Pingyang, Warrior Princess
She formed an army, bound vicious warlords to her cause and trounced the Sui Emperor so badly that his own men turned on him. Who was she? Her name was Pinyang, and she was one hell of a fighter.
The Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.) was not a high point in Chinese history. The first Sui emperor, Wen (541-604), did reunify China after nearly four centuries of internal discord but the second, Yang (596-618), left a lot to be desired. Yang, was as an overly-ambitious tyrant who (it is believed) gained the throne by poisoning his father, before embarking on a reign that would make him a figure of hatred across China.
Yang committed himself to massive construction projects, most notably the completion of the Grand Canal and reconstruction of the Great Wall. Both projects were bought and paid for in blood – the blood of 6 million peasants, to be more specific. Add to that Yang’s inept military forays into Korea and Vietnam and you might have some idea why the Chinese people hated him so much. To say that he was an unpopular would be a vast understatement.
But for every Goliath, there’s a David.
Pingyang (at this point she was yet to become a princess) was the third-born daughter of Li Yuan – a highly successful general in the emperor’s army. So successful, in fact, that the insecure emperor ordered his execution. Li responsed by declaring rebellion against Yang.
This posed a problem for Pingyang, for while her father was a safe distance away, she (along with her husband, Cai Shao) were still living in the capital city, along with a few thousand imperial loyalists. Realizing that they needed to make themselves scarce, Pingyang and her husband fled – but not together. Knowing that escaping as a pair would attract too much attention, she told Cai that she would travel separately from him. Being a woman, she would attract less suspicion, she reasoned.
Bear in mind that China was in a state of war by now. The country would have been crawling with mobilized warlords and lawless bandits eager to profit from the disarray. That Pingyang opted to make the journey alone was brave, that she made it home unscathed was downright heroic.
But she wasn’t done yet. Far from it. It was time to overthrow the tyrant emperor.
The region around her home estate was suffering from drought, which in turn was causing starvation. Opening up her home’s extensive food stores, Pingyang fed the people and, in turn, the most able-bodied agreed to fight for her. Thus began her “Army of the Lady”.
Selling literally everything her family owned, Pingyang set about binding various other rebel factions to her command. Her method was always the same. First, she would offer the rebel leader an officer’s position in her army. If that failed, she would try to bribe him with food or money. By that point most acquiesced, but for those that didn’t, she had one last ploy: destroy them on the battlefield and offer the survivors a choice: join or die.
They tended to join up at that point.
To put Pingyang’s diplomatic skills into context, bear in mind that not only was she a woman in ancient China, but that she was doing all this at the tender age of 20. Getting battle-hardened warlords to even take note of her was impressive enough. Getting them to submit to her leadership was astonishing.
Even more incredible is how successfully she exerted control over her army. Pingyang kept her men in line, making sure that when they conquered a village or town, none of the locals were harmed. By contrast, pretty much every other army of the time exercised a strict policy of raping and pillaging. Oddly enough, peasants seemed to prefer Pingyang’s way of doing things, especially when – more often than not – she would give them food upon her arrival.
With 70,000 men at her back, Pingyang marched across China. By this point, emperor Yang had realized that he would do well to take her seriously, and so sent his forces against her.
Pingyang tore her way through everything he could muster.
Meeting up with Cai Shao, the couple merged their troops and routed the last of the Sui forces. Recognizing that he was finished, Yang (who had courageously spent the war living in a palace filled with beautiful women) fled with his tail between his legs. He would later die at the hands of his own men.
By Joe Doran
PRINCESS PINGYANG – ‘NO ORDINARY WOMAN’
Princess Pingyang was decidedly more fearsome than her name might suggest. She led an army that helped to establish one of China’s greatest dynasties, and as her father said, ‘she was no ordinary woman’.
Born in 600 AD, Pingyang was the daughter of Li Yuan. Li was born a peasant and had risen through the ranks of the army to become a military commander. The Emperor at the time was the second leader of the Sui Dynasty and was known as Yangdi. Yangdi was not a popular ruler. The people of China saw him as a villain and grew increasingly unhappy with his rule, the things he spend money on and the rising taxes. The whispers of rebellion began to stir as more and more people grew opposed to him.
Yangdi began to grow suspicious of everyone as thoughts of overthrowing him spread. He thought that Li Yuan was plotting against him and decided he needed him taken out. Li Yuan’s hand was forced: rebel now or live in fear and possibly face death. The time was right and Li decided to lead a rebellion to topple Yangdi’s rule and establish order and peace across the land. But first he had to defeat Yangdi’s armies.
When Li Yuan decided to rebel, Pingyang was living with her husband Chai Shao, who happened to be the leader of the palace guard! Li Yuan managed to get word to Pingyang and Chai Shao to warn them that he was planning a rebellion and they might want to distance themselves from the Emperor. Chai Shao immediately left to gather the cavalry and ride out to join Li Yuan. He was worried about what would happen to Pingyang, but she made it clear she could look after herself.
She actually did quite a bit more than just ‘look after herself’. She escaped to her family’s estate where she used their money to feed the starving people who were in the surrounding area. Her compassion won their loyalty and soon the strongest of them came together under her leadership to form an army.
She proceeded to go with her army from province to province, convincing other groups of rebels to join her and help in her father’s rebellion (you could call it a rebel alliance..ahem). Eventually she commanded an army of over 70,000 troops. They became known as ‘The Army of the Lady’.
She had very strict rules about the behaviour of her soldiers. She banned them from looting, pillaging and raping. Instead they distributed food to the hungry, winning the people’s affection and loyalty . Across the land they were seen as liberators, not conquerers.
Until this point the Emperor hadn’t really taken her army seriously because it was led by a woman (his mistake!) Now he was beginning to get worried as Li Yuan and Pingyang’s armies eroded more and more of his power. He sent a battalion to try and destroy The Army of the Lady, and Pingyang along with them, but they were swiftly defeated.
In the final battle for the capital city Pingyang joined forces with her husband and defeated the last remnants of the Sui Dynasty. Emperor Yangdi fled, but was eventually killed.
Li Juan became the new emperor, calling himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang and established what is known as the Tang Dynasty, which became one of the most prosperous times in China’s history and has been described as a ‘golden age’. He gave Pingyang the titles of Princess and ‘Zhao’, which means very wise & virtuous.
Sadly the young Princess Pingyang died only a few years after her father became Emperor. She was only 23 at the time of her death, which reminds us how young she had been when raising & leading an entire army! Her father gave her a grand, military funeral, including a band, which was unheard of for a woman in those days in China (and kind of against their rules). When offcials questioned his decision to do so he said
“As you know the Princess mustered an army that helped us defeat the Sui Dynasty. She participated in many battles, and her help was decisive in founding the Tang Dynasty. The Princess personally beat the drums and rose in righteous rebellion to help me establish the dynasty…She was no ordinary woman.”