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Zhiyuanduo – Sole Woman Army Leader of the Three Kingdoms Period

Zhiyuanduo (Traditional Chinese: 治元多; pinyin: Zhì yuán duō; ?–c. 221 AD) was a non-Han Chinese tribal leader during the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 東漢; pinyin: Dōnghàn; 25–220 AD). A fiery and charismatic chieftess, she was the only woman recorded as the leader of an army in China during her days.

Han Provinces

By Yu Ninjie, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Zhiyuanduo lived during the time that marked the end of the Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàncháo; 202 BC–220 AD; fall 189–220 AD) and the beginning 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.

Three Kingdoms

SY, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Three Kingdoms

Geographical drawing of the Three Kingdoms, Source

Zhiyuanduo was a woman from one of the non-Han Chinese tribes in Liang Province or Liangzhou (涼州) in the northwest of ancient China. Liang Province was one of the Nine Provinces of ancient China. It lay in the approximate area of modern Gansu Province (甘肃省). Liang Province was under the authority of the emergent kingdom of Cao Wei. In December 220, Cao Pi (曹丕; c. 187–226) who ruled as the King of Wei forced Emperor Xian of Han (漢獻帝; 181–234; r. 189–220), the last Han ruler, to abdicate in his favor after which he crowned himself as Emperor Wen of Wei (魏文帝; r. 220–226).

Nine Provinces

Speculative map of the Nine Provinces, Source

Zhiyuanduo's people were first recorded to have lived near the Lushui River or Lùshuǐ (渌水; lit. "Clear River" or "Clear Water"). Her people were called Lùshuǐ Hú (渌水胡; "Lushui River barbarians" or "Lushui River foreigners") by Han Chinese. The Lushui River is today's Luxishui River (卢溪水; "Black Creek River" or "Black Creek Water"). It lies to the west of modern-day Xi'ning (西宁), a prefecture-level city on the Tibetan Plateau and the capital of Qinghai Province (青海省), which borders western Gansu. The Lushui Hu originally lived in the area ranging from Zhangye County (張掖县) in central Gansu to the Qilian Mountains (祁連山) forming the border between Qinghai and Gansu provinces in the south and up to the area of Huangzhong District (湟中区) in the west of Xi'ning.

The Lushui Hu are initially mentioned as foes of non-Han Chinese tribes generally called the Qiang in Treatise of Western Qiang (Xī Qiāng Zhuàn 西羌傳), which is part of the text History of the Later Han (Hòuhàn Shū 後漢書) (vol. 87). When the Eastern Han dynasty ended, the Lushui Hu progressively migrated eastward into areas of the modern provinces of Gansu, and Shaanxi (陕西) and south towards Sichuan Province (四川省).

Zhiyuanduo's tribe was associated by Han Chinese with a larger group of non-Han Chinese populations called the Xīhú (Chinese: 西胡, "Western barbarians" or "non-Chinese peoples in the west"). The term "Hu" can refer to a variety of different ethnic groups. It was often used to refer to people of Caucasian or partial Caucasian features, who lived north and west of China.

Zhiyuanduo's native birth name is unrecorded by Han Chinese records. The Han Chinese name given to her means "There are many rulers." Other than that she was the concubine of a Han Chinese man named Yi Jian (易謙), little is known about Zhiyuanduo herself. Yi Jian was possibly a lower Cao Wei government official in Liang Province or the neighboring region of Yong Province or Yongzhou (雍州). Yi Jian probably wedded Zhiyuanduo in an attempt to establish closer relations between her tribe and the Cao Wei government akin to the marriage of Lady Xian, the queen of the Hlai people, to Feng Bao (冯宝 or 馮寶), a Han Chinese prefect in Guang Province or Guangzhou (廣州) in southeastern China over three centuries later. Traditional Han Chinese social rules tended to break down in frontier areas as well.

In 221 AD, Zhiyuanduo led a tribal rebellion against the central authority of the Cao Wei kingdom in the second year of the Huangchu (黃初) reign of Emperor Wen. The Biography of Zhang Ji (Zhāng Jì Zhuàn 张既传) within the Book of Wei (Wèishū 魏書) (vol. 15) of the historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguózhì 三國志) recorded: "Yi Jian's prostitute and concubine Zhiyuanduo and other people of the Lushui Hu, in the three counties of Lixian (骊蚠), Fanhe (番和), and Xianmei (显美), caused great disturbance in Hexi (Corridor) (河西走廊)."

Tang Dynasty 700 CE

Tang Dynasty-era map illustrating Hexi Corridor linking Inner China to Tarim Basin, Source

The Hexi Corridor is a significant historical region in the western end of modern Gansu Province in northwest China, a narrow stretch of passable and relatively fertile plain with a string of oases running west of the Ordos Loop (鄂爾多斯), a great northern rectangular bend of the Yellow River or Huang He (黃河) (ergo the name Hexi, [Yellow] river"). Forming part of the Northern Silk Road which ran through Northwest China, the Hexi Corridor connected Inner China to the historic Western Regions or Xiyu (西域) for Han Chinese trade and military expeditions into Central Asia.

Hexi Corridor

Map of Hexi Corridor, Source

Zhiyuanduo instigated many inhabitants to join her revolt, which threw the Hexi area into complete chaos. The rebellion encompassed parts of the modern-day provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Zhiyuanduo's force grew to up to tens of thousands of warriors. Emperor Wen appointed Zhang Ji (張既; ?–223), a capable official and general, as the new Inspector or Governor of Liang Province (Liáng zhōu cìshǐ 涼州刺史). He dispatched Zhang Ji with a new provincial garrison to quell the uprising of Zhiyuanduo. He later sent additional forces under generals Fei Yao (費曜 / 費耀 / 費瑤; fl. 220–231), Zou Qi (鄒岐), and Xiahou Ru (夏侯儒) to reinforce Zhang Ji.

Zhang Ji arrived in Liang Province well ahead of his allies. His subordinates were concerned that if he marched against Zhiyuanduo's forces without support, his troops would be overwhelmed by the rebels. However, Zhiyuanduo was laying siege to the important Hexi Corridor city of Wuwei (武威), a prefecture-level city in northwest central Gansu Province. Concerned that the city would fall, Zhang Ji advanced against Zhiyuanduo regardless.

Zhiyuanduo led about 7,000 warriors to intercept Zhang Ji's army at the mouth of the Zhanyin River (湛銀河). Zhang Ji used the ruse of circulating false information that his troops would follow the river, though. Instead, he took an indirect route to reach Wuwei unexpectedly.

Caught by surprise, Zhiyuanduo withdrew to Xianmei (now Jinchang City (金昌), a prefecture-level city in central Gansu Province), which lay 194.2 li (97.1 km, 60.3 miles) to the northwest of Wuwei. After Wuwei had been saved, Fei Yao arrived with his reinforcements. The other generals still lagged behind, though.

In December of that year, Zhang Ji and Fei Yao marched against Xianmei. When the Cao Wei forces set up camp for the night, Zhiyuanduo took advantage of a favorable wind to launch a fire attack with elite fighters. Zhang Ji anticipated the night attack, though. He covertly positioned 3,000 troops outside his camp in an ambush position. When Zhiyuanduo's forces launched their assault, Zhang Ji sent his subordinate, Cheng Gongying (成公英), to lead a small force from their camp. Cheng Gongying's soldiers attacked Zhiyuando's warriors and were forced to retreat. Zhiyuando and her warriors pursued Cheng Gongying. Zhiyuando's army was then assailed from behind by the troops set in ambush by Zhang Ji, caught in a pincer attack.

Zhiyuanduo's forces suffered heavy losses. Thousands were killed and captured, ending Zhiyuanduo's revolt. Zhiyuanduo's destiny is unknown, though, since no specific mention of her death or capture was made. It is possible that she survived and lived a quiet life afterwards.

Lady Zhurong

Qing Dynasty-era illustration of fictional character of Lady Zhurong, Source

Zhiyuanduo was one of two historical influences for Lady Zhurong (祝融), a fictional character in the 14th century Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó yǎnyì 三國演義). Lady Zhurong is the wife of Meng Huo (孟獲), chief of the Nanman or Southern Barbarians (南蠻) in the Nanzhong (南中) region of the state of Shu Han in southwest China. A minor antagonist, Lady Zhurong was adept with throwing knives and was the only female character to lead an army and fight on the front-lines. The other inspiration for the character of Lady Zhurong was Lady Triệu or Triệu Thị Trinh (Vietnamese: Bà Triệu, Chữ Hán: 趙嫗 Triệu Ẩu; c. 226–248 AD). Lady Triệu was a warrioress in 3rd century Vietnam who was known for fighting on an elephant during battle. For a period of time, she resisted the authority of the state of Eastern Wu.

Though Zhiyuanduo's rebellion was ultimately minor and short-lived, her place in history remains noteworthy. Zhiyuanduo is a significant, if obscure, 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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