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Standing up to disapproving family members to defend your relationship choices isn’t easy, but women have been standing up for what they want for hundreds of years — even in China in 170 CE. During the Eastern Han dynasty, a young woman known as Lady Wu did just that.
Lady Wu was orphaned at a young age and lived with her brother and distant relatives. While hardship struck her young, she was still from a respected family and lived comfortably. Her family made sure that her needs were met, but they were also keen on being involved in her personal affairs in her parent’s absence. When she became of marriageable age, usually considered in the later teen years or early twenties, her family was eager to have her married off to a man of equal or higher standing. This expectation was common in this time period, but Lady Wu was not quick to welcome her family’s suggestions.
Sun Jian, a young man who made a name for himself by fighting off pirates, heard of Lady Wu’s beauty and strong character and sought to pursue her hand in marriage. However, though he bravely charged at pirates with a saber in hand when he was only sixteen, he was not on the same socioeconomic level as Lady Wu’s family. Bravely charging at her family with promises of marriage did not go as well as his battles did.
They saw him as inferior, since his family was not as prominent in the Han dynasty as they were, and they also felt that his youthful heroism made him more of a rascal than a good suitor. Lady Wu was an open-minded young woman and was not as ready to judge people based on the station they were born into. However, this kind of forward thinking was not the type of thing her brother or uncles were going to accept easily.
Sun Jian was driven and Lady Wu must have recognized that spark in him. Her family was quick to reject Sun Jian’s proposal, which upset the up and coming Sun family. Though Sun Jian’s reputation was growing, the Wu clan disapproved of his lower station. Sun Jian was affronted by their open disapproval of them and Lady Wu took an interest in him during their initial meetings.
Thus, Lady Wu did something that even many young women nowadays are hesitant to do — stand up to her family. While young women in our time are more likely to be arguing on behalf of boyfriends, Lady Wu needed to stand up for herself to defend her preferred choice of husband. Lady Wu confronted her uncles and brothers with a calm determination. While she wanted to marry Sun Jian, she analyzed the situation and weighed out what her family would care the most about. Appearances. Court reputation. Causing offense to other powerful families unnecessarily. She faced her relatives and asked them, “Why court trouble for the sake of one daughter? If I am to be unlucky, that is my fate.”
Her family saw the way she was taking responsibility for her actions and reluctantly allowed the marriage. Her argument was a simple one, but it was true that if the marriage turned out poorly, no one else would suffer quite as much as she would. In just a few years, Sun Jian would become massively successful as a military officer and eventually gained political power serving as the Administrator of Changsha. He was able to prove everyone who doubted him wrong and Lady Wu’s decision turned out to be a very good one.
Fortunately, the two had a positive relationship and five children together, four sons and one daughter. According to Record of Searching for Spirits, when Lady Wu was pregnant with her first son, she had a dream that she embraced the moon and brought it into her body. Later on, when she bore future emperor Sun Quan, she had a dream of the sun entering her the same way. When she told Sun Jian of this, he was thrilled and said it was a sign that their descendants would flourish.
In her later years as a mother, Lady Wu still made her voice heard. Even when her eldest son, Sun Ce, was gaining power and capturing land in southeastern China left and right, Lady Wu was a trusted advisor to him. While it was an expectation in this era for children to show their parents great respect, Lady Wu would not hesitate to step in and give her son advice on politics, and they would heed her words with respect. She often steered both Sun Ce and Sun Quan toward making wise and calculated decisions rather than acting brashly. Sun Ce was revered as a hero to the common man and was a fair leader, but he could at times rush to judgements too quickly. Lady Wu would quickly step in when this happened.
Lady Wu also had interesting ways of making sure her sons listened to her if they at first resisted her council. At one point, when Sun Ce wanted to execute an officer who opposed the clan’s ideals and plans, his mother was very firm in opposing him. When Sun Ce’s advisors were unsure of what to do and how to talk Sun Ce out of making a mistake he’d later regret, Lady Wu stepped in, stood beside a well, and threatened to throw herself in if Sun Ce didn’t release his prisoner. Her son was shocked that she’d threaten to do something so brazen and immediately obliged.
As time went on and Lady Wu’s second oldest son, Sun Quan, took the reins of the clan, Lady Wu served as one of his closest advisors in matters of politics. There were numerous incidents where Sun Quan would only meet with his key strategist and his shrewd mother for advice on the most important matters of state.
Lady Wu’s youthful rebellion and insistence to marry Sun Jian would lead her to being honored as Empress Wulie after China split into three separate countries and Sun Quan became Emperor of Wu. Had she not advocated when she was young for a match that she felt was right, it’s quite possible that we would not know anything of Lady Wu’s history.
If you’re interested in learning more about amazing women who broke gender norms and did remarkable things, please check out my other article on the Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms period about Lady Wu’s daughter, Lady Sun.