A history resource written for & by young people, telling the stories the textbooks leave out. Nominate your #HistoryHero today!
Have you ever noticed that the greatest leaders are those who bring lasting peace to their people, rather than the perils of war?
Lady Xian was one of them, still remembered and revered two millenia later.
In the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, there are more than 200 temples dedicated to the ancient queen, Lady Xian. Visitors burn incense beneath the statues of Xian and her husband Feng Bo, while young couples who quarrel pray to the statues for guidance on how to get along. With her phoenix crown and Bao, Xian still protects her people from harm.
Lady Xian was born around the year 512 A.D. Guangdong was then a remote province in the far reaches of the Chinese Empire, ruled by an Emperor more than 1,000 miles away. At that time, Guangdong was divided between the ethnic Han Chinese who rule the vast country to this day, as well as several minority ethnicities, such as the Li tribespeople. The Li were nomadic, independent-minded warriors. Haughty Han Chinese officials discriminated against them, while in turn the Li raided the Chinese and feuded with one another. Guangdong was a lawless place where war ruled and peace was unknown.
Xian was the daughter of a powerful Li chieftain. He ruled over 100,000 families. While women were usually considered inferior to men among the Li tributes, Xian had a tenacity to learn that her father could not repress. As a maiden, she studied martial arts and military strategy in secret. But it was her shrewd sense of justice that made her a natural leader. Her older brother, on the other hand, loved to lead raiding parties against neighboring tribes, causing chaos throughout Guangdong. Xian upbraided her brother for his immature feuds, so thoroughly and so publicly, that he she embarrassed him. She made him promise to stop provoking wars. When the Li tribespeople saw how Xian had restored the peace, they flocked to her banner. By the power of her wit and intelligence, Xian became the first queen of the Li people.
When the Chinese prefect of Guangdong learned of Xian's reputation, he asked her to marry his son, Feng Bao. He was an honest and idealistic young man. As the future prefect of Guangdong, Bao would be responsible for uniting the various peoples of the region in service to the Han Chinese Emperor. However, Bao lacked the cunning to survive by himself in the cutthroat world of Chinese politics. Xian agreed to the marriage in 535 A.D., quickly becaming her husband's military commander, bodyguard, and brains. Xian sat with her husband as they jointly settled disputes, with Xian representing the Li and Bao the Han Chinese.
In 548, China descended into thirty-five years of civil war. A senior Chinese general ordered Bao to gather his army and march north to assist the Emperor in suppressing a rebellion. But as Bao prepared to leave, Xian smelled a trap. She convinced him to wait. Sure enough, the senior general soon revealed his true colors -- it was he who revolted against the Empire. So Xian gathered 1,000 warriors, charging them with carrying gifts of money and goods. She then led them to the rebellious general's capital city to pay her respects. Greedy for her gifts, the general opened the gates, at which point Xian and her warriors drew their swords and captured the city. The rebellion was crushed.
In a hundred other battles like this, Xian earned a reputation as the most brilliant and shrewd general in all of China. Bao died in 554 A.D, leaving her the sole leader of Guangdong. Although she had numerous opportunities to use the national disorder to seize more power, she chose to remain loyal to the Emperor and confined her ambition to keeping Guangdong and her people safe.
When the new Sui dynasty arose in 581 A.D., Xian, nearing seventy years old, rode out to meet the new Emperor's armies in a full-suit of battle armor. The Sui Emperor was so amazed by Xian that he made her and her heirs the rulers of all Southern China. Xian used her new power to fire arrogant Han officials, arrest brigands, and insist on the equality of all ethnic groups under the law. When she passed away at the age of nearly 90, she left a land where the Han Chinese and minority ethnicities lived in peace.
For this reason, the modern people of Guangdong still revere Xian as their "saintly mother," and the protector of all the children of Southern China. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.