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In Love and War

A new museum at China’s oldest ongoing archaeological excavation delves into what a 3,000-year-old tomb and oracle bone inscriptions reveal about the Shang Dynasty’s greatest warrior queen

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated May.1

Visitors view relics excavated from the tomb of Fu Hao, Yin Ruins Museum, Anyang, Henan Province, March 4, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

On February 26, 2024, the Yin Ruins Museum opened to the public. Located in Anyang, Central China’s Henan Province, the new complex faces Yin Ruins Temple Palace on the opposite bank of the Huan River. It is the first major national archaeological museum to fully showcase the Shang Dynasty civilization (1600-1046 BCE). 

With nearly 4,000 sets of cultural relics, including bronzes, pottery, jade and oracle bones, the exhibition features a large and diverse collection, more than three-quarters of which is being unveiled for the first time. 

Yin, which covered today’s Xiaotun Village and its surrounding area of Anyang, served as the last Shang capital for some 270 years during the dynasty’s height (the Shang is also known as the Yin Dynasty). 

The Yin Ruins embody many achievements in Chinese archaeology: They represent the first capital in Chinese history to have a textual record, verified by archaeological excavations and oracle bone inscriptions. The ruins also hold the record for the most frequent and longest archaeological excavations in China, starting in 1928. 

The bronze artifacts unearthed from the Yin Ruins are exquisitely crafted with delicate patterns, making them rare artistic treasures. This advanced smelting technology was unparalleled at the time, revealing the Shang’s highly developed metallurgical skills. 

Bronze artifacts were symbols of power, wealth and status for Shang royals. Many sets of bronze objects, including weapons and vessels, were found in Yin burial sites, the type and quantity of which usually indicate the social status of the tomb’s occupants. 

A number of bronze artifacts at the Yin Ruins Museum were unearthed from the tomb of Fu Hao, the wife of King Wu Ding and celebrated general who is mentioned over 200 times in oracle bone inscriptions. Many of the found artifacts bear her name. 

Birth of a Heroine
Women in warfare have been lauded throughout Chinese history. Notable examples include Xian Ying, who, during the Southern and Northern Dynasties of the 5th and 6th centuries, reunified the southernmost island province of Hainan with the rest of China. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Princess Pingyang led an army of female soldiers to aid her father and brothers in combating the armies of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), contributing significantly to the establishment of the subsequent Tang Dynasty. Qin Liangyu commanded an army to defend the waning Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) against the invading Manchu forces that ultimately founded the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). 

Nevertheless, their achievements pale in comparison to Fu Hao, who is recognized as the first female general in recorded Chinese history. Yet, her influence extended far beyond the military.
Fu Hao’s legacy would not be complete without her husband, Wu Ding. The Records of the Grand Historian, penned centuries later by the renowned historian Sima Qian from the 2nd to the 1st centuries BCE, emphasizes Wu Ding’s excellent governance, noting that over his 59-year reign he “governed with virtue, and the people were joyous; he led the rejuvenation of the Shang Dynasty.” 

When Wu Ding ascended the throne, the Shang Dynasty had already existed for more than 300 years. In the few decades before Wu Ding became king, the Shang was marred by ineffective leadership and internal strife, coupled with frequent attacks by nomadic tribes. Wu Ding, intimately familiar with the struggles of his subjects, displayed courage by appointing Fu Yue, a former slave, as his prime minister. Governing with diligence, Wu Ding revived the crumbling Shang Dynasty, spearheading what came to be known as the “Wu Ding Renaissance” that extended the dynasty’s rule by over 100 years. 

Historical records reveal that while Wu Ding had more than 60 concubines, only three were official wives. Fu Hao was among them. However, she outshined her two rivals. Oracle bones found at the Yin Ruins chronicle over 200 inscriptions about Fu Hao’s accomplishments in the imperial court and on the battlefield, a number that far eclipses the records of the other principal wives. 

Among her roles was priestess. From kings to slaves, worship of gods and ancestors was practiced at every level of Shang society. State affairs and daily decisions were frequently determined through divination. Priests played a crucial role as intermediaries between the people and the spiritual realm. As a result, they held a high status and, to some extent, became decision-makers in state affairs. 

Records inscribed on oracle bones, which were important tools for prayer and divination, detail how Fu Hao presided over ritual offerings to the heavens, ceremonies honoring ancestors and prayers for rain. These responsibilities highlight Fu Hao’s substantial political standing during the reign of her husband. 

However, Fu Hao is renowned primarily for her military exploits, recognized as China’s first documented female military leader. Oracle bone records extol Fu Hao’s command of troops on the battlefield, where she achieved notable victories over approximately 20 small states. 

Fu Hao played a pivotal role in one of the largest military campaigns of the Shang Dynasty. Oracle bone inscriptions reveal that Fu Hao personally led 3,000 soldiers and amassed an additional 10,000 troops, possibly through local and temporary conscription, to engage in a decisive battle against the Qiang tribe. This military operation was massive in scale, considering that the typical Shang Dynasty army comprised only 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers. Some estimates even propose that the 13,000 troops led by Fu Hao represented more than half of the Shang Dynasty’s forces. 

Her military acumen is detailed in one of the earliest recorded examples of a battlefield ambush. Historical records indicate that during a confrontation with the State of Ba, Fu Hao orchestrated an ambush that skillfully blocked the enemy’s retreat. As her husband Wu Ding launched an attack from the east, the unsuspecting enemy found itself ensnared in Fu Hao’s strategically devised trap. 

Fu Hao’s advanced rank is evident in other records, such as oracle bone inscriptions describing Wu Ding seeking divine guidance as to whether Fu Hao would receive heaven’s blessing while leading a frontline army, and how esteemed Shang generals Zhi and Hou Gao consistently followed Fu Hao in military campaigns. 

A painting of Lady Xian, also known as the Lady of Qiao Guo, a famous female warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420-589) (Photo by VCG)

A statue of Princess Pingyang, a renowned female general of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Yangquan, Shanxi Province, December 31, 2017 (Photo by VCG)

A painting of Qin Liangyu, a female military leader of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (Photo by VCG)

True Romance
The bond between Fu Hao and Wu Ding was exceptionally strong, with numerous historical records describing their shared affection. Each time Fu Hao returned triumphantly from a military expedition, Wu Ding’s joy was evident as he eagerly ventured outside the city to welcome her. Recovered oracle bone inscriptions describe how on one occasion, Wu Ding traveled more than 80 kilometers. The palpable excitement of their reunion was evident, as the couple, disregarding their entourage, left their subordinates behind and rode side by side, galloping off together. 

In addition, oracle bone divinations detailing Wu Ding’s inquiries about Fu Hao’s health and fertility, such as “Fu Hao has a toothache; can it be cured?” and “Is Fu Hao pregnant?” reflect a deep devotion to his wife and portray him as a caring and doting husband. 

As Wu Ding’s final queen, Fu Hao bore three children. She passed away in her 30s, but the cause of her death remains disputed among historians. While Fu Hao’s lifespan was not considered short for her time, her departure was relatively early, especially when compared to Wu Ding’s disputed age of between 70 and 80. 

Wu Ding mourned Fu Hao’s death deeply. In a break with protocol, he opted to bury her near the palace instead of in the imperial cemetery. While unorthodox, the meaning behind the decision becomes evident when taking into account the extraordinary bond they shared. 

Although no records of Fu Hao’s physical appearance exist, artifacts unearthed from her tomb offer some clues. The Shang left elaborate burial sites, frequently entombing a multitude of items used by the deceased in life. These enable researchers to infer certain details about the tomb’s occupant. 

Located about 400 meters northwest of Xiaotun Village in Anyang, Fu Hao’s tomb measures 5.6 meters long and 4 meters wide. Remarkably, it yielded a total of 1,928 burial items, 468 of which were bronze artifacts. 

Several large yue, or battle-axes, were unearthed, notably a pair of bronze yue – one embellished with a dragon motif and the other with a tiger motif – each weighing nine kilograms. If these yue were indeed the weapons used by Fu Hao during her lifetime, they suggest she possessed significant strength and tall stature, given that wielding such heavy battle-axes would demand considerable physical prowess. 

Additionally, a jade thumb ring discovered in Fu Hao’s tomb is currently the largest known thumb ring from the Shang and the subsequent Zhou Dynasty (1046- 256 BCE). Its size suggests it was intended for the finger of a robust male, leading to speculation about Fu Hao’s potential height, which some experts estimate at 1.75 meters. 

A kneeling jade figurine found in Fu Hao’s tomb is carved with distinct Mongolian facial features. A knife handle is visible on the back of the figurine, which is generally accepted to symbolize military might. This has led to speculation that the figurine is of Fu Hao herself. 

After Fu Hao’s passing, Wu Ding frequently turned to divination to inquire about which deceased Shang king had “claimed” her as a wife in the afterlife. Recovered oracle bone divinations by Wu Ding mention three previous Shang kings: the sixth, Zu Yi, the 11th, Tai Jia, and the 13th, Cheng Tang. 

Various interpretations surround Wu Ding’s inquiries. One posits that after Fu Hao’s death, Wu Ding entrusted her to three great kings in the underworld. Another suggests that Wu Ding’s inquiries were about determining which king had claimed her so he could make the appropriate ritual sacrifices. 

These diverse interpretations revolve around the inclusion of the character qu (meaning “to take”). Comprising the radical for “ear” on the left and “hand” on the right, the character originally meant the act of cutting off an enemy’s ear as a trophy. During the Shang, qu also symbolized capturing women as spoils of war. It later encompassed the broader meaning “to acquire.” 

The character is also a homonym for the word meaning “to marry,” which further contributes to the ambiguity of Wu Ding’s divinations. Regardless, Fu Hao clearly had lived a remarkable life, reflected in her military successes, her brilliance and the devoted love of her husband.