bronze bat found in Fu Hao's tomb

Priests in the Shang period (1600 – 1046 B.C.) practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition held a very high place in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty. Some of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “A full description of Shang religion would include many facets.We would need to explore in detail the way in which the ancestral spirits were conceived, we would need to survey all non-ancestral deities and observe their powers, as reflected in divination, we would have to examine the complex system of ritual and sacrifice that paralleled Shang religious beliefs, we would need to discuss the symbolic significance of the sacrificial bronzes that constitute the outstanding emblem of Shang society, and we would need to examine indirect evidence for other forms of religious practice. " Oracle bone inscriptions that deal with non-ancestral deities can "seen as the reflection of a tripartite pantheon of spirits and gods. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

Shang Dynasty Deities

Stone monster

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: From the oracle bones, “we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China” in the 1950s: “The Shang period had a religion with many nature deities, especially deities of fertility. There was no systematized pantheon, different deities being revered in each locality, often under the most varied names. These various deities were, however, similar in character, and later it occurred often that many of them were combined by the priests into a single god. The composite deities thus formed were officially worshipped. Their primeval forms lived on, however, especially in the villages, many centuries longer than the Shang dynasty. The sacrifices associated with them became popular festivals, and so these gods or their successors were saved from oblivion; some of them have lived on in popular religion to the present day. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The supreme god of the official worship was called Di; he was a god of vegetation who guided all growth and birth and was later conceived as a forefather of the races of mankind. The earth was represented as a mother goddess, who bore the plants and animals procreated by Di. In some parts of the Shang realm the two were conceived as a married couple who later were parted by one of their children. The husband went to heaven, and the rain is the male seed that creates life on earth. In other regions it was supposed that in the beginning of the world there was a world-egg, out of which a primeval god came, whose body was represented by the earth: his hair formed the plants, and his limbs the mountains and valleys. Every considerable mountain was also itself a god and, similarly, the river god, the thunder god, cloud, lightning, and wind gods, and many others were worshipped.

Oracle Bone Divinations

Shang priests practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious" signs and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Shang people practiced divination by boring a series of pits into either a tortoise plastron (the bottom part of the tortoise shell) or a cattle scapula. A hot bronze rod was applied, producing cracks, which were interpreted as answers to questions (often expressed as a pair of two possible outcomes) that the king and/or his diviner had posed. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “There are a number of figures who appear in the oracle texts who may be remote forbears of the Shang royal Zi lineage, but whose may instead be independent tribal “gods,” whom the Shang incorporated into what essentially constituted “state” religious practice, perhaps as a way of asserting Shang royal control over tribes that, through conquest or negotiation, had been incorporated into the polity controlled by Shang rulers. These figures are conventionally referred to as the “Former Lords.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“One of these figures may serve as an example. His name is represented by the oracle text graph, sometimes read as Kui, which most analysts interpret as referring to the figure known as Ku, or “Emperor Ku,” the great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor. In some traditional accounts of received texts, Ku is described as an ancestor of the Shang kings – in a sense, at least: the founder of the Shang line in these accounts, Xie, is said to have been the child of a consort of Ku, who conceived the baby after swallowing whole the egg of a mysterious “Dark Bird.” (You may recall that another consort of Ku conceived the progenitor of the Zhou people by stepping on a giant footprint. It does seem that if Ku was a real person, he was unusually accepting of spousal explanations for inexplicable pregnancies.) /+/

The oracle texts occasionally refer to Ku as “High Ancestor” Ku, and this does seem to make clear that he was, in some way, pictured as linked to the Shang royal lineage. Depending on ones interpretation of the bone texts, at least one other member of the Former Lord group and perhaps others are also designated by the term High Ancestor. Such figures share with the most senior members of the Shang ancestral lineage power over such natural features as rain and harvest. /+/

Shang Spirits from the Natural World

Dr. Eno wrote: “The oracle texts document worship of a variety of deities that seem clearly associated not with any human lineage group, but rather with phenomena of the natural world. Some of these seem to have been concrete physical objects – the Yellow River and Mt. Song, a peak located in the region we believe housed a series of Shang Dynasty capital cities prior to the move north to the Anyang region. Others are probably better characterized as “forces of Nature”: the winds of the four cardinal directions, the soil, the sun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

Inscriptions Concerning Nature Deities: I) Weather and Sky Deities: 1) Sun: A) “Crack-making on wu-xu day: Call within for Que to shu-sacrifice to the rising sun and the setting sun sheep and goat.” B) “Crack-making on “bing-zi”day; Ji divined: The King will receive the sun as guest; sacrifice will be without fault.” C) “On “xin-you”day “rong”-sacrifice to the four quarters//On “gui-you”day sacrifice to the rising sun.” /+/

2) Cloud: Fire sacrifice to Di-cloud: “Call upon Que to fire sacrifice to Cloud a hound.” 3) Wind: A) “Perform a sacrifice of dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind.” B) A shaman shall perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind.” C) “A shaman shall perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind with nine hounds.” D) “Perhaps perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind, and sacrifice to Yi Yin sheep and pig.” /+/

4) Rain: A) “Perform a dog-dismemberment [to end] Rain at Yue Peak.” B) Perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Rain at the altar of the earth.” C) “In the cases of wind and rain, it is unclear whether sacrifices are offered to Wind and Rain as gods, or to other spirits who can control the wind and the rain.” 5) Snow: “Perhaps perform a fire sacrifice to Snow; there will be a great rain.” /+/

Di: the Premier Shang God

Dr. Eno wrote: Above the Shang nature gods and spirits, “too remote for direct worship through sacrifice but exemplifying the greatest range of powers, was a high deity known as Di. In the Shang oracle texts, no mention is made of the high god we are familiar with from the Classical era: Tian. Tian seems not to have been a part of the religion of the Shang, but rather to have been a religious figure of the Zhou people that was introduced into broader religious practice only after the conquest of 1045. Instead, Di seems to occupy the place of supreme spirit power in the oracle texts. So similar does Di seem to Tian, however, that it seems unsurprising that “after”the Zhou conquest, the terms seem to be used almost interchangeably in Zhou religious discourse [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Tomb of Fu Hao

What Exactly Is Di Dr. Eno wrote: “It is generally the case that when we approach a body of unfamiliar evidence, we attempt to interpret it in terms of structures with which we are already familiar. The entire notion that the Shang possessed a “pantheon,” or structured population of spirits, is borrowed largely from our models of Greek and Roman religion (Chinese scholars probably model their pictures on both the Western examples and also on later Chinese popular religion). In particular, the figure of Di corresponds in some ways with the notion of a “Zeus” (stripped of his rich background of narrative myth) for Westerners, or of Tian, the high deity of the Zhou, for Chinese scholars. (It is well worth noting that the deity “Tian” does not appear in the oracle inscriptions, although the term Di, used almost as a synonym of Tian, is not at all uncommon in later Zhou texts.)

In what way Di should be conceived as the apex of a pantheon – or whether we should conceive of Di that way at all – is a question that has generated a series of theories that help us become more conscious about the difficulties of interpreting religious terms and concepts.” We we will look briefly at three approaches to “identifying” Di: 1) Identification of Di with High Ancestor Ku; 2) Di as the Celestial Pole; and 3) “Di” as a Generic Term Referring to No Single Deity. “They represent three different styles of interpreting Shang religious evidence; each solves certain problems presented by the oracle text evidence, but all are problematic in some feature. /+/

“Perhaps the most surprising characteristic of the Shang high god Di is that of all the members of the Shang spirit world, Di alone received no sacrifices. The enormity of this omission can’t be overstated – it suggests that somehow Di alone possessed none of the corporal needs of the spirits, nor required any of the outward signs of respect accorded to every other spirit to pacify it and guarantee its friendly disposition towards the world of men. One possible explanation for this last fact is that Di was truly a super-god, the only being in the universe that truly transcended the natural order, which governed man and spirits alike. This would push Shang religion in the direction of a type of attenuated monotheism – while there were many spirits, there was only one true God (not so unlike one type of Judeo-Christian vision, which peoples Heaven with angels and others, but keeps God elevated on a qualitatively different plane). This explanation, of course, makes it even more surprising that the term Di could be applied to individual deceased fathers, or come to name a sacrifice to one’s father. /+/

Shang Burial Practices and Rituals

The Shang were buried with bronze ritual vessels, weapons and jade. Bronze vessels were often filled with food and wine to nourish the dead on their trip to the afterlife. All in all, though, the number of funeral objects found in Shang tombs was considerably less than those found in tombs of other civilizations.

The tomb of Lady Hao, the consort of Wu Ding, a Shang military ruler that once led a force of 13,000 men in battle, is one of the most important Shang discoveries. One of the few undisturbed Shang tomb found, it is is 25 feet deep, 18 feet long and 13 feet wide with various niches and ledges containing 16 sacrificed men, women and children, and six dogs. The tomb is located in Yinxu, near Anyang. It was excavated in 1976. Only a few fragments of the lacquered coffin remained.

bronze animal in Fu Hao's tomb

Among the 1,900 objects found in the tomb of Lady Hao were 195 bronze ritual vessels, of which over 100 were marked with Lady Hao’s name; 250 bronze bells, knives and weapons and other objects; 755 jade objects; 6,900 cowries shells, stone sculptures and ivory carvings. The bronze objects alone weighed 3,500 pounds.

Images of Chinese dancers have been found on 4,500-year-old pottery. The earliest forms of dance grew out of religious rituals — including exorcism dances performed by shaman and drunken masked dances — and courtship festivals and developed into a forms of entertainment patronized by the court. In ancient texts there are descriptions of troupes of women dancers entertaining guests at official banquets and drinking parties. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “It is known that during the Shang dynasty (c. 1766–1066 BC) hunting dances as well as dances imitating animals were performed...The dances imitating animals and employing the so-called “animal movements” have been common in most cultures. In fact, animal movements still form an integral part of many martial art, dance and theater traditions today.” According to Chinese mythology the cultural hero Fu Xo gave humans the fish net and the Harpoon Dance; the god She Nong created agriculture and the Plough Dance; and the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ruler from the 26th century B.C., is honored with Dance of the Cloud Gate. Ancient texts also mention hunting dances and a Constellation Dance, which was performed to seek help from the gods for a good harvest. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki ]

Shang Tomb of Fu Hao

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ Shang royal burial practices confirm the abiding interest of the Shang rulers with their ancestors. At Anyang (in present-day Henan province), the last capital of the Shang, many huge royal tombs have been found. The tomb of the consort Fu Hao, is the only royal Shang tomb of a member of the Shang royal family to have been found unlooted. Fu Hao was mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions as the consort of King Wu Ding and a general who participated in several military campaigns. She also presided over important sacrificial ceremonies and controlled her own estate. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Dated around 1250 B.C., it is a tomb of modest size located outside the main royal cemetery. The tomb is a single large pit, 5.6 meters by 4 meters at the mouth. The floor level housed the royal corpse and most of the utensils and implements buried with her. Below the corpse was a small pit holding the remains of six dogs, and along the perimeters lay the skeletons of 16 humans. Inside the pit was a wooden chamber 5 meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 1.3 meters high. Within the chamber was a lacquered coffin which has since rotted away. There also seems to have once been a structure built over the tomb for holding memorial ceremonies./=\

Altogether Fu Hao's tomb contained: A) 468 bronze objects including 130 weapons, 23 bells, 27 knives, 4 mirrors, and 4 tigers or tiger heads; B) 55 jade objects; C) 63 stone objects; D) 5 ivory objects; E) 564 bone objects including nearly 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads; F) 11 pottery objects; and G) 6,900 pieces of cowry shell. Altogether the bronzes found in Fu Hao's tomb weighed 1.6 metric tons, a sign of the enormous wealth of the royal family. These vessels were not only valuable by virtue of their material...but also because of the difficult process of creating them. Many of the vessels were inscribed with Fu Hao's posthumous title, "Si Mu Xin." /=\

The bronze vessels included a pair of zun vessels used for wine. Each vessel is 46.3 centimeters tall and weighs 16 kilograms and is supported by a creature standing on two legs; a down-turned tail forms the third leg. The back of the head is a removable lid with a miniature bird and dragon as knobs. /=\

More than ten round or relief sculptures of human figures were found in Fu Hao's tomb. One figure wears a long robe with a wide sash at the waist and has a short braid at the back of the neck. Many small jade ornaments in the shapes of animals were also found. They combine an interest in three-dimensional form with an exploration of surface decoration. It is not clear if these were ornaments or served some other function. One pendant of a spread-winged hawk is ingeniously carved so that the weight of the sweeping tail allows the creature to be vertically suspended with the head up. This jade was probably several hundred years old when Lady Hao acquired it. Members of the Shang elite often collected precious objects that had been transmitted from ancient times. /=\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Shang Altar, Ohio State University;

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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