Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 67-71
National Council for the Social Studies

Chinese Women Soldiers:A History of 5,000 Years

Xiaolin Li
Hundreds of wars and uprisings have occurred in China during its more than 5,000 years of history. A dozen major dynasties and a similar number of minor dynasties ended through military actions. One major difference between China and other cultures is that war has never been glorified in China with heroic warriors like Caesar or Napoleon. However, similar to other societies, war in China has been primarily a masculine activity. Only occasionally have Chinese women been recorded as participants.1 However, women actually appear in Chinese military history as early as Sun Tzu's time (496-453 B.C.), when King Wu's palace concubines were turned into soldiers as a demonstration of the effects of discipline (Military History of China Compilation Group 1986), since Chinese military thinkers believe that it is discipline and training that make good soldiers.
According to a consensus of mainland Chinese scholars, the 5,000 years of Chinese history can be divided into three major periods: the Ancient time period-&Mac222;ve thousand years ago to A.D. 1840; the Post Opium War time period-1840 to 1949; and the Modern time period-1949 to present. This article will give an overview of Chinese women in the military during these three periods.

Ancient Period
Nineteen historical women warriors are identi&Mac222;ed by Li (1992) for the ancient period. All nineteen are either commanders of armies or leaders of peasant uprisings. In addition to these historical women soldiers, there are many fictional women warriors and female knights errant 2 (Yu 1978; Jiang 1986; Liu 1981; May 1985). Both in ancient and modern times, numerous literary and artistic works portray these historical and fictional women warriors. Chinese cultural heritage includes legends of women soldiers. No matter how she is educated or where she is located, all Chinese women know the names of such heroines as Mu Lan Hua or Hong Yu Liang.

The first Chinese woman general, Hao Fu,3 appeared about 3,200 years ago.4 One oracle inscription carved on animal bones describes her as a commanding marshal of over 13,000 soldiers, who went on a punitive expedition to Qiang Kingdom; on another expedition, a male general, Gao Hou, was under her command.5 Two other women generals were of minor nationalities: Madame Xi of the Li nationality and Madame Wa Shi of Zhuang nationality, whose victories aided the ruling emperor.6

However, the most famous women generals were Liang Yu Qin and Hong Yu Liang. Qin is known for her many victories in both national defense and the suppression of internal uprisings. The last emperor of the Ming Dynasty wrote several poems to praise her.7 For many years, Liang and her husband Marshal Shi Zhong Han were stationed in border areas. Liang was known for fighting at the side of her husband in many battles. In 1130, her husband's troops engaged the enemy in a major campaign at a place called Gold Mountain [Jin Shan] along the Yang Zi River. Liang beat the battle drum and used flag lights to guide the army. She was not afraid of being killed by the enemies' arrows and stones, and eventually their 8,000 troops defeated the enemy's 10,000. Until today, the story "beat battle drum at Gold Mountain" [Ji Gu Zhan Jin Shan] is still used to mobilize Chinese women for national self defense.

As the first woman leader of a peasant uprising, Mu Lu [Lu's mother] was the only woman who took part in military operations simply because of a personal reason: to bring revenge on a bad county governor who had wrongly executed her son. Another peasant leader, Shuo Zhen Chen, was the first and the only Chinese woman to designate herself the emperor after launching a peasant uprising. Her peasant army occupied most of Jiang Xi province, but in the end she was captured by the official army and executed. Three of the six women uprising leaders, Shuo Zhen Chen, Sai Er Tang, and Cong Er Wang, used religious activities and symbols to mobilize people. Both Tang and Wang relied on a Buddhist religion named "White Lotus," which developed during the Ming and Qing, the last two feudal dynasties. This pattern was also observed among some women warriors' behavior in the Boxer Movement and Tai Ping Tian Guo Movement.

Most famous as defenders of homeland or home city were Mu Lan Hua and Guan Niang Xun. Hua is the earliest legendary woman warrior in Chinese culture and was recently verified by various scholars as a real woman living during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). She is recorded in a name book compiled at the end of Jin Dynasty around the year A.D. 419 (Huang 1991). Hua's deed inspired the largest number of literary and artistic works about Chinese heroines. These peasant heroines either refused to be promoted after victory or their participation in military operations was comparatively shorter than that of women generals. Most were involved in only one major combat.

All women warriors in Figure 1 are regarded as heroic combatants. Bravery, strong mastery of martial art, and unique leadership are common characteristics of these heroines. Most have little if any military training, but they practiced and mastered martial art since childhood, contrary to the common behavioral expectation for their gender. Observing strict discipline, sharing hardships with soldiers, and having clever tactics are common descriptions of the women warriors' leadership.

Two common patterns of the ancient heroines' participation in military operations are apparent. One is a crisis of group survival in which the country or city is under attack, and which therefore justifies the warfare; second is a key male family member with military commanding status is absent, dead, or disabled or has been involved in the same uprising as the woman warrior. Hua, for example, disguised as a man, joins the army because her father is sick and cannot go to war. Xun, at the age of 13, breaks out of the encirclement to get the relief troops because her father has to remain in command of the defense and her scholarly brothers do not have skills in the martial arts. Princess Ping Yang raises an army and joins her father's uprising to keep her whole family from being executed by the emperor in power. As a governor's concubine, Madam Huan Hua leads the defense of her city because the governor is away. Both Bi and Shen launch counterattacks on the enemies, not only for the defense of their cities but also to get back their fathers' dead bodies. Women leaders of peasant uprisings fight shoulder to shoulder with their male family members. All of the women generals have highly positioned male family members. Given the patriarchal structure and feudal culture of ancient Chinese society, it is understandable that such strong family ties to male relatives are prominent in the women's actions. The only Chinese women warriors who act independently of their families are those who are female knights errant.

Ancient Chinese heroines serve as an everlasting inspiration to Chinese women. The loyalty of the ancient women soldiers is emphasized in both history books and artistic works. These women exhibit either strong loyalty to their families or the emperors or the causes of rebelling peasants. Their nobility is shown through loyalty to the group. The legendary figures in Chinese history and their participation in military operations during crises in group survival encourage similar behavior for Chinese women in modern times.

Post Opium War Time Period, 1840-1949
Chinese women warriors were very active during the eighteen-year Tai Ping Tian Guo Movement (1850-1868), China's largest and longest peasant uprising. Thousands of women officers and soldiers, organized in gender-segregated battalions, engaged in a wide range of military activities, including combat. Similarly, women also participated in the national revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Jin Qiu, the most famous female revolutionary of this period, organized an unsuccessful military uprising in Shaoxin, Zhe Jiang Province, for which she was captured and executed (Bao 1979; Chen 1975).

In the early years of the Chinese communist movement (1927-1935), women again served in large numbers in a wide range of combat and noncombat military roles (Segal, Li, and Segal 1992). About 3,000 women are recorded as participating in the thirteen-month Long March of over 12,500 kilometers in 1934-35 and in over 500 military engagements with the nationalist Guomintang and local warlords, after the Red Army broke through the Nationalist siege of the Jiangxi Soviet base. The 2,000-member Women's Independence Brigade, a logistical unit, carried the machines and equipment necessary for keeping the Red Army supplied. It also includes a 500-person Women's Engineer Battalion, responsible for carrying the hard currency (much of it in precious metal) for the Red Army. Women in the Fourth Front Red Army also carried litter and built roads and bridges. The Women's Independence Brigade engaged in several battles as part of the West Wing Army and suffered with them in a major defeat. Large numbers of women were casualties, and the women captured became the spoils of war for Guomintang soldiers and officers. The 32 women soldiers in the First Front Army who were the wives of such leaders as Mao Ze Dong and Zhou En Lai and the women who served as ministers of the Soviets in various provinces survived the Long March. The Central Work Regiment, which engaged in propaganda work, contained twenty-four women. Fewer than twenty of the women who served in the Second and Sixth Red Army Corps as confidential secretaries, nurses, cooks, and commanders have thus far been identified. One of these women, Zhen Li, was the only woman general to emerge during this period (All-China Women's Federation 1986). Toward the end of the Long March, the gender-segregated units were disbanded, and the remaining women integrated into other units. Smaller numbers of women then served in other military elements of the communist movement during this period. Recently, 149 women who survived the Long March have been identified by researchers.

The period following the Long March from 1935 to 1945 is known as the Yan An and was a time of recuperation and reorganization of the Red Army. In August 1937, the Red Army became the Eighth Route Army of the National Revolution Army and, under an agreement with the Guomintang, formed a united Anti-Japanese Front. It was during this period that women were relegated to support functions. The few women remaining in the Red Army were joined by thousands of young anti-Japanese women in noncombat auxiliary roles of nursing, communications, administration, propaganda, and logistics.

Many received training in political, medical, or art schools at Yan An and participated actively in economic production. This pattern of mobilizing women in auxiliary support roles continues through the Liberation War period (1945-1949), during which the Eighth Route Army officially becomes the People's Liberation Army (PLA). In addition to the women cadres within the PLA, women militia and thousands of women in the Liberated Areas joined in by playing important roles in combat support, pushing wheelbarrows full of gasoline, food, and ammunition into battle areas and carrying wounded soldiers back to the rear. They also supervised and trained prisoners of war. Still other supportive roles included making shoes and building bridges and roads. In Shandong Province, there was an especially heroic example of women's service when hundreds of village women formed a human bridge in icy waters at night for the PLA to cross. Since its early days, women in the Guomindang army have played supportive but minimal roles in the nationalist forces.

Modern Times, 1949-present
After the communist victory in 1949, the PLA became primarily a force for counterinsurgency, for postwar reconstruction of the societal infrastructure, and for the mobilization of the peasantry for land reform. Much of the military cadre was demobilized and assumed civilian administrative positions. In 1951, despite an engagement of Chinese combat troops in the Korean War, 150,000 women cadres (8 percent of the total cadre corps) were assigned to civilian positions. Chinese women soldiers did go to war during the Korean War as cultural workers, nurses, doctors, and telephone operators. These PLA women were ostracized as were most Chinese POWs when they returned home.

In 1955, with the hostilities in Korea over, the postwar Soviet model of military organization which minimized the role of women in the military was implemented and a major demobilization of military women occurred8 (Jones 1985, 101). As many as 764,000 women (14.5 percent of the total) were assigned to civilian positions (All-China Women's Federation 1986). Since that time, China's military operations have primarily been conflicts over international boundaries,9 and women have not been in combat roles in any of these conflicts. Only during the last conflict in 1979 did women serve in the combat zone as doctors and nurses, telecommunication personnel, and cultural workers.

Today's Women in the Chinese Military
Today, Chinese women comprise about 4.5 percent of total military personnel in the PLA.10 Serving in the military enjoys high popularity among young Chinese women because it opens opportunities for education and training, better jobs in the future, possible residence in cities, and higher status in society.11 Nearly all women soldiers serve in traditional female roles or in military support positions and are concentrated in headquarters, hospitals, research institutions, and communication facilities. There they serve as medical workers, administrative personnel, communications specialists, logistical support staff, political and propaganda workers, scientific researchers, and technicians. There are no women combat pilots and no women in ground combat troops; only recently have women been assigned to military medical ships.12 Although they are in positions of relative prestige within the military, women do not have equal chances of promotion.

In the 1980s, there was a shift from Soviet to American influence on Chinese military organization. many policies and new regulations were developed in the process of professionalization. But women remain primarily in the roles that they occupied in the recent past. There are no special policies or regulations regarding women in the military, partially due to the persistent emphasis on equal treatment advocated by the Party. Two changes, however, are worthy of note. First, some previously military noncombat roles filled by women have been made civilian roles. Second, with the reestablishment of ranks within the PLA (a form of stratification that had been regarded previously as unsocialist), women received officer rank, including eight women major generals who immediately became public examples of social equality.

If China follows a pattern observed in western industrialized nations, trends toward gender equality in other spheres of life, such as civilian work and family life, may lead eventually to the widening of opportunities in the military where national legislation prohibiting gender discrimination in employment has removed gender-based exclusions from military assignments (Stanley and Segal 1988). But these changes have occurred in a climate of declining numbers of men eligible for military service (while the armed forces remained large) and cultural values fostering gender role changes. Judging from historical precedent in China and other nations, it is unlikely that women will be incorporated into the Chinese armed forces in large numbers or with greatly expanded roles until they have achieved greater equality in other areas of life and/or there is a national crisis which creates a shortage of men qualified for military service.

1 Six of them were officially designated as generals; another six women warriors were leaders of peasant uprisings. Only 5 percent were women combatants, who were without official rank but who had their deeds recorded in history books.

2 They were "women social bandits" (May 1985, 185), who single-handedly tried to correct wrongs in society by use of stealth, cunning, and violence.

3 All Chinese names in this article are ordered according to Western style, which puts last name at the end. The surname goes with a title, e.g., Madame Xi.

4 Among inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells which have been verified as carved in middle and late Shang dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.), Hao Fu's name has been found over 250 times. Most of these oracle inscriptions expressed King Ding Wu's concern about Hao Fu's well-being and health. Hao Fu is the first documented at this time, but additional discoveries may reveal women generals and soldiers at earlier times as archeological work is continuing in the ancient tombs.

5 Inscriptions not only recorded how many places she had conquered, but also her various strategies and tactics. In addition to over 600 jade wares and 7,000 sea shell currency discovered in her tomb in 1976, there were two bronze hatchets, which were symbols of her status as a military commander and her ruling power in that period (Chen 1991). After Hao Fu's death, her husband, King Ding Wu, continued practicing divination and offering sacrifices to her, asking her spirit in heaven to guide the army and to guarantee victory for his kingdom.

6 Madame Xi was promoted to general because of her assistance to the Emperor of Sui (A.D. 581-618) in suppressing several uprisings that occurred in her time. Madame Wa Shi led troops to cross several thousand li (Chinese miles) for the defense of Shanghai in March 1555, and rescued a Marshal of the Ming Dynasty from the enemy's ambush. She also had a big victory at a place near Su Zhou, Zhe Jiang province, where the name of the place was changed to "Victory Port" to memorialize her.

7 Her promotion to general was after her husband's miserable death in jail caused by a court eunuch's slander.

8 Despite negative reactions from veteran women soldiers (a small proportion of whom were able to stay in the military because of familial or personal contacts or because as women professionals their skills were needed), as part of the process of transforming the PLA from an irregular revolutionary army to a conventional military force, 764,00 women cadres (14.5 percent of the total cadre force) were assigned to civilian positions (All-China Women's Federation 1986).

9 These international conflicts are: the Sino-India boundary conflict in 1962; the Sino-Soviet boundary conflict in 1969; the South China Sea conflict with Vietnam in 1974; and the Sino-Vietnam boundary conflict in 1979.

10 A source stated that 136,000 women worked in the PLA at the end of 1987. Among them, 104,000 were officers (76.5 percent of the total military women), and 32,000 were enlisted women (23.5 percent). In proportion to the total number of the 46,876,000 female staff and workers (not including female labor in rural areas) at the end of 1986, military women only account for 0.3 percent of the total female employees. But compared with the total of 8.7 million women officials in the country, women officers account for 11.95 percent.

11 Talented girls have more chances to be recognized and recruited by the military. Through the military cultural troops and military art college, girls as young as twelve years old start their prolonged training within the military to become future artists with military rank. It is also the case for military athletes. The military women's volleyball team and basketball team are the best teams in China and have produced several cohorts of players for the national teams.

12 From 1951 to 1987, the Chinese Air Force trained 208 women pilots of five cohorts; 55 of the first cohort graduated in 1952. At present, 37 women of the sixth cohort are being trained in Northeast China. None of them has been assigned to combat, although a few of them have become test pilots.

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Xiaolin Li served in the navy, air force, and army of China's PLA from October 1969 until June 1987. She retired with the rank of Battalion Commander. Her service experiences included working as a telephone operator, English typist, cadet, interpreter/translator, and staff officer. Xiaolin's interest in the military began as a child, for her father was a general and her mother a lieutenant colonel. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland, where her research is on women in the Chinese military.