Princess Pingyang Virtuous Queen of Han

Princess Pingyang, leader of the 'Army of the Lady'

Contributed by
Nov 24, 2018

November is Warrior Women Month, and in this installment, we’re going to introduce you to Princess Zhao of Pingyang, also known as Princess Pingyang. This young woman commanded an army called the “Army of the Lady,” helping her father to take over and form the Tang dynasty of China. She was the only woman in history at that time to be granted a military funeral, courtesy of her very grateful father.

Princess Pingyang was the daughter of Li Yuan, the Duke of Tang, and of the Duchess Dou. Her father married her to Chai Shao. There isn’t that much known about her childhood, but we certainly know what happened next.

Emperor Yang had imprisoned Li Yuan before, and when Li Yuan was the general in charge at Taiyuan, he decided to rebel against the Emperor. In 617 CE, he sent a few messages out to his family members, including his daughter and her husband. He called them back to Taiyuan from Chang’an, where they were staying. Now, Pingyang’s husband was worried about both of them getting to Taiyuan safely, and she argued that she could hide better than he could because she was a woman. He headed out, and our lady stayed behind.

Here’s where it gets good. Pingyang hid out for a bit and then decided to win the loyalty of hundreds of men by giving away her riches, after selling everything she owned. Together, they all formed a rebellion, supporting her father Li Yuan. She and her servant Ma Sanbao worked together to gather other rebel leaders and sway them to her side. She used all sorts of tactics, including gathering peasants who had been suffering under rulers and convincing them to fight, giving them food and money, and forcing smaller leaders to join her army. Pingyang’s rebel forces took over a number of nearby cities. By the time her father was ready to cross the Yellow River, this Army of the Lady was 70,000 strong.

Pingyang’s army was known for not destroying the populace as it took down the leaders, and often distributed food as they went. Loyalty to the Lady swelled her ranks. Later in 617 CE, her father Li Yuan crossed the river, and Chai Shao met up with his wife. Together they organized the army. The next year, the Emperor’s grandson gave up the throne to Li Yuan, the first Emperor of the Tang dynasty. He ruled as Emperor Gaozu. Pingyang was given the title of princess. Unlike many fathers at this time in history, Emperor Gaozu honored Pingyang. He gave her the title of Zhao, or wise and virtuous.

Princess Pingyang died in 623. When she passed, her father ordered a military funeral for her. As expected, many officials thought that this wasn’t proper, because, you know, she was a woman and all. Emperor Gaozu didn’t care. The funeral for Princess Pingyang was one that would have been given to a general with high standing. The Ministry of Rites complained that there shouldn’t be a band, as that wasn’t fit for a woman, and her father is recorded as saying, “As you know, the princess mustered an army that helped us overthrow the Sui dynasty. She participated in many battles, and her help was decisive in founding the Tang dynasty… She was no ordinary woman."

She certainly wasn’t. With no recorded military training, this young woman helped change the course of Chinese history. She commanded an army, recruited the members, helped keep them from pillaging the countryside and helped the peasants on the way. Anyone for a movie version of her life?

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