“Fu Hao’s childbearing will be good . . . After thirty-one days, … she gave birth; it was not good; it was a girl.”
Among many divinations that king Wu Ding of Shang (1250-1192 BC) made about his beloved spouse Fu Hao, the one about her childbearing was predicted to be good. But it wasn’t; she gave birth to a girl. Why was having a daughter with his beloved wife (also a military general and priestess) so bad, in spite of the fact that her mother was so powerful? This may have to do with the fact that Fu Hao was the exception, not the rule.
By Ilina Tatiana (edited by Nic Doering)
Men and women were unequal during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC) and long before it, when they started growing crops in the central Yellow River valley between 8000 and 7000 years ago. Eventually, it became the ‘norm’ for husbands to work in the fields and the wives to stay at home and make cloth, process grain, clean, cook, and look after children. Gradually these tasks acquired mythological and moral dimensions. By the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), weaving for women and farming for men was inscribed in the laws of god-king Shennong as the priority of the world, which otherwise would be threatened by hunger and cold. Confucians viewed the mastery of ‘handling the hempen fibres, dealing with the cocoons, weaving silks and forming fillets’ as necessary to become a virtuous woman.
By contrast, there were hardly any ‘male’ duties in which Fu Hao wouldn’t excel against men. A military leader second only to the king, she led his best generals into battle against the Shang’s troublesome neighbours. Her power extended to the realm of the supernatural. She was a priestess and held religious rituals, including sacrifices to ancestors and exorcist ceremonies, and she also participated in royal hunts, which symbolized domination over the animal and spirit world. This domination was also indicated by an axe with a design of a human face framed by two tigers, signed with Fu Hao’s name and found in her tomb.
Fu Hao, although powerful, performed these duties only with the permission of the king. During the Shang Dynasty and before, wealth and power were controlled by men, and continued to be symbolically after their death through objects placed in their burials. One example is a type of axe called a ‘yue’. It was found in male burials in the Lower Yangzi and Shandong areas of the Shang period and earlier. Its form is recognized in ancient characters for 王 (wáng) meaning ‘king’ and 父 (fù), ‘father.’ Wang was drawn as an axe and fu as a hand holding an axe (see examples of these characters below). So it’s telling of Fu Hao’s military prowess that not one but four ‘yue’ axes, among other weapons, were found buried with her.
Fu Hao was not the only militant woman during Shang, but the ‘career’ of a noblewoman depended on the success of her husband and sons, while marriage itself was an instrument of forging alliances and balancing powers. An early example of such a political union was that between Lady Ren of Shang and Ji, King of Zhou, grandparents of Wu Wang (r. 1046–1043 BC), the founder of the Zhou dynasty. Their marriage is recorded in ‘The Book of Odes,’
‘The lady Chung Jen [Ren] of Chi came from the Yin-Shang,
She came and married in Chou [Zhou];
She became bride in the capital;
…T’ai Jen became pregnant and bore this Wen Wang.
Royal women continued to handle feminine affairs even after death. Deified, queens were prayed to for children, and not, for example, for rain or good harvests, like their husbands. Gender defined women’s existence in this world and beyond, and, some scholars contend, was inscribed in their names. The character which stands for Fu Hao’s surname, 好 is usually read as ‘hǎo’ meaning ‘good,’ but in her name, it could also be pronounced ‘Zi’ because the female radical 女 (nǚ) in front of 子 has no meaning other than gender.
A powerful political figure and an unequalled warrior, Fu Hao was still a beloved spouse. Wu Ding cared about every aspect of Fu Hao’s life and continued to do so after her death. He evoked her spirit and, wishing her a happy afterlife, envisioned a good match for her among deities: the very highest God, Di.
Do you know any other Chinese women who were surprisingly powerful for their time? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture!
Ms. Ilina Tatiana is an art lover and culture hunter.
Photo Credits: Public domain unless otherwise indicated. Top image of Fu Hao’s tomb in Anyang: Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Anne Behnke Kinney, “Women in Early China: An Archaeological View,” in The Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History, ed. Paul Goldin. (London: Routledge, 2020), 376
Bret Hinsch, “The Origins of Separation of the Sexes in China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 2003), 597
Jstor link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3217752
David N. Keightley, “At the Beginning: the Status of Women in Neolithic and Shang China,” Nan Nü, (Jan., 1999), 24
The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (Translations from the Asian Classics), tr. and ed. John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold D. Roth. (Columbia University Press, 2010), 500
Sacred Books of the East, The Book Of Rites, tr. James Legge. (Clarendon Press, 1885), 227
Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, “Fu Zi: The Shang Woman Warrior 妇子商女战士,” in The Fourth International Conference on Chinese Paleography [ICCP] Proceedings. (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, October 15-17, 2003), 14
Kwang-Chih Chang, Art, myth, and ritual : the path to political authority in ancient China. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 27
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