Sparks fly from the clash of swords; adrenaline pumps blood into the heart of a woman in armor. She rides her horse into the roars of the battlefield.
Women warriors are not a product of folklore, but of history. Patriarchal values, however, mean that these women’s stories and contributions have seldom been documented. Gender roles relegated women into subservience and silence; they were only valued as property. But these heroines—women who brazenly broke gendered expectations with armor, weapons, and rebellion—will not be erased.
I started reading The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston during Asian Pacific Heritage Month in May. As I read, I remembered the folklore surrounding Mulan—as well as folklore beyond the animated 1998 Disney film. I was transported back into middle school, where English and History were my favorite subjects. I’d spend my free time researching Chinese history about war and empresses, and in the process, I discovered women warrior figures from the military or rebellions. I’d research beyond China to learn about other warrior figures across Asia, like the Trung Sisters in Vietnam who rode elephants in battle, or Japan’s history of female ninjas and female samurais.
Looking back, I see how this childhood research sparked my interest in writing. It contributed to my dreams of travel. As an aspiring Asian American actor, their defiance has inspired me to portray powerful female characters. Did I submit my headshot and resume when Disney put out the open call for their live-action adaptation of Mulan? Of course I did (and never heard back). But I’m writing about these warriors now in hopes of contributing to a digital archive so their stories can continue inspiring writers and artists. I’m always on the hunt for roles in New York City, and when the future seems bleak in terms of representation and opportunity, I think about these women.
Cut Nyak Dhien (1848-1908)
Cut Nyak Dhien was born to an aristocratic family in Aceh, an Indonesian province and one of the last places the Dutch could conquer. In the war against Dutch colonization, Dhien’s father and first husband were both killed. She then got remarried to Teuku Umar, who promised to go to war and avenge her father’s death. Together they would attack Dutch posts and lead guerrilla forces against colonizers, but the Dutch soon killed Umar and other Acehnese warriors. Eventually, Cut Nyak Dhien was banished to another part of Indonesia because Dutch colonizers feared resistance. In 1964, she was awarded the title of National Hero of Indonesia by the Indonesian government.
Gabriela Silang (1731-1763)
María Josefa Gabriela Cariño Silang left a legacy as a resistance fighter in the Philippines. The daughter of an Ilocano peasant born under Spanish colonial rule, Silang was the first Filipina woman to lead an independence movement against Spain. She was married to Diego Silang, an indigenous Ilocano resistance leader, but during the Seven Years’ War, Diego was imprisoned and assassinated. After her husband’s death, she took over leadership to fight the Spanish colonizers. After four months of resistance, she and approximately 100 of her fighters were executed. Eventually the Philippines defeated Spanish colonialism, only to have to face colonial struggle against the United States. Silang is remembered as a revolutionary hero.
Khutulun was a Mongol woman warrior, wrestler, and daughter of the most powerful ruler of Central Asia. She was even documented in Marco Polo’s traveling stories, The Travels of Marco Polo. Khutulun grew up learning warrior skills and mastered archery and horsemanship, and she is best remembered as a wrestler. No man could marry her unless he could beat her in a wrestling match, and no man ever won. According to some accounts, her father attempted to name her the next Khan, or ruler, on his deathbed. She passed up the title to her brother so she could be commander of the army. Khutulun died under mysterious circumstances, which gave rise to conspiracy theories on plots against her life.
Princess Pingyang (Unknown-623 A.D.)
Formally known as General Zhao of Pingyang, she was the daughter of General Li Yuan (later known as Emperor Gaozu) and Duchess Dou. She assisted in her father’s rebellion against Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty—opening the food stores of her family estate to local people and recruiting her own rebellion army dubbed The Army of the Lady. She encouraged her followers to not pillage, but instead to distribute food after conquering an area. She gained immense support and won many victories in battle. She joined armies with her father and husband, and Emperor Yang was soon killed by his own men. Thus, the Sui Dynasty ended, and the Tang Dynasty began with her father becoming emperor—making her a princess. Upon her early death at age 23, her father broke tradition to give Princess Pingyang a military funeral.
Did you know that the Tang dynasty was founded in part due to a 20-year-old warrior princess? Leading her own army of 70,000 men, Princess Pingyang brought the Sui dynasty army to heel. https://t.co/ge89uOgvDR— The World of Chinese (@WorldofChinese) June 17, 2019
Rani Lakshmibai, or Rani of Jhansi (1828-1858)
Rani was born into a high-caste Brahmin family in Northern India. Her mother died when she was four, and raised by her father, she learned horsemanship, fencing, and shooting. In 1842, she became the second wife of Gangadhar Rao Niwalker, the raja of Jhansi, a city in Northeast India that had been independent of Britain. She became queen upon her marriage and was renamed Lakshmibai. When her husband died, British colonizers seized Jhansi and refused to acknowledge Rani’s leadership. She is said to have exclaimed, “I will not give up my Jhansi!”
The Hindu queen worked to regain control of the region with petitions, an army she recruited to defend the city, and allyships with rebel rajas in nearby cities. She continued to battle against the British for Jhansi’s independence, until she was shot off her horse and killed in male attire. She is now regarded as a national heroine.
Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247)
Tomoe Gozen grew up in a time of turmoil during Japan’s Genpei War. She was an onna-bugeisha, a female samurai warrior. She was known for her beauty and strength, often described with long hair, a fair complexion, and charming features. She mastered swordsmanship, archery, and horsemanship. She was recorded in the epic “The Tale of Heike,” where she beheaded one of the enemy’s toughest warriors and ended up being one of the last surviving soldiers. It’s not clear what happened to her after the Battle of Awazu in 1184—some say she fled with an enemy’s head on horseback, fought to the death, or even became a nun. She is not only iconic in Japanese history for her life as an onna-bugeisha, but for her bravery and loyalty.
Trieu Thi Trinh (225-248)
When Vietnam was being colonized by the Eastern Wu Dynasty of China, local Vietnamese rulers were overthrown and many resistance fighters were killed. Trieu Thi Trinh was about 19 years old when she started raising an army to fight back. Her brother attempted to dissuade her, and she replied with her most famous quote: “I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern Sea, clean up frontiers, and save the people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?”
Trieu Thi Trinh would lead her army against Wu forces, winning over 30 battles against them. Her prowess would have their emperor send reinforcements and offer bribes for her capture. Unfortunately, her rebellion would be defeated, and how she died remains unclear. Some accounts say she was killed in their final battle for independence, or that she committed suicide like fellow Vietnamese warriors, the Trung Sisters. Many streets in Vietnam are named after her to commemorate her historic strength and bravery. In folklore, she would often be depicted as a supernatural heroine or goddess.
Zenobia (240 A.D.-274 A.D.)
Palmyra (a region in the middle of modern-day Syria) was a city that often cooperated with its Roman colonizers and thus retained a certain amount of independence. Zenobia, however, sought to break free from Rome completely. Little is known about her upbringing, except that she most likely came from an influential family where she received a high education. Zenobia was fluent in several languages, including Egyptian, Greek, and Latin. She claimed to be descended from Cleopatra, and she married the ruler of Palmyra. Her husband defended Palmyra from a Persian invasion, but he was later murdered by a relative. After his death, she named herself queen regent, executed all parties involved in her husband’s death, and expanded her kingdom to rival Rome. After intense battling, she was besieged, captured, and exiled to Rome.
There are common threads among all these women across Asia. They wanted freedom, so they fought against colonization—for love of their country and for justice, breaking barriers in the process. These women inspire me to wield my pen as if it was a sword for change. To launch words onto the computer screen from my keyboard like an archer.