Pingyang was born in 600 to Li Yuan, a peasant who had risen through the army to become a commander. She was the only daughter to him and his second wife Duchess Dou. She did have two older sisters from Li Yuan’s first marriage, however, Pingyang spent more time with her four brothers. As was customary, she was given in marriage when she was quite young. Her chosen husband was Cai Shao, the son of the Duke of Julu. By all reports, Pingyang was a dutiful and loving daughter, sister and wife. However, her loyalty was put to the test when everything went sideways.
During this time, China was ruled by the Sui dynasty emperor, Yangdi. Yangdi has gone down in history as a paranoid man who was one of China’s greatest villains. He murdered his father to get to the throne and squandered China’s wealth on failed foreign exploits, of which he lost all of them. Then Yangdi decided on an extensive building program, which had an extraordinary death toll. He put men to work rebuilding the Great Wall, and 6 million were killed. He put men to work building the Grand Canal, and there was a 40-50% death rate. He raised taxes and no one could pay them because there was no one left to work the farms. Yangdi had conscripted all the able bodied men into the army. People chafed under this burden and began rebellions, which were put down with excess force. Yangdi grew more and more suspicious of everyone. Then in 615 a popular street balad went around that the next emperor would be named Li. This this is kind of like saying the next president will be named Smith as it is an extremely common name. However, Yangdi was already suspicious of Li Yuan. He was a wildly popular general who had risen from the peasantry. Plus he was rumored to have a birthmark in the shape of a dragon under his left armpit, which obviously meant he was destined to be emperor. Who can argue with the armpit, right? He ordered Li Yuan arrested and executed as a threat to the Empire. Just for fun, he also accused Li Yuan of having sex with two of the emperor’s favorite concubines.
Li Yuan had no wish to become a rebel leader, but it was that or be killed on trumped up charges. So, he put together of more than 30,000 aided by the neighboring Turks, who admired him enough to forge a truce with him not to attack Chinese lands as long as he was in charge while he was still general. Then he sent secret messages to his four sons and Pingyang’s husband to aid him. Unfortunately, Cai Shao was the head of the palace guard and the family was living in the palace. They were sitting ducks for the emperor’s rage. Cai Shao and Pingyang discussed what to do. Cai Shao wanted to join his father in law, but didn’t want to leave Pingyang in a prime spot to be kidnapped, ransomed, killed or all three. However, Pingyang could take care of herself. Her husband escaped to join the army and Pingyang escaped as well and went to the family’s estates in the province of Hu. When she arrived in Hu, PingYang found everything in a mess. People were starving because of a severe drought on top of the fighting that seemed to be everywhere. To aid her people, Pingyang opened her personal food stores to them. It was something they didn’t forget.
From Hu, Pingyang watched her father, husband and brothers’ forces fight tooth and nail with emperor’s army. They fought hard and bravely, but they were outnumbered. Pingyang wasn’t the kind of woman to sit around and wait while she watched her family destroyed. She took action. Going to the families she had just saved from starvation, she began recruiting her own army. She even convinced a local highwayman and his men to join. With this start of 10,000 men, Pingyang began convincing imperial allies to desert. This was an amazing accomplishment for a woman not yet twenty in ancient China. Women did not command armies, and certainly did not issue orders to men. However, she was able to both command and train an army worthy of battle. In a few months, Pingyang was able to raise more than 70,000 troops and the marched to take the capital of Hu under the banner of the “Army of the Lady”. In a genius public relations move, Pingyang decreed there was to be no looting, raping and plundering in conquered lands. In fact, she would distribute fresh water and food to the inhabitants. This gesture of goodwill swelled her army even more.
Yangdi was not pleased with this turn of events and diverted troops from his fight with Li Yuan to take care of this troublesome woman. He immediately got his behind handed to him. She was able to link her army with her father’s and together, they marched on the imperial palace in Daxingcheng. Emperor Yangdi fled south and was killed in 618, ignobly strangled by his own advisors in a bathhouse. Li Yuan was now the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, taking the name Emperor Gaozu. He promoted his daughter, Pingyang, to marshal, which came with a military staff. All of this along with the new honor of being Princess Zhao of the Tang dynasty.
Sadly, Pingyang died two years later at the age of 23 of unknown causes. Her father buried her with full military honors. Some people in court questioned why a mere woman would deserve such honors. Emperor Gaozu simply said, “She was no ordinary woman.”