By single-handedly amassing an army of 70,000, Princess Pingyang was a key player in the destruction of the Sui dynasty and the foundation of the Tang dynasty – a golden age for China.
The daughter of a military commander, Li Yuan, and the wife of the chief of the imperial palace guards, Pingyang was a noble lady and a prominent figure at court. China had only recently been united under the Sui dynasty, and in the early 600s was under the control of Emperor Yangdi – an immensely unpopular ruler.
Yangdi spent China’s money on expensive invasions into surrounding Asia, dangerous construction projects like rebuilding the great wall (which caused millions of deaths) – and attempted to pay for everything through heavy taxation.
The imprisonment of Li Yuan was the final straw, and as soon as he was released he and Pingyang’s husband left the imperial palace to mount a rebellion. Pinyang stayed behind in a highly vulnerable position as the wife and daughter of two insurgents.
Pingyang was made of stern stuff, however, and eventually left the palace herself, heading for the safety of her family’s feudal lands in Hu county. Thanks to Yangdi’s oppressive policies, the people there were starving, having suffered a drought without being offered relief by the government. Pingyang flew into action, offering the people food from her own family’s stores and winning their loyalty.
Pingyang continued to work covertly to ally herself with other local rebel forces and so building her own army, which later became known as the Woman’s Army. She herself dressed in male military uniform, marching at the head of her troops like a general.
She was a strict leader, forbidding looting, raping or pillaging, in order to keep the rural people on her side. Wherever Pingyang’s Woman’s Army triumphed, they shared the food with the locals, and came to be seen as heroic liberators.
Eventually, thanks in part to Pingyang’s efforts, the Sui dynasty was defeated and Yangdi fled for his life. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Pingyang was given the title ‘Princess’. She was also given the rank of marshal, and conferred all the honours due to an imperial prince.
Princess Pingyang died very young, at the age of twenty three. Her grief stricken father ordered an elaborate military funeral. When advisors complained that it was highly irregular to have such an extravagant ceremony for a woman, he replied –
“She was no ordinary woman.”
Notable Women of China – Barbara Bennett Peterson
Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 – Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles