[Hanfugirl Pre-International Women’s Day Special]
Pretty sure 99% would immediately think of Mulan when you think of mapping a Chinese figure to Wonder Woman–Disney did a great job in telling her story but there’s actually no real proof that she really existed in history (not that Wonder Woman does of course). Guess what, Fact is sometimes more amazing than Fiction. There was actually a real person who lived over 3000 years ago in China, who embodied everything that Mulan stood for in terms of female empowerment, and more.
Her name is Fu Hao (妇好). Or Lady Hao. She was an empress, a general, and a high priestess.
Her story was recorded on oracle bones of over 3,000 years ago in Shang dynasty China. Possibly the earliest Chinese female general to be recorded in writing. In fact, she was likely to be the one who wrote on those oracle bones as well since she was the high priestess tasked to conduct oracle bone reading ceremonies.
Similar to Wonder Woman whose identity is that of half mankind half goddess, Fu Hao was also seen as someone who was able to communicate with the other realm, therefore, tasked to lead large rituals and religious ceremonies on behalf of the emperor. If you’ve been following my Sailormoon series, the idea of a matriarchal society or women being seen as a powerful medium between heaven and earth, the spirit and the physical world in ancient China would not come as a surprise to you.
The ancient Chinese worshipped the deer and the earliest jade artefact that has deer totem originated from the same period as Fu Hao–the Shang dynasty. As such, I thought it fitting for the iconic Wonder Woman tiara to be taking the form of a deer totem in the case of Fu Hao. After all, deers were seen as the ancestors of women by the ancient Chinese societies. They were deemed as embodying the spirit and the mystical powers of female/mothers. Wonder woman’s tiara adorned with a red star was a symbol of her status as Princess of Paradise Island, so it is fitting that I swap the deer for her red star in my recreation of Fu Hao as Wonder Woman (or Wonder Woman as Fu Hao).
Deers were also worshipped and admired for their swiftness and for their combat capability using their powerful antlers.
Remember Princess Mononoke? The powerful spirit was in the form of a deer.
Then there’s the Lasso of Truth which Wonder Woman created many powerful moves of great destructive powers with. I have equated that to the jade thumb ring for archery which was unearthed at Fu Hao‘s tomb with very interesting engravings that bear a certain resemblance to the totems from the Amazonian culture. Some credited Fu Hao for the invention of the thumb ring in archery. It was meant for the Asian way of archery which pulls the string of the bow back using the thumb instead of the European way which uses the fingers. The use of a thumb ring can protect the user’s thumb from the large tension that’s built up, and apparently allows greater flexibility while riding a horse–that’s also why it is popularly also known as the Mongolian technique because they continued using it.
The thumb ring is a non-living proof that Fu Hao commanded armies, fought amongst her men, and was an extremely formidable warrior herself. Based on records from the oracle bones, she fought many battles in her lifetime and conquered many lands for her husband-emperor.
Like wonder woman who is believed to live eternally, the Shang dynasty emperor also thought of his empress to have continued living after her death. The physical form of Fu Hao sustained injuries and was in a poor state after many battles. She died at the age of about 30 years old. But to the Emperor, her spirit continued to live and he conducted several ghost marriages for her to be married to the past ancient emperors with the hope that her spirit would continue to watch over his land and him through such marriage alliances.
This is all the more important because Fu Hao was the high priestess who not only hosted many important rituals for the state and country but also was seen as a spirit medium who could decipher the wills of heaven and spirits through the reading of oracle bones.
I’d liked to imagine that Wonder Woman might have been one of her reincarnations, or perhaps, she continued to live on in different forms throughout different periods in history, wearing different dresses and with different identities (not unlike Wonder Woman who adopted a new identity as Diana Prince and lived through the world wars until present day with no sign of aging).
Wonder woman’s main colour schemes are the 3 primary colours and black and white, which coincidentally was the corresponding colours of the 5 elements in ancient Chinese beliefs. This colour scheme was exceptionally popular during Ming dynasty (the red and blue combination), and I adapted the Ming dynasty dress for this shoot.
I also particularly liked the latest movie’s Wonder Woman in her blue gown with a gorgeously dangerous weapon tucked behind. Of course, logistical reason first– The Tang dynasty dress is the only one that I can think of that somewhat resembles the gown she wore, and also so happens I have a similarly coloured Tang dynasty dress and top!
But more than that, Tang dynasty is yet another era in (relatively) recent Chinese history that has a slight burst of matriarchy. It was a period where powerful queens were present in many cultures all over the world, not only in China (I’ve written about it with slightly more details here). The style of cleavage showing dresses were believed by academics to be an influence which the Chinese took from India and ancient Greece. Apt isn’t it?
Particularly, I thought that having the arrows tucked behind would be a nice and relevant visual reference to the sword. Also, just in case you are wondering, it is not that hard to tuck something behind your back if you have a strong enough dress… or tying technique. 😉
I visited the Raffles in Southeast Asia exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum recently and came across this set of arrow and quiver collected by Raffles (ok I didn’t know that this is the term for the arrow holder until today–see! Always learn new things!), but I can definitely imagine that in an alternate universe, the Wonder Woman Fu Hao could be having something like this at her back for her arrows!
I wish there was more information about this quiver but guess we’ll never know.
Of course, we still love Mulan the animation, and I am also anticipating the release of the actual action film when it’s out. But in all honesty, I would think that Fu Hao is a much closer equal to Wonder Woman than Mulan. After all, she didn’t need to pretend to be a man in order to fight for her country. She was glorified as a woman, and her gender was the source of her empowerment instead of a liability as in the case of Mulan.
In all honesty, if Mulan existed and she got found out that she actually deceived the emperor, not only would she be persecuted, her family would be implicated too. I am actually in the midst of another project research and preparation that talks about gender neutrality in ancient China… So stay tuned (still finding my last model!).
Yes, Yes, I’m always experimenting with new mediums and ways of expressions. Fun for me, fun for you!
I’ve been doing the East meets West, Old meets New Hanfu series the past year and was recently given the challenge by Our Grandfather Story to find the Chinese equivalent of Wonder Woman. The video should be out soon (I’ve seen the draft, and am lovin’ it!)
As I mature, I realised the importance of representation in media on one’s cultural pride and identity. And since we can’t possibly wait around for Hollywood and Disney to do that for Asian culture, especially since they don’t always get it (not their fault, it’s not easy), I figured that I could have fun adapting it on my own. Bearing in mind that superficial looks is just one part, the knowledge and history is what can last for much longer.
Since International Women’s Day is around the corner, this is going out to all women–you can be anyone you want, anyone you dream of, if you just believe (such motherhood statement I realise, but hey, that’s a special privilege as a woman I guess!)!
Don’t wait for others to define you!
[Apparently the correct ancient pronunciation of her surname Hao好, is supposed to be Zi 子–taking the right side of the word.]
OK here’s the full video by the Old Grandfather Story folks!