She Saihua, the mother of all military figures

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

#womaninamansworld #imperialchina #shesaihua

People, especially in the Western world, are greatly impressed by youth, but Chinese tradition instills strong values in the young to venerate the old for their wisdom and experience. She Saihua is one example of an older woman whose legacy remains one that we can all look up to. This is the first of a two-part series on military women in the Yang family.


Hi everyone! I'm still alive, but I couldn't quite manage to publish a video last month because I'd been working on a few time-sensitive commissions. But I am back this month with not one but two episodes covering two inspiring women from the same legendary family. So stay tuned for the second one, which will come out in just a few weeks.

The Generals of the Family Yang is a collection of stories, plays and novels that cover the victories, betrayals, and unwavering loyalty of one particularly impressive military family during the Imperial Song Dynasty from 950 to 1050 AD.

The story begins during the political upheaval that followed the fall of the once glorious Tang Dynasty. The empire has become fragmented into various states commanded by regional warlords. In the Northern Han kingdom, Yang Ye, a talented and peerless general, and She Saihua are intending marriage. At the last minute, however, She Saihua's father decides to betroth her to a useless son from a more powerful and affluent family.

Discovering her father's plans, She Saihua secretly sends a message Yang Ye to come and challenge the other suitor for her hand. Faced with this predicament, She Saihua's father has no choice but to allow the two men to battle it out. Yang Ye quickly gains the upper hand, and in one last act of desperation, She Saihua's father goes to the aid of his favorite. Yang Ye successfully kills his opponent in battle, but accidentally injures his future father-in-law in the process. Still loyal to her father despite his behavior, She Saihua becomes angry with Yang Ye and challenges him to a duel. Skilled in martial arts and archery, She Saihua is as formidable an opponent as Yang Ye has ever met. As Yang Ye retreats to a temple, he explains the accidental injury to her father. Finally mollified, She Saihua forgives Yang Ye and they marry then and there at the temple.

She Saihua gives birth to seven sons and two daughters and often accompanies her husband in battle. As their seven sons grow older, they too prove themselves on the battlefield. Together with their parents, the Yang family successfully stop several advances by the Song Dynasty to take over the Northern Han. It is only when the Song emperor decides to bribe Northern Han officials to spread false rumors and sow distrust between their ruler and the Yang family that they are successfully able to overtake and secure a surrender from the Northern Han.

So at this point, what's left for the Yang family? Even though they continue defending their capital from Song attacks, there is little the can do when they discover their ruler has surrendered. Impressed by their bravery, the Song Emperor himself offers to raise the status of the family by granting them an impressive mansion in the Song capital and giving them the responsibility of defending the border against the Liao empire to the north. Gratified, the Yangs accept and pledge loyalty to the Song.

Now the Liao empire unified a number of nomadic tribes and has ready access to the wealthier Central Plains of China. Their frequent looting, raids, and incursions caused significant unrest. The Yangs successfully repel Liao forces again and again. None of them are as impressive as the Battle of Yan Men Pass along the Great Wall. The Liao have brought an impressive 100,000 horsemen to this critical choke point. Seeing the arrival of Song general and the emperor's father in law, Pan Mei, and his forces, Yang Ye takes a few hundred cavalry through a difficult route west and north of the pass to arrive at the back of Liao forces. Thus, surrounding their enemy, the Song forces successfully capture or kill critical Liao leaders and secure countless hourses and military supplies. This decisive battle solidifies the Yangs as “invincible” to the Liao, but unfortunately also secures the jealousy of other Song border generals and officials like Pan Mei.

If you haven't guessed already, Pan Mei is our bad guy today. Despite several attempts to kill off the Yang family, Yang Ye only received promotion after promotion through the unshakable trust of the Song emperor. So Pan Mei has to get a little more creative in setting up the Yang family's destruction.

The opportunity presented itself when the Song emperor decided to embark on a large scale campaign against the Liao empire to take over the Sixteen Prefectures, a historical region in Northern China that includes present day Beijing. Despite meeting with initial success in capturing four of the sixteen Prefectures, the huge Liao army successfully repelled the Song's eastern forces and was on a swift march westward to meet with Pan and Yang.

Pan and Yang receive orders to protect civilians from the four conquered prefectures and retreat back to Song territory where they will be more secure. Yang Ye agrees to the strategic retreat, but Pan along with his military supervisors goad Yang Ye by mocking his “invincibility” and claiming that he was running away. They demand that if he were truly brave, Yang Ye should take his men and meet the Liao forces head on. Yang Ye again claims that this is a false move but agrees to fight the Liao, but not before securing reinforcements to meet with him at the end of a valley should he be forced to retreat. Pan assents to the plan.

But, of course what do you think happens? Liao forces are “somehow” made aware of Yang Ye's movements and set up an ambush. After a long-drawn out battle, Yang Ye and his men are forced to retreat to the agreed upon rendezvous point with Pan and his men, but discover no allies waiting to bail them out. Pan has already left. One of Yang Ye's sons is killed in battle, and Yang himself is captured alive, but he refuses food for three days and dies shortly from infections in his wounds. According to legend, the trap had resulted in the loss of four sons of the Yang family.

The matriarch and now widow, She Saihua secures the testimony of one of her surviving sons of Pan Mei's betrayal and enlists the help of the emperor's nephew to secure an honest judge, unlikely to be bribed or intimidated by the Pan family. In the stories, she successfully prosecutes him in imperial court, and Pan Mei's character is executed. Convinced of her trustworthiness and judgment, and moved by the loyalty of the Yang family, the Song emperor makes She Saihua his commander-in-chief and awards her a dragon head staff as a symbol of the emperor. She Saihua allegedly lives to be more than 100 years old and continued to serve the emperor faithfully. She is especially known to have married strong military women to her sons and grandsons so that even when all the men of the Yang family had perished, the women of the Yang family continued in their legacy to fight for the Middle Kingdom.

In reality, it's true that Pan Mei was exposed, but he was only demoted three ranks. Nevertheless, Yang Ye's legacy as a hero remained in tact, as his surviving sons and grandsons continued to defend the Song from foreign military powers. Their story inspired not just stories collected in The Generals of the Family Yang, but also characters from the famed novel Water Margin, thirty-some odd films and TV series, operas and video games.

For this portrait of She Saihua, I relied on a reference photo of Chinese American author Maxine Hong-Kingston who epitomizes the face of an incredibly strong, modern voice that talks of things that many wouldn't dare mention. It brings to mind She Saihua's legendary persuit of justice in a male-dominated court against a leader in the male-dominated army, so it was a pleasure to bring these two characters from different times together in my painting, “The Dowager She.”

Thanks for hanging with me, and don't forget to stay tuned for the second installment this month where I cover another legendary and inspiring woman from the same family.


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