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Female Soldiers Throughout Chinese History

Chinese soldiers in UN peacekeeping batallion © UNMISS / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

Women's education, determination, and strength have helped the Chinese people on many occasions during armed conflicts. In the 1930s, they played a strategic and important role in the army. In recent decades, advocacy for women's rights has made progress in China, although it remains a controversial issue in the country (Lary, 1985). Historically, as a result of Confucianism, Chinese society reserved an inferior position for women and posed that they always had to be obedient to their fathers, husbands, and sons (Addis, Russo & al. eds., 1994). The establishment of the communist regime in 1949 was followed by an ideological campaign for gender equality and thus produced a rupture in society. The Marriage Act of 1950 changed society dramatically, abolishing forced marriages, concubinage, child betrothal, and the payment of dowries and establishing the right to divorce for women‌ (Hong & Jing, 1987).

First of all, Mao Zedong’s famed political slogan “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” puts emphasis on gender equality. Mao envisaged “women’s equality” as a dynamic force with an indelible power to help build a Chinese Communist State (Feigenbaum, 1999). During the Long March (1934-1935), even though about two hundred women took part in it, only a few dozen reached their destination, Yan'an (Gilmartin, 1989). As a matter of fact, these women contributed enormously to the organisation of said mission, as they took care of the communication process with the peasants (through many different means, such as educational, medical, and propagandist ones) and provided logistical services for the soldiers (Dunivin, 1994). Indeed, they were courageous and combative women: not only did they have to endure physical and moral suffering as much as any male soldier, but they were also subject to the various sufferings linked to femininity, such as menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Sadly, some of them even had to survive abandoning their children born on the road; they entrusted them to peasants who were willing to take them in their families(Wolf, 1985; Young, 2010).

Throughout history, as mentioned before, women have had important roles within the military sphere (‌Jacobsen, 2014). A few women who have marked the history of China will be mentioned below:

Fu Hao (妇好): This incredible woman quickly climbed up the social hierarchy and became High Priestess and General in Chief of the armies (17th-11th cent. BCE). She led the Shang troops to victory in the campaign against the Yi, Ba, and Qiang tribes. She also conducted the victorious war against the Tufang, which she vanquished in a single battle.

Mui Guiying (穆桂英): Heroine, general, and warrior, she marked the dynasty of the Northern Songs (1217-1279). A symbol of heroism, courage, beauty, and loyalty, but also of great strength. This woman mastered the martial arts and defended her family and the dynasty in many a battle. She also had a diplomatic role in managing the imperial army, as she brought about the end of tensions and rebellions in the south and concluded the peace with the Western Xia regime.

Xu Guan (荀灌): She lived during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). Her family had a certain influence in the military sphere of this dynasty. She had a significant role in the rebellion, and due to her courage, intelligence, and determination, the army was able to stop the mutiny. She prevented the city of Xiangyang from being invaded at the time no one wanted to be in charge of the attack, and so, with a group of soldiers, Xun Guan forced her way through enemy lines and saved her dynasty.

Qin Liangyu (秦良玉): Chinese general Qin Liangyu, also known as Zhensu (1574-1648), protected the Ming dynasty against the attacks of the future Qing dynasty in the 17th century. Going against the times, her father believed that girls should receive the same education as boys, so, like her brothers, she studied history, confucianism, and poetry. She was also trained in martial arts and known for her archery and horseback riding skills‌.

Liang Hongyu (梁紅玉): This incredible woman became well known thanks to her significant role in the Jin–Song wars against the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty. In the official Chinese history books she is referred to as "Lady Liang (梁氏)".

Li Zhen (李贞): She served as director of the Political Department of the Chinese military force in Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). Li Zhen was a veteran of the Long March and the first woman ever to become a general in China. She was promoted to major general in 1955.

For those further interested in the topic, the movie “The Red Detachment (红色娘子军)”, provides a good recount of the evolution of women in the Chinese army (Mullis, 2017). The Red Detachment was the name of the first all-women military brigade. Inspired by real events, the movie tells the story of a group of women from Hainan Island who participated in the civil war against the Kuomintang in 1930s China. This film, which is well known both in China and around the world, focuses on the role of these women in the Chinese militia during the civil war. It is still difficult to find the names of all these very brave women, but this production allows us to better understand their history, their profiles, their claims, and their role in the events they took part in. It is essential to watch this film in order to get an idea of the growth and the evolution of womens’ role in the Chinese army.

Nowadays, Chinese women comprise about 4.5 percent of total military personnel in the PLA (Deason, 2018). Serving in the military is now popular among young Chinese women because it can grant opportunities for better education and training, as well as better jobs, possible residence in cities, and a higher status in society. As a matter of fact, women soldiers also serve in the Marine Corps, Special Forces, and drug criminal police. They also began to appear in public through the media (CCTV) and official parades more often (Groot & Peniston-Bird, 2014). It is likely that the number of women in the military will increase in the coming years. The Communist Party promoted gender equality, opening more positions for female soldiers. It is thus believed that female soldiers will be able to reach prestigious hierarchical positions as Li Zhen did a couple of years ago.

Najoua Chetioui is a Master’s student in Management and International Business, specializing in exchanges with Asia, at the le Havre Normandie University in France. Moreover, she is passionate about chinese language and culture. You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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‌Addis, E, Russo, V.E et al. (eds.), 1994, Women Soldiers: Economic, Theoretical-Political and Psychological Questions, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London.

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Mullis, E 2017, ‘Aesthetics, Ideology, and Ethics of Remembrance in Red Detachment of Women (Hongse Niangzi Jun, 红色娘子军)’ Dance Chronicle, vol. 40, no. 1, pp.53–73.

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‌Stranahan, P 2003, ‘Review of: Choosing Revolution: Chinese Women Soldiers on the Long March by Helen Praeger Young, 2001, University of Illinois Press’, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 62, no. 1, pp.261–263.

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‌Young, H.P 2007, ‘Choosing Revolution: Chinese Women Soldiers on the Long March’ University of Illinois Press.


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