Charming Chinese iron ladies | Daily News

Charming Chinese iron ladies

For those who remember the movie The Red Detachment, it provides a good recount of the evolution of women in the Chinese Army. The Red Detachment was the name of the first all-women military brigade. Inspired by real events, the movie tells the story of a group of women from Hainan Island who participated in the civil war against the Kuomintang in 1930’s China.

Nowadays, Chinese women comprise about 4.5 percent of the total military personnel in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Serving in the military is now popular among young Chinese women because it can grant opportunities for better education and training, as well as job security and respected status in society. Today Chinese women soldiers serve in the Marine Corps, Special Forces, and Police Force. Chinese military women serve in many roles and their functions are supportive both in peacetime and wartime. Due to their lengthy service and training, and job assignment as professionals, these women have made the military service the locus of their careers. The PLA has the distinction of creating an all-women Marine Contingent in the late 1990s.

Mao Zedong’s famed political slogan “Women hold up half the sky” puts emphasis on gender equality. Mao envisaged “women’s equality” as a dynamic force with an indelible power to help build a Chinese Communist State. Mao’s principles of war have been regarded as uniquely grounded in China’s military heritage and will remain a source for military thinking.

During the Long March (1934–1935), many women soldiers took part, only a few hundreds reached their destination. These determined women contributed enormously to the positive outcome of this vital mission, as they took care of the communication process with the peasants and provided logistical services for the soldiers. Indeed, they were courageous and combative women. Chinese women fought vigorously as defenders of their Motherland when Japan invaded China in the 1930s. Warfare is prototypically a male domain. Nevertheless, women have fought alongside men in different types of warfare at different times. The time between the Opium War of 1840 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was the most turbulent and critical period in China’s history.

In addition, China was one of the major battlefields in Asia during World War II. Chinese women have served with dignity in the military for centuries, without fear or favour.

A few women who have marked the history of China are mentioned below:

Fu Hao was an incredible woman who quickly climbed up the social hierarchy and became High Priestess and General in Chief of the armies. She led the Shang troops to victory in the campaign against the Yi, Ba, and Qiang tribes. She also conducted the victorious war against the Tufang, which she vanquished in a single battle.

Mui Guiying was a heroine and warrior; she marked the dynasty of the Northern Song (1217–1279). She was seen as a symbol of heroism, courage, beauty, and loyalty. This woman mastered martial arts and defended her family and the dynasty in many a battle. She also garnered a diplomatic role in managing the imperial army, as she brought about the end of tensions and rebellions in the south and concluded peace with the Western Xia regime. Qin Liangyu, also known as Zhensu (1574–1648), protected the Ming Dynasty against the attacks of the future Qing Dynasty in the 17th century. She was also trained in martial arts and known for her archery and horse-riding skills.

Upholding this spirit of altruism, Li Zhen served as director of the Political Department of the Chinese military force in Korea during the Korean War (1950–1953). Li Zhen was a veteran of the Long March and the first woman to become a general in China. She was promoted to Major General in 1955.

Women’s military participation in the 1911 Revolution was followed by women’s involvement in the Northern Expedition War from 1924 to 1927. In the early years of the Chinese Communist Movement (1927–1935), women served in large numbers and in a wide range of combat and non-combat military roles. Most research findings agree that about 2,600 regular women Red Army soldiers participated in the Long March. Women were the main forces in logistic support, including transportation of grain and weapons, manufacture of ammunition and bombs, first aid on the battlefield as well as nursing the wounded.

Soldiers of the Women Independence Brigade of the Fourth Front were responsible for building bridges and repairing roads on the Long March. It is recorded that in some confrontations, these courageous women fought with their bare hands, when they lacked ammunition. In October 1936, based on the Women Independence Brigade of the Fourth Front Red Army, a Women’s Vanguard Brigade was formed within the West Route Wing. This brigade had three battalions and nine companies. To simply survive all those risks of death, inclement weather and hardship, is the hardest test of human endurance. Specialities among the women soldiers included infantry, cavalry, telecommunication, machine-gun operator, and radio operator. In addition, women soldiers were all involved in propaganda and medical duties. Most of the time, women soldiers carried their rifles and sewing machines, manoeuvred around over the mountain range in the daytime to avoid attacks from the enemy. In the evenings, they would engage in uniform manufacture in caves, beside bonfires, or under the moonlight. This discipline and teamwork amidst challenging conditions can be seen as the solid foundation on which the PLA women have grown to this present day, as a formidable fighting force. By the 1930s, Chinese female officer cadets began a structured training, and about 120 women joined the Eighth Route Army Military Training Brigade, located in Liu Village. The highest concentration was in Yanan, where the women cadets’ brigade totalled 654 persons in the Military and Political University.

The pattern of mobilising women in auxiliary support roles continued through the third civil war period (1945–1949), which is also called the Liberation War. During this war, the Eighth Route Army officially became the People’s Liberation Army. The Cross River Campaign was another important phase in the Liberation War when the PLA soldiers had to cross the Yangzi River to liberate Nanjing. What is unique was women’s combat support where many boat women fearlessly shipped the troops while under heavy cannon fire. The massive economic and social resurgence during the early 1950s was a success, because the new leaders obtained popular support by curbing inflation, restoring the economy, and rebuilding many war-damaged industrial plants.

Most Chinese military colleges and schools recruit women cadets directly from society, which has been a regular practice since the beginning of the 1980s. Women military technical officers are either trained at military colleges or commissioned after graduation from civilian colleges. Today, beyond traditional non-combat specialities, women in the PLA have taken on a variety of combat roles, including in all four of the PLA’s services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force. The PLA has had over 50 female flag officers over the course of its history, based on available data. Of them, the vast majority have been Major Generals. In the discipline of national defence demography, the recruitment of women is recognised as relevant to the PLA’s efforts to build an educated, high-quality force and address potential human resources challenges.

Female Special Forces personnel train alongside their male counterparts. In the Northern Theater Command (Liaoning Province), a female missile company was established within an air defence brigade in 2014, showing gender equality and military professionalism. The PLA’s expansion of the roles available to Chinese female enlisted personnel and officers are influenced by the recognition that technological changes enhance the ability of women, to contribute to modern warfare.


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