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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.