A peasant woman living in Muzhou, Tang dynasty China (modern day Chun’an, Zhejiang), we know very little about Chen Shuozhen’s background prior to the rebellion in 653. She would have lived through the last years of Emperor Taizong’s reign, during which there was likely a recession in China due to some large building projects.
Taizong’s successor, Gaozong, was seen as a weak ruler, and wars at the Chinese boarders during the early years of his reign caused further discontent among the common people.
Against this backdrop of general discontent and poverty Chen Shuozhen led a rebel army of more than 14,000 soldiers. Historical sources say that she rang bells and burned incense as she marched, leading some to believe that there were religious motivations behind the uprising.
She declared herself Emperor Wenjia – becoming the first woman in Chinese history to declare herself emperor (more than forty years before Wu Zetian) and took three cities before she could be stopped.
Though the rebellion lasted only two months, Chen Shuozhen’s name lived on in Chinese folklore as a hero and the first woman to claim the title of emperor.
Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 – Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles