Nie Yinniang was the daughter of Nie Feng, general-in-chief of Weibo during the Zhenyuan reign period (785-805 CE) of the Tang dynasty. When she was just ten years old, a Buddhist nun came by Feng’s place to beg for food. The nun saw Yinniang and was delighted. She said, “Sir, I beg you to let me take this girl away and teach her.” Feng was furious and rebuked the nun. The nun said, “Even if you kept her in an iron chest, I would still take her away.” That night, sure enough, Yinniang disappeared. Feng was panic-stricken, and ordered his men to search for her, but there was no trace of her. Every time father and mother thought of their daughter, they could only face each other and weep.
Five years later the nun escorted Yinniang back home. She told Feng, “My teaching is complete, you can have her back.” Then the nun was suddenly gone. The whole family was overjoyed. They asked her what she had studied. Yinniang said, “At first we just studied the sutras and intoned mantras. That was it.” Feng didn’t believe her, so he sincerely questioned her further. Yinniang said, “I’m afraid if I tell you the truth you won’t believe me.” Feng said, “Just tell us the truth.”
Yinniang said, “When I was first taken by the nun, we traveled I don’t know how many li (about 1/3 mile). At dawn, we came upon a big, s.p.a.cious stone cave. A dozen or so steps inside it was quiet, and no one lived there. There were many gibbons and monkeys, and pine trees and vines grew in abundance. There were already two girls there, each of them ten years old. They were both smart and beautiful, and they didn’t eat. They could flit from cliff to cliff as if they were flying, and they climbed trees as nimble and quick as gibbons, all without missing a step.
“The nun gave me a pill and ordered me to carry a precious sword at all times. The sword was perhaps two feet long, and so sharp that if you blew a hair across the edge, the hair would be sliced cleanly in two. I was made to clamber around after the two girls, and gradually I felt that my body was as light as the wind. A year later, when stabbing at gibbons and monkeys, in a hundred attempts I didn’t miss once. Later, I killed tigers and leopards. With each one I cut off its head before returning.
“Three years later I could fly, and when attacking eagles and falcons, I pierced them through the center every time. My blade was gradually reduced to five inches, so that the birds couldn’t detect it coming.
“In the fourth year, the two girls were left to guard the cave, and I was taken to a city, I don’t know which one. She pointed at a person and enumerated his misdeeds, and said, ‘Cut off his head and bring it to me without being seen. Steel your courage and it will be as easy as killing a bird.’ She gave me a ram’s horn dagger measuring three inches wide. I succeeded in killing that person in broad daylight in the city without anyone seeing me. I put the head in a bag and returned to my master’s lodgings, where I used a drug to dissolve the head into water.
“In the fifth year, she again said, ‘There is a certain high official who is guilty of a crime, harming people without cause. Tonight, enter his room, execute him, and bring the head back.’ So again I took the dagger and entered his room. I opened the door a crack and saw there was nothing obstructing the way, so I lay in wait upon the roof beam. I waited until dark, then cut off his head and returned.
“The nun was furious and said, ‘Why are you so late?’ I said, ‘I saw him playing with an adorable child and I couldn’t bear to go through with it just then.’ The nun rebuked me, saying, ‘In the future when you’re in a situation like this, you first kill the ones he loves, then you kill him.’ I bowed and apologized. Then she said, ‘Now I will open the back of your head and conceal the dagger there. It won’t harm you. To use it, just take it out.’ Then she said, ‘Your training is now complete. You can return home.’ Then she brought me back. She said, ‘We’ll meet again in twenty years.'”
When Feng heard this story, he was very frightened. Afterwards, Yinniang would disappear at night, only returning the next morning. Feng already dared not question her, and because of all this, his affection for her dwindled as well.
It so happened that one day a young mirror polisher came to their door. Yinniang said, “This person can be my husband.” She told her father, who dared not disobey, and so he married her off to the mirror polisher. Her husband could only temper mirrors; other than that, he had no skills. Her father therefore supplied them with plenty of clothing and food, and they lived in a separate house.
Several years later, her father died. The commander of Wei had heard that Yinniang was special, so he offered gold and silk and hired her as one of his aides. Several years pa.s.sed.
During the Yuanhe reign period (806-820), The commander of Wei and the military commissioner of Chenxu, Liu Changyi, did not get along. The commander of Wei subsequently ordered Yinniang to bring him Liu Changyi’s head, so Yinniang took her leave and headed for Xu.
But Liu possessed miraculous foresight, so he already knew she was coming. He summoned one of his commanders and ordered him to go early the next morning to the north gate of the city and wait for a man and a woman riding a black and a white donkey, respectively. He told the commander that when they arrive at the gate, he will see a magpie chirping away in front of the man. The man will use a pellet bow and try to hit the bird, but he will miss. The wife will then s.n.a.t.c.h the pellet bow and down the magpie with a single shot. He told the commander to greet them and say, “The comissioner wants to see you, so I have come all this way to respectfully welcome you.” The commander received his orders and left.
He met the couple at the gate, and Yinniang and her husband said, “Vice Director Liu is really a divine man, otherwise how could he have seen through us? We wish to see Lord Liu.”
Liu greeted them. Yinniang and her husband saluted in courtesy and said, “We have wronged you and deserve to die ten thousand deaths.” Liu said, “Not at all, people are loyal to their masters. This is normal. There’s no difference in that regard between Wei and Xu. I would like to invite you to stay here; don’t doubt my sincerity.” Yinniang thanked him and said, “Vice Director, you have no one guarding you. I’m willing to leave the other place and stay here because I admire your divine understanding.” She knew The commander of Wei was inferior to Liu. Liu asked what they needed, and she said, “Only two hundred cash per day will be sufficient.” So he complied with her request. Suddenly, the two donkeys were discovered to be missing. Liu sent people to search for them but they couldn’t find them. Later, Yinniang’s cloth bag was secretly searched, and inside were two paper donkeys, one black, one white.
More than a month later, Yinniang said to Liu, “The other one doesn’t know I didn’t go through with the mission and will surely send someone else. Tonight, allow me to cut a lock of my hair and bind it with a strand of red raw silk and deliver it and place it before the commander of Wei’s pillow to indicate that I will not return.” Liu agreed to this. At the fourth watch she returned and said, “I have delivered the message. The night after tomorrow he will definitely send Jingjing’er to kill me and take your head. But I already know a myriad ways to kill him, so please don’t worry about it.” Liu was magnanimous and did not show any fear.
On the night in question they lit candles, and after midnight there sure enough appeared two streamers, one red, one white, flitting about here and there around the four corners of the bed as if they were fighting each other. After a while a person fell from the air, his head already separated from his body. Yinniang came out and said, “Jingjing’er is dead.” She dragged the body and head outside the hall and used a drug to dissolve them into water. Not even the hair remained. Yinniang said, “The night after tomorrow he will send Miraculous Hand Kongkong’er. Regarding Kongkong’er’s supernatural skills, no person can see his intentions, and no ghost can follow his steps. He is able to soar to the heavens and sink to the netherworld, and he can make himself invisible and conceal his traces. Because my skill cannot reach that level, this time we will have to rely on your luck. Encircle your neck with jade from Yutian and cover yourself with a quilt, and I will turn myself into a biting midge and slip into your intestines to listen and wait. There is no other place to escape to.” Liu did as she said.
At the third watch Liu had his eyes closed but he was not asleep when he sure enough heard a shrill clanging sound at his neck. Yinniang leaped out of Liu’s mouth. She congratulated him, “Vice Director, you are out of danger. This person is like a falcon: if it doesn’t hit on the first strike it will fly away and disappear because of the shame of missing its mark. Although a watch has not even pa.s.sed, he is already some thousand li away.”
Later, Liu checked the jade and found there was a cut in it from a dagger measuring several centimeters deep. From then on Liu treated her even more courteously and generously.
In the eighth year of the Yuanhe reign period (813), Liu was called from Xu to the imperial court, but Yinniang did not want to go with him. She said, “From now on I will wander the mountains and rivers in search of sages. But I implore you to grant my husband a nominal t.i.tle.” Liu agreed. After that he gradually lost track of Yinniang’s whereabouts.
When Liu died at his post as commnader-general, Yinniang came to the capital riding her donkey, wept bitterly in front of his coffin, and left.
During the Kaicheng reign period (836-840 CE), Liu Changyi’s son, Liu Zong became prefect of Lingzhou. On a plank road on the way to Shu he met Yinniang. She looked the same as she had years before and was delighted to see him. She still rode her white donkey as before. She said to Liu Zong, “Calamity awaits you, sir. You should not take up this post.” She took out a pill and told him to swallow it. She said, “Next year, quickly abandon your post and return to Luoyang. It’s the only way to avoid this misfortune. My pill can only protect you for a year.” Liu Zong did not take her words to heart and offered her a gift of silk, but Yinniang would not accept it. She instead got drunk with him and left. The next year Liu Zong did not quit his post and sure enough did die in Lingzhou.
After this, no one ever saw Yinniang again.
Still from “The a.s.sa.s.sin”, loosely based off Nie Yinniang.
In the course of the development of xia and wuxia literature, it’s hard to overstate the significance of “Nie Yinniang” 聶隱娘. Written somewhere around 855-870 CE, during China’s cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-907), “Nie Yinniang” was one of the first stories to depict martial arts training and even includes a fight scene, which most xia stories glossed over or merely implied. Many stock elements which are found in later xia fiction, such as using a drug to dissolve a body, physical transformations, the use of pills to enhance one’s ability, etc., started with this story. It, along with the other xia tales of the Tang dynasty, can be seen as the predecessors to what would eventually become the wuxia and xianxia genres. The revesral of gender roles in the story was also striking and ahead of its time.
Attributed to Pei Xing (825-880), “Nie Yinniang” has been traditionally cited as one of the stories in his collection Marvelous Tales 傳奇. This collection, no longer extent in its original form, has since lent its t.i.tle to an entire genre, as tales of strange and miraculous events written during the Tang dynasty are now known generally as chuanqi 傳奇.
Pei Xing was writing during the latter part of the Tang dynasty, a time of internecine strife and political instability. In its early days, the Tang was one of the most, if not the most, populous and most cosmopolitan empires in the world. Although still a patriarchal society based on Confucian ideology, the Tang was the most liberal and least oppressive period for women in China’s pre-modern history. Foreign influence was great, thanks to the Silk Road which extended from the Tang capital of Chang’an to Persia, and even on to Rome. Foreign fas.h.i.+on and music were en vogue during this period, and the arts flourished, particularly poetry. But the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 CE brought an end to the so-called “Golden Age” of China.
An Lushan 安祿山 was a military commissioner 節度使 during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (713-756). He was eventually put in charge of three strategic regions in the Hebei area, far from the capital. Presumably of mixed Sogdian and Turkish origin, An Lushan was a foreigner, as were many high-ranking generals of the Tang dynasty. Because of various reasons I won’t go into here, he revolted against the Tang court in December of 755. Although the rebellion was eventually put down for good in 763, the Tang was never the same again. A shoddy census system and lack of records (because many were destroyed when An Lushan sacked the capital) means it’s impossible to know the death toll, but in any case it was huge, and many people fled to the south to escape the fighting, with the result that the cultural center of the empire s.h.i.+fted to the south, where it has remained until today.
The Tang government was decentralized and its military weak and spread too thinly. These factors were part of the cause of the rebellion in the first place, and it only got worse afterward. Several regions of the empire became de facto independent states, appointing their own leaders based on hereditary succession and only reporting the names to the Tang court for approval. In short, the northeast part of China was overrun with several regional warlords, and this would continue until the end of the Tang dynasty in 907 CE. This chaotic situation was Pei Xing’s reality, and also the setting of “Nie Yinniang”.
Nie Yinniang in the story was the daughter of Nie Feng, a high-ranking general in Weibo 魏博, an administrative circuit in what is now southern Hebei and northen Shandong provinces. Although the commander of Weibo is not named, based on the other names mentioned in the story it must have been set around the time Tian Ji’an 田季安 was military commissioner there, which would mean the story would be set somewhere between 796 and 812 CE.
The nun who shows up and kidnaps Yinniang is specifically a Buddhist nun 尼姑, which is interesting. Buddhism, originating in India, is a foreign religion in China, and was sometimes looked upon my the literati, who were Confucianists, with suspicion, so it makes sense to have the mysterious teacher be a pract.i.tioner of a foreign, and therefore mysterious, religion. The nun takes Yinniang to a secluded place that seems like another world, with no other people around aside from the other two disciples, only gibbons and monkeys. These two disciples don’t need to eat and can jump about as if they were flying, a skill now commonly seen in wuxia and Chinese fantasy novels. So this is one of the earliest examples of lightness skill 輕功 in Chinese literature. Yinniang is also given a pill which presumably enhances her abilities, a familiar feature of Chinese cultivation novels today. The process of Yinniang’s training is explained in detail, unusual for these tales.
But what is most interesting about “Nie Yinniang” is the reversal of gender roles. Yinniang is the daughter of a high-ranking general, yet her own ability and experiences frighten her father, who doesn’t dare question her movements or decisions. She leaves at night and returns the next day, presumably for some a.s.sa.s.sination mission, but it is never explained. Yinniang even decides her own marriage. This is remarkable for several reasons.
First of all, she picks a lowly mirror polisher, someone well below her own social status and therefore an unsuitable match for the daughter of a general. The match is also made directly, without the use of a matchmaker, which was the custom. And of course it is Yinniang herself who decides her husband, not her father. Normally the groom’s family would provide the bride’s family with betrothal gifts, yet not only does the mirror polisher not do this, he even comes to live at the Nie family compound, and they are provided for by Yinniang’s father. Normally, Yinniang would have moved in with the mirror polisher’s family. Note also that the mirror polisher is never given a name. He is basically just an accessory, useful when Yinniang travels (it was uncommon for a woman to travel alone in those days).
Yinniang is also clearly the more talented one. The story specifically states that the mirror polisher has no other skills aside from his work, and when they travel to Xu the husband shoots at the magpie and misses, yet Yinniang kills it with one shot. Later, it is Yinniang who negotiates the terms with Liu Changyi to stay with him; the husband has nothing to do with it. And when Yinniang decides to retire to the mountains she leaves her husband behind as if he was an unwanted concubine.
Another hint at this role reversal is the white donkey. Yinniang and her husband each ride one, but his is black and hers is white. In yin-yang theory, white is a.s.sociated with the male yang, while black represents the female yin. Here it is reversed.
Trained ostensibly for the purpose of righting wrongs, Yinniang yet decides to leave her employer to join Liu Changyi. But why? It’s a common trope of xia tales for the xia/hero to uphold a moral code of his own making, and to help others and keep his word. A xia would gladly switch masters if the new one understood or appreciated him better. In “Nie Yinniang”, Yinniang joins Liu Changyi because she values his foresight. He knew what she would do and described it in detail. For that reason alone she s.h.i.+fts her allegiance away from the commander of Weibo, and at the end of the story when Liu Changyi dies, Yinniang reappears and weeps at his grave, showing her loyalty to him even though she had been separated from him for years. She only leaves his side when he is called to take up a post at the imperial court and she doesn’t want to go with him. A mysterious figure like her cannot become part of official court life, it seems, a common theme in xia and later in wuxia literature wit the concept of the jianghu (rivers and lakes).
Although short, “Nie Yinniang” is one of the most important and influential stories in the development of wuxia, xianxia, and xuanhuan literature, and the characer Nie Yinniang has been adapted and included into many other works of literature and drama over the years, becoming the archetype of the lady xia 女俠 figure down to the present day.
Be sure to check out the movie The a.s.sa.s.sin (2015) 刺客聶隱娘, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien and starring Shu Qi. It is based loosely on “Nie Yinniang”.
Still from “The a.s.sa.s.sin”.
Guan Zhong is Director of Operations at Wuxiaworld and also translator of the upcoming wuxia webnovel The Crimson Fan. Look for it in August on .