Lady Fu Hao and her Lavish Tomb of the Shang Dynasty
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.
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.
Featured image: Artist’s impression of Fu Hao ( history.cultural-china.com)