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Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty

Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty


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Lady Fu Hao is a highly extraordinary character from Chinese history, who lived over three millennia ago. In a society that was heavily dominated by male figures, Fu Hao took on roles that other women of her time would never even dream of taking. Apart from being a wife and a mother, Fu Hao was also a military leader, a shaman / priestess, and an influential politician. The discovery of her lavish tomb in the 1970s is a reflection of her important position in life.

Commemorative statue of Fu Hao at Yinxu ( Wikimedia)

Lady Fu Hao lived during the reign of Emperor Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty (c. 1250 – 1192 B.C.). According to Chinese historical records, Wu Ding gained the alliance of neighbouring tribes by marrying a woman from each of the tribes. As a result, he had numerous wives, 60 according to historical sources, and Fu Hao was one of them. Although it is unclear as to the way Fu Hao rose through the ranks, the Shang dynasty oracle bones provide us with some information as to her contributions to the Shang dynasty.

Emperor Wu Ding ( history.cultural-china.com)

The oracle bones discovered at Yinxi provide us with a tantalising glimpse of the life of Fu Hao. According to the inscriptions on the bones, she led several successful military campaigns against the enemies of the Shang, including the Tu-Fang, a tribe that fought the Shang for generations. Fu Hao utterly defeated them in one decisive battle. She also led campaigns against the Yi, Qiang and Ba tribes.

Oracle bone with a divination inscription from the Shang dynasty, dating to the reign of King Wu Ding ( Wikpedia)

Lady Fu Hao’s role was not restricted to military matters, as she was involved in important ceremonial matters as well. Whilst the Shang kings had absolute control over this aspect of Shang society, the oracle bones reveal that Emperor Wu Ding gave instructions to Lady Fu Hao on various occasions to conduct special rituals and offer sacrifices. This demonstrates the enormous amount of power that Fu Hao wielded, and the high esteem in which Wu Ding held her in.

Whilst it may be possible that these great works were performed after she rose to the top of the hierarchy, it may be equally plausible that it was these deeds that helped Fu Hao secure her high position in Shang society. Regardless, LFu Hao’s tomb is a perfect reflection of the status that she had in life.

As Fu Hao died before Wu Ding, a tomb was built for her near Anyang. Discovered in 1976, Lady Fu Hao’s tomb is one of the best preserved from the Shang dynasty. The tomb is a single large pit measuring 5.6 x 4 m at the mouth. Inside this pit is a wooden chamber 5 meters (16.4 feet) long, 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) wide and 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) high. The chamber held a lacquered coffin which has since rotted away. Archaeologists were able to establish the identity of the tomb’s owner as Lady Fu Hao due to the inscription of her name on the tomb’s ritual bronzes.

The tomb of Lady Fu Hao. Skeletons can be seen around the perimeter ( Wikimedia).

The grave goods found in Lady Fu Hao’s tomb were exceptional, as it was one of the few tombs in China that was discovered unlooted. In total, more than 400 bronze relics were found in the tomb, including weapons, bells, mirrors, and ritual vessels. Furthermore, a vast quantity of jade (755 items), bone (564 items), ivory, stone and ceramic objects, as well as thousands of cowrie shells (Shang currency) were found in the tomb. Apart from these offerings, human sacrifices were also performed, so that Fu Hao would have servants to serve her in the afterlife. This is evident in the skeletons off 16 human beings buried around the perimeter of her tomb.

Artifacts found in Fu Hao’s tomb. From left: Bronze bat-shaped vessel , bronze gong vessel , jade kneeling statue .

It is perhaps an extremely fortunate that Lady Fu Hao’s tomb was discovered intact by archaeologists. Without the oracle bones or the grave goods from the tomb, it is highly likely that Fu Hao would have been lost to history forever. It is only through these artefacts that the life of such a remarkable figure is known to us.


The earliest written records in Chinese history date back to the Shang Dynasty, which, according to legend, began when a tribal chief named Tang defeated the Xia Dynasty, which in 1600 B.C. was under the control of a tyrant named Jie.

This victory is known as the Battle of Mingtiao, fought during a thunderstorm. Jie survived the battle but died later of illness. Tang is known for establishing a low number of drafted soldiers in the army and for beginning social programs to help the kingdom’s poor.


Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty - History

China's Bronze Age began soon after 2000 B.C. The Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.) had not only bronze technology, but also writing, walled cities, and a complex state structure. Shang tombs, thousands of which have been excavated, provide rich evidence of Shang material culture and ritual practices.

Among the most important finds from Shang tombs are "oracle bones," recording the questions Shang kings posed to their ancestors. From them we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others.

Shang royal burial practices confirm the abiding interest of the Shang rulers with their ancestors. At Anyang (in present-day Henan province, review map), the last capital of the Shang, many huge royal tombs have been found. The one we examine here, the tomb of the consort Fu Hao, is the only royal Shang tomb of a member of the Shang royal family to have been found unlooted. Dated around 1250 BC, it is a tomb of modest size located outside the main royal cemetery. The tomb is a single large pit, 5.6 m by 4 m at the mouth. The floor level housed the royal corpse and most of the utensils and implements buried with her. Below the corpse was a small pit holding the remains of six dogs, and along the perimeters lay the skeletons of 16 humans. Inside the pit was a wooden chamber 5 m long, 3.5 m wide and 1.3 m high. Within the chamber was a lacquered coffin which has since rotted away. There also seems to have once been a structure built over the tomb for holding memorial ceremonies.

Fu Hao was mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions as the consort of King Wu Ding and a general who participated in several military campaigns. She also presided over important sacrificial ceremonies and controlled her own estate.

Altogether Fu Hao's tomb contained:

Consider the size and construction of the tomb in the photo above. Were more resources devoted to constructing the tomb or manufacturing the objects placed in it?

The vessel to the left is made of ivory with intricate turquoise inlay.


Hao and Wen: Lady General and Prisoner King (Shang Dynasty)

At the Yinxu ruins in Anyang, I visit the underground tomb of Lady Fu Hao, wife of King Wu Ding. Fu Hao was unusual in that she was a high-ranking military general—the most powerful of her day—as well as a priestess. She had command of up to 13,000 men at one point. In her tomb stands the solid bronze blade of her axe, an axe I would not be able to lift, let alone wield. The Shang’s mastery of bronze weapons ensured the Shang would dominate other tribes of the region for centuries.

Just up the path from Fu Hao’s tomb lies another archeological find. An underground tomb of chariots, all lined up and ready to go. And which at the time of burial were fully manned with horses and drivers.

An axe to grind, Lady Hao’s tomb

Early excavations had turned up one detail about living in the Shang community that the Shang (1600 – 1046 BC) didn’t always print in the brochures. When archaeologists excavated the tombs around Zhengzhou and Anyang, they uncovered rooms filled with scores of skeletons. Headless skeletons. That’s right, the Shang people had no heads, thought the archaeologists. Until, we imagine, some junior assistant digger played by Justin Long opened the closet door, and out poured, you guessed it, seventy-some-odd skulls. The archaeologists breathed a sigh of relief. The Shang were not headless mutants they were just really, really fond of human sacrifice. Wild about it. Couldn’t get enough of it.

It’s not known whether the headless sacrifices were buried with the deceased to protect them or with whom to play mahjong in the afterlife. Or whether showing up to Heaven with seventy dead laymen was simply the Shang’s way of being polite to their celestial overlords, like not showing up at a house party without booze.

Human and dog sacrifice, Lady Hao’s tomb

And by the way, did the Shang love their booze. While visiting the National History Museum in Beijing, my friend Tsuen points out numerous wine vessels from the Shang era: “This is a gu,” he says, checking the placard for the English translation. “Wine vessel.” And coming across the next artifact, “You,” he reads, perplexed, “Wine vessel…It’s the same word in English.” We pass twelve Chinese terms for ‘wine vessel,’ and the Shang used them all.

Now bronze as you know is an alloy of copper and tin, but what separated the Shang from your typical run-of-the-mill ancient dynasty was they added a secret ingredient to the mix: lead. Up to 20% lead in some cases. Whether this was done to increase the malleability of the vessel during its sculpting or they just thought lead would add some oomph to the bouquet is unknown. What is known, what’s been show in experiments duplicating the Shang bronze vessels’ composition at just 8% lead, is that within 24 hours of pouring, the wine could have soaked up 116,000 micrograms per liter. (The CDC’s yardstick for lead poisoning is a blood level of 100 micrograms.) Leading researchers to conclude that the Shang could indeed have ingested up to 85 mg of the stuff daily. In other words, if they were as hearty drinkers as the excavations lead us to believe, the Shang sampled a more than healthy dose of lead poisoning with their drug of choice. Which might account for some of their later, er, eccentricities…

Chariot pavilion, Yinxu, Anyang

In the end, there was one thing the Oracle Bones didn’t predict. The Shang’s demise. The last Shang King, King Zhou, did what all last kings must: build a lake of wine. Wait! King Zhou! Not a lake of wine! Didn’t you read the last chapter about the Xia! No, he did not, because, like we said, the Xia Dynasty left no written records. In fact, King Zhou went one step further than our old friend King Jie. In addition to Lake of Wine he created…Forest of Meat.

Meat Forest was an island in the middle of the lake on which meat was impaled on branches, in case the king and his guests got hungry after swimming around Wine Lake.

Believe it or not, unlike King Jie, Wine Lake and Meat Forest were not the cause of King Zhou’s downfall. According to the Shang’s successors, it wasn’t the king’s search for pleasure that angered the Heavens.

Match the Concubine with the Dynasty she brought down

Concubine Dynasty

[That was a freebie. Don’t get cocky.]

As we delve further into imperial history, despite ancient China being a male-dominated society, we find that consorts, concubines, and empress dowagers often get credit for the rise and fall of great dynasties. Okay, not so much the rise, but definitely the fall. And King Zhou’s beloved was no exception.

King Zhou’s wife, Queen Daji, wasn’t the guiding force behind Wine Lake and Meat Forest. But she was as ‘dodgy’ as her name phonetically implies, and apparently she was quite the sadist. That’s why King Zhou’s top scientists were enlisted to find new, cutting-edge ways to torture captives. And in ancient China, that was a tall order.

Die-Nasty!
Torture and Execution: Shang Style!

In the Yinxu museum, I pass a display case off cooking supplies. Ah, ancient tupperware! Closer inspection reveals the exhibit to be a bronze vessel with a human skull inside, half-buried in dust and dirt, teeth smiling up at me. The plaque reads:

“A sacrifice could be conducted in various forms. The decapitation of a human followed by cooking the head in the bronze yan-steamer might be the cruelest form of all.”

The fact that there’s a “might” in that sentence is why I make it a point not to buy second-hand kitchenware in Henan.

But that wasn’t Queen Daji’s favorite torture. No, hers was the “Cannon Burning Torture.” A bronze cylinder was heated up over a pan above a raging fire until it was burning hot. Then, the captive was forced to walk upon the cylinder to keep from falling into the inferno below. And as if that wasn’t funny enough, the cylinder was coated with slippery oil, causing the victim to struggle to maintain his balance, until he mercifully fell off the cylinder and burned to death.

As one would imagine, this didn’t sit well with the populace, including the hero of our story and the ancestor of the subsequent dynasty: King Wen of the land of Zhou.

Hooked on Lady Hao, Fu Hao’s tomb

Yes, to make things confusing, the dynasty that overthrew King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty would be known as the Zhou Dynasty (probably by the same guys who placed Shaanxi Province right next to Shanxi.) But in Chinese, the Zhou in King Zhou is different from the Zhou in Zhou Dynasty.

  • Zhou as in ‘Zhou Dynasty’ comes from the land of Zhou, which lay on the far western edge of the Shang empire. Zhou meant, among other things, periphery.
  • Zhou as in “King Zhou,” last of the Shang rulers, refers to the part of the saddle closest to and underneath the horse’s ass. ie., the part most likely to be shat upon.

As you can guess, King Zhou did not pick out his own name. It was bestowed upon him, no pun intended, by posterity.

Hey, even a general’s gotta look good.

Zhou (the land, not the king) became the most powerful state within the Shang’s dominion. Its leader Wen gathered the support of other dukes, infringing on King Zhou’s turf. So King Zhou threw Wen in jail.

After seven years King Zhou felt he’d received enough ransom and booty from King Wen’s people (Literally, booty, as beautiful consorts were part of the ransom) so King Wen was released.

Seven years in prison had given King Wen a lot of time to think. One thing he had pondered was the divination method known as the I-Ching. Even then the I-Ching was ancient. Tradition says that during those years as King Zhou’s captive, King Wen completely revamped the I-Ching, releasing I-Ching 2.0, a full-fledged operating system for the schools of thought that would dominate the Chinese think-scape for thousands of years. (The original model ascribed to the Sovereign Fuxi is known as the “Earlier Heaven” model. King Wen’s is called the “Later Heaven”.)

ba gua (eight trigrams) sculpture

The other thing seven years in captivity afforded Wen time to reflect on was how to overthrow the bastard who, as Wen rotted in jail, was backstroking around Wine Lake eating shish kabobs off Meat Forest. Wen didn’t live long enough to put his strategy to the test, but he had two very talented sons who would go down in history as King Wu and the Duke of Zhou. Just as Yu avenged his father’s memory by taming the Yellow River, Wen’s son Wu tamed the Shang. With support of other dukes who were upset at the Shang’s rule, Wu launched an attack from the west while the Shang king was dealing with attacks from the east. And with the death of King Zhou, so died China’s first Bonafide, Certified, Historical Dynasty.


Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Fu Hao

“Badass Ladies” brings you diverse Chinese women who’ve done more than hold up half the sky – from wrestlers to scientists, doctors to philosophers. Every week, we spotlight the stories of the women who helped make China what it is today.

This week’s badass lady is a seriously ancient warrior queen born during the Shang Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty ruled Eastern China from 1600 BCE to 1046 BCE, around the same time the great pharaohs ruled Egypt. Fu Hao’s (妇好) rise to fame began when she married King Wu Ding. Their marriage was part of his heavy-handed diplomatic strategy to marry one woman from every surrounding tribe. By the end of his life, King Wu had over 60 wives, but Fu Hao was by far the most prominent.

As a wife to the king, Fu Hao’s name occasionally appeared on oracle bones found at Shang Dynasty archaeological sites. These were sometimes used during prayers for pregnancy or guarding against illness, which were quite common for women, but were also used in more surprising contexts. Oracle bones were inscribed with well-wishes that she would defeat her foes in battle, or have successful conquests. Still others petitioned her to perform rituals on behalf of the king himself! From these inscriptions, archaeologists pieced together the puzzle of her life story.

Fu Hao rose through the ranks of the king’s consorts to become his most favored wife. She didn’t spend much time at the palace, as her duties seemed to largely involve waging military campaigns on surrounding tribes and kingdoms. Fu Hao handily defeated tribes who had fought against the Shang for generations, securing lasting peace and expanding Shang Dynasty territory.

In a campaign against the Ba people, Fu Hao led the earliest recorded ambush in Chinese history. At the height of her military might, she commanded over 13,000 soldiers, and had several generals serving under her. She was such a talented commander that after her death, her husband made sacrifices to her, asking for her spiritual assistance in battle.

As if her military might wasn’t impressive enough, records show that Fu Hao was an active politician, advising the king on domestic matters and foreign relations. She had an active role in religious rituals of the time, performing a variety of ceremonies to curry favor from gods and spirits, as well as predicting the future by reading the cracks in oracle bones. She also maintained her own fiefdom at the edge of Shang territory, land she had won during a military conquest.

Like many figures from the Shang Dynasty, Fu Hao was shrouded in mystery, considered by some to be more mythological than historical – until archeologists found her tomb. In 1976, archeologists stumbled upon a massive tomb outside of Anyang city, the largest undisturbed Shang tomb ever discovered. Inside they found over 400 bronzes, 700 figures of jade, pits filled with oracle bones, and a trove of ancient weapons. Sixteen human corpses were later discovered, most likely Fu Hao’s slaves, with evidence of on-site human sacrifice.

Fu Hao’s name was found inscribed on many of the ritual bones in the tomb, and descriptions of her burial matched those in other sources. It was an ecstatic Indiana Jones-like moment for the archeologists, to be certain.

The discoveries in the tomb confirmed everything that had been written about her. From the oracle bones buried with her, researchers learned that her husband the king specifically instructed her to conduct rituals and sacrifices, meaning she was an important religious figure possibly with special expertise. Many of the weapons buried with her are ornate and crusted with precious stones, showing both her high status and connection to the military.

Through the findings at her tomb, Fu Hao’s legacy as a badass lady not only lives on, but her life and death provide rich evidence for scientists and historians to discover more about the world of ancient China.


Fu Hao &mdash First Female General in the History of China and Wife of Four Kings

Lady Fu Hao (or Fu Zi) of the Shang Dynasty was the first documented female marshal in the history of China, also was the queen of King Wu Ding (? &mdash 1192 BC).

Among around 10,000 pieces of oracle bone inscriptions excavated in China, about 200 of them were about Lady Fu Hao (or Fu Zi).

Together with her husband King Wu Ding, they implemented and won the earliest ambush war in Chinese history She also had commanded and succeeded in the largest-scale war of that century.

She was an honorable queen, an exceptional marshal with outstanding military achievements meanwhile, she was also a feudal lord with her fief and army and was in charge of the most saint worship ceremonies of the Empire Shang.

As a woman with paramount theocracy, royal and military power, she also obtained great love of the king.

Recently, Fu Hao&rsquos well-preserved cemetery was found, which contained 1928 pieces of valuable and exquisite burial artifacts.

Those ancient oracle bone inscriptions and over 3000 years old cultural relics buried with her, together, are telling the world the story of this glorious queen.


Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty - History

Excavating Fu Hao's tomb

SOURCE: Yinxu Fuhao mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), p. 10.

China's Bronze Age began soon after 2000 B.C. The Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.) had not only bronze technology, but also writing, walled cities, and a complex state structure. Shang tombs, thousands of which have been excavated, provide rich evidence of Shang material culture and ritual practices.

Among the most important finds from Shang tombs are "oracle bones," recording the questions Shang kings posed to their ancestors. From them we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others.

Shang royal burial practices confirm the abiding interest of the Shang rulers with their ancestors. At Anyang (in present-day Henan province, review map), the last capital of the Shang, many huge royal tombs have been found. The one we examine here, the tomb of the consort Fu Hao, is the only royal Shang tomb of a member of the Shang royal family to have been found unlooted. Dated around 1250 BC, it is a tomb of modest size located outside the main royal cemetery. The tomb is a single large pit, 5.6 m by 4 m at the mouth. The floor level housed the royal corpse and most of the utensils and implements buried with her. Below the corpse was a small pit holding the remains of six dogs, and along the perimeters lay the skeletons of 16 humans. Inside the pit was a wooden chamber 5 m long, 3.5 m wide and 1.3 m high. Within the chamber was a lacquered coffin which has since rotted away. There also seems to have once been a structure built over the tomb for holding memorial ceremonies.

Fu Hao was mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions as the consort of King Wu Ding and a general who participated in several military campaigns. She also presided over important sacrificial ceremonies and controlled her own estate.

Altogether Fu Hao's tomb contained:

Consider the size and construction of the tomb in the photo above. Were more resources devoted to constructing the tomb or manufacturing the objects placed in it?

The vessel to the left is made of ivory with intricate turquoise inlay.


Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty - History

Lady Fu Hao was a queen, general and high priestess of the Shang dynasty in Eastern China during the 13th Century BCE.

Fu Hao first became known when she married the Shang king, Wu Ding, and became one of his 60 wives. Fu Hao took advantage of the semi-matriarchal slave society to ascend through the ranks of the royal household, gain a leading position in the Shang army and become Wu Ding's most favoured wife.

As a warrior Fu Hao gained notoriety for her efforts against the Tu-Fang, who despite having been fierce rivals of the Shang for generations were completely defeated by Fu Hao in a single decisive battle. She went on to become the Shang's most powerful military leader commanding a force of 13,000 soldiers with several other generals in service to her. She led successive military campaigns against the neighboring kingdoms of the Yi, Qiang and Ba. The last of these involved her leading the earliest recorded ambush in Chinese history.

Like other war chiefs Fu Hao was granted a fiefdom of land from the territories she conquered, from which she derived her own income. She was also an active politician and spiritual leader, acting as an adviser to the king and performing religious rituals as a high priestess. These were unusual roles for a woman at the time and reflected the faith that Wu Ding placed in her.

Following Fu Hao's death the Shang's military dominance weakened under attacks by the Gong, causing Wu Ding to make repeated sacrifices and prayers to Fu Hao's spirit to defend them against invasion. Over the centuries Fu Hao's accomplishments descended into myth and many historians did not believe that she had really existed until her tomb was uncovered at Yinxu in 1976. The tomb contained detailed records of her life on oracle bone, as well as an arsenal of weapons including battle-axes bearing her personal inscription.


Before Mulan – Meet Lady Fu Hao, Ancient China’s Original Warrior Heroine

Mulan is back. The live action remake of Disney’s popular 1998 animated feature, which hits theatres this spring, tells the tale of the Chinese ‘warrior princess’ Hua Mulan. According to the seventh-century ballad upon which the movie is based, the young noblewoman disguised herself as a man to lead her aging father’s army to victory in battle against barbarian hordes. As the buzz for the new film builds, MHN contributor George Yagi Jr. – who is himself just back from a tour of China – delves into the story of yet another, even more ancient heroine from the Far East, and one who hasn’t been the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster. Her name is Fu Hao. (Ed.)

By George Yagi Jr.

ACCORDING TO LEGEND, China’s Shang dynasty was founded in 1600 BC by King Cheng Tang following the defeat of the mythical Xia. Forged in the midst of battle, this newly unified state would maintain its superiority through conflict until its collapse in 1046 BC.

Great advancements in the field of warfare would be made during the reigns of the Shang kings including the introduction of bronze weaponry, the use of composite bows and the appearance of horse-drawn chariots.

As the Shang struggled with its enemies to dominate ancient China, one unique warrior emerged who would play an important role in ensuring the dynasty’s survival: Lady Fu Hao.

Fu Hao emerged during the reign of King Wu Ding, who ruled from 1250 to 1192 BC. To consolidate their power, allied tribes from across the kingdom sent young brides to the capital, Yin, to marry the monarch. Owing to her intelligence and strong will, Fu Hao stood out and quickly became one of the king’s favourites. She eventually rose to the ranks of consort, priestess and general.

In regards to her military career, Fu Hao’s exploits on the battlefield began with the incursions of the Tu Fang into Shang territory. Two Shang armies marched out of the capital on expeditions to the southeast and southwest when the Tu Fang struck unexpectedly from the north.

Sensing the great plight, the dynasty now faced, Fu Hao volunteered to lead the army in driving out the enemy. From an early age she had received military training, and after years of travelling across the country with her husband, was familiar with its terrain. However, before allowing his wife to go into battle, Wu Ding insisted on consulting with the oracle.

Such divinations were done with questions being written on either tortoise shells or ox scapula, after which a hot metal rod was applied until cracks appeared on the bone that were then interpreted as an answer from the spirits. After the signs foretold of Fu Hao’s success, she was given a large bronze battle axe or yue to carry into battle as a sign of her rank. Leading her troops at the front, she crushed the Tu Fang. This was just the beginning of her fighting career.

As the Shang dynasty maintained its position through warfare, it did not take long for Fu Hao to be called into combat once again. In fact, she would take part in numerous campaigns, and even enjoyed the distinction of commanding the largest army in ancient Chinese history, which numbered 13,000 men. Some of the troops were from her own private forces.

During operations against another rebellious tribe, the Bafang, she is also recorded as being the first Chinese general to employ ambush tactics on the battlefield in coordination with her husband, who drove the enemy strait into her trap. As a result of the royal couple’s combined strategy, the Bafang were decisively crushed. However, after Fu Hao’s return to the capital following this victory, she fell ill and died at the age of 33.

Fu Hao’s loss was a major blow to Wu Ding, who prepared a very special tomb in honour of his wife traditionally, she would have shared a grave with her husband.

In 1976, archeologists discovered her undisturbed resting place near Anyang, in Henan province. On encountering a massive cache of 130 weapons placed inside the chamber, scholars initially believed it to be the resting place of a prominent male ruler. However, upon examining the two yue axes, they could clearly see the name etched in bronze that read, “Fu Hao.”

Following her death, Wu Ding had constructed a hall above her grave to conduct ceremonies in her honour. With the establishment of the Zhou dynasty in 1046 B.C., Yi was abandoned and the capital relocated to Fenghao. The once-magnificent city fell into ruin and disappeared, along with all traces of Fu Hao.

Today, the grave and building above it has been restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a fitting tribute to ancient China’s warrior queen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. George Yagi Jr. is an award winning author and historian at the University of the Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr


Fu Hao – Queen, General, and Priestess

(Chris Gyford CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

If a historian could name the roles that Queen Fu Hao played in her lifetime, the list would be endless. Queen Fu Hao played so many unusual roles that very few women in history have sought to emulate. She was the most powerful of King Wuding’s three queens whom he married during his lifetime.[1] She played the role of a loyal wife and a caring mother. She proved to be so loyal that King Wuding trusted her enough to lead and command troops on the battlefield.[2] She fought in many victorious battles. In one battle, she commanded 13,000 troops (the largest recorded army in Shang history) to victory against the Qiang, a neighbouring kingdom.[3] Thus, Queen Fu Hao is the first recorded female general in Chinese history.[4] She is also the only woman who had both the rights of royal sacrifice and military command in ancient China.[5] Queen Fu Hao also played the role of a priestess conducting many religious rituals.[6] She was a vassal lord and an administrator.[7] She was also worshipped as a goddess shortly after her death.[8] Thus, Queen Fu Hao was one of the most powerful women in the Shang dynasty.

Fu Hao was born around 1040 B.C.E., in the late Shang dynasty period.[9] The Shang dynasty was the second oldest dynasty in Chinese history and was the era with the earliest form of Chinese writing.[10] In Fu Hao’s youth, she received military training and was educated in the most advanced arts of war.[11] This knowledge would one day prepare her to lead battles alongside her husband, King Wuding.

King Wuding of Shang’s strategy of expanding his territory was having a woman from each nearby tribe enter his harem.[12] He had a total of 64 women in his harem, and one of these girls was Fu Hao.[13] Fu Hao quickly became his favourite. King Wuding made her his Queen after she gave birth to Xiao Yi, who was made heir apparent.[14] Archaeological evidence from several inscriptions of oracle bones made by King Wuding refer to Fu Hao as Queen.[15] Other inscriptions of oracle bones referring to her consist of prayers for childbearing and, more surprising, military success.[16] These bones show that Queen Fu Hao played a major military role for King Wuding. Queen Fu Hao also performed religious ceremonies.[17] She was recorded to have made sacrificial offerings to the gods.[18] Artefacts of inscriptions on tortoise shells bear the words “Prepared by Fu Hao”[19]. The evidence proves that Queen Fu Hao was in charge of divination rites.[20] Thus, archaeological evidence shows that Fu Hao played political, religious, and military roles.

Queen Fu Hao was second in command under King Wuding in both battle and administration.[21] She fought in battles against many of the kingdoms that bordered their territory. She fought against the Jiang tribes and took many of them captive.[22] She also led victorious campaigns against the Tu, Bai, and Yi.[23] In these battles, famous Shang generals (Zhi and Hou Gou) reported to her. She even led the earliest recorded large ambush in Chinese history.[24] Against the most-feared Qiang army, she commanded 13,000 troops with the two famous generals following her direct orders.[25] They ambushed and defeated the Qiang. This victory established her as a talented and prestigious general. To celebrate her victory, Queen Fu Hao took many of the Qiangs as captives.[26] Due to her prestigious military career, her husband awarded her with a fiefdom to guard the border states.[27] The fact that King Wuding let Queen Fu Hao lead military campaigns against her powerful enemies prove to historians that he trusted and believed in her abilities as a general.[28]

It is speculated by historians that Queen Fu Hao died young due to a hunting accident.[29] Her only son, Xiao Yi, died sometime before her.[30] Yet, Queen Fu Hao’s story did not end with her death. Instead, she began to be worshipped as a goddess.[31] Fearing that Queen Fu Hao would be alone in the afterlife, King Wuding married her to Shang’s highest god, Di and to his ancestors (one of whom was his own father).[32] He frequently sought her blessing for future battles.[33]

One of the greatest modern Chinese archaeological excavations was the unearthing of her tomb in Anyang in 1976.[34] It is known to be the largest preserved tomb from the Shang dynasty era.[35] The items inside the tomb consisted of four bronze drinking vessels, bow and arrows, bronze dagger axes, 440 smaller bronze vessels, 700 pieces of jade, 560 hairpins, and several items of opal, ivory, and pieces of pottery.[36] The tomb also contained sixteen human corpses, which archaeologists found to be slaves forced to be buried alive with her to serve her in the afterlife.[37] While Queen Fu Hao lived a short life, she was a major historical figure in the Shang Dynasty era. Queen Fu Hao has been largely forgotten, but archaeologists are slowly putting pieces together to tell her remarkable story.

Childs-Johnson, E. (2003). Fu Zi: The Shang Woman Warrior. The Fourth International

Conference on Chinese Paleography [ICCP].

Fu Hao-Queen and top general of King Wuding of Shang. (n.d.). Retrieved July 22, 2020 from

Peterson, B. B., & Guorong, W. (2015). Notable women of China: Shang Dynasty to the early

twentieth century (B. B. Peterson, Ed. F. Hong, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Queen, Mother, General: 40th Anniversary of Excavating Shang Tomb of Fu Hao. (2016).


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