Tales of “Tiger Women” from Ancient China

Ancient Chinese labeled tough, fierce women “tigresses” — they often had to deal with sexism and unruly husbands.

In ancient China, Confucian traditions required women to be gentle and obedient. According to “The Book of Rites,” a collection of texts mainly published in the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) on the society and politics of the Zhou era (1046 – 256 BCE), unmarried women must obey their fathers, while married women were supposed to be subservient to their husbands and obey their sons if their husbands died. Wives who failed to meet the requirement would be called “female tigers,” generally a pejorative term for tough, imperious, or “unreasonable” women — similar to the modern term “tiger mom,” though not exclusive to parents.

Throughout history, many women gained — often unfair — reputations as intractable. Much of this stemmed from the sexism of patriarchal ancient Chinese society. A closer look reveals most of the women labeled “female tigers” merely stepped in when their husbands scuffled with others, or disliked them visiting prostitutes and taking concubines. Here are some of the most famous “tiger women” from ancient China:

The woman who frightened an assassin

Zhuan Zhu was one of the “Four Assassins” of ancient China, each of whom became famous for killing a tyrant. Born in the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE), he was hired by Prince Guang of the State of Wu to assassinate the Wu king. Prince Guang arranged a dinner with the king and Zhuan disguised himself as a servant, hid a knife in the belly of a cooked fish, and stabbed the king to death as he served the fish to him. The king’s bodyguards killed Zhuan at the scene as he tried to make his escape.

But this supposedly fearless assassin was most afraid of his wife. According to The Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, a historical record from the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), when Wu Zixu, an official serving Prince Guang, met Zhuan for the first time, an enraged Zhuan was fighting ruffians on the street. But when Zhuan’s wife appeared, and asked him to stop fighting and return home, to everyone’s surprise, he immediately ended his combat and left with her.

Surprised, Wu asked Zhuan why he was so obedient to a woman, to which he replied: “I am second to just one person, but I am above all the others.” Hearing that, Wu concluded that Zhuan was brave, but not reckless, and so recommended him to Prince Guang for the assassination mission.

Though details of Zhuan’s wife are sparse, including even her surname, she was recorded as a “tigress” in official records, while Zhuan was labeled “the first henpecked man in history” by scholars in later dynasties.

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– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.