Wan Yi (1150-1210): A Tragic Female Entrepreneur in Song China

liu_ziyu_finalPeople today argue that Tang Dynasty as the biggest and most glorified period in Chinese history. [1]All because of its strength and prosperity. When it comes to Song, especially the Southern Song, we remember that it is arguably the weakest dynasty in the Chinese history because of the endless battles with Jin Dynasty. However, judging from modern day standards and from the perspective of gender equality, I argue that society in Song Dynasty is definitely more advanced than any other dynasties throughout the history. Wan Yi was the perfect example that a woman with strong, independent mindset had the right and resources to become successful in the Song Dynasty.

Wan Yi was born into a private weaver workshop owner’s family. Her father Wan Jin inherited his business from his father. The family business traced all the way back to 1005, when Northern Song singed the Treaty of Shanyuan,[2] the government bought 200,000 bolts of silk annually from their family as part of the tribute payment to Liao due to the high quality of Wan’s workshop’s silk. [3] This act boosted their family income and gave Wan’s family the privilege of naming their business the “Royal silk factory” and the single biggest supplier to the central government in the area. The family’s socioeconomics status raised even higher du during commercialization in the cities, when merchants became more systematic and organized with their trading. [4] After the government’s loss of the north, the Wans fled to the south with an enormous amount of their neighbors.[5]

By the time when Wan Yi was born, the Wan’s had a business emperor of silk and they were residing by the south of the Yellow river. Contrary to what the historical trend was, Wan Yi’s mother Lian shi was the only wife in the household.[6] Lian shi was a highly educated woman and she was known as having great talents in poems and writing before she got married. Wan Jin, despite being a merchant, appreciated the poems and literatures very much and he was very attracted to Lian shi. Hence he did not have any “Qie” [7]The couple had wanted a child for the longest time and finally Yi was born in during the summer of 1150. Wan Jin was 30 years old and Lian shi was 25 years old. It was very late for the couple to have a second child so even though Yi was a girl, being the first and only child of the family; she was given the heir of her father’s business. Because of that, Wan Jin had a lot of expectations for his daughter.

Yi grew up being treated almost like a boy; she had both the privileges of learning writings from her mother but still had the freedom of going outdoors as a disguised boy. During her younger childhood she would visit her family’s workshop frequently under her parent’s supervision, and started to learn how to feed the silk worms and how to clean the trays. Yi’s brilliant learning skills showed during her younger years. She was enrolled in school with other boys in town at age 6 and she was always one of the top students in class and she quickly mastered the numerical system when her father introduced it to her. She was also doing her daily chores of helping with the silk business simultaneously. By the age of 10, she was already skilled at reeling and spinning of the silk filaments and knows how to handle money.

As she grew older, her business talent started to shine. In the year of 1167, Wan Yi was given an opportunity to go on to a business trip to the north to build a partnership and to settle a trade with the Jurchens. It was a long trip that was going to last 6 months to a year. Wan planned to bring his front desk manager with him to the north for assistance, which led to a vacancy of front door manager for the silk business. Wan Jin was in a dilemma and was on the verge of considering not going because he still needed to keep his business going. Yi, being the business oriented and assertive girl as she was, stepped up and convinced her father that she would be a good manager to keep the business going. At the beginning, Jin was hesitant because Yi was still young and she was a girl. However, this trading opportunity was too good for him to give up. Jin finally decided to grant his young daughter this opportunity to run his business, with only one condition, she needed to disguise as a boy.

Wan Jin’s act and confidence in his daughter at the time was ground breaking: During Southern Song, although there were precedents that women making important family decisions[8] and some can run the restaurants, but never in history had there been a case where a 17-year-old girl running the front desk of such an elite business (Royal silk factory). It was almost impossible for a girl to achieve that because most of them didn’t have the qualifications, they didn’t know about numbers, didn’t understand the strategies or was very reserved and shy. None of those obstacles were in Wan Yi’s way. Being raised with the same status as a son in the household, she was strong, confident and smart. She inherited the business mindset from her father and the diplomatic talking style from her mother. Wan Yi truly had the qualification of being the leading women in the era.

Wan Jin requested Wan Yi to disguise as a guy because he was afraid that his trading partners wouldn’t take a girl front desk manager seriously. Yi accepted this request verbally but the very next day after Wan Jin left, she showed up in the store without the disguise. Yi was influenced by the power of the empress dowagers’ involvement at that time and believed that what she contributed to the family’s business should be accredited to her, instead of going toward some random guy character her father asked her to pretend to be.

The store staffs didn’t take her seriously at the beginning; they were all secretly hoping that Yi would mess up. It was business down time when Yi took over the business so she used the extra time to study the account book of the store and actually found out the previous manager made some numeric mistakes in the book. One day, she called the manager’s assistant to come over and asked him if he knew the mistakes. The assistant responded to her in a very condescending way: “I don’t know what type of math lady was trained to do, but in the business world these numbers make sense.” Yi could not believe the attitude the assistant gave her and she worked the math right in front of the assistant and proved him wrong. Later, Yi gathered the entire staff members and fired the manager’s assistant in front of them. She announced clearly and strongly: “Even though I’m a lady, it doesn’t mean I don’t know math or anything about business. I am your manager now so you better treat me with respect. Be attentive of the quality of the work you produce, if you don’t think you can do that then feel free to pack your bag and go back to your hometown just like him (the assistant)!” Everyone was shocked to see how capable and assertive Yi was and starting to treat her seriously because they were all afraid of losing jobs in such a great workshop.

After that incident, Yi found out and fixed more mistakes on the store’s book. She realized the old way to organize the numbers is confusing and hard to carry out the calculations so she created her own version of the book. It was very easy to use and the formatting was really clear so it prevented further mistakes. She also took the initiative to create a sub-workshop and experimented some new ways to dye the silk and was able to create different textures of silk by wetting the silk cloth and twist the cloth while it was drying.[9] In her workshop, she hired young girls who had low socioeconomic status and taught them the skills of creating fine silk cloth. She supported the living of those girls and allowed them to experiment their own ideas into making silks. When there was down time for the business, she even took the effort to teach those girls how to read and conduct business. The community referred her new sub-workshop as “the best school a girl can go to”. Because of those innovated silk style she implemented, Wan’s sale boomed when Yi was the manager. Royalties were interested in the new silk styles and placed a large order for Xiaozong and his concubines. The business became so famous that her father also heard about it during the business trip and he wrote a letter home to congratulate his daughter’s success. Her workshop was later recorded on the Qingming Scroll to represent the glory of the city life.[10]

One day in 1168, a nicely dressed guy walked in the store with his servants. Yi went up and greeted them and asked if she could show them anything. The guy was surprised to see that it’s a girl who’s running the entire elite store ad responded arrogantly with an out-of-town accent, “ I heard ‘ If you are by the south of the river, you need to get the silk from Wan’s’. Now that I saw the store is only handled by a dainty lady, I doubt how good the silk actually is!” Yi was definitely offended by this rude comment but she didn’t show any anger on her face. Instead, she smiled and responded “Sir, if you don’t believe it, how about let me show you some samples and let the silk talk?” He followed her into the store and Yi introduced him to her sub-workshop. The silk styles and colors she had there were so unique and high quality; the guy had never seen before. His attitude changed from arrogance to impress. He apologized to Wan Yi about his previous offense and eventually ordered a large order from Yi’s store.

The guy who visited the store turned out to be the son of another silk business giant, residing at the northern part of the river. His name was Wang Kai and his family stayed in the North when the Northern Song lost most of its territory. They trade mostly with the Jurchens and Wang Kai’s father Wang Ke was on the same business trip with Wan Jin. After going home, Wang Kai told his father about what he saw in Yi’s store and told him he appreciate a creative and economically savvy girl like Wan Yi, and that he would like to marry her.

After the Wan Jin received the invitation for marriage, he consulted with his daughter. Wan Yi agreed that this was a beneficial marriage between the two families and thought Wang Kai was a pretty good choice for a husband. However, she noted that she would like to inherit the family business and didn’t want everything the Wan’s worked for to go the Wang’s. Under the Song law at that time, an unmarried girl from a family with no son can inherit half of what the family owned.  Wan Yi told her father it only make sense if she inherited half of the business before she said yes to Wang Kai’s marriage proposal. The next day, Wan Jin and Wan Yi went to the court and completed the transfer of half of Wan’s business under Yi’s name. According to history, she was definitely the first one who actually implemented the law; she became a true female leader and example for all of the girls in the region during that time. Even after a while after her marriage in 1169, her story of inheriting half of Wan’s business was still what everyone was talking about.

However, just like the dynastic theory, when there was an up, there was a down. Wan Yi’s life took a dramatic tragic turn after her marriage with Wang Kai. Yi left her family after her marriage and moved to the northern side of the river and she was not used to it at all. Her husband Kai always went on business trips, so she rarely saw him at home. Wan Yi’s mother-in-law Qiu Shi was very conservative and she didn’t like Yi’s strong, assertive personality. And since Qiu Shi was the oldest female in the household, all of the staff paid her respects. Qiu Shi always complained that Wan Yi was not a good wife because she refused to purchase concubines for Wang Kai. Yi had a really hard time with Qiu Shi’s dislike of her in the household. Even thought she had the strong business mindset, she couldn’t deal with the internal drama caused by her mother-in-law. In addition to that, it was extremely difficult for her to travel back home to continue managing her side of the business. She gradually saw the decline of her sub-workshop and it finally got shut down due to poor management in the year of 1170. It was the same year she gave birth to her daughter Wang Min and the following year she gave birth to her son Wang Li. Wan Yi developed post-childbirth depression and could not recover from that. And between the harsh treatments she got from Qiu Shi and failing in her business, she eventually went crazy. Kai had to isolate her from their children and gave her a weaving machine, so that she could have things to do to pass the time. During one night in 1180, after receiving the death note of her father, she finally broke down and had a crazy idea of using her own blood to dye the silk cloth that was going to be made into her daughters’ wedding dress. She cut herself and died from losing too much blood.

The downfall of Yi’s life was only a representation of the decline in the status of women in later southern Song dynasty. History recorded that women started to bind their feet in the Song dynasty and started to stay away from outdoor activities. They gradually lost their rights due to the Song’s Confucian teachings. Wan Yi’s daughter never experienced the right that her mother once had. Women gradually backed away from the historical front line and became more reserved and uneducated in later dynasties.


[1] “The Status of Women in the Song and Tang Dynasties”. Web. <http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/special/14/9844-1.htm>
[2] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 169.
[3] “History of the Song Dynasty”. Web. <https://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_the_Song_dynasty>
[4] “The Song Economic Revolution”. Web. <http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/econ/commerc.htm>
[5] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 281
[6] Hansen, 261
[7] A man’s second wife. Concubine. See <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/妾>
[8]“Society of the Song Dynasty”. Web. <https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Society_of_the_Song_dynasty>
[9] liu_ziyu_final
[10] Hansen, 282-286

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ZIYU LIU is a senior at University of Rochester majoring in Financial Economics and Psychology. Ziyu is moving to New York City after college to work in an investment bank. She enjoys spending time with friends in her spare time. More by Ziyu