Wang Cong'er: A Famous Female Warrior and Leader in the White Lotus Society
Wang Cong’er was a woman who lived in China during the 18th century AD. She is best known for her role as a leader of the White Lotus Society. This rebellion was a large-scale popular uprising against the Qing Dynasty that was launched in 1796.
Wang Cong’er was one of the more formidable leaders of the rebellion, and was able to hold out on her own against the Qing army. Although considered a rebel by the Qing government during her time, Wang Cong’er has been transformed into a heroine by some sources in modern times. Some have even compared this rebel leader to the legendary Chinese female warrior, Hua Mulan, but this comparison has been heavily debated as well.
Painting depicting Hua Mulan in Gathering Gems of Beauty. (Public Domain)
A Skilled Acrobat and Martial Artist
Wang Cong’er was born in 1777. She was a native of Xiangyang, which is located in northwestern Hubei province, Central China. Wang Cong’er was a traveling entertainer prior to being a leader in the White Lotus Society. It was probably as a result of her trade that she became a skilled acrobat and martial artist.
Wang Cong’er was married to a man by the name of Qi Lin, who at one point of time was the chief runner in the yamen (the administrative office and / or residence of a local Chinese bureaucrat) of the Xiangyang County magistrate. Qi Lin later became a prominent leader of the West Paradise Mahayana Sect, one of the three branches of the White Lotus Society.
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The White Lotus Society
In 1795, the White Lotus Society was planning to launch a huge uprising against the Qing government. Groups that were willing to participate in the rebellion were supplied with weapons. Qi Lin and Wang Cong’er’s group was one of these.
The plot, however, was discovered by government officials, who began to crack down on the society. As a result, many members were arrested. Additionally, over 100 prominent members of the West Paradise Mahayana Sect, including Qi Lin were executed during this time.
The Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) in court dress. (Public Domain)
Whilst the religious roots of the White Lotus Society may be traced back to the early 5th century AD, its form during the Qing Dynasty originated during the middle of the 12th century AD. When it was founded, this movement was officially banned by the government. Nevertheless, the teachings of the White Lotus Society were simple and easy to understand, thus attracting many adherents. During the early part of the Yuan Dynasty, the White Lotus Society was given official recognition, and was even sponsored by the government, thus transforming it into an important Buddhist institution.
The White Lotus Society was based on Buddhist teachings, and initially focused on its meditative aspect. Over time, however, the teachings of other religions were incorporated into it, and the movement took on a more messianic flavor.
One very popular belief amongst the adherents of this movement was that the Amitabha Buddha / the Maitreya Bodhisattva would descend from Heaven to redeem mankind. In order to hasten his arrival, members of the White Lotus Society believed that the Yuan Dynasty had to be toppled, and began rebelling. This alarmed the Mongol rulers, who decided to ban the society. This policy was continued by the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Amitabha Buddha with his attendants Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. (Public Domain)
Wang Cong’er’s Style of War
Returning to Wang Cong’er’s story, she was appointed as her group’s ‘chief sectarian leader’ after her husband’s death. Together with her deputy, Yao Zhifu, Wang Cong’er began attacking cities. One factor contributing to Wang Cong’er’s success was her aggressive strategy. Other White Lotus groups adopted a defensive military strategy, which resulted in their defeat by government forces. Wang Cong’er, on the other hand, went on the offensive, and favored guerrilla warfare tactics.
Wang Cong’er in battle. (10yan.com)
In 1797, Wang Cong’er’s rebels arrived in Sichuan, where they combined forces with the other White Lotus groups. The assembled army was reorganized, though there was no real unity amongst them. For instance, the rebels were not willing to mount a joint defense against the approaching army, which led to Wang Cong’er withdrawing her troops back to Hubei province.
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Rebel or Heroine?
The main force of the government troops was sent to pursue Wang Cong’er, and she was trapped by local militia in a valley on the Shancha River as they entered Yunxi in Hubei province. Soon the Qing troops arrived as well and Wang Cong’er and her rebels were trapped. Attempts to break the blockade failed, and Wang Cong’er finally committed suicide by jumping off a cliff.
In modern times, it may be said that Wang Cong’er’s life has been idealized, and the rebel turned into a heroine. Furthermore, she has been compared to the legendary Hua Mulan. Whilst these two figures were indeed formidable female warriors, many of the similarities end there.
Wang Cong’er fought to topple her government but Hua Mulan fought to protect hers from foreign invaders. Additionally, Wang Cong’er was motivated by a messianic prophecy to fight against the Qing government. According to some sources, Wang Cong’er is also said to have wanted to avenge the death of her husband. On the other hand, Hua Mulan’s motivation was filial piety, as she wanted to take her aged father’s place in the army.
Iron statue of Mulan and her Father in Xinxiang, China. (CC BY SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/whitelotus.htm
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Available at: http://www.colorq.org/articles/article.aspx?d=asianwomen&x=wangconger
Zhang Xiaolin, 1998. Wang Cong'er. In: L. X. H. Lee, C. Lau & A. Stefanowska, eds. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: v. 1: The Qing Period, 1644-1911. London: Routledge.