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artwork by Zhouli


Little is known about the early life of the warrior and commander Fuhao who lived during the later Shang Dynasty, some 3200 years ago. Wife of the Shang Emperor Wu Ding, all records of her, inscribed in an ancient oracle bone scripture, lend historians to believe that she is one who, taking advantage of her position in that still semi-matriarchal slave society, was able to bring her talents fully into play.In her day, the emperor Wu Ding pushed the Shang empire to its zenith byextending his realm of power through the cultivation of loyal collaborators. Many local tribes came over and pledged allegiance to him. In good faith Wu Ding married one woman from each such tribe, and Fu Hao was one of those wives. Nonetheless, she has gone down in history not so much as a stateswoman and an outstanding strategist, in her own right.

Productivity in her time was low and knowledge about nature and society was restricted to religious explanations. Sacrifices were a common practice, and seen as a way of appeasing the gods in the hopes of being protected and blessed with happiness. The royal family and slave owners expecially relied on their religious beliefs and made a great show of it, making sacrificial ceremony the most important political activity of the day. These offerings could be made to any of a number of gods or ancestors, asking for the prevention of epidemics and natural disasters, for victory in war, and so forth. The ceremonies were presided over by such high ranking personages as Fuhao. These ceremonies were usually held inside the ancestral temple of the rulers filled with the necessary accoutrements. Solemnly and properly dressed for the occasion, the participants, nobles and commoners alike, strictly followed the direction of the Shang court. Fuhao was recorded to have presented sacrificial offerings to the gods.

Fuhao's presiding role at such ceremonies was decuced from the large collection of sacrificial bronze vessels unearthed in 1976 from her tomb in Xiaotun village, in Anyang, Henan province (the site of the Shang capital). The collection included an enormous cooking utensil bearing many inscriptions of the name Fuhao. Among the artifacts are also tortoise shells bearing the characters prepared by Fuhao, which shows that she was also in charge of divination rites. At that time, it was the task of the diviner to prepare tortoise shells or ox shoulder blades by chiseling small indentations in them to hold granulated charcoal. During the divination ceremonies, the shells or bones were baked on a fire until they formed cracks. These cracks were then studied, and it was believed that one could foretell a future event based on the pattern so created. The process and outcome were carved on these shells or bones afterwards by the diviner. The fact that Fuhao was a diviner points up her political status.

It can be seen from ancient historical records that the major functions of the state at that time fell into two categories: to conduct sacrificial and divination ceremonies and to do battle. The records show that Fuhao palyed an important role in a series of wars during the reign of Wu Ding.

As the mere size of an army often determined the outcome of a battle, especially when fairly primitive weapons were in use, the Shang rulers paid much attention to recruitment, and in keeping the the spirit, Fuhao drew soldiers from within her own country and from neighboring tribes as well. It is found in the records that Fuhao led generals and a huge army of ten thousand soldiers in battles. The two big battle axes, found in her tomb weighing 9 kilos each, and two smaller ones are bearing the inscription of Fuhao, are indications of her military authority.

Excavation of Fuhao's tomb

"Song of Chu" from film Great Emperor's Concubine