Three must known Chinese women in history

Written by April Zhang on Tuesday, 02 March 2021. Posted in Front Page

Three must known Chinese women in history

International Women’s Day (March 8) is coming. It is a highly celebrated day worldwide. In Chinese, it is called 妇女节, 三八节, 三八妇女节, or 国际妇女节. As MSL Master is 100% female led and operated, 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. 

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, and in 1852, she was placed in the sixth rank of consorts. Amidst all the politics and power struggles, she made to the top, and in 1861, after the Emperor Xianfeng’s death, she successfully ousted a group of competitors and assumed 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. 

The second must known woman is Mother Meng, 孟母. She was the mother of Mencius (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, despite all the difficulties and obstacles, was capable of not only writing her own destiny, but her son’s as well. 

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, and 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 make every bit of loneliness, bitterness and sadness into ever lasting beauty.

If you’re interested in learning more about these three Chinese women, lots of resources are available on the internet. If you’re studying Mandarin Express series, you’ll find Cixi in Intermediate Level A, and Mother Meng and Li Qingzhao in Intermediate Level B. 

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of two series of Chinese textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, which are highly relevant and very effective for non-Chinese speakers to learn Mandarin Chinese.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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