Fu Hao (fl. 1040 BCE)

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Fu Hao (fl. 1040 bce)

Earliest woman general of the ancient Shang dynasty, more than 3,000 years ago, and queen consort of Emperor Wu Ding, whose recently unearthed tomb contained a wealth of funerary objects symbolic of her royal and military power. Name variations: Lady Hao. Pronunciation: FOO HOW. Lived during China's bronze age, late in the second millennium around 1040 bce; consort of the Emperor Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty and a leading general in her own right, whose remarkable activities were known only through oracle bone inscriptions until the 1976 discovery of her tomb; children: one known son, Xiao Yi, who preceded her in death.

In the winter of 1976, on the outskirts of Anyang in China's Henan province, an ancient tomb was discovered at Yi Au, site of one of several capitals of the ancient Shang dynasty, dating back more than 3,000 years. Among the wealth of fabulous objects unearthed in the excavation were several large bronze vessels, unsurpassed in their size and artistry, of the kind known as jue. On one jue appeared the two Chinese characters, "Fu Hao," identifying the site as the burial tomb of Lady Hao, the earliest woman general of the Shang dynasty, and consort of the Emperor Wu Ding. Before this find, Fu Hao was barely known except for the appearance of her name on a few pieces of ox bone or tortoise shell from the Shang period, when they had been used in the art of "scapulimancy," or bone divination. At the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology in England, one record of Lady Hao, scratched into a fragment of tortoise-shell, was as commander of a force of 3,000 troops, one of two columns sent to fight a regional enemy.

At the time of its opening, the tomb was intact; inside, in addition to the sarcophagus of Fu Hao, were the remains of 16 slaves buried alive with her to attend to her after her death; some 440 smaller bronze vessels, bells, mirrors and weapons; 560 hairpins and arrowheads made of bone; 700 pieces of jade; and articles of opal, ivory, or stone standing amidst pieces of pottery. Clearly Fu Hao's was a tomb of great importance, The fact that a woman had been given such an elaborate burial tomb in ancient China was unusual in itself; the sizes of the jue—one vessel weighed nine kilograms, or almost 20 pounds, and another was only slightly smaller—were further signs of her powerful status. Many of the bronze vessels, inscribed with her name, were probably cast to hold offerings made in her honor at the time of her burial.

There were more than 20 different types of bronze vessels, 70 of which were inscribed with either her given name or her temple name, by which she would be remembered among her descendants; the jade carvings were reminders of China's neolithic past, when humans depended heavily upon animals for food or as protective totems signifying the nature gods. The figurines are of dragons, eagles, elephants, and phoenix, all zoomorphic figures holding cosmological significance. In addition there were a number of human figurines, carefully depicting the facial features and dress of the Shang upper class, which held a monopoly at the time on bronze military technology.

Archaeologists who have studied the burial site have concluded that Fu Hao was China's earliest woman general; her name was subsequently left out of the ancient classics written at later periods, beginning with the Zhou. Among the inscriptions found, some refer to Fu Hao as a royal consort, some as a military leader with the rank of general, and others as a feudal vassal. In a number of divinations undertaken on her behalf, questions appeared concerning childbirth, the success of her religious rituals and her military enterprises. Few facts are known about the venerated Fu Hao, but she was obviously of the aristocratic elite; mention of her appears on the oracle bones prepared by Wu Ding, the fourth king of the Shang to make his capital at Anyang. According to Hung-hsiang Chou, writing in the April 1987 issue of Scientific American, "The example of Lady Hao is only one of the fascinating glimpses into the lives and activities of the people of the Shang that the oracle bone inscriptions afford us, even though these lives are separated from our own by three millenniums."

In the numerous divinations undertaken on [Lady Fu Hao's] behalf questions are asked not only about childbirth but also about the success of her religious rituals and even about her military enterprises.

—Hung-hsiang Chou

Fu Hao was not the only female militarist and commander of China during the Shang period. Oracle bones of the period indicate more than 100 women by name who were active in military campaigns. But her tomb has allowed us to know much more about her than other female commanders. Comparing the oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty with those of the later Zhou, it appears that Shang aristocratic women enjoyed much higher status than Zhou women, possibly due to the Confucian doctrines introduced in the later Zhou dynasty, which reduced and subordinated women's status.

According to oracle bone inscriptions, it has been estimated that at least 30 kings ruled during the Shang dynasty, which lasted from around 1766 to 1027 bce, and that the last 14 ruled from Anyang, Henan province. At this time, during China's bronze age, there was as yet no tradition for naming the wife of a king as queen, and Fu Hao is referred to both as wife and consort. Recent findings have caused archaeologists to increase their estimates of the geographical area under the control of the Shang, well beyond the area of the Yellow River to include Zhengzhou, now believed to have been an earlier Shang capital. Artifacts similar to those of Zhengzhou found in the valley of the Yangtze River suggest that Shang control may have extended as far south as Panlongcheng, Hubei.

Wu Ding's father was Di Xiao Yi, and his grandfather had been Di Xiao Xin. Among the handful of facts we have about Wu Ding and his consort, is that the death of his father forced the emperor into a three-year period of mourning. During this time, he toured the countryside with Fu Hao, inspecting crops, assessing irrigation systems, and meeting the people under his rule. Wherever the couple traveled, they would call together local officials, who would in turn arrange a meeting of the local villagers, for an inquest into affairs of public and private interest. During this period, the Shang dynasty was faced both with reverses in agricultural productivity and challenges from the hsiung-nu, or "barbarians," waiting to invade the dynasty's frontiers.

At one rural gathering, an intelligent slave named Fu Yue was recommended by the local commoners to serve the king, because of his brilliant ability to make walls for defense. Wu Ding, eager to bring the lowborn but gifted man into his service, feared that the elitist members of his imperial court would not accept the slave. So Wu Ding concocted a story about a dream he'd had, in which God (T'ien) had informed him about a man named Fu Yue, who lived in the cave of a sage, and would save the country. Wu Ding related the many great virtues and astute knowledge of politics of the wise Fu Yue, all of which proved in fact to be true when Fu Yue reached the emperor's court.

During their tour of the provinces, Wu Ding and Fu Hao had left national affairs in the charge of the courtier Tian Guan Qin; but upon their return, they again took personal charge, named the clever Fu Yue premier and honored him with the title of Father of a Dream. As a hostile tribe of invaders, called the Tu Fang, began to threaten from the north, Fu Yue prepared for the defense of the Shang territories. Then while two leading Shang military commanders were away from the capital, one dispatched to the southeast and one to the southwest, the enemy began to threaten their boundaries. Recognizing the emergency, Fu Hao stepped forward, volunteering to lead the military campaign against the Tu Fang.

In her youth, Fu Hao had received military training; in her three-year tour of the countryside with her husband, she had gained firsthand knowledge of the geography of the land; and as a ruler she was kept in touch with the more sophisticated arts of war. Wu Ding understood his wife's capabilities, and, after consulting with Fu Yue, he was persuaded to grant her a bronze jue, the symbol that empowered her to lead a military campaign. When a diviner was brought in to judge if the omens were favorable, he wrote questions on tortoise shells which yielded positive answers, and Fu Hao had her commission to fight.

Marching northward to confront the Tu Fang, Fu Hao fought at the head of her troops, nursed the wounded off the battlefield, and inspired morale. Badly defeated by her leadership, the Tu Fang would never again challenge the military power of the Shang.

The next threat of war came from the Qiang Fang tribe, in the northwest. Again, Fu Hao was awarded a jue and a military commission and routed the cavalry units of the Qiang Fang. Exhausted upon her return to the capital Anyang, she was soon forced to respond to yet another threat. Without rest, she led a third force against the Yi Fang, who threatened from the southeast and southwest, and she was again triumphant. A fourth and final campaign against the Ba Fung tribe in the southwest gained Fu Hao another jue; this time, she shared command of the army, fighting alongside her husband. Cleverly, Wu Ding deployed his troops in an attack on a neighboring tribe allied with the Ba Fung, and, when the Ba Fung moved in to aid them, they fell into a trap laid by Fu Hao. With the Shang forces again victorious, Fu Hao was celebrated as the most outstanding military leader of the country.

But shortly after returning to Anyang, Fu Hao fell ill from exhaustion. While she was still ailing, her only son, Xiao Yi, died, leaving her deeply dispirited, and she died shortly thereafter. The jue, which honored her in life, were added to the grave of this remarkable woman warrior, commemorating her feats of daring, courage, and skill in what are now recognized as some of the most monumental and illuminating artifacts of Shang culture.


Elisseeff, Danielle. La Femme au Temps des Empereurs de Chine, 1988.

"Fu Hao," in Famous Women in Chinese History. Shanghai People's Press, 1988 (translated from the Chinese by Fang Hong).

Neill, Peter, "New Light on Old China's Oldest Civilizations," in Asia. May–June, 1980.

suggested reading:

Chou, Hung-hsiang. "Chinese Oracle Bones," in Scientific American, April 1987.

Peterson, Barbara Bennett, "Fu Hao," in Notable Women of China. Fulbright Association, 1994.

Barbara Bennett Peterson , Ph.D., Professor of History, University of Hawaii, and editor of numerous biographical and historical compilations