Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

Three Notable Women

In the year 503 began a long war between the princes of Wei and the emperors of China, which continued for nearly half a century. Of this protracted contest we have only three incidents to relate, in which, within a few years, three heroines rose to prominence and in various ways showed an ability surpassing that of the men of their age. It is the story of these three women that we propose to tell.

Chanyang, a stronghold of Wei, had been placed in charge of Ginching, one of the ablest soldiers of that kingdom. But the exigencies of the war obliged that officer to make an excursion beyond its walls, taking with him the main body of the garrison, and leaving the place very weakly defended. Taking advantage of this opportunity, one of the Chinese generals marched quickly upon the weakened stronghold, surrounded it with a large army, and made so rapid and vigorous an assault that all the outer defences fell into his hands without a blow in their defence.

At this perilous juncture, when the place was almost in the hands of its foes, and the depressed garrison was ready to yield, Mongehi, the wife of the absent commander, appeared upon the ramparts, called upon their defenders to make a bold and resolute resistance to the enemy, and by her courage and animation put new spirit into the troops. Inspired by her, they bravely resisted the further advance of the assailants and held the walls, which, but for the valor of the heroine, must inevitably have been lost.

Having thus checked the first onslaught of the enemy, Mongehi went vigorously to work. The inhabitants of the place were armed and sent to reinforce the garrison, the defences of the gate were strengthened, and by promises of reward as well as by her presence and inspiriting appeals the brave woman stirred up the defenders to such vigorous resistance that the imperial forces were on every side repelled, and in the end were forced to abandon the prize which they had deemed safely their own. Not till after Chanyang was saved did Ginching return from an important victory he had won in the field, to learn that his brave wife had gained as signal a success in his absence.

The second woman whom we shall name was Houchi, wife of the king of Wei, whose husband came to the throne in 515, but became a mere tool in the hands of his able and ambitious wife. After a short period Houchi was so bold as to force her husband to vacate the throne, naming her infant son as king in his place, but exercising all the power of the realm herself. She went so far as to declare war against the empire, though the contest that followed was marked by continual disaster to her troops, except in one notable instance.

As in the case above cited, so in this war a stronghold was successfully held by a woman. This place was Tsetong, whose commandant was absent, leaving the command to his wife Lieouchi, a woman of the highest courage and readiness in an emergency. As before, the imperial troops took advantage of the occasion, and quickly invested the town, while Lieouchi, with a valor worthy of a soldier's wife, made rapid preparations for defending it to the last extremity.

Her decisive resolution was shown in an instance that must have redoubled the courage of her men. Discovering, after the siege had gone on for several days, that one of the officers of her small force was playing the traitor by corresponding with the enemy, she called a general council of the officers, with the ostensible purpose of deliberating on the management of the defence. The traitor attended the council, not dreaming that his proposed treason was suspected. He was thunderstruck when Lieouchi vehemently accused him before his fellow-officers of the crime, showing such knowledge of his purpose that he was forced to admit the justice of the charge. The energetic woman wasted no time in this critical state of affairs, but, drawing her sword, severed the head of the traitor from his body with one vigorous blow. This act put an end to all thoughts of treason in the garrison of Tsetong.

The courage of Lieouchi was not greater than her judgment and decision in an emergency. There was but a single well to supply the garrison with water, and this the enemy succeeded in cutting off. The ready wit of the woman overcame this serious loss. It was the rainy season, and she succeeded in collecting a considerable supply of rain-water in vases, while linen and the clothes of the soldiers were also utilized as water-catching devices. In the end the imperial forces, baffled in their every effort by this heroic woman, abandoned the siege in disgust.

As for Houchi, the ruler of Wei, her ability was of a different kind, yet in her ambitious designs she displayed unusual powers. Deposed and imprisoned on account of the failure of the war, she soon overthrew her enemies and rose to the head of affairs again, and for several years continued to wage war with the emperor. But the war went against her, and trouble arose within her kingdom. Here and there were movements of rebellion, and the generals of the realm were at daggers' points to supplant one another.

Amid these distractions the queen balanced herself with marked skill, playing off one enemy against another, but her position daily grew more insecure. Her power was brought to an end by her final act, which was to depose her son and place herself in sole control of the realm. Erchu Jong, a general of ability and decision, now rose in revolt, marched on the capital, made Houchi his prisoner, and in the same moment ended her reign and her life by drowning her in the waters of the Hoang-ho. Then, gathering two thousand of the notables of the city, her aids and supporters, on a plain outside the walls, he ordered his cavalry to kill them all. Other steps of the same stern character were taken by this fierce soldier, whose power grew so great as to excite official dread. A general sent against him by Vouti, the emperor, who boasted of having gained forty-seven victories, was completely defeated, and all the results of his campaign were lost. Erchu Jong now formed the design of reuniting the empire and driving Vouti from the throne, but his enemies brought this ambitious scheme to an end. Invited to the palace on some pretence, he was cut down in the audience-hall, the Prince of Wei, whom he had placed on the throne, giving his consent to this act of treachery. Thus was the death of Houchi quickly avenged.