Queen, Priestess, General: The Legendary Life of Fu Hao

By Minjie Su

In the winter of 1975 a team of Chinese archaeologists were sent to examine a small area of land in a village in the ancient city of Anyang, north-eastern China. Originally, they were tasked to see if the land was clear of any site, so it may be turned into agricultural field. However, to their surprise (and, as can be imagined, to their delight), what was supposed to be a simple task turned out to be an immense excavation project that would generate research and academic discussion in the decades to come: they had found an intact royal tomb dated back to the Shang dynasty, an ancient dynasty that ruled the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BC.

The tomb, now known as the Tomb of Fu Hao, yielded 1928 pieces of grave goods, the majority of which are bronzeware (468 pieces, including many weapons) and jade artefacts (755 pieces); additionally, there are also over 6000 cowry shells, which were used as currency back then. Sacrificial human and animal bones have been excavated, too.


All this speaks to the unusually high status of the occupant of the tomb. Based on the inscriptions on the ritual bronze and on the oracle bones, a name has been suggested and is now believed by most as the distinct occupant: Fu Hao, or Lady Hao.

Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Yinxu, Henan, China. Photo by Chris Gyford / Wikimedia Commons

So, who is this lady who was buried with such rich and honour? Before we get to it, however, a few words are needed to explain her name. Although generally addressed as Fu Hao (妇好), ‘Fu’ (妇) as a matter fact is a courtly position for women, one of many that Fu Hao held during her lifetime and was loosely translated into ‘lady’ in English. According to the oracle bone inscriptions and later references, Fu Hao was one of the 64 wives of King Wu Ding (武丁, reigned during the second half of the 12th century BC) – legend has that the king married one woman from each local tribe to maintain peace, but Fu Hao raised above them all and became one of the three queens of Wu Ding. That she was greatly cherished by the king is evidenced by inscriptions describing the king asking for oracles about her health, pregnancy, and prosperity and by the fact that she had been granted land – there are records of her paying tributes to the king and being summoned to court as a landed aristocratic.


Other names borne by Fu Hao include Mu Xin (母辛) and Si Mu Xin (司母辛). The former was granted to her posthumously as an honorary name. ‘Si’, on the other, is another title of a courtly position; it indicates Fu Hao’s role as a high priestess who oversaw rituals such as sacrifice and oracle seeking. This is again confirmed by the oracle bone inscriptions that frequently show Fu Hao not only participating in the ceremonies as a member of the royal household but also hosting these ceremonies. She was also in charge of divination; one inscription has her fixing five turtle plastrons to use as oracle bones.

Bronze owl-shaped Zun with inscriptions of Fu Hao – photo by Cangminzho / Wikimedia Commons

Queen, landed lady, priestess – all these are but some of the roles that this powerful lady played in life. Thanks to the oracle bone inscriptions, we can piece together Fu Hao’s life and career. She was mother to a prince, but at the same time she was also a military commander who led armies to battle on the king’s behalf. According to one inscription, the king inquires the oracle if he should allow Fu Hao to lead an army of 13,000 soldiers to battle against Qiang, the neighbouring country. This is the largest military activity that have been recorded in the inscriptions. Fu Hao also fought wars in other regions.

Fu Hao died during the reign of Wu Ding. After death, she was deified and, for three times, ceremonially married to the deity or the deified ancestors of the dynasty. Sacrifices were held in her honour. And all these find summation in the surprise discovery in 1975.

In 2016, to commemorate the 40 years anniversary of the discovery, an exhibition under the title ‘Queen, Mother, General’ was held in the Capital Museum in Beijing. The exhibition lasted only from March to June, but the bronzeware and other artefacts can be visited in the Yinxu (殷墟) Museum in Anyang.


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Top Image: Statue of Fu Hao in Yinxu. Photo by tak wing / Wikimedia Commons