Prophetess, consort and commander of armies…
King Wu Ding had a lot of wives. This Shang dynasty ruler gained allies by marrying a woman from each tribe neighbouring his kingdom, amassing a harem of no less than sixty women, who were considered his property. It was in this fashion that Lady Fu Hao arrived at the Royal palace. An intelligent and capable woman, she was not happy to settle for slavery. This lady had a plan.
Step 1 – Rise through the ranks.
The royal palace was a miniature matriarchal society, in which every wife had her place. Fu Hao put her politically astute mind to use and soon navigated her way through the hierarchy, becoming closer to the king – and his power. She did not stop until she had achieved the place of royal consort. Now she had some influence.
Step 2 – Become a Priestess.
Rituals in feudal China were under the control of the King, as sacrifices and oracle casting were highly respected tasks. As a kingdom constantly defending its borders, foreseeing the future was of utmost importance.
The ancient Chinese read prophecies by inscribing questions onto hollowed-out tortoise shells and ox bones, before heating the bone or shell until it cracked. These cracks were then interpreted as answers. These items are known as oracle bones, and it is from these artefacts that we know about Fu Hao’s life.
Inscriptions on the bones not only speak of her later triumphs on the battle field, but that she herself prepared oracle bones and conducted special rituals on behalf of her king, elevating her status further to High Priestess.
Step 3 – Become a General.
Religious power was not enough for Fu Hao, who had a more exciting life in mind, beyond the palace walls. It is thought that the royal Lady may have come from a warrior tribe, as Fu Hao soon impressed Wu Ding with her extensive knowledge of warfare and her quick thinking. Wu Ding further expressed his trust and faith in Fu Hao when he appointed her head of his army.
Bone inscriptions describe Lady Fu Hao leading a number of successful military campaigns during a time when war against neighbouring territories was commonplace. The Shang enemies, the Tu Fang, had fought for generations, until Fu Hao defeated them in a single battle. She was also responsible for the first known large-scale ambush in Chinese history – defeating the kingdom of Ba.
Step 4 – Secure a hero’s burial.
As you can imagine, Wu ding was particularly fond of Lady Fu Hao, who had made his army a force to be reckoned with, who gave him wise advice and who cast fortuitous prophecies for him. Fu Hao was rewarded
with her own fiefdom on the edge of Wu Ding’s empire.
She died before Wu Ding, and was further exalted by him in death. When her tomb was discovered in 1974, it was full of treasure – bronze, jade and fine lacquer. It also contained a full arsenal including swords, bows and battle axes. There is evidence that Wu ding sought her assistance even in death, as many sacrifices were made at this great lady’s tomb.
Notable women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century – Barbara Bennet Peterson
The Tomb of Lady Fu Hao – The British Museum