Mu Guiying, a military heroine bigger than Mulan

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

#womaninamansworld #imperialchina #muguiying #mulan

This is a continuation of a two-part series about women from the military family of Yang. She Saihua's granddaughter-in-law made a name for herself so big in Chinese history that not even Mulan can compare. Here's her story.


Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting. Now last time we talked about She Saihua, legendary martial arts and archery master who married Song Dynasty general Yang Ye and ended up successfully prosecuting the man who betrayed her husband and in the stories “Generals of the Family Yang,” became the commander in chief of the Imperial military. If you missed that story, you can find a link to the video in the description below.

Today we go down a couple of generations to talk about one Chinese heroine who's actually more famous in China than Mulan, who has long been popularized in Western cultures by Disney.

Her name is Mu Guiying, and she is in my honest opinion, particularly special because in some of the seminal pieces of Chinese literature, women are often memorialized for being loyal, pure, and self-sacrificial. Mu Guiying is special for being not only brave and steadfast to her family, but she was also a brilliant military strategist and leader in her own right.

According to the legends in “Generals of the Family Yang,” She Saihua and Yang Ye had seven sons and two daughters. Their sixth son Yang Yanzhao managed to escape with his life from the fateful ambush in which he lost his father and brothers, who were either killed, captured, or renounced the military. As the only remaining son of the Yang clan, Yang Yanzhao succeeded his father as commander. The other positions were taken up by the Yang family women, and together they continued defending Song borders from the Liao empire to the north. Yang Yanzhao married Princess Chai, a descendent of a former emperor, and together, they had three sons, one of whom is Yang Zongbao who we'll follow in just a minute.

During this time, the Liao army was gaining strength, due largely in part to their recruiting a Song army advisor who helped them deploy an unstoppable battle array of 72-moves, called the Heavenly Gate Formation. The Liao challenged the Song army to defeat it within 100 days. If they could not, then the Song must surrender.

Desperate to defeat the great Liao, Yang Yanzhao heard a rumor that the daughter of a chieftan living in the Mu Ke Fortress held the secret to breaking the invincible Heavenly Gate Formation. He therefore sent his son, Yang Zongbao to extract the information.

Aware of the kind of leverage she had, Mu Guiying decided to challenge Yang Zongbao to a duel. If he could defeat her, she would share the desired information. However, if she emerged victorious, he would have to marry her. Confident in her abilities as a warrior, Mu Guiying was also clever in setting up a way to choose her own husband.

Well, they fought three rounds, and Mu Guiying defeated Yang Zongbao all three times. So, Yang Zongbao married Mu Guiying in secret and returned empty-handed to his father.

Angered and humiliated by his son's failure, his father ordered him to be executed. Mu Guiying caught wind of her father-in-law's plans and went to her husband's rescue. This time, she successfully defeated her father-in-law and pleaded for her husband's life. So impressed by her fighting abilities, Yang Yanzhao welcomed Mu Guiying into the Yang family and threw the couple a proper wedding.

Mu Guiying served alongside her new family in fighting against the Liao. Her greatest accomplishment in battle took place when she was only 19 years old. Mu Guiying indeed did have the secret to breaking the Liao's previously unstoppable Heavenly Gate Formation. She not only instructed the main army in breaking down each of the 72 moves one by one using the counter measures she knew, she also sent a surprise detachment that cut off the Liao supply lines and burned the enemy food and fodder. Lastly, she ordered a third attack to recapture the city where the Liao held their base of operations. Faced with dwindling supplies, hungry soldiers, and dying horses, the Liao could no longer sustain a long-protracted war against the Song. The Song army at last broke the Heavenly Gate Formation, which would prove to be a turning point in the Liao empire and precipitate its ultimate downfall.

Her genius and bravery on the battlefield won her the hearts of elders and peers alike, and earned her recognition by the emperor upon the Yang family's triumphant return to the capital. Mu Guiying and her husband Yang Zongbao had two children, but like the rest of the women in her family, that didn't keep her from the battlefield. Legend has it that she actually gave birth to her son on the battlefield, and she continued to serve in the Song army well into her 80s.

Like her grandmother-in-law She Saihua, Mu Guiying's story continues to live in folk tales, and has been reenacted through operas, movies, and television series today. She is also honored as a door goddess, divine spirits whose images are hung or painted on the gates of Chinese homes to help ward off evil influences.

After painting a number of hanfu women, it was a breath of fresh air to work on military clothes for this Chinese Amazon. Thanks again for watching and see you next time!


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