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Empowering Women in Classical China

Shattering the gender norms of her era, Lady Sun had one hundred armed female guards and set out to make her mark on history.

Zhao Wei portraying Lady Sun in the 2008 film Red Cliff, where she was depicted leading an ambush unit. While we don't know if she historically fought in the battle, we do know that Lady Sun and her all-female guards were very handy with swords, fracturing the Han expectations of women.

Around 190 CE China, it was common for girls’ personal names to be unrecorded by history. Instead, all we have left is to know them by their family names. One such woman born in this era was Lady Sun, but she didn’t let society stop her from trampling over gender norms with her one hundred armed female soldiers. This kind of female empowerment and early feminism is a rare find in this time period. A unit of female guards, all armed with swords and other weapons, was positively unheard of in the Han Dynasty, but when China split into three separate kingdoms, things like gender norms became a little more relaxed.

This relaxation of norms was out of necessity rather than a general cultural willingness to change. China was torn by a series of wars that led to the formation of three kingdoms: Wei in the north, Shu in the southwest, and Wu in the southeast. When war ravages the land, tradition is followed a little bit less stringently.

Lady Sun grew up in an affluent military family as the younger sister of warlords Sun Ce and Sun Quan, which exposed her to politics and warfare from a young age. She had a total of four older brothers who were raised to be generals and commanders. This was common for young men, but girls were normally only trained in ladylike skills, like running a household and caring for children. Yet since Lady Sun was close to her brothers and the foundation of China was already shaking, it can be theorized that she grew up as a tomboy and learned to handle weapons. With her fearsome number of female guards armed with swords, it only makes sense that she would also familiarize herself with self-defense.

Which begs a question - what did her husband think of such aberrant behavior? In 209 CE, she was married to Liu Bei, who would soon become the leader of Shu when China fractured. This was a challenging situation for any young woman, for she was sent away from the safety and familiarity of her family’s land in the name of forging an alliance between the Sun and Liu clans. While it was difficult, especially since Liu Bei already had another wife at his side, Lady Sun’s strength of will is clear. By now, the Sun family governs a significant body of land in southeastern China, and this marriage would bring stability to the lives of the people. Lady Sun knew it was the right decision for the people to make an alliance with the warlord in the west.

Records about these historic figures are sparse, but Lady Sun’s infamy for her one hundred service ladies with swords at their sides is clearly documented. Liu Bei’s biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms describes him as feeling “faint of heart” when he visited her chambers. One of Liu Bei’s key advisors once said that Liu Bei had to worry about Wei in the north, Wu in the east, and even at home, he had to worry about Lady Sun causing trouble.

And she did just that. While Lady Sun was married to Liu Bei, she bore him no children. Liu Bei had one son from his first wife, but he was not in the running to win any father-of-the-year awards. Before Lady Sun entered the picture, Liu Bei abandoned his first wife and infant son on a battlefield, and then sent one of his generals to go back and save them. The rescue mission was successful, but even with the urgency of keeping a leader alive in mind, it says something about the kind of man Liu Bei was that he would do such a thing. At this point, he probably thought himself perfectly capable of producing more heirs. Even so, it seems he had a mentality of disposability when looking at his first wife and son.

Some stories will try to romanticize the relationship between Lady Sun and Liu Bei, characterizing her as the true love of his life. However, in history, Lady Sun seems to have always stayed keenly aware that her marriage was for a political alliance. In 211, Liu Bei turned his back on Lady Sun’s family, breaking a territorial agreement that was forged with their marriage, and Lady Sun made up her mind to leave his company.

Liu Bei still only had one son by his first wife, a young boy who was now four years old. Since Liu Bei was becoming more powerful and needed a male successor, the importance of his single heir was becoming clearer. As a brazen and politically minded woman, Lady Sun fled back to her home clan and she brought Liu Bei’s only son with her. 

Liu Bei had to dispatch two of his most trusted generals to intercept her and her small army of swordswomen. His decision to send his very best allies after Lady Sun speaks to how he must have revered her hundred female guards as a force to be reckoned with, for powerful generals wouldn’t have been dispatched otherwise.

Though her bold kidnapping attempt was unsuccessful and Liu Bei’s son was taken back into his father’s care, Lady Sun still managed to leave her husband and return home. There are no records stating that she was ever officially divorced, but this conclusion to her story is still a powerful one. As many women did, she married for politics, but when that marriage was no longer advantageous, she did what was best for her safety and happiness and left.

This all happened centuries before practices like foot binding, which often makes people surprised to hear about a woman in ancient China who wasn’t oppressed. Instead, she managed to make a significant impact on wartime politics. Lady Sun was widely known in her time to be wise and fierce and was often compared to her brother Sun Quan, who would go on to be Emperor of Wu. Stories like hers can be rare, but while her personal name may have been forgotten by history, the stir of female empowerment she created with her swordswomen has not faded away. 

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Leigh Fisher
Leigh Fisher

I'm a writer and poet from Neptune. No, not the farthest planet from the sun, but from Neptune, New Jersey. Most of my articles are about impressive female historic figures and getting through life as an introvert.

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