Back in the 600s, China was under the rule of a real dickbiscuit named Yangdi. This guy made so many jackhole moves it’s downright impressive:
- He schemed against his own brothers, framing them in order to clear his own path to the throne. He was evidently so bad at covering his tracks that nowadays everyone just views this as outright fact.
- Marginally less widely-accepted as fact is the likelihood that he murdered his beloved father, who’d just reunited China under the Sui dynasty after four centuries of nationwide division.
- He launched invasions into *deep breath* Tibet, Mongolia, Champa [Vietnam], Turkish territories, Goguryeo [Korea], Taiwan, and, just for good measure, Sumatra.
- He embarked on infrastructure projects dangerous enough to earn a round of applause from Stalin. Rebuilding the Great Wall? 6 million dead workers. Grand Canal? 40-50% death rate. Chilling in one of the 11 cribs he had built along the new canal? Priceless.
Yangdi’s reckless violation of OSHA standards, accompanied with his policies of overtaxation and wide-ranging conscription, achieved an impressive feat: again uniting the fractured country under one banner. This time, though, said banner was hatred towards Yangdi. By the end of his reign, the Sui dynasty would be toppled, after only two rulers.
And one of the people doing the toppling? Our girl Pingyang, leading 70,000 soldiers she’d gathered herself.
“I have ways of taking care of myself.”
Pingyang was daughter of a military commander named Li Yuan. In her early life, she was, by all accounts, a dutiful daughter and loving wife. She was only set on her path to unrepentant asskicker by, you guessed it, yet another one of Yangdi’s boneheaded moves.
In 617, fearing Li Yuan’s general competence, Yangdi ordered Li Yuan to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Yangdi then immediately rescinded this order when it became evident that he needed Li Yuan to guard him from some other people who were trying to overthrow the government. This implementation of Schrodinger’s Jail Sentence did not prove the stroke of managerial genius that Yangdi had wished, and soon Li Yuan, too, was plotting to kill Yangdi.
This move left Pingyang in immediate danger. As the wife of the head of the palace guards, she was a very visible figure to the paranoid Yangdi, and could easily be taken hostage. This danger only intensified when her husband left to join Li Yuan. Fearing it would be too dangerous for them if they both left the palace at once, she volunteered to stay behind a while. “As a woman,” she told her husband, “it is easy for me to hide when the time comes. I have ways of taking care of myself.”
“As a woman, it is easy for me to hide when the time comes. I have ways of taking care of myself.”
Over the next several months, as her father and husband warred openly against Yangdi, Pingyang quietly made political alliances to grow her own army. Her ranks eventually swelled up to 70,000 people, all under the banner of a woman. She instituted a strict code of conduct, not unlike that of previous-covered pirate Ching Shih: no looting, no raping, no pillaging. Anything soldiers took, they had to pay for. After victories, the army distributed food among the locals. It’s little wonder that wherever they went, they were greeted as liberators rather than conquerors.
After less than a year of fighting, in which Pingyang’s army routed and contained Yangdi’s forces, the Sui dynasty fell and Yangdi fled2. Li Yuan took the throne, ushering in one of China’s golden eras with the establishment of the Tang dynasty. Not only did this make Pingyang an official princess, but also conferred on her a number of honors. She was appointed marshall, which brought with it military aides and a staff, and she was given the title of zhou (wise).
The Tang would be a long-lived dynasty, with one minor hiccup to come from a woman born the year after Pingyang’s death. That woman would be become concubine to Pingyang’s brother and eventually work her way up to declaring herself emperor: she was the infamous (and previously-covered) Wu Zetian.
Pingyang herself unfortunately lived a short life thereafter. She died at age 23 of unknown causes (maybe childbirth), and was mourned far and wide. Niangziguan pass in Pingding country was dubbed “Young Lady’s Pass,” to honor her defense of it. Her father ordered that military music be played at her funeral, which provoked some controversy. One advisor remarked, “in antiquity, martial music was never played at the funerals of women.”
Her father replied, “the princess carried battle drums and assisted me in my quest for the throne. Was there ever such a one as she in antiquity?3“
- Although it seems that she was possibly the only woman in it. No others are reported in the history books – but this is the country that birthed the legend of Hua Mulan, so take from that what you will. ↩
- Yangdi was strangled in a bathhouse a year later. Before fleeing his opulent palace, he’s reported to have gazed at himself in a mirror and said, “Such a fine head. Who will be the one to hack it off?” It is the position of this author that any film adaptations of Yangdi should make him look like a Final Fantasy villain. ↩
- The answer is, of course, yes. Aside from the legend of Mulan, which had already become somewhat popular by that point, there was Fu Hao from roughly 1800 years prior, warrior Sun Shangxiang in the 3rd century, city defender Li Xiu in the 4th, and that’s before we get into heroines of neighboring countries. China does not want for badass heroines. ↩
- She’s seen here using her sword to cut open a bag of rice, as that sort of martial benevolence was what she was known for.
- Her costume is a mishmash of Sui and Tang styles, and may be slightly anachronistic. The Sui dynasty was so short-lived, it was difficult to discern what would have been used at that exact time.
- She has some adornments — the mark on her forehead and flower in her hair — but the rest is a more standard warrior outfit.
- The area in the background is Niangziguan pass. You can still go and visit it in modern day!
- She’s got a broader build than most women I’ve done so far. A reader (hi Jeanette!) wrote in a while back saying that Wu Zetian would have been a larger woman than I’d portrayed, as that was the ideal of beauty at the time — so I thought I’d try and push the style a bit here.
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Get your skirt short, your boots strong, your jewels banked, and your revolver cocked.