Fu Hao (妇好; died c. 1200 BC) or Lady Hao, posthumously Mu Xin (母辛), and sometimes Lady Fu Hao, 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.

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 is known to modern scholars mainly from inscriptions on Shang dynasty oracle bone artifacts unearthed at Yinxu.

In these inscriptions she is shown to have led numerous military campaigns. 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.

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 a woman of that time, and shows that the king must have had great confidence in his wife. 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.

She also controlled her own fiefdom on the borders of the empire, and was the mother of Prince Jie (oracle bone inscriptions show concern for her well-being at the time of the birth).

She died before King Wu Ding, and he constructed a tomb for her on the edge of the royal cemetery at his capital Yin. The King later made many sacrifices here in hope for her spiritual assistance in defeating the attacking Gong, who threatened to completely wipe out the Shang. The tomb was unearthed by archaeologists in 1976 and is now open to the public.

Fu Hao, China’s first female general

The story of Fu Hao, China’s first female general, dates back to during the reign of King Wu Ding, one of the most highly regarded monarchs of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 BCE). Seeking the allegiance of neighbouring tribes, the king married a woman from each and Fu Hao was among almost 60 wives.

What little is known of Lady Fu Hao, posthumously Mu Xin, comes from references to her found inscribed on Shang oracle bones. In excavations near Anyang, in present day Henan Province, archaeologists found caves containing Shang records.

In one cave alone, there were 200 references to Fu Hao. From these records, we can glean how highly she was thought of by the society in which she lived. The oracle bones even show concerns about her health, her well-being, her illnesses and her childbirths.

Faith in her warrior skills

From the limited information available, we know that after entering the royal court Fu Hao became the king’s consort and managed to rise through the ranks to become China’s first female general. She headed an army of 13,000 soldiers—the largest number of troops during the king’s reign.

She was kept busy by the many campaigns that Wu Ding fought against those on the borders of the Shang kingdom. For example, she led a campaign against the Jiang tribes, taking many of them captives, and led battles against the Tu, Ba and Yi tribes, with Shang generals Zhi and Hou Gao fighting under her standard.

Wu Ding had such faith in her skills as a warrior that he gave her a fiefdom on the borders of his kingdom. She was to defend the borders and launch assaults against other tribes from her stronghold.

King’s utmost confidence

As if being a military leader was not enough, she also served as a high priestess and oracle caster as well. These are very unusual roles for a woman to play at that time because the king held complete sway over ritual matters. Sacrifices and rituals were the most important political activities of the time.

There is evidence, though, in the oracle bone inscriptions that King Wu Ding often asked Fu Hao to conduct special rituals and offer sacrifices to the ancestors. This not only proved that Fu Hao was highly respected, but also that she obviously had the king’s utmost confidence.

When she died at around 1200 BCE, King Wu Ding built a tomb for her on the edge of the royal cemetery in the Shang capital of Yinxu.

Symbol of her military authority

Bronze ritual inscriptions identified the tomb as belonging to Fu Hao when it was unearthed by archaeologists in 1976. Her final resting place near Anyang is one of the most well-preserved tombs of the period. The tomb has been restored and opened to the public in 1999.

Because the tomb had not been looted, archaeologists were able to collect over 2,000 jade, bronze, pottery, bone, stone and ivory artefacts from the grave. There were also skeletons of six dogs and 16 human slaves found in the grave.

Over a hundred weapons were also buried with her, including a bronze battle axe, a symbol of her military authority. To say that Fu Hao was ahead of her time is an understatement. She participated in two activities that were normally not open to women – war and religious rituals – and led the way for others to follow.

One of whom was the venerable Ng Mui, a highly-respected nun from the Shaolin temple who is believed to have developed the fighting style which we now call Wing Chun.

by Geni Raitisoja


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