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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Fu Hao

Military general, priestess, and queen, Fu Hao shaped the Shang Dynasty

11·27·2014

“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.

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