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Yuenü – Master Swordswoman

Yuenü (Traditional Chinese: 越女; pinyin: Yuènǚ; Wade–Giles: Yüeh-nü; lit. "the Lady of Yue") was renowned as the most famous and greatest swordfighter of her day. She came from the state of Yue (越), located in the northern area of modern Zhejiang province (浙江省) on the southeast coast of China.

Chinese Plain 5th Century BC

Source Image

Yuenü dwelled in the Southern Forest of Yue. As a young girl, she learned archery and swordsmanship while hunting with her father. The forested mountains where she and her father bow-hunted were deep, wild, and thinly peopled. She taught herself swordplay with first bamboo sticks for many years before picking up an actual sword. She invented special techniques that used lightning speed and subtle but powerful moves. Practicing alone in the forest, she perfected a style of swirling, leaping, parrying, and slashing against multiple opponents represented by saplings and bamboo stands.

越女 Lady of Yue

She is also called Maiden of the Southern Forest (南方森林的少女), Aqing (阿青), and Aliao (阿遼). Her actual name is unrecorded. It is known that Yuenü lived during the rule of King Goujian (勾踐) (r. 496–465 BC; Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 2201 to 2202–2232 to 2233) of Yue. Goujian held court in the northern capital of Wu (吳), which is present day Suzhou (苏州).

Goujian reigned near the end of the "Spring and Autumn" period (Traditional Chinese: 春秋時代; pinyin: Chūnqiū Shídài) which lasted from 770 BC–476 BC (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 1926 to 1927 – 2221 to 2222). Some authorities say the period lasted until 403 BC (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 2294 to 2295).

Yuenü is first named in the masterpiece chronicle "Commentary of Zuo" (Traditional Chinese: 左傳; pinyin: Zuǒ zhuàn), which was written by the famous blind historian Zuo Qiuming (左丘明) about 400 BC (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 2297 to 2298). The "Commentary of Zuo" was composed during the "Warring States Period" (战国时代) which lasted from c. 475–221 BC (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar c. 2222 to 2223 – 2476 to 2477).


"Peonies" by Yun Shouping (1633–1690), Qing Dynasty-era painting, national flower of China, the "Monarch of Flowers" symbolizing prosperity, elegance, and solemnity.

She is also recorded in at ten-volume book titled the "Spring and Autumn Annals of Southern States Wu and Yue" (Traditional Chinese: 吳越春秋; pinyin: Wúyuè Chūnqiū). The book is an unofficial history from the time of the Eastern Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 東漢; Simplified Chinese: 东汉; pinyin: Dōnghàn). The Eastern Han dynasty ruled from 25 AD–220 AD (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 2721 to 2722 – 2916 to 2917).

Wuyu Chunqiu

Cover of translation of "Spring and Autumn Annals of Southern States Wu and Yue"

The ten-volume book was written by historian Zhao Ye (赵晔) during the early 1st century AD, and narrates the history of battles between the southeastern states of Wu (吳) and Yue. The two states were nominally under the sovereignty of the Western Zhou dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 西周; pinyin: Xīzhōu). The Western Zhou dynasty ran from c. 1045 BC–771 BC (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar ? – 1926 to 1927).

The book covers the "Spring and Autumn" period. Despite its peaceful name, this time in China's history was ridden with conflict and bloodshed. As the Zhou dynasty declined, the power of warlords and individual states who competed among themselves rose and brought on the Warring States period. The lasting legacy of this period included the philosophers Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu.

From the "Annals" we learn of Yuenü, who as a young girl learned archery and swordsmanship while hunting with her father.

Yue Nu Archer

The "Annals" recount that King Goujian planned to wage a war of vengeance against the state of Wu. He asked his prime minister, Fan Li (范莉), for advice.

"The King of Yue asked Fan Li, 'I have a scheme to get even again. For a naval battle, you rely on ships; for a land battle, you rely on chariots: but the power of our ships and chariots is blunted by the quality of our short and long weapons. You are my strategist; isn't there some scheme to get us out of this fix? '"

Fan Li counseled that the secret to military success was a strong army and that it would behoove the king to recruit the best warriors to train the army.

"Fan Li replied, 'As I recall, the ancient sage kings never failed to exercise in warfare and the use of weapons; and only then did they form up their battalions, line up their divisions and march off to war. The outcome hung on their martial arts instructors.'"

First a famous archer from the western state of Chu (楚) was summoned. Fan Li also made mention that he heard of a Maiden who lived south of the king's castle. The Maiden was renowned for both her archery and swordsmanship.

"'…I hear there is a young woman of Yue who came from the Southern Forests; the people of Yue speak highly of her. I think your Majesty should send her an invitation and you can see for yourself how good she is.'"

Goujian accordingly called for Yuenü as well "so he could consult her about the art of weaponry." He specifically sought her counsel for her skill with the sword.

"So the King of Yue sent an emissary with a polite invitation to ask whether the King could get her advice on skill in use of swords and halberds."

Folklore has it that Yuenü was challenged along her journey northward by a magical white gibbon or ape, who had taken on the guise of an old master swordsman:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was "Old Mr. Yuan" [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, "I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I'd like to see a demonstration."

She replied, "I wouldn't presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir."

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king.*

* "Chinese Archery" (2006). Selby, Stephen

Old Man Yuan

Old Man Yuan

In an alternate account of the duel, Old Man Yuan challenged the Maiden to a match with bamboo staves. He snapped off a Linyu bamboo branch and stripped it. Before the leaves fell to the ground, though, the Maiden swiftly closed the distance between them and, with a single slash of her sword, she cleaved in two the falling leaves and the bamboo that Old Man Yuan wielded into three parts.

Old Man Yuan congratulated the Maiden on her demonstration. He hopped up a tree, transformed into his true form of a white gibbon, and left. The Maiden's reputation as an invincible swordswoman then spread throughout the land.

When the Maiden met with the Yue king, he ordered that she demonstrate her skill and face several of his soldiers simultaneously. The Maiden defeated her attackers easily.

Yuenu Maiden

The "Annals" recount that Goujian was greatly impressed. He asked from whom she learned her mastery of the sword.

"The king asked her, 'of all the methods of fighting with the sword which is the best?'"

She explained to the king that she had no formal teacher and that she developed her sword style for protection in her native forest.

"She answered, 'I was born in the depths of the forest and I grew up in the wilds where no other people ever ventured. So there was no "method" for me and I followed no course of instruction, for I never ventured into the feudal fiefs. Secretly I yearned for a true method of fighting and I practiced endlessly. I never learned it from anyone: I just realized one day that I could do it.'"

When Goujian asked what the fundamentals of her sword techniques were, she likened them to the opening and closing of small and large doors, which can be divided into yin and yang energy (阴阳; lit. "dark-bright", "negative-positive"; the universal principle of complementary opposites). The doors allowed and sealed off opportunities for attack. Her techniques were simple yet powerful, based on a philosophy of strengthening the spirit while staying calm during combat. She explained that her techniques were designed for fighting multiple opponents.

Yuenu Yin-Yang

"'And what method do you practice now?' asked the King.

'The method involves great mystery and depth. The method involves "front doors" and "back doors" as well as hard and soft aspects. Opening the "front door" and closing the "back door" closes off the soft aspect and brings the hard aspect to the fore.'

'Whenever you have hand-to-hand combat, you need to have nerves of steel on the inside, but be totally calm in the outside. I must look like a demure young lady and fight like a startled tiger. My profile changes with the action of my body, and both follow my subconscious.'

'Overshadow your adversary like the sun; but scuttle like a flushed hare. Become a whirl of silhouettes and shadows; shimmer like a mirage. Inhale, exhausting, moving in, moving back out, keeping yourself out of reach, using your strategy to block the adversary, vertical, horizontal, resisting, following, straight, devious, and all without sound. With a method like this one man can match a hundred; a hundred men can match ten thousand. If Your Majesty wants to try me out, you can have a demonstration right away.'"

Moved by her discourse on swordsmanship, Goujian gave the Maiden the title Yuenü or "the Lady of Yue." He also decreed that she instruct his chief officers, who then trained his army in Yuenü's fighting style which became known as "The Sword System of the Lady of Yue" (Traditional Chinese: 越女劍系; pinyin: Yuè nǚ jiàn xì) during those days.

"The King of Yue was overjoyed and immediately gave her the title 'Daughter of Yue.' Then he ordered the divisional commanders and crack troops to practice the new method so that they could pass on their skills to the troops. From then on, the method was known as 'The Daughter of Yue's Swordsmanship.'"

An account of another event tells that the King of the nominally reigning Zhou dynasty sponsored a great sword tournament. Over three thousand swordfighters from all the states came to compete. Yuenü was among the competitors. She emerged as the eventual victor in the contest, which spanned seven days.

When the King of Zhou asked Yuenü what the reason for her success was, she replied:

其道甚微而易,其意甚幽而深. 道有门户,亦有阴阳,
开门闭户,阴衰阳兴. 几手战道,内实精神,外示定仪,

The Way is very small and easy, and the meaning is very secluded and deep. Tao has a door, but also Yin and Yang,
Open the door and close the door, the Yin declines and the Yang rises. Several battles, inner realism, outer show definite ritual,
Seeing it is like a good woman, seizing it is like fearing a tiger, one person is a hundred, and a hundred people are ten thousand.

Yuenü's answer illustrated her Taoist approach to combat, which was to avoid direct confrontation and maintain the element of surprise. She favored the principle of employing agility and fluid speed to offset superior physical strength.

Idealized Yuenü

Idealized Maiden of Yue

Yuenü's sword techniques and principles are the earliest known explanation on the art of swordsmanship in China and were passed down for a thousand years. Her writings present timeless principles that helped shape martial arts styles like Northern Shaolin Yuejiaquan (岳家拳), T'ai chi ch'üan (太极拳), and the Southern Shaolin systems of Wing Chun Kuen (咏春拳), Bak Mei Pai (白眉派), Bai Hu Pai (白虎派), and Five Pattern/Five Animals Hung Fist (五形洪拳) as well as other Chinese martial arts.

For example:

Quote 1

"When fencing, though highly alert
The appearance is as calm as a fair lady's
But when in action, a vicious Tiger emerges."

Quote 2

"Weak and exposed in appearance;
But powerful when unleashed.
One's reactions may start afterwards,
But the response arrives there first."

Quote 3

"One person can fight one hundred,
An army of one hundred can fight an army of one thousand."

Goujian Sword

Sword tentatively believed to have been forged for King Goujian of Yue, unearthed by archaeologists in a Chu kingdom tomb.

Yuenü is given credit as well for developing a new type of metallurgy that produced untarnishable bronze swords with flexible cores and extremely sharp edges. Blades that were forged thusly were called "Yuenü swords." She is also regarded as the reincarnation of Jiutian Xuannü (九天玄女; lit. "Mysterious Lady/ Dark Lady of the Nine Heavens"), the goddess of war, sex, and long life.

Fantasy Yuenu

Fantastical Yuenü

Yuenü was indicative of a time when women in military service wasn't unheard of in China. The "Book of Lord Shang" (Traditional Chinese: Shàngshū; pinyin: 尚書) was written by Shang Yang (商鞅; c. 390–338 BC; Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar c. 2307 to 2397 – 2359 to 2360), a reformer for the state of Qin (秦). The "Book of Lord Shang" was the foundational work of "Chinese Legalism" in Qin. Shang Yang set in motion a series of great reforms that put Qin on the road to ultimate power, which saw the end of the Zhou dynasty and the unification of China under the Qin dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 秦朝; pinyin: Qín cháo; 221 BC–206 BC; Traditional Chinese Kan-chih calendar 2476 to 2477 – 2491 to 2492). The text has over a dozen articles like "Altering Laws", "Agricultural War", "Opening the Blocked (Mountain Pass)", "Planning Strategy", etc. It foreshadowed many of the administrative features that the Qin dynasty would later impose on China. Among other things, the text advised dividing the state army into three units: strong men, strong women, and the weak and old of both genders. The strong men were to serve as the first line of defense against the state's enemy, the strong women manned fortifications and constructed traps, and the weak soldiers operated the supply chain.

Book of Lord Shang

"Book of Lord Shang" Manuscript

Yuenü has served as the inspiration for numerous fiction stories across the centuries and modern Chinese media. One such example is a novel dating from the late Ming dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644; Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 4064 to 4065 – 4340 to 4341), the "Romance of the Kingdoms of the Eastern Zhou Empire" (Traditional Chinese: Dōngzhōu Lièguó Zhì; pinyin: 東周列國志) by Feng Menglong (馮夢龍) who depicted her as having near supernatural fighting talent. She is also fictionalized in the "Sword of the Yue Maiden", alternatively translated as "Yue Maiden's Sword" (Traditional Chinese: 越女劍; pinyin: Yuenü Jian), a wuxia (武俠; lit. "martial heroes") novellette published in 1970 by Louis Cha Leung-yung (查良鏞) under the pen name of Jin Yong (金庸).


"Chronicles of the Eastern Zhou Kingdoms" Illustration                     "Sword of the Yue Maiden" Book Cover

Yuenü 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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