The Lady's Army

In teaching the Tang dynasty one thing I like to talk about is the Princess of Pingyang, d. 623 who assisted her father the Tang founder Gaozu in setting up the empire by recruiting an army of 70, 00o bandits (the Lady’s Army 娘子軍) who assisted in the overthrow of the Sui and the establishment of  the new dynasty. One reason to talk about this is that an imperial princess leading an army of 70,000 bandits is a cool story. Unfortunately we don’t know much about her other than that. The Tang Shu (scroll down) biography is quite short, but it does bring up the other event that makes her good to talk about in class. By the Song the old system of aristocratic family-based politics was replaced by a new, more bureaucratic and exclusively male political world. In the early Tang we are still back in the period of disunion in that women were still political actors in their own right. When the princess died some officials pointed out that as a woman she should not have drums at her funeral. 以礼,妇以礼,妇人无鼓吹. Implicitly they are saying that drums are male music. The emperor disagreed saying that drums were martial music 高祖曰:“鼓吹,军乐也1 Given that she had herself used drums to command troops in battle it was quite appropriate to have drums at her funeral. The categories of male and female, general and bandit would be a lot less permiable later in the dynasty

太常奏议,以礼,妇人无鼓吹。高祖曰:“鼓吹,军乐也。往者公主于司竹举兵以应义旗,亲执金鼓,有克定之勋。周之文母,列于十乱;公主功参佐命,非常妇人之所匹也。何得无鼓吹!”遂特加之,以旌殊绩;仍令所司按谥法“明德有功曰昭”,


  1. i.e. not necessarily male or female, just associated with the military 

4 Comments

  1. Since 高祖 was not a Han, but descended from one of the nationalities from the north, has different understanding of 礼. And there was some controversy about how this princess dressed when she was banging the drum in battle. All these showed that the Li’s were different from what Han royalties.

  2. There’s another female general in Ming, 秦良玉. Unlike the princess, she actually led combat troops. However, I think besides the increasing male dominance of the Chinese society, another driver could be simply increasing population. Having women working in the army in supporting role had been rather common since 战国,due to lack of warm bodies.

  3. I’ve heard it often said that the Li family were not originally from Zhong Yuan (中原) (I dislike the use of the term Han Chinese when describing ancient Chinese from the central plains for a number of reasons), but how true or accurate is this and what are the evidence to back this up? Appreciate it if anybody can shed some light into this, much obliged.

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