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Fu Hao

Fu Hao – Earliest Known Woman Warrior in the World

About five hundred years before young female warriors of the Eurasian Scythian nomadic horse tribes rode to battle against the Persians and Greeks and 1600 years before the story of Hua Mulan was written and the monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple came to be, there lived Fu Hao (Traditional Chinese: 婦好; Simplified Chinese: 妇好; pinyin: Fù Hǎo; died c. 1200 BC) or Lady Hao, posthumous temple name Mu Xin (母辛). Fu Hao flourished as a general in Bronze Age China (c. 21st century BC to 5th century BC). She fought for and defended the Shang dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 商朝; pinyin: Shāngcháo), also called the Yin dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 殷代; pinyin: Yīndài), that reigned in the lower Yellow River or Huang He (黄河) valley from c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC. Fu Hao is the earliest woman warrior in the world for whom a history exists.

Fu Hao

The Shang dynasty is a Yellow River or Huang He civilization (黃河文明), Hwan-huou (alternate Romanization) civilization that thrived in the middle and lower basin of the Yellow River. The Shang dynasty is the earliest Chinese dynasty supported by archaeological evidence. The Shang succeeded the Xia dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 夏朝; pinyin: Xià cháo; c. 2070–1600 BC), the first to rule China, and it was followed by the Zhou dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 周朝; pinyin: Zhōu cháo; c. 1045 BC–221 BC). The Yellow River is the second-longest in China after the Yangtze River or Chiang Jiang (长江). Chinese civilization began in the area between the two rivers. Ancient China is a cradle of civilization and it joins Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ancient India as one of the "four major civilizations of the ancient world."

According to legend, the Shang dynasty was founded about 1600 BC by King Cheng Tang 成湯 (r. c. 1675–1646 BC) following the defeat of the last Xia ruler. Forged in the midst of battle, the Shang dynasty ruled over 1800 city-states in China. It maintained its sovereignty through war for about 600 years, the second longest dynasty after the Zhou which reigned for over 800 years.

The capital of the high and late Shang period was the city (guo 國) of Yin (殷), whose "ruins" (Yinxu 殷墟; lit. "Ruins of Yin") were uncovered at Xiaotun (小屯) village near the ancient city of Anyang (安陽) in Henan province. Yin was the Shang capital since the reign of King Pan Geng 盤庚 (r. 1401-1374 BC, c. 1300 BC). Yin was the last capital of the Shang and it is one of China's ancient and historical capitals. Oracle bone inscriptions indicate that at least 30 kings ruled during the Shang dynasty and the last 14 ruled from Yin. The Shang heartland lay in the Yellow River Plain (the Central Plain, Zhongyuan 中原), where the Shang ruled over smaller cities and states. The authority of the Shang kings extended to the Shandong Peninsula in the east and the Wei River (渭水) valley in modern Shaanxi province to the northwest. Foes of the Shang dynasty were called fang (方) "regions", like the Tufang (土方), who roamed in the northern area of Shanxi, the Gongfang (𢀛方) and Guifang (鬼方) to the northwest, the Qiangfang (羌方), Suifang (繐方), Yuefang (戉方), Xuanfang (亘方) and Zhoufang (周方) who prevailed westward, as well as the Renfang (人方) and Yifang (夷方) in the southeast.

Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding 武丁 (r. 1250–1192/1324-1266 BC). She served as both a trusted high priestess who cast oracles for telling the future and a military general who led campaigns against several neighboring tribes. Few records of Fu Hao's life and accomplishments survived the Shang dynasty since it preceded the invention of paper and many of the records may have disintegrated over time.

Fu Hao Tomb Excavation

Fu Hao Tomb Excavation

In the winter of 1975 (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 4671 to 4672) a Chinese archaeology team was sent to examine land by Xiaotun village near Yinxu, which lies in the northernmost of Henan province close to the borders of Heibei and Shanxi provinces. The archaeologists were tasked with making certain the land was clear of any historical site so that it could be turned into an agricultural field. To their surprise and delight, their field trip turned into an immense excavation project that would generate academic discussion and research for decades to come. Zheng Zhenxiang (郑振香; born 1929; Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 4625 to 4626), the "First Lady of Chinese Archaeology," led the team, which uncovered Fu Hao's tomb in 1976 (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 4672 to 4673).

Fu Hao Tomb

Tomb of Fu Hao

The tomb, which is open to the public, housed a wooden chamber 5 meters (16 feet) long, 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide, and 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) high with a lacquered wood coffin that disintegrated since. The tomb contained numerous bronze and jade treasures that offered clues about her activities and interests. Because the tomb hadn't been looted, it yielded a larger number of grave goods than any other Shang tomb excavated prior. The richness of the grave goods and the large quantity of weapons led archaeologists to assume the tomb was that of a male ruler at first. Inscriptions on some of the seventy bronze vessels uncovered in the tomb identified the location as the tomb of Lady Hao. The primary source of her history comes from some 250 oracle bones, the earliest written Chinese records.

King Wu Ding developed the allegiance of bordering tribes by wedding a woman from each of them. Fu Hao entered the royal household through such a marriage and became one of Wu Ding's 64 wives. She was a high-born princess of a vassal state of the Shang dynasty, well-educated and very knowledgeable. Due to her intelligence and strong will, she rose through the existing semi-matriarchal slave society to become one of the king's three chief queen consorts. The other two were Fu Jing (妇妌), the primary queen, and Fu Shi (妇嬕), the secondary queen. Fu Hao gave birth to a son, Prince Zu Ji (祖己), who was made the heir apparent. The three queens each participated in military campaigns and divined for the Shang dynasty.

Evidence of the activities of the priestesses and ritual matters during the Shang dynasty are somewhat vague. Like other Chinese characters, the character of Fu 妇 has multiple meanings. Some women were priestesses instead of wives of the King; these women may have married the king later. The character of Fu in some contexts may refer to the position of priestess instead.

When comparing oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty with those of the Zhou, it appears that women of the Shang aristocracy enjoyed much higher status compared to women during the Zhou dynasty due to the introduction of Confucian doctrines during later Zhou years that reduced and subordinated the status of women. Lady Hao was a landholder in her own right. Additionally, she served extraordinary roles in the two most vital activities of the Shang dynasty: ritual matters and battles.

Oracle bones indicate that Lady Hao offered tribute to the Shang king many times. Even though Wu Ding had ultimate control over ritual matters, which were the most important political functions of the time, he repeatedly instructed Lady Hao to hold the most special rituals and offer sacrifices to the dynasty ancestors. Some oracle bones inscribed during her lifetime ask questions about her health.

Oracle Bone

Oracle Bone

Scholars put together a record of Fu Hao's career from inscriptions on oracle bones that weren't intended to provide a narrative. Fu Hao was the general in charge of many military expeditions for the Shang dynasty. She commanded her own troops and she also served as a task force commander in expeditions that included armies commanded by other generals. She took part in virtually every vital military expedition at the height of Wu Ding's reign. She was responsible for conquering enemies and neighboring tribes.

Fu Hao's exploits on the battlefield began with the invasions of the rival Tu, who had contested with the Shang dynasty in the northern regions for generations. Two Shang armies had left Yin on campaigns in the southeast and southwest when the Tu launched a surprise attack from the north.

Fu Hao Warrioress

Sensing the great danger faced by the Shang, a teenage Fu Hao volunteered to lead an army in driving out the invading Tu. Fu Hao had received military training from a young age and she had learned the land from touring the realm with her husband. Before allowing her to set forth, Wu Ding insisted on consulting an oracle.

Divinations were performed through a shamanistic ritual called pyromancy. Questions were written on ox scapula (shoulder bones) or tortoise shells and then a hot metal rod was applied until cracks appeared. The cracks were then interpreted by a diviner as answers from the spirits. The concern and the message were recorded on the bone or shell.

Oracle Bone 2

Many oracle bones pertaining to Fu Hao list her military exploits as a general and the rituals performed as a shaman.

The signs predicted Fu Hao's success. Wu Ding then entrusted her with a large bronze battle-axe or yuè (鉞) to wield in battle as a sign of her rank. Leading her troops at the front ranks, Lady Hao routed the Tu invaders in a decisive battle that culminated a campaign that lasted for a year and a half. Her fighting career had just begun.

Fu Hao Riding to Battle

Additional expeditions against enemy peoples followed: armored horsemen called the Qiang in the northwest, the Yi in the southeast and southwest, and a joint command with her husband against the Ba in the southeast. Fu Hao is recorded in the hindmost campaign for being the first general in Chinese annals to use ambush tactics on the battlefield. She worked in coordination with Wu Ding, who drove the Ba into her trap. Oracle bones are found querying on tactics to conduct a specific military expedition, asking if Wu Ding should send Fu Hao or another general to oversee a campaign, or if he should take command himself.

An inscription on one oracle bone suggests General Fu Hao commanded a force of up to 13,000 soldiers on a campaign against the Qiang. This is disputed by some scholars since typical Shang armies numbered from three thousand to five thousand soldiers. Nevertheless, Fu Hao was the most powerful Shang general of her day and the famous Shang generals Zhi (志) and Hou Gao (侯高) answered to her. Fu Hao and her fellow generals faced the most-feared Qiang army and defeated it.

Fu Hao Leading Armies

Queen Fu Hao returned victorious to the capital of Yin. She took many Qiangs as captives to celebrate her victory. Wu Ding awarded her with a fiefdom from which she would guard Shang border states. She fell ill soon after returning to the capital, though, and died at the age of 33. Her death was possibly caused by a difficult childbirth or a lethal wound from her campaigns. Some historians speculate that she died from a hunting accident. Her son Zu Ji had died some time before her.

Lady Hao's remarkable high status is confirmed by the presence of many weapons, like large yuè battle-axes, that were uncovered in her tomb.

Uncommonly, after her passing Fu Hao was entombed on her own estate across the river from the principal royal cemetery even though royal family members were normally buried together. She died well before King Wu Ding who built her tomb at the capital of Yin.


Fu Hao Tomb

Tomb of Lady Fu Hao

Due to its location, Fu Hao's tomb is the only royal Shang tomb to have been left unfound and unspoiled; hence particular insights have been gained into her life and the burial customs of her time. Wu Ding later offered many sacrifices at her tomb to gain her spiritual assistance in defeating the invading Gong, who came near to ending the Shang dynasty completely. Wu Ding's homages to Lady Hao show his favor towards her. Additionally, he had her posthumously married to the three greatest Shang kings who came before him over a period of years. Wu Ding wedded her to the 13th, 4th, and 1st kings of the Shang dynasty respectively. He did so to ensure that Queen Fu Hao wouldn't be alone and she would be well cared for in the other world.

Queen Fu Hao

The tomb is a pit measuring 5.6 by 4 meters (18 by 13 feet) that houses a wooden structure 5 meters (16 feet) long, 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide, and 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) high. The interior was packed with a large and varied number of weapons indicating her position as a significant warrior and general as well as other objects that signified her marital status as a high ranking consort. Lady Hao was also buried with thousands of ornamental bronze, jade, bone, opal, ivory and stone objects like mirrors, figurines, and vessels, many of which are rare artifacts from around the Shang kingdom. The artifacts from Lady Hao's tomb are some of the best preserved for the history period and location. Additionally, sacrificial bronze and tortoise shells found in the tomb are inscribed as prepared by Fu Hao prove her position as a high priestess and oracle caster. As was customary for the Shang dynasty, Lady Hao was entombed with 16 human sacrifices and six dogs to serve her in the afterlife. The bronze goods alone weighed 1.6 metric tons.

Bronze Zun

Bronze owl-shaped Zun (wine vessel) with inscriptions of Fu Hao

The contents catalogued in Fu Hao's tomb are:

  • 6,900 pieces of cowry sea snail shells used by the Shang as money
  • 755 jade items
  • 564 bone items, including almost 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads
  • 468 bronze items, including 130 weapons, 27 knives, 23 bells, 4 tiger heads or tigers, and 4 mirrors
  • 63 stone items
  • 16 human sacrifices
  • 11 pottery items
  • 6 dogs
  • 5 ivory items
Fu Hao Tomb Artifacts

Assorted Fu Hao Tomb Artifacts: Bronze bat-shaped vessel, Bronze gong vessel, Jade kneeling statue

The presence of weapons and military equipment in the tombs of women like Fu Jing show that Fu Hao wasn't the only woman warrior of the Shang dynasty. Oracle bones indicate that at least six hundred women served in the Shang military during this time period. They were often wives of Shang kings or powerful regional lords or officials. Until their tombs are uncovered, scholars are unlikely to learn more. In 2001 (Traditional Chinese Kan-chih Calendar 4697 to 4698), though, Chinese archaeologists reported the unearthing of the tomb of an unknown woman who was buried with a stockpile of weapons during the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC). More discoveries are forthcoming.

Following her death, Fu Hao disappeared from Chinese history until Chinese scholars realized that oracle bones were historical documents in the late 19th century. Fu Hao's name survived, though, through the Chinese word Hao (好) which means "good."

Fu Hao

Hao (好)

Lady Fu Hao is a part of China's tradition of female martial artists. Men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple in martial arts classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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