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Warrior Princess

Painting of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主) by unknown artist.

Princess Pingyang – Woman General of the Tang Dynasty

Princess Pingyang (Chinese: 平陽公主; pinyin: Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ; c. 598–623; t. 618–623) was the third daughter of Li Yuan (李淵; 566–635). Her father was a prominent aristocrat and skilled general who named himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang (唐高祖; r. 618–626) and founded the Tang dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: Táng Cháo; 618–690, 705–907). China suffered under the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝; 569–618; r. 604–618), who was the second ruler of the short-lived Sui dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 隋朝; pinyin: Suí Cháo; 581–618) and one of the most hated tyrants in China's history. Princess Pingyang formed and led an army in her own right, helping her father to overthrow the Sui dynasty. Moreover, she was beloved by her followers for her kindness and compassion as well as her strength.

Princess Pingyang

Painting of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主) by unknown artist.

Princess Pingyang was born as Li San Niangzi (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子), the third Lady Li. In historical records and romance novels written after her time, she is called Li Xiuning (Lǐ Xiùníng 李修寧). Xiuning can be translated as "Builder of Peace" or "Cultivator of Peace." Lady Li San was the only daughter of Li Yuan and his second wife Duchess Dou (竇公爵夫人; 569?–613?) or Lady Dou (竇夫人). Lady Li San had two older sisters from her father's first marriage. She was the third of 19 daughters who Li Yuan birthed with sundry wives and concubines. Duchess Dou was the most favored of Li Yuan's spouses as she was posthumously honored as Empress Taimu (太穆皇后), the first Empress of the Tang dynasty. In addition to being the wife of the future Emperor Gaozong, she was the mother of Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗; 598–649; r. 626–649), the second Tang ruler.

In addition to Lady Li San, Duchess Dou bore four sons to Li Yuan. The sons of Duchess Dou were all reared as warriors and generals. They proved to be a brood of lions: Li Jiancheng (李建成; 589–626), formally Crown Prince Yin (隱太子; t. 618–626; lit. "the hidden crown prince"); Li Shimin (李世民; the future Emperor Taizong and the younger brother of Lady Li San); Li Xuanba (李元霸; 599–614; d. of illness); and Li Yuanji (李元吉; 603–626). In childhood, Lady Li San spent more time with her brothers than with her step-sisters. In addition to the more womanly pursuits of her day, she learned the same warrior skills of martial arts, archery, horsemanship, and generalship as her brothers.

Woman Archer

Concept art of Chinese woman archer/huntress.

The ancestors of Lady Li San's family were members of the powerful Han Chinese aristocracy that had emerged on the frontier of northwestern China when Han Chinese migrated west and south from the Yellow River or Huang He (Traditional Chinese: 黃河, pinyin: Huáng hé) valley, the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, in the northeast. Lady Li San's ancestors held titles as rulers, government officials, and generals in northern China.

6 Dynasties-16 Kingdoms

The seventh generation forebear of Li Yuan was Li Gao or Li Hao (李暠; 351–417). Li Gao founded the state of Western Liang (Traditional Chinese: 西涼; pinyin: Xī Liáng; 400–421) during the late period of the Sixteen Kingdoms (Traditional Chinese: 十六國; pinyin: Shíliù Guó; 304–439) era when northern China was fractured into a series of ephemeral dynastic states. The Sixteen Kingdoms overlapped with the time of the Six Dynasties (Traditional Chinese: 六朝; pinyin: Liù Cháo; 220–589 or 222–589), six Han-ruled Chinese dynasties that reigned in southern China from the early 3rd century AD to the late 6th century AD. The Li clan of Western Liang were known as the Longxi Li lineage (Lǒngxī Lǐshì 隴西李氏).

Following the fall of Western Liang, Li Gao's grandson Li Zhong'Er (李重耳) served as an official of Northern Wei (Traditional Chinese: 北魏; pinyin: Běiwèi; 386–535), a dynasty founded by the Xianbei (鮮卑), proto-Mongol nomads, who united northern China. A series of Han Chinese dynasties ruled southern China contemporaneously, marking the following period as the Northern and Southern dynasties (Traditional Chinese: 南北朝; pinyin: Nán-Běi Cháo; 420–589).

The descendants who followed Li Gao held minor military titles for the next several generations until the time of Li Yuan's paternal grandfather Li Hu (李虎). Li Hu served as a major general under Yuwen Tai (宇文泰; 507–556), the leading Xianbei general of the succeeding Western Wei (Traditional Chinese: 西魏; pinyin: Xī Wèi; 535–557). Li Hu received the Xianbei surname Daye (大野) and the title Duke of Longxi (隴西公). When the Northern Zhou (Traditional Chinese: 北周; pinyin: Bĕi Zhōu; 557–581) followed the Western Wei, Li Hu was posthumously named the Duke of Tang (唐國公).

Li Bing (李昞; ?–572), the son of Li Hu and father of Li Yuan, inherited the title of the Duke of Tang. Li Bing wedded one of the daughters of the prestigious Xianbei general Dugu Xin (獨孤信; 503–557).

Following the death of Li Bing in 572, Li Yuan received the title of Duke of Tang. Li Yuan held the title when Northern Zhou came to an end. The Dragon Throne* (Lóng Yǐ 龍椅) of Northern Zhou was seized in 581 by Yang Jian (楊堅; 541–604), the Duke of Sui (隨國公).

* The dragon was the emblem of divine imperial power, so the throne of the emperor was called the Dragon Throne.

Yang Jian was a Han Chinese official and general who had served Northern Zhou with distinction. He was given the Xianbei name Puliuru Jian (普六茹堅). Yang Jian became father-in-law to Emperor Xuan of Northern Zhou ((北)周宣帝; 559–580; r. 578–579), who married his daughter Yang Lihua (楊麗華; 561–609) and made her Great Empress Tianyuan (天元大皇后; t. 578–579).

Emperor Xuan was the penultimate Northern Zhou ruler. He was an erratic leader, who among other things suspected Yang Jian of treachery and alienated him with no cause.

On one occasion, Emperor Xuan said to Yang Jian:

"I will surely slaughter your clan!"

Unexpectedly, Emperor Xuan abdicated the Dragon Throne to his then six-year-old son Yuwen Yan (宇文衍; 573–581) whom he fathered by a low ranking concubine named Zhu Manyue (朱滿月; 547–586). He created his son as Emperor Jing of Northern Zhou ((北)周靜帝; 579–581). He became retired emperor, but kept imperial powers. His actions weakened Northern Zhou before his death by sudden illness in summer 580. Yang Jian became regent to Emperor Jing and deposed the latter a year later.

Sui Dynasty

Vintage map of Sui dynasty.

Yang Jian named himself Emperor Wen of Sui (隋文帝; r. 581–604) and established the Sui dynasty, which went on to unite the whole of China proper. Following the Chinese dynastic custom of using the old fief name as the new dynasty's name, Emperor Wen used "Sui" as his dynasty name. However, he viewed the character for his old fief Sui (隨) as giving the connotation of impermanence for his dynasty since it included the chuò "辶" radical, which denoted "walking." Emperor Wen removed "辶" from the Sui character, rendering it as "隋".

Emperor Wen became one of the most significant emperors of imperial China, ending centuries of division that started with the fall of the Western Jin dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 西晉; pinyin: Xī Jìn; 266–316) in 316. Being a Buddhist, he supported the spread of Buddhism through China after it had been prohibited during the late years of Northern Zhou. The Shaolin Temple (Shàolín sì 少林寺; "Young Forest Temple") in Henan Province (河南省) in central China was closed in 574, then reopened under the name Zhihu Temple (Zhìhú sì 志湖寺; "Aspiration Lake Temple") in 580. In 581, Emperor Wen restored the name of the Shaolin Temple.

Northern Qi Great Wall

Hostile Eastern Turkish (Tujue) nomad tribes roamed beyond the northern frontier of the Sui. They attacked the northern border numerous times. Emperor Wen devoted substantial resources to protecting the heartland of central China, which lay on the Central Plains, or the Zhongyuan (Traditional Chinese: 中原; pinyin: Zhōngyuán), between the lower and middle reaches of the Huáng hé. To this end, he undertook the expansion of the Great Wall of China (Traditional Chinese: 萬里長城; pinyin: Wànlǐ Chángchéng; lit. "Ten-Thousand Li Long Wall") four times in 581, 585, 586, and 587. Previous walls raised by the Northern Qi (Traditional Chinese: 北齊; pinyin: Běi Qí; 550–577) and other earlier dynasties were renovated. Extensive new fortifications were laid as well.

Sui Great Wall


During Emperor Wen's rule, construction work also began on a noncontiguous series of canals that were collectively called the Jing–Hang Grand Canal (Traditional Chinese: 京杭大運河; pinyin: Jīng-Háng Dà Yùnhé; lit. 'Capital–Hangzhou Grand Canal', more commonly the "Grand Canal" (大运河)). The Grand Canal was instrumental in the Sui reunification of north and south China. It linked the Yellow River in the north to the Yangtze River or Chang Jiang (Traditional Chinese: 長江; pinyin: Cháng jiāng; lit. "Long River") in the south, facilitating the transport of grain from southern farmlands to hubs of political and military power in northern China. Additionally, the Grand Canal enabled domestic trade, the movement of people, and cultural exchange across China through the following centuries.

Grand Canal

Sui construction projects on Grand Canal.

Empress Wenxian (文獻皇后; 544–602; t. 581–602), the wife of Emperor Wen, was a daughter of Dugu Xin. Her Xianbei name was Dugu Jialuo (獨孤伽羅) and she was Li Yuan's aunt.

After the accession of Emperor Wen, Li Yuan married Duchess Dou. Li Yuan's wife was the daughter of Dou Yi (竇毅) the Duke of Shenwu (神武公) and Northern Zhou Princess Xiangyang (襄陽公主), who was Yuwen Tai's daughter. Li Yuan served three terms as a provincial governor during the rule of Emperor Wen.

The second son of Emperor Wen was Yang Guang (楊廣; 569–618), who had the Xianbei name Amo (阿摩). Yang Guang was created the Prince of Jin upon the establishment of the Sui dynasty in 581. Yang Guang was a younger brother of Yang Lihua, whom Emperor Wen created as Princess Leping of Sui (隋樂平公主; t. 586–609). In 588, Yang Guang commanded a force of five armies that successfully invaded the Han Chinese Chen dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 陳朝; pinyin: Chén Cháo; 557–589) in southern China and ended the Northern and Southern dynasties. He then conspired against his older brother Yang Yong (楊勇; Xianbei name Xiandifa (睍地伐); d. 604) and became the Crown Prince or Huang Taizi (皇太子, "Great Imperial Son") in 600. Though unproven, he was believed to have ordered the murder of Emperor Wen and rose to the Dragon Throne as Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝, 604–618). He proved to be the polar opposite of his father and made his father's alteration of the Sui character irrelevant.

To flaunt the grandeur of the Sui dynasty and display his absolute power, Emperor Yang commissioned many construction projects that were carried out at great human and financial cost. In 604, he commissioned the building of a new eastern capital at the existing city of Luoyang (洛阳市) in western Henan. The Grand Canal was completed from 604 to 609 with the conscripted labor of about five million people. About 40% to 50% of the men employed were estimated to have died. Three expansions of the Great Wall in 605, 607, and 608 claimed the lives of almost another six million workers.

Emperor Yang also embarked on a number of military adventures into Tibet, Mongolia, Tujue nomad territories, Champa (central and southern Vietnam), Taiwan, the island of Sumatra, and Goguryeo (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea). The conquest of Champa caused the demise of thousands of Sui soldiers due to malaria. Four invasions of Goguryeo were launched in 598, 612, 613, and 614. They all failed, leaving the Sui bankrupt and discontent widespread throughout China.

Emperor Yang raised taxes, but the peasants were unable to pay them. Virtually no peasant men were left to work the farms as millions had been conscripted to work on the emperor's lavish construction projects or join the Sui army. Peasants, landlords, aristocrats, scholars, soldiers, and many military officers rose up in rebellions, which were stamped out with excessive force. Emperor Yang grew more suspicious of his subjects, who reviled him for his tyranny and misrule.

Li Yuan, who was first cousin to Emperor Yang, served as a commandery governor early during the reign of Emperor Yang as the latter reorganized provinces into commanderies. Li Yuan then served as a junior minister within Emperor Yang's government.

In 613, Li Yuan oversaw logistical operations for the second invasion of Goguryeo. During the campaign, the general Yang Xuangan (楊玄感; d. 613) rebelled against Emperor Yang near the eastern capital of Luoyang on the Zhōngyuán. Emperor Yang commissioned Li Yuan as a general in command of an army that supported the suppression of Yang Xuangan.

Emperor Yang grew suspicious of Li Yuan, though, and summoned him back to court later that year. Li Yuan declined, claiming poor health. The emperor disbelieved Li Yuan and queried the latter's niece, Consort Wang (王妃), who was an imperial concubine.

The emperor asked of Consort Wang:

"Will he die?"

Li Yuan made a show of taking up drinking and accepting bribes to demonstrate to Emperor Yang that he harbored no imperial ambitions. He allayed the emperor's concerns for the time being.

In 615, Emperor Yang put Li Yuan in command of Hedong Commandery (河東郡), which lay roughly in modern Shanxi Province (山西省) in northern China. Li Yuan and other northern administrators were commanded by Emperor Yang to suppress another tide of peasant rebellion when the imperial government published new decrees for military and labor conscription.

During spring 615, though, a street ballad circulated in many cities saying that the next emperor would be surnamed Li. The family name of Li was a common one, but it fed Emperor Yang's suspicion of Li Yuan. Li Yuan was also rumored to have a birthmark shaped like a dragon beneath his left armpit, marking him as the next emperor.

Ultimately, Emperor Yang acted on accusations that a government official named Li Hun (李渾) intended to instigate a coup to replace him with his nephew Li Min (李敏, son-in-law of his deceased sister Yang Lihua the Princess Leping). Emperor Yang ordered that Li Hun, Li Min, and their clansmen be executed. Additionally, he poisoned Yuwen Eying (宇文娥英), who was the daughter of Yang Lihua.

Li Yuan was recalled in 616 and given control of the important city of Taiyuan (太原市), the modern capital of Shanxi Province, which lay northeast of the western Sui capital of Chang'an, present day Xi'an (西安市), the capital of Shaanxi Province (陕西省) in northwest China. Li Yuan's appointment proved to be fateful as Taiyuan was the capital or provisional capital of many dynasties in China throughout its history, hence the nickname Lóng Chéng (龙城; Dragon City). In fall 616, Emperor Yang left Luoyang to take refuge in Jiangdu District (江都區) in central Jiangsu province (江苏省) on the central east coast of China.

As Li Yuan rose in prominence and dealt with Emperor Yang's repeated suspicions of him, Lady Li San grew up and lived in Chang'an. When she was a teenager, she was wedded to an older Han Chinese aristocrat and military officer named Chai Shao (柴紹; 588–638), who was the son of Chai Shen (柴慎) the Duke of Julu (鉅鹿公). Chai Shao would later distinguish himself as a general under the Tang emperors Gaozu and Taizong in battles against various nomadic invaders. Chai Shao was then head of the Sui palace guard in Chang'an. By all accounts, Lady Li San was a dutiful, filial, and loving daughter, sister, and wife during this time.

Princess Pingyang

Painting of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主) by unknown artist.

In 617, Li Yuan decided to rise in rebellion against Emperor Yang. Li Yuan faced growing criticism from Emperor Yang for his difficulties in halting raids by the Tujue and the increasing strength of Tujue-supported peasant rebels in northern China who captured Emperor Yang's secondary palace near Taiyuan. Emperor Yang had decided that Li Yuan's failures were the result of treasonous intentions rather than the result of the perilous condition of the Sui dynasty. The paranoid Emperor Yang had decided that Li Yuan's military power was a threat to him as well.

Li Shimin, in concert with certain of his father's associates, also planned rebellion and urged Li Yuan that the time to revolt against the Sui was coming near. Li Shimin argued that his father needed to preserve the Li clan and return just rule to China since Emperor Yang continued to suspect Li Yuan of harboring imperial ambitions due to the prophecies that still circulated throughout China that the next emperor would be called Li. Some sources say that Emperor Yang falsely accused Li Yuan of having affairs with some of Emperor Wen's and Emperor Yang's concubines, which alone called for the execution of Li Yuan and his clan under imperial law. Other accounts claim that Li Yuan's affairs with a number of imperial concubines were true.

Emperor Yang ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Li Yuan, who would face execution. Emperor Yang then revoked his command in order to have Li Yuan's support against a number of rebels who had risen.

Li Yuan used the time granted by the reprieve to gather troops in his region under the pretense that they were necessary for defense against the Tujue. Li Yuan also dispatched secret messengers to his family in Hedong Commandery, which lay east of the Yellow River in modern Shanxi Province in northern China. He summoned Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji, his sons by Duchess Dou, to Taiyuan. He ordered his son Li Zhiyun (李智雲) by his concubine Lady Wan (萬小姐) to remain in Hedong to watch over the remaining family household there. He also sent a messenger to Chang'an to summon his son-in-law Chai Shao and his daughter Lady Li San to Taiyuan to aid him.

Since Lady Li San and Chai Shao lived in the imperial palace in Chang'an, they were liable to be taken hostage, ransomed, and killed by Emperor Yang. When Lady Li San and Chai Shao discussed their plans, Chai Shao was concerned they would have difficulty escaping together.

He said to his wife:

"Your father is a soldier. Now we can't go together. If you stay here, you will be plagued with disasters. What should you do?"

Lady Li San volunteered to stay behind for a while and urged her husband to make his way secretly to Taiyuan alone.

She said:

"As a woman, it is easy for me to hide when the time comes. I have ways of taking care of myself."

Chai Shao fled the palace in secret to join Li Yuan in Taiyuan. Before his escape was discovered, Lady Li San made her own clandestine flight from the palace. She was accompanied by Ma Sanbao (马三宝; 585–629), a jiatong (家僮; "family slave servant") of the Li clan, who protected and advised her. Ma Sanbao was a cunning man who played an important role in establishing the Tang dynasty. He rose from the status of slave to a general in service to Emperor Gaozong and Emperor Taizong.

When Li Jiancheng, Li Yuanji, and Chai Shao gathered at Taiyuan, Li Yuan declared his rebellion against Emperor Yang. He claimed to be a Sui loyalist, though, and claimed that his goal was to place on the Dragon Throne Emperor Yang's grandson Yang You (楊侑; 605–619), the Prince of Dai (傣王), who was then at Chang'an, and to honor Emperor Yang as Taishang Huang (太上皇), the retired emperor.

Li Yuan forged a truce with the Tujue to secure his northern flank. The Tujue, who admired Li Yuan, pledged to not attack Chinese territory while he remained a general. Li Yuan offered tribute to the Tujue, who provided horses and 30,000 warriors to aid him. Li Yuan placed Li Jiancheng and Li Shimin in command of separate wings of his army and delegated Li Yuanji to administer Taiyuan. Meantime, Sui officials in Hedong placed Li Zhiyun under arrest and sent him to Chang'an where he was executed on the charge of being "the son of the rebel" (fǎnpàn zhīzǐ 反叛之子).

Princess Pingyang

Concept art of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主).

As these events played out, Lady Li San and Ma Sanbao made their way to the Li clan's estate in Hu County or Huixian (戶縣), modern Huyi District (鄠邑区), near Chang'an. Lady Li San discovered to her dismay that the local people in the villages surrounding the Li estate were suffering from starvation brought on by a drought as well as the devastation of fighting from the numerous rebellions that erupted across China. The area had been forsaken by the Sui government and leadership was needed to restore the situation.

Lady Li San decided to rise in rebellion to remotely assist her father's main force. She sold her family's lands and possessions, then used the money she obtained to quietly purchase weapons and horses. She resumed her martial arts training as well.

Princess Pingyang

Concept art of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主).

Lady Li San said to Ma Sanbao and an unnamed handmaid:

"Father has decided to raise troops. You all know that I love martial arts. You can practice martial arts with me with all your heart. Even if one who has talent in martial arts is a slave, I will raise him to be an officer and reward him."

She practiced martial arts daily with her male and female servants, whom she initially equipped with cudgels or gùn* staff weapons.

Chinese staffs

Illustration of three primary Chinese martial arts gùn. Public Domain, Link

* Cudgel is a reference to a Chinese staff weapon called a gùn (approximate English pronunciation: /ɡuən/ gwən, Traditional Chinese: 棍; lit. "rod, stick"). The gùn was one of the four major weapons of Ancient and Imperial China along with the qiāng (槍 spear), dāo (刀 single-edged saber), and the jiàn (劍 double-edged straight sword). It is called "The Grandfather of all Weapons" (Suǒyǒu wǔqì de zǔfù 所有武器的祖父). The typical gùn is crafted with a thick end as the base and a thinner end at the tip, and is cut to be about the same height as the average person (1.8 meters; 6 feet).

Moved by kindness and compassion, Lady Li San also bade her family's servants to bring all the wandering peasants they found to her family's manor house and to provide them with food and clothing.

Lady Li San said to the suffering people:

"You are wandering everywhere, you are hungry and tired and you are dead on the road. If you are willing to live and die with us, please stay. As long as we have a bowl of food to eat, you will definitely not starve to death."

Grateful for Lady Li San's generosity, the local residents pledged their loyalty to her. She started recruiting for soldiers in the Zhongnan Mountains or Zhōngnánshān (終南山) south of Chang'an. Commoners and slaves who showed themselves to be skilled martial artists were raised from the ranks as officers. Several hundred peasants and bandits became her first troops under a flag of righteousness raised in support of Li Yuan.

A "barbarian rebel" or huzei (胡賊) named He Panren (何潘仁) had emerged in Sizhuyuan County (司竹園縣), present-day Zhouzhi County (周至县), which was also in the area of Chang'an. A non-Han Chinese businessman from the Western Regions or Xiyu (西域) of Central Asia, He Panren recruited tens of thousands of warriors and killed the governing Sui officials. He proclaimed himself zongguan (總管; "area commander-in-chief").

Tang history books recorded that Lady Li San called Ma Sanbao to a conference and said:

"Sanbao, I want to ask you for help."

Ma Sanbao said: "Third Mistress, please tell me what you want. As long as I can do it, I will do it."

Lady Li San said, "He Panren's rebellion. You should have heard of it."

Ma Sanbao nodded.

"I want to convince He Panren to take Huxian (Hu County) with us."

Ma Sanbao assured Lady Li San that He Panren would be convinced.

He journeyed to Sizhuyuan to entreat He Panren alone.

Puzzled by Ma Sanbao's visit, He Panren asked: "I have never had anything to do with the Li family, why did you come to me?"

Ma Sanbao said: "Duke Li Yuan is a great hero in the world*, and he also raises the flag of righteousness now. Duke Li Yuan knows the country. The duke is able to recruit people who are good at war, and the attack on Chang'an in the future is just around the corner."

*Before the Chinese learned of high civilizations in the West, they believed their kingdom was at the middle of the Earth, surrounded by barbarian tribes.

"Now that my third lady (Lady Li San) is mobilized for war, why would Mr. He not join the forces of the master of the country? Mr. He will have a good future."

He Panren was thus persuaded by Ma Sanbao that he would gain greater power by allying with Lady Li San and fighting under her banner for the cause of Li Yuan. He Panren joined forces with Lady Li San to capture Hu County.

Lady Li San dispatched a messenger with a letter to her father, who was greatly pleased with her achievement.

Li Shimin informed Chai Shao of the news as the latter trained recruits. When Chai Shao ordered the recruits to rest on the training ground, Li Shimin said, "Third Sister sent a messenger with a letter to our father."

Apprehensive, Chai Shao asked nervously, "Did she say whether she was successful in her campaign?"

To Chai Shao's relief, Li Shimin said, "It went smoothly."

Li Shimin said in a happy manner: "Third Sister enlisted a few hundred local military recruits and also added He Panren's 10,000 troops. Recently, she captured Huxian County."

Chai Shao said, "Xiuning is happy to manage our household, but she can also do well at marching and fighting. I am really proud to have Xiuning by my side. Xiuning is a good descendant of the Li family."

Ma Sanbao went on to secure for Lady Li San the allegiance of several other local warlords, including Li Zhongwen (李仲文), Xiang Shanzhi (向善志), and Qiu Shili (丘師利). Each warlord commanded several thousand soldiers that swelled her army, bringing the number of Lady Li San's troops to 70,000. She attacked and captured Zhouzhi County (周至縣), Wugong County (武功县), and other regions near Chang'an.

Most importantly, unlike the armies of Emperor Yang that looted, pillaged, and raped in the areas where they campaigned, Lady Li San implemented a strict code of conduct for her soldiers. She forbade looting, pillaging, and raping. Her troops also paid for food and other supplies they requisitioned. Additionally, Lady Li San had her army distribute food to the locals following victories. Lady Li San and her soldiers were consequently hailed as liberators wherever they marched.

Princess Pingyang

Concept art of (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主).

At first, Lady Li San's uprising was taken lightly by the Sui generals who considered her to be a mere woman. The Sui military leaders dismissed past examples of women warriors who had led armies like Fu Hao, Mother Lü, Li Xiu, Zhiyuanduo, and Lady Xian. Only when her force grew to 70,000 troops did they campaign against her. But repeated assaults by the Sui regent (liúshǒu 留守) of Chang'an upon her rebel force failed. Li Yuan's army also gained many victories against Sui troops.

Late in 617, Li Yuan marched south from Taiyuan and crossed the Huáng hé to campaign in the area of Chang'an. He sent Chai Shao in command of a cavalry force to link up with Lady Li San and her army to consolidate the territory under her control. He also dispatched his eldest son Li Jiancheng eastward. Li Jiancheng's goal was to capture land in the area of the Tong Pass (潼關) in Tongguan County (潼关县) within eastern Shaanxi Province to keep Sui troops at Luoyang from reinforcing Chang'an.

Accompanied by Chai Shao's horse troopers, Lady Li San marched northward with 10,000 of her best soldiers. Lady Li San and Chai Shao united with Li Shimin, who led a small force near the Wei River (渭河), which ran through west-central China's Gansu (甘肃) and Shaanxi provinces to the north of Chang'an. Lady Li San and Chai Shao helped Li Shimin to capture key areas, isolating Chang'an from Sui loyalists in northwest China.

Li Yuan consolidated his forces and placed Chang'an under siege. His operation against the western Sui capital had been greatly facilitated by the successes of Lady Li San's forces. Lady Li San and Chai Shao each set up headquarters as commanding generals. Lady Li San answered only to her father. She had her own staff of subordinate officers, who helped her to command what came to be called the "Army of the Lady" (Niángzǐ Jūn 娘子軍).

In winter 617, Lady Li San and her father dealt the final strikes to the Sui army defending Chang'an and captured the western capital. Li Yuan installed Yang You on the Dragon Throne as Emperor Gong of Sui (隋恭帝; r. 618–619). He exercised actual power as grand chancellor, though, and had himself created as the Prince of Tang (唐太子).

In spring 618, Emperor Yang was killed in a coup at Jiangdu, strangled by his remaining generals. Li Yuan then had Emperor Gong abdicate the Dragon Throne in favor of him and named himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruler of the new Tang dynasty.

Emperor Gaozu created Lady Li San as Princess Pingyang of Tang (唐平陽公主; t. 618–623). Her title of princess was based on Pingyang County (平陽縣), a district of the prefecture-level city of Wenzhou (温州市) in Zhejiang Province (浙江省) in the coastal area of eastern China. Zhejiang is the heartland of the Yantze River Delta or Jiangnan (江南; "South of the River" or "South of the Yangtze"), making it a thriving and wealthy region for waterborne trade. The economic richness of the area funded the building projects and military expeditions of both the Sui and Tang dynasties.

Verdant hills marked Pingyang County. Rice paddies and villages surrounded bustling towns. Farmers waded into fields of mud to plant seedlings that produced bountiful yields. The area of Wenzhou was difficult to govern due to its remoteness from central political authority, though. Wenzhou was known as a rugged, adventurous, and lawless place for centuries. During the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty (Manchu Script: ᡩᠠᡳ᠌ᠴᡳᠩ ᡤᡠᡵᡠᠨ; Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun; 1636–1912) seventy-three magistrates were assigned to govern Pingyang County between 1760 and 1911. Only twelve served for more than four years. Many officials exited before serving their full term for varied reasons. The limited ability of the local government enabled the local residents to govern themselves. Princess Pingyang may have received her title in part to possibly help administer Pingyang County.

A number of challengers to Emperor Gaozu soon emerged to claim the Dragon Throne for themselves, though. Emperor Gaozu was obliged to go on the march with his army to strengthen his hold on the Dragon Throne. He appointed Princess Pingyang to guard Weize Village (苇泽村) in northeast Pingding County (平定县) in Shanxi Province near the border with Hebei Province (河北省) in northern China. The village lay near a strategic pass that led to Taiyuan.

Following the capture of Chang'an in 617, Princess Pingyang died a few years later in 623 at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five. Her passing was sudden and the reason was uncertain, possibly of childbirth. The Tang historical chronicles are unclear.

Emperor Gaozu awarded Princess Pingyang the posthumous name of Zhao (昭). The Zhao 昭 character generally means "bright," "clear," "manifest," or "to show clearly." More precisely, it means "light of the sun." It is a compound ideogram that includes the characters: (日 "sun"), dāo (刀 "knife/sword"), and kǒu (口 "mouth").

Lady Li San's complete posthumous title and name was Princess Zhao of Pingyang (Píngyáng Zhāo Gōngzhǔ 平陽昭公主). In some sources, she was hailed as General Zhao of Pingyang (Píngyáng Zhāo Jiāngjūn 平陽昭將軍).

The vital pass that Princess Pingyang garrisoned in Pingding county was renamed "the Young Lady's Pass" or Niangziguan (娘子關) in her honor. Enclosed within a warren of valleys and flanked by hills over a thousand meters high, the Ningziguan Pass provided a restricted corridor for men and horses. It was considered to be "the Ninth Pass on the Great Wall." Weize Village was also called Niangziguan Town (娘子关镇).

Emperor Gaozu decreed that a great military funeral suitable for a high-ranking general with a band be held for Princess Pingyang. Officials of the Ministry of Rites objected, however, claiming that it was against convention for women's funerals to feature bands.

Princess Pingyang

Painting of Lady Li San (Lǐ Sān Niángzǐ 李三娘子)/later Princess Pingyang (Píngyáng Gōngzhǔ 平陽公主) by unknown artist.

Emperor Gaozu is recorded as saying:

"As you know, the Princess mustered an army that helped us overthrow the Sui dynasty. She participated in many battles, and her help was decisive in founding the Tang dynasty. ... She was no ordinary woman."

An alternate quote of Emperor Gaozu states:

"The band would be playing military music. The Princess personally beat the drums and rose in righteous rebellion to help me establish the dynasty. How can she be treated as an ordinary woman?"

Princess Pingyang birthed two sons with Chai Shao:

  • Chai Zhewei (柴哲威), Duke of Qiao (喬公)
  • Chai Lingwu (柴令武; d. 653), Duke of Xiangyang (襄陽公), wedded to Emperor Taizong's daughter Princess Baling (巴陵公主)

Princess Pingyang's legacy is greater known through the higher status Chinese women were given during the Tang dynasty, which was a high point of Chinese civilization. The higher status of women in the Tang era may also be due in part to the interaction of the Li clan over many generations with non-Han Chinese nomadic tribes in northwestern China where men and women generally had a more equal standing.

Li Shimin went on to displace his brothers Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji, who banded against him, in a struggle for the succession of the Tang dynasty. Li Shimin then deposed Emperor Gaozu and ascended the Dragon Throne as Emperor Taizong.

Emperor Taizong instituted a period of good government and prosperity, which had the era name of Zhenguan (貞觀 "Constancy Revealed"). The name was derived from the "Commentary on Appended Phrases" (繫辭傳) in the Zhou yi 周易 ("The Zhou Changes", or more commonly, "Classic of Changes"): "The Way of Heaven and Earth is how it reveals its constancy." (Tiāndì zhī dào, zhēn guān zhě yě 天地之道, 貞觀者也). Emperor Taizong was an ally of the 13 Shaolin Cudgel Fighting Monks and the Shaolin Temple.

Tang Dynasty

Vintage map of Tang dynasty.

During the height of the Tang dynasty from 618 to 765, women in the elite urban class were accorded freedoms and rights that were unusual for male-dominated ancient and imperial China when Confucianism, one of the Three Teachings, took hold. Women in the lower peasant class generally did not see a change in their status, though. Before Tang rule, a woman was obligated to obey her father during maidenhood, her husband while married, and her sons when widowed. Emperor Taizong granted land to widows, providing women more economic freedom. Tang law did not penalize a couple for divorcing through mutual consent. Women were allowed to divorce and remarry freely. Intermarriage with non-Han Chinese ethnic groups was fashionable for Tang princesses. Women of the urban class were also permitted to receive higher education, manage businesses in their own right, and carry on social activities with greater freedom. A number of poetesses were noted during the time of the Tang.

Confident and assertive women played a part in the politics of the Tang court as well, culminating in the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (武則天; 624–705; r. 690–705) of the transient Wu Zhou dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 武周; pinyin: Wǔ zhōu; 690–705). Wu Zetian sat upon the Dragon Throne as the only empress regnant of China. She had usurped power from her husband Emperor Gaozong of Tang (唐高宗; 628–683; r. 649–683), who was the son of Emperor Taizong. During her reign, corruption in the imperial court was curtailed, China expanded, its culture and economy were invigorated, and it continued as one of the mightiest powers of the world.

Princess Pingyang is a significant and noteworthy member 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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