While also known as Aliao and Maiden of the Southern Forest, the actual name of Yuenü is undocumented. It is known that she served during the reign of King Goujian of Yue at the end of the ’Spring and Autumn era’. Caught in an ongoing war with the Wu state to the north, Goujian sought military specialists to better train his troops. Having already recruited a champion archer from Chu, he was advised of a young woman of the Southern Forest whose skill with the sword was infamous.
Goujian invited the woman to attend his court, where she demonstrated the ability to counter the attacks of several opponents at once. The woman claimed to have developed her own sword-fighting style for protection in her native forest, and was also known to be a skilled archer. Impressed by her skills, Goujian gave her the title of Yuenü and enlisted her to train his best officers and soldiers in her techniques.
Yuenü’s techniques were described as simple but powerful, based around a philosophy of strengthening the spirit while remaining openly calm in combat. She likened the art of the sword to a door, which can be divided in yin and yang. Hers is the earliest known exposition on the art of the sword, which influenced Chinese martial arts for generations, introducing the concept of using agility and fluid speed to counter the advantages of physical strength.
Yuenü is also credited with developing a new form of metallurgy that could create untarnishable bronze swords with flexible cores and extremely sharp edges, which became known as 'Yuenü swords’. In 1965 archeologists discovered one such sword buried alongside the remains of King Goujian.