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Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

Guo Zhenshun - stopping an army with a poem

Guo Zhenshun (1312-1436) was born during the Yuan Dynasty in Longxi Town, Xieyang County (modern Chao'an).1 Her father Professor Guo Zongwen started tutoring her in ancient history and the Confucianist classics since she was a young child.2 In addition to being well-versed in ancient texts, Guo Zhenshun was excellent at mathematics and a skillful debater.3 She married Zhou Yao, a scholar of Chaoyang. Zhou and Guo held many values in common. They were both famous scholars, but unlike most other highly educated people of the day, they had no interest in pursuing a career in the government. They turned down much coveted invitations to join the civil service, preferring to live as farmers in the countryside. The subject matter of Guo's poems was the working people of the land - the fisherman, the woodcutter, the farmer, and the cowherd.4

In the last years of the Yuan Dynasty, peasants in different parts of China rose up in rebliion against the government. Bandits also took advantage of the chaos to establish strongholds in various locations. The people in Guo's village put much effort into stockpiling food for a possible crisis. Guo, however, told her husband Zhou not to store food but to make ropes. Later, when bandits attacked the village, Guo and her family tied themselves up with ropes. While the robbers were grabbing whatever goods they could get their hands on and torching anything they could not carry away, they paid no attention to the bound family whom they assumed had already been 'taken care of' by others in their gang. Guo and her family sneaked away from the crime scene and fled to Xitou Village, where they settled.5

After the Ming Dynasty was established in 1367, some mountain strongholds in the south remained independent of the new administration. In 1371, the imperial court sent Commander Yu Liangfu to rout any regional powers that were not loyal to Ming. The imperial forces, not taking the trouble to distinguish between bandits and decent folk, slaughtered civilians indiscriminately.6 Xitou was a remote village and had not had the opportunity to 'officially' declare its allegiance to the new Ming Dynasty. As Commander Yu and his 5000 troops headed for Xitou, it looked as if Guo's village was next in line for extermination. The sixty-something-year-old Guo Zhenshun met the army on the road to Xitou. She presented Yu Liangfu with a poem she had composed. Guo's poem extolled the positive contributions Commander Yu had made to the Ming Dynasty, reminded him that the local people had already suffered much from the recent war, and implored the government to change its approach from conquering the people to comforting the people.7 Yu Liangfu said, "If such a wise woman resides in this village, the people here must be good subjects", so he departed from Xitou with his troops. More than a thousand lives had been spared and the people praised Guo Zhenshun as their savior.8

Guo Zhenshun lived to the ripe old age of 125, having written many poems, some of which still survive to this day.9 Her husband Zhou Yao had died earlier, leaving three sons Zhou Shixi, Zhou Li and Zhou Kuang. A local legend tells of her son Zhou Kuang becoming one of the top candidates in the imperial civil service examination. The chief examiner presented Zhou Kuang's examination script to the Emperor, saying, "The calligraphy in this essay is of uncommon beauty and grace, as if it has a feminine touch. An amazing thing indeed!" The Emperor summoned Zhou Kuang and asked, "What great master did you learn your calligraphy from?" Zhou Kuang replied, "My mother taught me all that I know about writing." The Emperor praised Guo Zhenshun as "a wise mother indeed". Guo came to be known as "The Wise Mother of the Guo Clan", and a tablet honoring her was erected in Chaoyang.10

X.T.


Notes
  1. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    A Prodigy of Chaoshan - Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  2. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    A Prodigy of Chaoshan - Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  3. Women Poets (Chinese article)
  4. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  5. A Prodigy of Chaoshan - Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  6. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    A Prodigy of Chaoshan - Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  7. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    Women Poets (Chinese article)
  8. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
    A Prodigy of Chaoshan - Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  9. Yuan Ming poetess of the Chao area - Poetess Guo Zhenshun (Chinese article)
  10. Famous Folks - Guo Zhenshun puts out the flame of war with words (Chinese article)