Wa Shi (1498–1560)

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Wa Shi (1498–1560)

Zhuang warrior, noted general, and shrewd political figure in southern China in the latter years of the Ming Dynasty, who became the most famous woman in the history of the Zhuang ethnic minority. Pronunciation: Wah Shrrr, rhymes with Hah Brrr. Born Wa Shi (which means flower in her native Tai dialect but often erroneously thought by the Chinese to mean flower-tile), in 1498; daughter of Cen Zhang (a great feudal lord of the Zhuang minority people of the Sino-Vietnamese frontier region of southern China); married the Zhuang lord Cen Meng; children: a son, Cen Bangzuo.

Trained in the art of combat and known for her strength, was briefly married to the most powerful and wealthy of the Zhuang lords; returned with her son to her father's court; after the death of her former husband at her father's hands, created shrewd alignments that allowed the Zhuang people to live in peace with the Chinese, gaining great influence for her family and protection for her people; chosen as the general to lead an army against Japanese pirates plaguing the Chinese coast, achieved military success (1557).

In the southern province of China that adjoins Vietnam, the people of the ethnic minority known as the Zhuang have long been accorded an unusual degree of autonomy, largely because of the political and military role they have played in maintaining the Chinese border. A millennium ago, the Zhuang shamaness A Nong fought for the identity of her people against the Chinese and lost. Five hundred years later, the famous Zhuang warrior Wa Shi helped to guarantee the survival of her people by serving the Chinese Empire with distinction. A shrewd politician, as well as skilled in the traditional martial arts, she ably led her family through continuous internecine quarrels while avoiding direct Chinese control, becoming the most famous woman in the history of the Zhuang and one of the very few women ever to hold the rank of general in the Chinese imperial armies.

The Chinese had begun their expansion into Zhuang regions as far back as the 3rd century bce, and had been resisted by them for many centuries. By the time Wa Shi was born in 1498, the numbers of the Chinese were beginning to exceed those of the Zhuang, who were becoming a minority in their own lands.

Wa Shi's father Cen Zhang was a powerful lord of the Cen clan, a dominant clan of the Zhuang by the year 1500. Her mother's clan was the Wa, also an important local family. Like all Zhuang women then, and most Chinese women today, Wa Shi kept her maiden name after her marriage. Clan members traced their descent through common male ancestors. In earlier periods, before the Chinese impact, the Zhuang had traced their descent bilaterally, through both male and female lines.

As the head of his clan, Cen Zhang controlled a large territory by virtue of his leadership of many warriors. The region of the Zhuang was mountainous terrain, where communication was difficult and the topography impeded political or cultural unity. In terms of providing its inhabitants with a living, it was also poor, and mercenary service in the armies of the Chinese (and Vietnamese) had long been an attractive alternative to the back-breaking labor of mountain farming.

The forbidding lands were also spectacularly beautiful, however, with sharply drawn limestone crags called karsts that jut up suddenly from verdant valleys. The forested highlands are inhabited by tropical parrots, finches, and delicate deer, and in Wa Shi's lifetime by wolves, tigers, wild elephants, and bears. Typhoons from the South China Sea bring violent winds and heavy rains to the region, and when conditions are right, fog lingers in the valleys and wreaths the mountain peaks. It was this atmosphere that served as the primary inspiration for traditional Chinese landscape painting, and for an active girl like Wa Shi it must have seemed a lovely, if sometimes dangerous, playground.

Although the Chinese migration had changed Zhuang society significantly by the time of Wa Shi's birth, the two cultures remained quite different, particularly in terms of the roles of women. Zhuang women were independent, accustomed to hard physical labor, and accorded social equality to match their responsibilities. Women often maintained their own households, and it was not uncommon for a husband to move in with his bride's family rather than establish a maledominated household. The Chinese appear to have viewed Zhuang women as wild and somewhat fearsome, and even to have credited them with supernatural powers, while also finding them alluring.

Many Zhuang women trained as warriors. The Cen clan of Wa Shi's father had a long military tradition, and was one of the few which kept a military handbook for the training of its men, along with an elaborate code of behavior for warriors on campaign. As the daughter of a lord, Wa Shi might have been kept safe from war because of her status. On the other hand, it also gave her exposure to the best possible training in the military arts, and she proved to be a talented, aggressive student. She became particularly adept at fighting with a long straight sword in each hand, a style of combat that required great coordination and dexterity. She also became expert with the long spear and was noted for her physical strength.

By the time Wa Shi was growing up, the Ming rulers of the Chinese Empire, in power since the mid-14th century, had been forced to recognize a degree of autonomy among the Zhuang people rather than continually face fierce Zhuang soldiers in prolonged and costly wars. Instead, they had attempted to co-opt Zhuang lords by recognizing their local power through the grant of Chinese titles, and by requiring them to pay taxes to the Chinese court. They also made a continuous effort to restrict the autonomy they had allowed, however, and during Wa Shi's youth, they moved to do away with the hereditary status and incorporate the region as another imperial province. Wa Shi must have heard many heated arguments among the men and women of her family about how to deal with the Chinese. Without the hereditary titles they had been granted, the Zhuang lords would be reduced to the status of local landholders with no special rights or privileges. As well, incorporation of the region would have meant an end to the cultural identity of the Zhuang people as a whole. Compared to this relatively small group, China was a huge multiethnic empire, which had successfully absorbed a great diversity of peoples in the past, melding them into the Chinese people.

It was during this period that Wa Shi married a noted Zhuang lord, Cen Meng, becoming one of his four wives. A violent, ambitious man, Cen Meng also proved shrewd in resisting the Chinese while continually expanding his domains at the expense of weaker Zhuang lords. When it served his purposes, he lent his armies to Chinese campaigns against other regional minorities, like the Yao and Miao. Because he was useful to them, and also a formidable local lord, the Chinese rulers chose to ignore his rapacious appetite for power.

Zhuang lords lived in elaborate palaces built in the Chinese style, guarded by eunuch gatekeepers and waited upon by numerous servants. Cen Meng was immensely wealthy, and Wa Shi must have possessed an abundance of the gold and silver ornaments by which the Zhuang displayed their wealth. At the time of her marriage, Wa Shi seems to have been regarded as Cen Meng's primary wife, and there is evidence that the couple initially loved each other deeply. Wa Shi subsequently gave birth to a son, Cen Bangzuo. Before many years had passed, however, the couple grew apart. Cen Meng expelled Wa Shi from his household, and she returned to her father's holdings with her young son.

[She] fought with two swords and knew how to defeat the pirates.

—Chinese poem

In 1524, Cen Meng came to an open break with the Chinese. After three years of successful resistance, he was attacked by a massive Chinese army before he could prepare adequate defenses. In the hope of raising additional troops, he fled to the territory of Cen Zhang. But Cen Zhang was enraged that Cen Meng had put Wa Shi aside, thereby depriving the father-in-law's family of any rights to Cen Meng's vast holdings. The failing war also endangered the powers of all the Zhuang lords, and while holding a feast for his former son-in-law, Cen Zhang had him poisoned. At the time of his death in 1527 Cen Meng was the most powerful Zhuang lord since King Nong Zhigao, during the Song era, when A Nong lived.

Ordinarily, Wa Shi's divorce from Cen Meng should have signaled the end of her personal power, since she no longer had direct rights to her former husband's holdings. But in the very unsettled period following Cen Meng's death, while the Chinese were attempting to consolidate direct control over his holdings, there were unusual opportunities for the daring Wa Shi, who maneuvered skillfully among the quarreling Zhuang lords.

In a clever compromise that brought her the support of other Zhuang clans, Wa Shi first came to terms with Cen Meng's other wives, by putting forward as Cen Meng's heir one of the sons of the primary wife, rather than her own son. Then, however, she ensured her continued control over the boy and the estates of Cen Meng by raising the designated heir as her own child. When another son of Cen Meng, Bangxiang, grew to adulthood, he waged a war against Wa Shi's influence. After Wa Shi succeeded in capturing Bangxiang's household, she strangled him with her own hands, and other claimants for power suddenly became less ambitious.

Wa Shi, now in her maturity, became the dominant lord of the Zhuang heartland. For several decades, she was noted for her benevolent but disciplined rule. Because she could field tens of thousands of professional warriors, the Chinese took care not to antagonize her. Again showing her genius for necessary compromise, she made her peace with the Chinese, indicating that she recognized the inevitability of their rule. In turn, the Chinese took care to preserve the essential elements of power among the Zhuang lords, allowing important titles to remain hereditary.

In the years Wa Shi was consolidating her power in the south, China faced a crisis on its eastern coast. The end of a long period of feudal warfare in Japan had demobilized thousands of professional Japanese warriors, many of whom took to sea rather than settle down, and became pirates. In 1522, recognizing that eastern China was weakly defended, they had begun making daring raids along the coast, sometimes following the rivers hundreds of miles inland. Some of these raids were made up of as many as 20,000 brigands aboard hundreds of vessels. The raiders, known derisively to the Chinese as Wako (dwarf pirates), brought the coastal economy to a halt. Peaceful Chinese peasants and fishermen fled the vulnerable coastal lowlands, leaving large areas depopulated.

The Ming court, now grown weak and corrupt, was entering upon its last century of rule. The Chinese sent ever-larger armies against the Japanese, who proved too fierce and too mobile, while the Chinese court was hindered by clique politics. Court ministers were using the military coffers to amass personal fortunes, and armies were often sent out ill-equipped and poorly trained. If the ponderous Chinese military forces succeeded in making contact, the Japanese simply melted away in small groups and regained their ships off-shore.

Finally, a Chinese general who had fought against Cen Meng thought of the Zhuang. The Chinese court offered Wa Shi a general's commission to form an expedition to face the pirates. In 1557, at age 59, Wa Shi set out for the coast at the head of an army of 6,000 hand-picked Zhuang infantry, known to the awestruck Chinese as Langbing (Wolf Soldiers). Along the way, her headquarters was guarded by a band of 40 female warriors. The trip took months and rations ran low, but the hardy troops foraged and found food where other armies might have starved.

Arriving at the coast, Wa Shi led her troops in an initial skirmish in which she herself fought hand-to-hand, wielding a heavy cutlass-like Dao sword against the armored pirates. The Zhuang were victorious, and Wa Shi later led a column of Zhuang in a lightning-fast attack on the main body of the pirates, dealing them their first serious defeat.

But despite Wa Shi's ability and the skill of her soldiers, the Ming court proved too corrupt to sustain the fight. A quarrel among the cliques resulted in the execution of the Chinese general who had recruited Wa Shi, and the Chinese force became so weakened and demoralized that Wa Shi sought permission to return home. For the next 20 years, the pirates remained a periodic problem.

Wa Shi lived another year before her death, in 1560. A local religious cult grew up around her, and the temple built to her spirit was maintained well into the 20th century. Descendants of the Cen line continued to serve the Chinese nation with great distinction, usually as generals and political figures. Even now, the Cen name is famous in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where China and Vietnam meet. The indigenous inhabitants of this frontier region, known in China today as the Zhuang, and in Vietnam as the Nung, are one of the world's largest ethnic groups without a state structure of their own, numbering more than 15 million people. Many other Zhuang have made noted contributions to Chinese history, as poets, artists, politicians, warriors, and generals. But the most famous of all Zhuang women remains the formidable Wa Shi.


Barlow, Jeffrey G. "The Zhuang Minority in the Ming Era," in Ming Studies. No. 28. Fall 1989.

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities, Yesterday and Today. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1982.

suggested reading:

Barlow, Jeffrey G. "The Zhuang Peoples of the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier in the Song Period," in Journal ofSoutheast Asian Studies. Vol. XVII, no. 2. September 1987.

Hucker, Charles O., ed. Chinese Government in Ming Times: Seven Studies. NY: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Jeffrey G. Barlow , Professor in the Department of Social Studies at Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon