Queen of the Oracle Bones
In June 1936, more than 10,000 pieces of oracle bones were excavated from Cave YH127 of Yinxu, the site of the ancient capital of the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). Researchers found the female name “Fu Hao” etched over 250 times on these oracle bones. According to historical records, Fu Hao was the wife of Wu Ding, the greatest king of the late Shang Dynasty. Existing historical materials show that Wu Ding had as many as 60 wives, only three of whom enjoyed status as queen, with Fu Hao ranking first among them.
However, the queen’s surname was not Fu—that character referred to a relatively high-ranking official position in the Shang Dynasty. As a queen, Fu Hao’s first task was to give birth to offspring for the royal family. According to the inscriptions on the oracle bones, Fu Hao likely delivered several children. Some pieces of the divination inscriptions asked whether Fu Hao was pregnant, whether her delivery would be smooth, when she would deliver and the coming babies’ gender. Considering that the inscriptions feature so much about Fu Hao’s pregnancies and childbirths, many agree that Fu Hao must have been the first wife of Wu Ding, which would give her considerably more privilege than other wives. In addition, King Wu Ding often divined for Fu Hao’s health, asking when she would recover from illness. Once, something was wrong with Fu Hao’s teeth, so Wu Ding divined to ask whether there was a “worm” in her teeth. Wu Ding’s care about the health conditions of Fu Hao evidenced his favor for her.
In addition to a cosseted queen, Fu Hao was also a brave and battlewise general. The Shang Dynasty was plagued by wars. The Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 B.C.) was overthrown by the Shang by force, as was the Shang by its successor Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.). Wars at different scales were frequent during the Shang Dynasty. Especially during the reign of King Wu Ding, many attacks were launched on the tribes in northwestern China. Fu Hao not only participated in many battles, but also made illustrious military merits in the process.
According to a record on oracle bones, Fu Hao recruited 3,000 warriors to attack the Qiang tribe in the west. It is the military expedition of the Shang Dynasty involving the largest number of soldiers recorded on discovered oracle bones. Fu Hao was commander-in-chief of the expedition. At that time, some noted generals during the reign of King Wu Ding, such as Qin and Yu, were also led by Fu Hao, evidencing her strong military capabilities. The military expedition diminished the strength of the Qiang tribe and restored peace on the Shang Dynasty’s western border.
Later, Fu Hao was dispatched by Wu Ding to conquer nomadic tribes in the northwest, the Yi people in the southeast and the Ba kingdom in the west, contributing much to the expansion of the territory of the Shang Dynasty. The battle against the Ba kingdom was particularly commendable. To cooperate with Wu Ding’s frontal attack, Fu Hao led an army in advance to set up an ambush behind the Ba army. When the Ba army retreated after being defeated by Wu Ding’s troops, it fell into the trap led by Fu Hao. She and Wu Ding surrounded the enemy and annihilated them. This battle is regarded as the earliest known ambush in the history of Chinese warfare.
Oracle bone inscriptions demonstrate that Fu Hao was not only a general, but also a “civil official.” She hosted various types of sacrifices and divinations. Oracle bone inscriptions show that, in general, divination activities were presided over by kings of the Shang Dynasty in person because the rituals were very important and mysterious state events involving contact between human and deity. Ordinary people had no right to participate. But Fu Hao practiced divination on behalf of the king and worked for the divination agency responsible for inspecting the tortoise plastrons and animal bones for divination. Fu Hao was also the “Minister of the Interior” and helped King Wu Ding handle political affairs. Once, she was dispatched to meet a state teacher who educated noble children. She also ventured out of the palace to meet members of a women’s association.
In 1976, a well-preserved tomb of a royal family member of the Shang Dynasty was found at Yinxu in Anyang, Henan Province. Based on the stratigraphic relationship of the tomb and the inscription “Fu Hao” on most bronzes unearthed there, archeologists have determined that the owner of the tomb is Queen Fu Hao. Her tomb is currently the only of the Shang royal family that has been determined in terms of historical period and the owner’s identity, thanks to relevant records on oracle bones.
Many exquisite funerary items were unearthed from Fu Hao’s tomb including 468 bronze vessels, 755 jade wares, 564 bone wares and 6,800 seashells. The burial objects are not only large in number and rich in variety but also beautiful in appearance and exquisite in craftsmanship. They are regarded as national treasures, fully reflecting the highly developed level of bronze work in the Shang Dynasty and the noble identity of the tomb owner. According to the structure of the tomb and its contents, researchers are gradually learning more about the mysterious woman recorded on oracle bones.
The author is a professor at the School of History in Capital Normal University who focuses on archeology and research of pre-Qin historical geography.