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Fu Hao (simplified Chinese: 妇好; traditional Chinese: 婦好; pinyin: Fù Hǎo; died c. 1200 BC) or Lady Hao, posthumously Mu Xin (母辛), was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty and, unusually for that time, also served as a military general and high priestess. Minimal evidence detailing Fu Hao’s life and military achievements survives the Shang Dynasty, as it precedes the invention of paper and the records may have perished over the course of time.
Her tomb was unearthed at Yinxu, by archaeologist Zheng Zhenxiang intact with treasures such as bronzes and jades. Inside the pit was evidence of a wooden chamber 5 metres (16 feet) long, 3.5 metres (11 feet) wide and 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) high containing a lacquered wooden coffin that has since completely disintegrated. The tomb of Fu Hao provides the most insight into her life, her relationship with the royal family, and her military role and achievements--as the objects she was buried with provide clues as to her activities and interests.
What is known is that King Wu Ding would cultivate the allegiance of neighbouring tribes by marrying one woman from each of them. Fu Hao (who was one of the king's 64 wives) entered the royal household through such a marriage and took advantage of the semi-matriarchal slave society to rise through the ranks. Fu Hao became one of the King Wu Ding’s three consorts. The other two were Fu Jing and Fu Zi. Fu Jing was the primary queen while Fu Hao was the secondary queen. Fu Hao was also the mother of Prince Jie. Oracle bone inscriptions show concern for her well-being at the time of the birth.
Although the Shang king exercised ultimate control over ritual matters, which were the most important political activity of the day, oracle bone inscriptions show that Wu Ding repeatedly instructed Fu Hao to conduct special rituals and offer sacrifices. This was very unusual for women of that time, and shows that the king must have had great confidence in his wifes. Only official queens were given special care toward burial rites and ritual offering at their tomb.
Military Role and Achievements
Fu Hao is known to modern scholars mainly from inscriptions on Shang dynasty oracle bone artifacts unearthed at Yinxu. From these inscriptions and from the presence of weapons in her tomb, it can be determined that Fu Hao was a general in charge of a several military campaigns for the Shang Dynasty. In her military role, she was responsible for conquering enemies and neighbors of the Shang Dynasty. The Tu-Fang had fought against the Shang for generations until they were finally defeated by Fu Hao in a single decisive battle. Further campaigns against the neighbouring Yi, Qiang and Ba followed; the latter is particularly remembered as the earliest recorded large-scale ambush in Chinese history. With up to 13,000 soldiers and important generals Zhi and Hou Gao serving under her, she was the most powerful Shang general of her time. This highly unusual status is confirmed by the many weapons, including great battle-axes, unearthed from her tomb. Other people she conquered included the Bafang, Tufang, and the Yifang.
While Fu Hao’s achievements were notable and unique, other women in this time were also active in military roles. In a similar manner as Fu Hao, Fu Jing was also thought to have served in the military based on the presence of many weapons and military equipment in her tomb. Oracle bones also revealed records of hundreds of women participating in the military during this time.
After Fu Hao died, she was strangely buried in a tomb across the river from the main royal cemetery. This is unusual because it was common practice during the time to bury all members of the royal family together, suggesting she may have fallen out of favor of the king or another consort. She died before King Wu Ding, and he constructed a tomb for her at his capital Yin. Because of its location, Lady Hao’s tomb is the only royal Shang tomb to have been left unnoticed and unlooted, giving unique insights into her life and the burial practices of the time. The King later made many sacrifices here in hope for her spiritual assistance in defeating the attacking the Gong, who threatened to completely wipe out the Shang. The tomb was unearthed by archaeologists in 1976 and is now open to the public. The tomb itself is only 5.6 meter by 4 meter pit that contains a smaller, 5 meter long, 3.5 meter wide, and 1.3 meter high wooden structure within. Inside was packed with burial sacrifices and wealth however, signifying Lady Hao’s predigious position. She was buried with many rare goods from around the kingdom, including a large and varied amount of weapons, signifying her important marital status, as warriors and generals were the only ones to be buried with such objects. Additionally, Fu Hao was entombed with hundreds of bronze, jade, bone, and stone objects like figurines, vessels, and mirrors. These objects are some of the best preserved we have of the time period. The sacrificial bronze vessels and tortoise shells inscribed prepared by Fu Hao discovered in her tomb further evidence her status as high priestess and oracle caster. As was custom during the Shang Dynasty, Fu Hao was also buried alongside 16 human sacrifices and six dogs.
Contents of Tomb
In total, Fu Hao was buried with:
- 755 jade objects
- 564 bone objects (including nearly 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads)
- 468 bronze objects (including 130 weapons, 23 bells, 27 knives, 4 mirrors, and 4 tigers or tiger heads)
- 63 stone objects
- 5 ivory objects
- 11 pottery objects
- 6,900 pieces of cowry shell (what Shang used as currency)