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Three must known Chinese women in history

Written by April Zhang on Thursday, 07 March 2024. Posted in Front Page

Three must known Chinese women in history

International Women’s Day (March 8) is here. It is a highly celebrated day worldwide. 

As MSL Master is 100% female led and operated, and also because I’m in a profession that is predominantly female, I am happy to contribute to this special occasion and introduce three must known Chinese women in history.

I would say that all these three women were skilled and powerful and all of them have left a huge mark in Chinese culture and in Chinese’s collective memory. However, not all of them were remembered fondly. The dividing line is whether she made contribution to the betterment of human race or she was powerful only for her own end. 


#1 Empress Dowager Cixi

The first one is Empress Dowager Cixi, 慈禧太后, the de facto ruler of China in the late Qing Dynasty for nearly half of a century. Many people believed that, which I agree, that she was a ruthless, selfish, and extravagant tyrant, and she led to China’s ultimate humiliation and utter downfall under the foreign invaders and inward corruptions. At the same time, others point out that, which I also agree, that she was a strong and powerful woman who strived in a male-dominated patriarchal Chinese society that generally treated women poorly. 

Cixi was born in 1835. In 1851, she entered a selection for wives to the Emperor Xianfeng (咸丰), and in 1852, she was placed in the sixth rank of consorts. Amidst all the politics and power struggles, she made to the top. In 1861, the Emperor Xianfeng died. The new Emperor Tongzhi (同治) was only five years old. To fight for power, Cixi successfully ousted a group of competitors and assumed the regency. From then on till her death in 1908, she was the most powerful person in China. The Qing Dynasty was over soon after her death. 

From her own point of view, Empress Dowager Cixi was very successful. If we take a longer view of China’s history, she made several mistakes that endangered China’s sovereignty and Chinese people’s integrity and dignity. She reminded me of those financial tycoons whose speculative behaviour and clever manoeuvres caused catastrophic financial crises. They are only interested in making themselves super rich, disregarding the disastrous consequences. 


#2 Mother Meng

The second must known woman is Mother Meng, 孟母. She was the mother of Mencius (孟子, 372–289 BCE), who was a famous Confucius Scholar, second only to Confucius himself. We do not know when Mother Meng was born or when she died. What we do know is that Mother Meng’s effort in educating her son greatly contributed to Mencius’ achievements. 

According to the legend, Mencius lost his father when he was three years old. It was Mother Meng, a diligent and hard working woman, who raised Mencius with very limited financial resources. Mother Meng was fully committed to her son’s upbringing and education. Stories tell us that, in order to find a suitable place for her son’s upbringing, she moved house three times, and it was she who taught Mencius not to stop a task midway. 

No doubt Mother Meng was a strong willed woman who was capable of writing her own destiny, despite all the difficulties and obstacles.

Mother Meng represents a group of women who devote themselves to the success of their sons, or their husbands if we make it broader. Today, many people believe that they’re being exploited by the patriarchal system. Women should strive for independence and liberation. 

In my opinion, this is a commendable goal. The limit is that they do not put their own interests above history, as Cixi did for herself as well as those tycoons.


#3 Li Qingzhao

The third must known woman is Li Qingzhao, 李清照, one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. She was born in a scholar-official family in 1084 in Song Dynasty, and grew up to be a well educated and talented young woman. Her early poetry was mostly about her carefree life and love. 

Unfortunately, Li Qingzhao lived in a period of time that was filled with wars between China and Jurchens, and China suffered endless defeats. Compounded by some personal disasters, her life was hit hard by a series of unfortunate events. As a result, her later poetry was more about loneliness, lingering misery and deep sadness. She died in 1155. 

Suffering has never been new in life. What was remarkable about Li Qingzhao is that, using her distinctive voice, superb intellect, and elegant style, she was able to transform every bit of loneliness, bitterness and sadness into ever lasting beautiful poems, which have impacted readers profoundly for centuries.

I have done a short video clip on one of her poems, explaining these famous lines: 寻寻觅觅,冷冷清清,凄凄惨惨戚戚. You can watch it on YouTube: 

Or below.

Li Qingzhao definitely made lemonade out of lemons that life threw at her. What she made continues to benefit us a thousand years later, enriching our lives and comforting our souls. 

History has, and will forever, remember her fondly. 

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.