18th century China was not an easy place for those born into poverty, especially women. This was the world Wang Cong’er was born into. She was born around 1777 in the Hubei province to a peasant family. There was no money for rents, and the families were forced to borrow at high rates of interest. When they could not pay, the families were thrown off their land. Beggars were everywhere.
Her father died when Wang Cong’er was young, leaving her mother to try to make money any way she could. Her mother took in laundry and sewing and hired herself out as a domestic servant, but still could not feed the family. Wang Cong’er was forced to beg and often went without food or shoes and dressed in only rags. When she was seven, her mother allowed her to join a group of traveling performers, which taught her acrobatics and martial arts. Kung Fu is the martial art she became an expert in, and is the basis of all the Eastern martial arts. Its weapons were the tools of the farmers and peasants, whatever was handy. Kung Fu is a physical discipline as well as a mental one, and taught Wang Cong’er Buddhist spirituality and philosophy. The fact she could master the physical and mental demands of this discipline was very rare for a woman at that time, and made her very respected among her peers. Wang Cong’er traveled with the group around the country for eight years and they shared the profits from their shows equally.
Even though she was respected among the troupe, in Chinese society Wang Cong’er was considered the bottom of the totem pole because she was a woman on the streets. When she was sixteen, she was fighting off an attack from a group of men who were going to rape her or worse when she was aided by a man passing by who saw the ruckus. This was Qi Lin, a respected government official of Xiangyang City. However, Qi Lin had a secret. He was a member of the White Lotus Society, which was considered a heretical cult and a subversive organization leading uprisings against the government. Wang Cong’er joined the White Lotus Society and eventually married Qi Lin. Together, they planned a rebellion against the corrupt Qing empire. There was a population explosion at this time, and there was scant food and land to go around for less people. The emperor’s corrupt counselors raised taxes and bribes and corruption was everywhere. Those who could not pay were tormented by the emperor’s armed thugs. The impoverished farmers of the region flocked to the White Lotus Society in the hopes of toppling the oppressive regime. Men were press ganged into the emperor’s army, and their wives were left to fend for themselves. They also turned to the White Lotus Society, who trained them to fight.
Unfortunately, as the ranks of the White Lotus Society swelled, secrecy was difficult to come by. The rebellion was set for a festival day when the streets would be filled with people, but its date had been betrayed by a spy. The army was waiting for them and Qi Lin walked into a trap. Wang Cong’er watched helplessly as her husband was captured and executed. Her grief overwhelmed her and she was suicidal, and took refuge in a monastery. Eventually, she decided the only way to overcome her grief was to lead the White Lotus herself to avenge her husband and foment the revolution he believed in. In deference to her husband’s memory, Wang Cong’er cut her hair and dressed in a white robe, the Chinese color of mourning, and became the general of the rebel army. She prepared methodically for each armed attack, and eventually her army grew to 20,000. The army loved her as she risked her life to recapture wounded soldiers and tore her clothes for bandages for the wounded. Anyone who was unable to walk, rode on her own horse while she walked. Wang Cong’er led from the front and her army loved her for it.
Her army gained victory after victory against the ill prepared Qing. Legend has it Wang Cong’er went into battle with a sword in each hand and killed two brilliant enemy military commanders herself. She was an expert in guerilla raids, and led an army of peasants, women and farmers to victory. Her army linked up with the other peasant uprisings and she was at the head of an army of 100,000. She tried to convince the other army leaders to user her guerilla tactics, but they refused. Then in a stunning decision, Wang Cong’er decided to leave them behind and take her 20,000 to meet the emperor’s army of nearly 100,000. She was ambushed by the Imperial army at Huaishugou, and most of the rebel army she had with her was killed. Wang Cong’er escaped with a few followers into hilly terrain and up a mountain. With the Qing in hot pursuit, Wang Cong’er faced another tough decision. Choosing death over dishonor, she took a banner of the White Lotus in her hand and jumped to her death, followed by her companions. She was only twenty-two.
Despite the fact the rebellion failed, Wang Cong’er is remembered for her resourcefulness, bravery and courage amid hardship. Her memory inspired further rebellions, which eventually brought down Imperial China.
Sources available on request