Lady of Ch'iao Kuo, while being an important figure in medieval Chinese history, is a virtually unknown noble and royal figure.
When the tribes of Southern China were defeated by
the Chinese people in the 3rd century A.D., their land was treated as Australia was once treated by Great Britain. The south
was a place where prisoners and exiles were sent, where they often intermarried into the various tribes of the south. Even
today one can see the differences among the Chinese people of Southern China. While their physical appearance is somewhat
different with dark skin and short, they also have different dialects, agriculture, and ideas. All of this dates back to the
days of the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo.
The Hsien (pronounced 'hsien' in medieval Chinese and
'hsi' in modern Mandarin) were one of the tribes that lived in the Guangdong Province of Southern Asia and still continue
to today. In the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo's time, the Hsien population was over 100,000. The Hsien were one of the most respected
of the southern tribes. They were a very powerful and warring people, but also very cultured and learned. They lived in houses
elevated from the ground by bamboo branches, leaving space where the family's animals were enclosed. The Hsien were ruled
by tribal kings, set up by Chinese authorities when the tribe agreed to ally itself with the Chinese, which happened with
other tribes also. The first mention of the Hsien comes up in the Standard History of the Sui Dynasty by Wei Chang
(580-643). One knows that a tribe does not just pop into history out of nowhere and then ceases to be mentioned again. The
characteristics of the Hsien tribe that Wei Chang stated can be matched with the Li people of Kao-liang, an area where the
Hsien people governed.
Lady of Ch'iao Kuo
The Lady of Ch'iao Kuo was born around 516 A.D. in
the Great Forest, the center of the Hsien tribe. Her father was the chief of the Hsien, though his name and dates
of birth and death are not known, as with the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo's mother. At her birth, the Lady was known by this
title, but by her given name, which may have been Redbird, for the kingfishers that populated the Hsien land. Princess
Redbird had a brother, named T'ing. The two may have had other siblings, though who they were is unknown. Princess Redbird was
a very intelligent and gifted girl, more so than her brother. Her father had her educated in her childhood by the Chinese,
aware that if the Hsien were to survive, they should learn the ways of the Chinese. Every year Princess Redbird would travel
to a nearby Chinese village and attend a Chinese school. The schools were normally reserved for boys, so the presence
of a girl in their school was almost insulting. Nevertheless, Princess Redbird learned the Chinese language in addition to
her native Hsien and learned to love Chinese literature and history. When Redbird was in her teenage years, her father was
killed in battle. For many years, the Hsien people had been warring with the infamous 'Dog Heads' as some sources call them.
These savage people raided Hsien villages, raping the Hsien woman and beheading the men. They got the name 'Dog Heads' from
the vicious war helmets they donned, which gave them the appearance of herds of dogs attacking.
With Redbird's father dead, her brother T'ing became
the leader of the Hsien, though clearly the Lady was clearly more suitable for the part. T'ing was a weak ruler, and Lady
was called on often to aid him with her mother, T'ing's regent, and the Hsien council. With the aid of his relatives and council,
T'ing led a war against the 'Dog Heads' and other tribes who were disloyal to the Hsien. With the help of the Chinese, who
with the help of Redbird allied themselves with the Hsien, the tribes were defeated and T'ing came to rule a very large area
of the Guangdong Province. T'ing became very conceited and rich, thinking he could get away with anything he did, as he came
of age. The Hsien people were enraged with his behavior and finally asked Princess Redbird to be their leader. Princess Redbird
declined, but did her best to curb her brother and keep the Hsien out of war.
In 535 A.D., Princess Redbird married Feng Pao, arranged
by Feng Pao's father, General Feng Jung, a powerful Chinese military officer. After her marriage, she began to teach the Hsien
people to appreciate the ways of the Chinese. Princess Redbird became very caring and judged all people equal, her friends
and enemies alike.
After her brother's dead, Princess Redbird came to
rule the Hsien. In a time when the Chinese lands were in constant war, Redbird brought peace and order to the Great Forest
of the Hsien. This was no small accomplishment, and Redbird's lands soon grew as she led war after waging war against tribes
stirring trouble in the south. Redbird also merged the culture of the Hsien and the Chinese, dating from her days in the Chinese
schools. Although sometimes called half-Hsien as an insult, Redbird and many Hsien embraced the idea of learning the ways
of their new allies and friends.
Her accomplishments shocked the Chinese, especially
since she was a woman, who was not expected to accomplish such fetes. The Chinese Emperor of the Ch'en Dynasty bestowed her
with many honors, including the title 'Lady of Ch'iao Kuo'.
Redbird, now Lady of Ch'iao Kuo, not only lived
a life of peace and justice in her great kingdom, but also lived a life of war. Annoying tribes who dared to question the
power of the Hsien tribes were attacked, led into battle by the Lady herself, and by her husband, Feng Pao. Even into her
60's, Lady of Ch'iao Kuo could be seen among her troops giving them words of wisdom and directions. And even after her husband's
death, Lady of Ch'iao Kuo led her troops into battle, alone.
Lady Redbird died in 601 A.D. around the age
of 85, a remarkable age for a time when life expectancy was not very high. Her small family, the Fengs, surrounded her,
and fulfilled their beloved mother and grandmother's legacy, becoming a very powerful family in Chinese politics for centuries
Of Feng Pao's and Lady of Ch'iao Kuo's children,
only one is known by name, Feng P'u. Born around 552 A.D. and died in 583 A.D., Feng P'u accompanied his mother into many
battles, and crushed a Chinese rebellion against the Hsien. With his mother, he too received many honors from the Chinese
Emperor, although he died around the young age of 31.
The Lady had 3 remarkable grandchildren, by children unnamed in records:
- Feng Hun--served on diplomatic and military missions with his grandmother.
- Feng Hsiian--Feng Hsiian also played a role in the Lady's military regime.
When she ordered him to rescue a Chinese garrison under siege by rebels, he betrayed the Hsien and sided with the rebels.
Lady of Ch'iao Kuo had him imprisoned, but once the revolt ended, he was pardoned and given a new position.
- Feng Ang--he replaced Feng Hsiian when Feng Hsiian was imprisoned during
the revolt. He crushed the revolt successfully and recieved the title Regional Chief of the Kaochou when his grandmother received
the title Lady of Ch'iao Kuo.
China in the Lady's Time
At the time of Lady of Ch'iao Kuo's reign, China
was not the country it is today. Paper, although already invented in China, was not widely used, and tea, a drink often related
with Chinese culture, had not yet arrived. The Chinese had risen to their golden age under the Han dynasty (206-220 A.D.).
Confucius and Master Meng, both of whom the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo may have read pieces by, were great influences of the Han dynasty.
However, 300 years later, China had fallen apart into its dark ages, divided in the north, south, east, and west by various
grousp claiming the Chinese throne. In the Lady's lifetime, she lived through three different dynasties: the Liang, Ch'en,
and Sui. The battles of the southern tribes and the Chinese groups devastated the population. In the Han dynasty, 23,000 households
made up southern China alone. However, by the Lady of Chiao Kuo's time, the number fell to 938. The many wars and disputes
also ravaged the Chinese borders. The once large empire was geographically confused as different tribes attempted to claim
parts of the empire for themselves.
Although the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo was a remarkable figure
in Chinese history, compared to other female figures such as Tzu Hsi, whose reign brought many terrors and revolutionary ideas
to China, almost nothing is known of her. The only records of her are listed in the Standard History of the Sui Dynasty
by Wei Chang. Considering the ignoring of women in Chinese records of the time Wei Chang wrote the records in the 7th century
A.D., it is remarkable that he should mention the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo. And even more astonishing, he devoted 4 pages to this
woman. Unfortunately the records are in medieval Chinese, and the secondary sources are in French and German. Only one record
exists in the English language and that is a historical fiction book, Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South by
Laurence Yep, based on the medieval records of this remarkable and revered Chinese icon.