Emperor Zhenzong greeted Mu Guiying and the brave men and women of the Yang family himself, conferring titles of honor upon them all. Emperor Zhenzong also provided a grand wedding for Mu Guiying and Yang Zongbao.

Mu Guiying had two children with Yang Zongbao: a son named Yang Wenguang (楊文廣; d. 1074) and a daughter called Yang Jinhua (楊金華). One legend tells that Mu Guiying gave birth to Yang Wenguang on the battlefield as she led her army to battle. Like the other members of the Yang family, Yang Wenguang went on to offer distinguished service in resisting several Tangut and Khitan invasion attempts.

Yang family female general Mu Guiying

Painting of Yang family female general Mu Guiying, Source

Mu Guiying fought for many years as a commanding Song general in concert with Yang Zongbao. In some accounts, when Mu Guiying was aged 53 years old, Yang Zongbao fell victim to a scheme by a scheming pacifist court official surnamed Pang (龐). Yang Zongbao was falsely accused of treason to the Song and executed. In other accounts, Yang Zongbao died in battle against the Western Xia beneath a shower of arrows.

Mu Guiying continued to command Song armies into her 80s. In her final campaign, she led other widows of the Yang family in an expedition against the Western Xia kingdom in present day Shanxi Province, which lies northwest of Henan. The name Shanxi means "West of the Mountains," referring to the province's location west of the Taihang Mountains or Tàiháng Shān (太行山). The mountain range runs along the eastern edge of the Loess Plateau (黃土高原), a plateau in north-central China composed of loess, a silt-like sediment formed by the buildup of wind-blown dust.

Mu Guiying and her army were ambushed by a Western Xia army at Tiger and Wolf Canyon or Hǔláng xiágǔ (虎狼峽谷). She and two Yang women died by arrow attack upon a steep cliff as the other women of the army were killed while traveling up the cliff to their rescue. The Tanguts buried Mu Guiying and her companions in a tomb at the site in honor of them. Legend tells that the matriarch of the Yang family, Dowager She (Shé tàihòu 佘太后), mourned at the tomb. The spirit of the mountain was so touched, it cried tears of sympathy that took shape as boulders rolling down the cliff. The Yang family tomb is located at Rolling Tears Cliff or Gǔndòng lèi yá (滚动淚). Emperor Renzong of Song (宋仁宗; r. 1022–1063), the fourth Song emperor, posthumously bestowed upon Mu Guiying the title of Huntian Marquess (Traditional Chinese: 混天侯; pinyin: Hùntiān hóu; lit. "Mixed with Heaven Marquess"). A tomb found at Xiyadi Village (西崖底村) near Lüliang (吕梁), a prefecture-level city in western Shanxi, is believed to be that of Mu Guiying and the other Yang family widows.

Mu Guiying Movie Poster

Movie Poster for "Mu Guiying Takes Command and Breaks the Sky" (Mù Guì Yīng Guàshuài Pò Tiānmén 穆桂英挂帅破天门, 2021), Source

The life of Mu Guiying has been retold in numerous novels, operas, films, and TV shows in China across the centuries. Her story is considered to be both rare and epic. In addition to being one of China's greatest women generals, she took control of her marriage life and chose her husband which was unique in ancient China where most people customarily entered into arranged marriages. She is sometimes worshipped as a martial door goddess or wǔmén shén (武門神), often in pair with Qin Liangyu, to protect Chinese homes against evil spirits and bad influences.

Mu Guiying is an integral 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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