Some were ruthless in their desire to attain power, wealth and fame. Others sought to bridge gender divides and bring peace to their countrymen and women. Most had the tall order of rising through the ranks of powerful men to stand on their own two feet. The women of Asia who have risen to success throughout history are some of the most fearless and strong women in all of history. Their steely will, juxtaposed with their delicate feminine nature, gave rise to the descriptive term “Iron Butterflies”.
Perhaps it was most difficult for a woman to rise to power in ancient China, where Confucian beliefs stated, “Having a woman rule is like having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.” Despite what would be considered such a primitive notion today, Empress Wu Zetian challenged the status quo of the times head on.
During the Tang Dynasty in China, between 618 and 906 AD, the country was experiencing a more peaceful and culturally diverse period than it had in the past. While women were still considered second-class citizen in many regards, if they were fortunate enough to be born into wealthy families, they would be taught about things like politics, literature and music.
Wu Zetian came from a noble family and was afforded such luxuries. By the age of 13, she was well known in her community for having exceptional intelligence and beauty. The emperor of the time, Tai Tsung, brought her into his court and she soon rose through the ranks to become his favorite concubine. During this time, she also began to have eyes for Tai Tsung’s son, Kao Tsung. When the emperor died and his son took over, Wu became his favorite concubine and ended up having his baby. They were soon married, but within five years, Kao Tsung died from a massive stroke. Wu quickly stepped in and took over all administrative duties, effectively becoming the emperor.
More savvy and cunning than her husband ever was, her first order of business was to establish a team of spies to keep watch on her enemies. Anyone who got in her way was locked up or killed. She set things up so that her son became emperor and she could rule through him. She challenged the beliefs of Confucianism by empowering women to do more with their lives. By 690, Wu’s son stepped down from power and she was declared emperor. In time, she replaced key government positions held by military leaders with scholars. She lowered taxes that helped everyone from the wealthy to the peasants and implemented policies to make Buddhism the state religion.
With time and age, Wu scaled back on spying and imprisoning her enemies. Though she had created many policies that had a positive effect, she was pressured to step down and allow her third son to rule. She died the same year he stepped into power.
Khan’s Better Half
She first met Genghis in 1170 when she was eight. Only 7 years later, an agreement was stuck between her parents and Genghis’ parents and the two were married. Soon after, a Mongolian tribe known as the Merkit kidnapped Borte. Genghis, already well versed in warfare, launched an attack on the tribe and rescued her. By the early 1200’s, he had conquered much of Asia and was collecting wives and concubines in large numbers. But none of them held the power and status of Borte. It was only the children he fathered with her that had a chance of one day becoming Khans of the empire.
Genghis was very fond of Borte and showered her in silks, jewels, jade and gold. But more than that, he consulted with her on many important matters including military ones. He greatly valued her opinion and even after his death, leaders of the empire would consult her. Little is known about how Borte felt about her husband’s other wives and concubines, but nonetheless she was aware of how much power she wielded. In fact at one point she said of Genghis, “He’s afraid of me.”
In more recent history, women rising to power in Asia have become even more commonplace. One of the most formidable women in modern history has a nickname that would make anyone afraid.
Enter the Dragon-Lady
Though she had beauty and charm in spades, she gained notoriety for being a ruthless politician and fierce enemy. Born in China in 1835, Tzu-Hsi became a concubine at the age of 17 to Emperor Hsien-Feng. She gave him a son and upon his death, was given the title Empress of the Western Palace.
However, this title did not afford her the power she desired. Her son who was still a youth, was named emperor and she was only one of 8 regents named to manage the empire until he was old enough. By the time he was old enough, with the support of her allies and eunuchs, she forcibly seized control of the government. It was around this time that she adopted the nickname, “Dragon-Lady”. Now that she was in power, she could implement her larger plans for the empire, but still had to do so through her son since it was not permissible for her to rule openly. She implemented key reforms in order to modernize China and banned common, yet morally reprehensible acts such as death by slicing – killing criminals with thousands of small cuts.
In 1908, Tzu-Hsi suffered a stroke and chose her nephew to be her successor. Upon her death, she was buried in diamonds. Her tomb was later looted and her body desecrated.
Today, some of the most powerful women in the world are Asian businesswomen and heiresses. Many are extremely well educated, sophisticated, worldly, and speak multiple languages. In Japan, over 40% of the workforce is female. In Korea, over half of all workers are female. In Thailand, many women are entrepreneurs and extremely savvy in business, in part because many men there believe that shunning materialism will bring them a better next life. In places like Singapore, tax incentives are used to encourage women to work. In general Asian women are often thought of as role models throughout the world for feminism and the overall empowerment of women. There may have been a time when the stereotype was that Asian women dressed in dazzling silken colors and were sweetly deferential to men, but that time has clearly passed.
The reality is that the powerful women in Asian history have left a lasting impression on their respective modern cultures. And not just the famous ones. In ancient Mongolia and up until today, women have been trained just like men, to ride on horseback, engage in hand-to-hand combat and use weapons — possessing a confident and capable attitude has always been encouraged. In China and Japan, educational opportunities for women have been steadily increasing over the last few centuries because scores of women have taken control of their fate and proven that they can excel in any field and authoritatively take on leadership roles. The result of a steely will juxtaposed with a delicate feminine nature is an “Iron Butterfly” – and there is no doubt that we will continue to see these butterflies spreading their wings.