Liang Hongyu was a historical as well as a legendary figure. As a historical person, her life was very sketchy. Her birthday was unidentifiable though some records indicate that she was born in the year of 1102 in what is today’s Anhui Province. Her life up to 1121 when she and Han Shizhong married is little known. The couple came in contact when she was a singer, something like the Japanese geisha, in the troop where Han was an officer. There are different stories of their first meeting. Some say they fell in love when she was giving a performance of drumming and caught sight of Han, quiet and pensive – a sharp contrast to the rowdy officers around him. He was also enamored with Liang for her beauty and class. A 1940 movie by the Huayi Pictures, China placed their first encounter Ganlu Temple, where Han chanced to see Liang harrassed by a stalker and came to her rescue. His gallantrycaptivated her heart and her beauty, his.
It is a consensus among historians that they were married with at least a child. She fought with her husband against the invasion by the Huns, known to the Chinese as Xiong Nu or the Jin tribes. She was not only the brain woman but also commanded in actual battles. Because of her tactful use of drums and flag as communication signals, they won a battle with 8,000 men against the 100,000-strong Huns in the year of 1129. They quit their position after the emperor executed a national hero without apparent reasons and lived a solitary life. Liang was believed to die of an illness in the year of 1135. The details of her story are mostly legendary.
One thing for sure is that in fighting together with the national hero Yue Fei, Liang Hongyu and Han Shizhong were definitely one of the few courageous men and women in the Song court that dared to stand up to both the influential capitulationists within the court and the formidable foe in the north. The eventual fall of the Song Dynasty (970–1279 A.D.) to the Xiong Nus tribes of Jin was due to the Song regime’s policies of capitulation, which made these few patriotic heroes and heroines all the more laudable. Their legends have been abounding. Their spirits have since become inspirations for the following generations in their fight against foreign invaders such as the Japanese during World War II. Literary presentation of the legends has been plentiful and in various formats, including ballads, verses, romance, dramas, operas, cartoons, films and TV series.
Because of the legends, the name of Liang Hongyu is closely associated with drumming, one of the Chinese art forms. Originally an entertainer, Liang Hongyu must have had an excellent grasp of the drumming techniques, but when she applied her skills to the battle fields, they were taken to an entire new level. The drums, complimented with flags, began to work wonders: drum beats told the soldiers to advance and their absence signaled them to stop and take their positions. The flags were employed to point in the direction where the enemy forces were heading. In so doing, Liang Hongyu actually initiated a field communication system. In fact, it was so successful that it helped the Song army to crush an enemy that was a dozen times of its strength.
Liang Hongyu is remembered not as a heroine in the Amazon type. In the eyes of the Chinese, she was not only a resourceful general but also a virtuous wife and a caring mother. In a legend recreated in a recent Beijing Opera, she is depicted as trying tenderly to persuade her husband to let her fight side by side with him. In another episode of the opera, she is found in great agony, being pulled by the general in her that had to execute her own son because of his capital offence and by the mother inside that could never bear doing it. Probably that is why her popularity could endure a male-dominant culture for ages.For all her heroism, she did not break loose from the traditional bounds set for a woman: getting married and producing heirs to her husband. Another reason that she could be accepted by her contemporaries is that in the face of foreign foe, patriotism may well have overridden the society’s concern over her venture into the male’s world of combat. In fact, the model she set is even contemporarily significant: a successful woman that is a good mother and husband at the same time.
Most interesting is the fact that the Chinese of all generations have been tolerant of her brief geisha experience. It could be that it was a general understanding in those days that being a geisha could be the only means for a young woman to survive when all others had been exhausted. It may also have been understood that most of the girls never treated being a geisha as a career. Instead, for many it was only a transient refuge where they waited and hunted until a they found the men that they could entrust their entire life with and that could deliver them out of their plight and gave them the normal life as a woman.
The following is a synthesis of several legends:
In the first year of the Congning Period of Emperor Huizong’s reign (1102), Liang Hongyu was born in the Beichen district of Huai’an, Anhui Province. Her grand-father and father were both generals of the Song Dynasty (970–1279 AD). When she was yong, Hongyu did not indulge in girl’s dressing, but instead, preferred practicing martial arts under the guidance of her father. Artistically talented, she also learned dancing, singing, and particularly drumming. She also learned to create materials like mats and cottage coverings with cattail and reeds .
In the second year of the Xuanhe Period of Emperor Huizong’s reign (1120), the country was plagued by a peasant rebellion led by Fang La. Liang Hongyu’s grand-father and father were both put to death as a result of their failed campaign to suppress the rebellion, resulting in the bankruptcy of the Liang family. At the same time, news of the invasion by a Hun tribe known as Jin threw the country into further chaos. The court fled southward, bringing the refugees with them, including Liang Hongyu and her mother. Without any means to support themselves, Liang Hongyu had but to work as a geisha in the Song army, entertaining the soldiers with her singing, dancing and drumming.
The court sent Generals Tong Guan and Tan Zhen to crackdown Fang La’s rebellion. With them was a field officer named Han Shizhong, who captured the chieftain Fang in a battle. Han was from the Shaanxi Province. Handsome, stoutly built, Han was an honest man, already ready to help the needy.
To celebrate their victory, General Tong Guan held a party and invited Liang Hongyu and her colleagues to entertain the troop. Liang and Han caught each other’s attention and was simultaneously attracted. Exchange of greetings led to hearty conversations, which in turn led to frequent rendezvous. Their relations grew from admiration to love and eventually to wedlock. A year later, they had a son and named him Han Liang. While Han Shizhong was stationed in Xiu Prefecture, Hongyu and her son had to stay behind in the capital. It was there they, together with the emperor and the court, were held as hostage by the rebels led by Miao Fu and Liu Zhengyan. Liang Hongyu did not panic, instead, she came up with an idea. With the consent of Prime Minister Zhu Shengfei and Queen Mother Longyu, Hongyu went to the rebel leaders. She told them that with her persuasion, her husband would be glad to surrender and his mighty troops would be a valuable addition to the rebels. They agreed to let her give it a try. Carrying her baby on her back, Hongyu galloped out of the capital and reached Xiu Prefecture overnight. Han Shizhong came and squashed the rebels. As a result, the courageous couple were both promoted.
In the early winter of 1129, the Jin invaders started to cross the Yangtze River. In march the next year, Han Shizhong and Liang Hongyu led their fleet to Zhengjiang, in a ploy to block the enemy’s way of retreat. A big battle was imminent. Early 1130, the Jin army of 100,000 strong began to retreat after plundering the inland. Their fleet full of loot sailed down the river towards Han’s position. The question was that Han and Liang had only 8,000 men, far outnumbered by the enemy.
Night fell, the couple were sleepless, racking their brains to find a strategy that could award them with a victory. Liang Hongyu said to her husband, “We cannot win if we fight them head on. How about diving our troops into two divisions and fight the enemy from all directions. Let me command the middle troops to ambush them. When they come, we will use our guns, arrows, and catapults so that we can destroy them without their coming close to us. As a result, the Jin army will try to break our encirclement from the flanks. At this time, you lead the two divisions to attack according to the signals I give you. I will be in my boat among the middle troops. I will beat the drum and wave the flag. When I beat the drum, your men will move forward. When I stop, your men will stop and take their positions. When I point my flag to the west, you lead them to the west. When I point my flag to the east, your men will charge in the east. We’ll then catch their leader Jin Wu Shu and celebrate our victory!”
“Wow, where did you get these great ideas! They are simply wonderful. I am more confident that we will win this battle.” Han Shizhong was so proud that he had such a strategist as his wife! Hongyu’s face, red with excitement, was all the more attractive.
Early next morning, Han Shizhong and Liang Hongyu deployed their troops as they planned. Liang Hongyu stood at the bow of her warship, calmly executing every move as she had deliberated with her husband. The battle went on till evening. Confounded and terrified, the enemy troops were forced into a vast plain called Huangtian Dang. For forty-eight days, they could not move. Anxious to break out of the blockade, Jin Wu Shu, the Jin’s chieftain, requested a deal: he would give up his loot and Han and Liang would let his troops go.
“The properties you’ve looted are ours anyway and you should return them without condition. If you want to come out alive, give us back the land in the north of the Yangtze River you occupy!”
Jin Wu Shu had but find another way, which he did soon. Using the treasure he had plundered, it was not difficult to find one that would sell their soul to the devil. Some locals told them that if they could plow through the blockage of silt on the bed of the Old Guan River, they could find their way out. Within a night, a thirty-mile long canal was completed and water from the Qinhuai River flooded in, making the Huangtian Dang plain navigable.
However, the Jin troops did not advance far out of the Old Guan River before pushed back by Yue Fei’s army, only to be blocked by Han Shizhong’s warships deployed across the now flooded plain. Seeing the enemy pinned down, the haughty Han ordered his troops to celebrate the victory that night. He himself drank to his heart’s content. While drinking, he danced with his sword and sang:
“The Yangtze, for all its water, cannot contain my ambition,
While talking leisurely about the palaces on earth and in heaven;
Leaning against the azure blue my sword
Hang shining from the solar star,
While the dust of battle settling itself all around!
Having rolled up my sleeves towards the starry sky I fought hard,
And now the sound of battle is dying down…. “
Han Shizhong and Liang Hongyu would never have imagined how money made some of his compatriots to go. Again, some locals helped Jin Wu Shu by suggesting that he cover his warships with dirt and, seizing the opportunity of a find day when there was no wind so that Han’s fleet could not move, attack it with rockets of fire. Then the straw mats used to fend off wind on Han’s warships would catch fire, which would destroy the entire fleet. The tactic helped the Jin troops to break out of Han’s blockade while he was still in a stupor as a result of the heavy drinking, thus suffering a defeat on the verge of victory.
Thinking that her husband had committed a capital crime by letting go the enemy, Liang Hongyu went herself to Lin’an, the capital, to ask the emperor to mete out his punishment. Her act of placing righteousness above family loyalty deeply touched the entire court. Acknowledging his innumerable meritorious performances, the emperor would not like to punish Han. Instead, he invited Han Shizhong to his court. Han came with his seven-year old son Han Liang. In an effort to ease up the mood, the emperor wanted to see how Liang was doing with his calligraphy. What the boy wrote made his majesty exceedingly happy. It was “Long Live China!” He offered profuse comfort and encouragement to the couple and ordered Han Shizhong to march north to attack the enemy so that he could atone for his wrongdoing.
Han Shizhong and Liang Hongyu were stationed in the Chu prefecture. Taking advantage of the Huai River, they had a city wall built outside the old one to protect the prefecture from Jin troop’s attack. Years of war had desolated the region, rendering the people roofless and foodless. Liang Hongyu then taught them how to build cottages with coverings made out of reeds. When he saw horses eat the roots of cattail, she tasted them herself and encourage her troops and the people to try them as food supplement. Incidentally, it is believed that the custom of the people in the Huai region to eat cattail root started from Liang Hongyu. Sharing the people’s hardships, Huang Shizhong and Liang Hongyu brought great changes to the region in a short time. The Chu prefecture became an important fortress again. For quite some time, the Jins did not attempt a single attack even though Han and Liang commanded only an army of 30,000 strong,.
Later, with Yue Fei, Han Shizhong and Liang Hongyu embarked on their northern expedition. Liang Hongyu fought courageously. They were about to launch their final campaign to conquer the capital of Jin when the emperor, persuaded by a capitulationist minister Qin Gui, ordered them to pull back. Once they were in the capital, Qin Gui had Yue Fei arrested and executed him under the charge of the crime of Moxuyou, which simply meant “nothing” in plain language. When Han Shizhong asked Qin Gui to explain the word he had coined, he was deprived of the power to command his troops. Indignant, Han resigned his post all together, and so did Liang Hongyu. The two found a home in West lake, when they led a solitary life until Liang Hongyu died of illness in the year of 1135.
Story retold/ translated by Haiwang Yuan