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Princess Pingyang of the Tang Dynasty — An Honorable Lady with Exceptional Military Achievements

Princess Pingyang (? — 623), respected as Princess Zhao of Pingyang, was a general who recruited a whole army and contributed significantly to establishing the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) and the only woman in Chinese feudal history who was buried using military ceremony.

Princess Pingyang of Tang Dynasty

Princess Pingyang of Tang Dynasty, Picture from Bulma Buma.

A Prominent Family During A Chaotic Era


Pingyang was born into a prominent family of the Sui Dynasty (581  — 618).


Her mother, Dou (569 — 613), was a fearless and intelligent noble girl of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557 — 581).


Her father, Li Yuan (566 — 635), was a noble of the Sui Empire and a cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui (569 — 618).


Besides Pingyang, her brilliant parent had four other sons; one of them (her third brother) passed away at a young age.


She and her other three brothers assisted her parents, opening up a new chapter in history.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils of Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Crisis Preceding the Rebellion


During the late years of the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui, many uprising forces appeared nationwide and fought quite intensively with Sui's army.


As a lord with military power, her father, Li Yuan, was sometimes suspected of rebelling against the emperor.


Pingyang and her husband Chai Shao (588 — 638), a brave highborn young man, had been living in Sui's capital city after they got married, and one day they received a secret letter from her father, asking them to come to Taiyuan, the city that Li Yuan had been garrisoning at that time.

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Emperor Tang Tai Zong

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Pingyang's Second Brother Li Shimin in the Year 646, to Memorize Their Rise in Rebellion Here and to Pray for Blessing to the Tang Dynasty. 

They realized that Li Yuan would soon rebel against the Sui Empire, but the sudden departure of two nobles from the capital city would certainly raise suspicion.


Pingyang decided to let her husband go first and help her father.


She said that, as a woman, it would be easier to hide.


So, Chai Shao left as soon as possible and saved her first and fourth brothers on his way to Taiyuan.


Afterward, Chai Shao fought bravely on the battlefield and made significant contributions.


After Li Yuan announced his rebellion, most of his relatives in Sui's capital were imprisoned or executed, except for the escaped Pingyang.

Unearthed Painted Figurine of Women Riding Horse, Which was Quite Popular Under Empress Wu Zetian's Reign

Painted Figurine of Women Riding Horse of Tang Empire — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Pingyang's Solo Fights Behind Enemy Lines


After seeing off her husband, Pingyang left Sui's capital as well.


She found a nice and safe mansion to live in but didn't hide there.

She sold most of her properties and used the money to organize an army, which consisted of a few hundred outlaws and brigands.


In the next few months, she recruited other forces and trained them into a disciplined troop that civilians highly respected.

Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse of the Tang Empire — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

When her father declared rebellion, she led her army and occupied some cities near Sui's capital.


When Sui's army tried to attack her bases, she commanded her troop to fight back bravely and kept winning.


Soon, she had several cities under control, obtained respect from most civilians, and had around 70,000 soldiers under her command.


Her troop was called the Army of the Lady or the Army of the Dame.

Golden Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang Decoration of the Tang Dynasty

Gold Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang Decoration of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Battle of Chang'an


After Li Yuan announced rebellion, he decided to occupy Chang'an, the capital city of the Sui Empire.


He led 30,000 elite warriors marching toward Chang'an, while his second son Li Shimin (599 — 649) recruited around 100,000 soldiers, and her daughter Pingyang also led her army of 70,000 warriors to join.


Pingyang's husband, Chai Shao, also came along as an accomplished general. They both had their army and command center and fought side by side bravely.


With around 200,000 warriors on Li Yuan's side, he soon occupied Chang'an and established the Tang Empire.


After ascending the throne, Li Yuan rewarded this brilliant, brave daughter as Princess Pingyang.


Afterward, she was referred to by this title since her birth name wasn't documented.

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of Royal Daming Palace in Chang'an, Established Since 634, for Li Yuan to Enjoy His Retirement Life

Princess Pingyang and Niangzi Pass


After the battle of Chang'an, the newly built Tang Empire still faced attacks from other strong rebellion armies, some of which were quite aggressive.


Pingyang's oldest brother was honored as crown prince and assigned more administrative jobs in the capital city, and her second and fourth brothers and her husband were sent to different places to fight.


During this time, Pingyang's life wasn't documented clearly.


Some said that she lived in the capital city Chang'an to give birth and take care of her two sons; others believed that she led her army and garrisoned in an important military site in the Great Wall to defend Shanxi Province, which had been most important base of Li Yuan and the Tang Empire.


She constructed or strengthened this grand pass and defended the empire excellently. Later, people named this pass Niangzi Pass (meaning Lady's Pass in Chinese) to honor Princess Pingyang.

Niangzi Pass or Lady's Pass in Shanxi

Niangzi Pass or Lady's Pass in Shanxi, Picture from Jinlaoshide Shuofa.

The Death of Princess Pingyang


Pingyang passed away suddenly at a young age, but the cause of her death remained unclear.


Some believed that she died because of giving birth to her second son or because of old wounds from former battles.


Some say that she probably sacrificed in battles since there were some intense, massive battles in the Niangzi Pass that she had been defending.


Another guess is that she got assassinated by her big brother for having been involved in the contention over the throne between her first and second brothers.


When her first and fourth brothers aligned, she and her husband were closer and more supportive of her second brother Li Shimin. Hence, getting rid of her, an honorable princess with huge influence in the military and to the emperor Li Yuan, sounded like an excellent way to diminish Li Shimin's side.

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

Sculpture Stone Horses in Li Shimin's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.
The Last Two Are In Penn Museum, and The Rest Are in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.

Honor as a Great General


Pingyang's father was quite upset hearing about her death and decided to hold a grand burial ceremony using military rites.


This made Princess Pingyang the only woman in Chinese feudal history buried using military rituals.


Li Yuan respected this brilliant, brave daughter as a great general instead of a princess who needed to be protected and contributed significantly to building his new empire.


Her second brother Li Shimin enthroned as Emperor Taizong of Tang a few years after her death, married one of his daughters to Pingyang's second son, and brought the empire a remarkable reign.


Her husband kept assisting her father and brother, achieved exceptional accomplishments, raised their two sons, and never remarried.

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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