Shang blade

Many oracle-bone inscriptions deal with sacrifice. Among the kings' most important functions were sacrificial ritual, and ritual-related war and hunting, widely regarded at state-unifying, rituals with sacrificial elements. Both animals and humans were sacrificed, mostly to ancestral spirits but also to "nature" deities. Some inscribed oracle bones mention the rite of ning, which involved dismembering a dog to honor the winds.[Source: “Archaic Chinese Sacrificial Practices in the Light of Generative Anthropology” by Herbert Plutschow, East Asian Languages & Cultures, UCLA, Anthropoetics I, no. 2 (December 1995) -]

Herbert Plutschow of UCLA wrote: The Shang “performed oracles to find out the outcome of illness and what sacrifice should be offered for recovery. The questions the Shang dynasty diviners most often asked was, however, what sacrifice the ancestral spirit or nature deity preferred in response to a situation which is, in most cases, left unexplained, but, most likely, responded to a real or putative sacrificial crisis. -

“Some well-defined "nature" deities, such as river and mountain deities, required their own sacrifice. Unlike other ancient agricultural states, no sacrifice was ever offered to the sun or the moon. Instead, the river god Ho played an important part in ancient Chinese ritual, requiring his own set of animal and human sacrifices which were sunk, or buried on the river banks. Perhaps, in their agricultural endeavor, the Shang feared the capricious nature of the river more than the sun. Probably in the Shang, but definitely in the Chou dynasty, Ho required a yearly sacrificial marriage with a select virgin who, in a place called Yeh in the area of the Shang capital, was ritually sacrificed/married to Ho. She was placed on a raft and drowned. She differed from other human victims in that she was a surrogate member, probably a precious one, the community was willing to "sacrifice" only to ensure its well-being. This practice was discontinued under pressure of Confucian "humanism" in the year 400 B.C.. -

“Shang dynasty sacrifice consisted in humans and animals and, to a lesser extent, wine and food (millet), and sometimes, as practiced later in Japan, tools, weapons and clothing. Sacrificial animals included dogs (traditionally interpreted as guides for the spirits, to help them during their hunts), and also sheep, oxen and pigs. Over one hundred dogs were buried underneath the city walls of the Shang capital. According to the pictographs archeologists have been able to decipher, there were in Shang thirty-seven categories of blood and food sacrifices. Some of them were completely or partially burned or buried. The total burning of sacrifice has usually been interpreted as a way to feed the spirits in the form of smoke climbing up the heavens. Humans were completely burned either to satisfy the ancestral appetite and, or, as scapegoats, to exonerate the community from evil. Partial burning may have had, in addition, the purpose of communal feasting. Some sacrificial victims were buried especially when they were addressed to an earth deity or, they were sunk into the water of a river deity. “ -

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

Oracle Bone Inscriptions Related to Sacrifices

The following are some oracle bone inscriptions related to sacrifices offered by Plutschow: 1) “Ping-tzu/question/K'o/question/no/purification/Princess Hsieh/front/Keng, promise/Keng/pair of sheep/promise/Keng/three/sheep pairs.” Most likely meaning: "On the day of Ping-tzu, K'o asks (asked?) the oracle: Should Princess Hsieh be purified in front of [the late] Keng? Should one or three pairs of sheep be promised?" When the bones mention the word "promise" it probably was fulfilled after good results. A large number of oracle bones indicate that animals and humans were sacrificed to "purify" a royal ancestor. The control of natural forces seems to have been the main reason for this purification. [Source: “Archaic Chinese Sacrificial Practices in the Light of Generative Anthropology” by Herbert Plutschow, East Asian Languages & Cultures, UCLA, Anthropoetics I, no. 2 (December 1995) -]

2) Some oracles asked how the sheep should be killed, e.g., by letting them bleed to death, or how the sacrifice should be offered, e.g., by boiling them in a cauldron, etc. In the following two examples, humans were sacrificed for rain: A) “Question/burning men/stakes/have/follow/rain.” Most likely meaning: "Should a man be burnt at the stakes? Will rain follow?" B) “Question/burning men/stake/have/follow/rain.” Most likely meaning: "Should a man be burnt at the stakes? Will rain follow?" -

4) The Shang offered blood sacrifice for a good harvest of millet: “Chi-mao/question/petition/millet/to/Shih-jen/three/oxen pairs.” Most likely meaning: "On the day of Chi-mao the oracle was asked if, to get a good harvest of millet, three pairs of oxen should be sacrificed to Shih-jen?” Shih-jen, the preferred object of such petitions, was the grandfather of the dynasty's founder, and Chi-mao was his name date in the ancient Chinese decimal cycle. -

Shang Human Sacrifices

bronze ding (cauldron) with human faces

Human sacrifice was not unusual during the Shang Dynasty. Most medium and large size tombs from this time period contain human sacrifices. Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “Many oracle bones refer to human sacrifices meant to appease these spirits. At one complex of tombs in Henan Province, excavations have uncovered more than 1,200 sacrificial pits, most of which contain human victims. An archaeologist once told me that he had counted 60 different ways a person could be killed during a Shang ceremony. But he also reminded me that these were rituals, not murder and mayhem. From the Shang perspective, human sacrifice was simply part of a remarkably well organized system. The Shang kept a strict calendar, with certain sacrificial days devoted to certain ancestors. They were meticulous almost to the point of scientific inquiry. In one instance, a diviner patiently made 70 individual oracle-bone cracks in order to determine which ancestor was responsible for a living king's toothache.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010 ^^

“The Shang routinely sacrificed humans. Some graves are filled with the bones of human sacrifices. The oracle bones describe burials with hundreds of sacrifices. By one count more than 13,000 people were sacrificed in the last 250 years of the Shang Dynasty alone. The victims were probably slaves but may have been prisoners of war. At the funerals of great leaders, dogs, horses, men and women were killed and buried with rulers. The more important the ruler generally the more people that were buried with him. According to legend the last Shang emperor died after throwing himself into his burning palace and was buried with much of his court. ^^

“Excavations at the Shang site of Xiaotun have revealed nine massive tombs thought to belong to the final Shang kings. All the tombs have been looted. Still, archeologists have found lots of evidence of sacrifices. One tomb contained 74 beheaded skeletons. Another contained 37 horses. In others were monkeys, dogs, cattle and birds. Some of the victims showed signs of struggle which suggests they were buried alive. ^^

“One explanation for the slaughter of real people as opposed to the manufacturing of life-size terra-cotta figures like those buried in Xian centuries later, is that the Shang believed only dead people and animals could accompany dead leaders to the afterlife. Sacrificed women thought to be concubines were killed by strangulation and not beheaded presumably so they would remain whole in the afterlife. Another explanation for human sacrifices associated with rulers is that by having their lives bound with their master, wives, bodyguards, and servants were less likely to plot against the ruler and more likely to do what ever they could do to make sure he stayed alive. A third explanation is that the sacrifices were simply offereings to ancestors, deities or spirits.” ^^

Oracle Bone Inscriptions Related to Human Sacrifices

The following are some oracle bone inscriptions related to human sacrifices offered by Plutschow: 1) The following example combines animal and human sacrifice with a petition for rain: “Should/petition/rain/to/Hsi/burning/nine/sheep pairs.” Most likely meaning: "Should a petition for rain be addressed to Hsi? Should nine pairs of sheep be sacrificed?” [Source: “Archaic Chinese Sacrificial Practices in the Light of Generative Anthropology” by Herbert Plutschow, East Asian Languages & Cultures, UCLA, Anthropoetics I, no. 2 (December 1995) -]

2) Thanksgiving sacrifice sometimes involved humans: HsinTzu/question/K'o/question/wine/libation/we/reciprocation/Ta-chia/Tsu-i/ten/decapitation/ten/sheep pairs.” Most likely meaning: "On the day of Hsin-szu K'o divined: 'Should we offer wine? Should we offer ancestor Ta-chia and Tsu-i ten beheaded men and ten pairs of sheep to thank them?" This oracle presented a choice between wine and human sacrifice. The meaning of the decapitation of sacrificial men is yet unknown. -

2) Many oracle-bone inscriptions fail to mention any other sacrificial purpose than the purification of an ancestral deity: A) “Chia-hsu/question/Hsuan/question/purification/Princess Hau/front/father I/promise/slave.” Most likely meaning: "On the day of Chia-hsu Hsuan divines (divined?): "Should Princess Hau be purified in front of [her late] father? Should a slave be sacrificed?" B) “ Purification/before/Tsu-hsin,use/Ch'iang” Most likely meaning: "Should the purification take place before Tsu-hsin? Should a man of Ch'iang be sacrificed? -

3) Men from the sheep-raising Ch'iang tribe seemed to have been the preferred source of human sacrifice. Sometimes, diviners presented the deities with a choice of animal or human sacrifice: “Question/question/purification/before/Ting/three/oxen pairs/Ch'iang/ten.” Most likely meaning: "Should the purification before Tsu-ting be done with the sacrifice of three oxen pairs and ten men of Ch'iang? -

Many Human Sacrifices Found in Torched, Well-Designed Shang City

oracle shell

In May 2010, a team of researchers excavating a 3,300 year old Shang Dynasty palace-temple complex at the ancient city of Huanbei announced they had discovered that it was burned down after only 50 years of use by the city’s own rulers and was stripped of all its goods before being destroyed, with a large number of human sacrifices were left behind, with 40 discovered in one building alone. [Source: Owen Jarus, The Independent, May 17, 2010 ~|~]

Owen Jarus wrote in The Independent: “Professor Zhichun Jing, of the University of British Columbia, has been working with colleagues in China to excavate and study Huanbei, which is a large site, slightly bigger than New York’s Central Park. The palace-temple complex was at the centre of Huanbei, and would have had a population of at least 10,000 people. ~|~

“Jing explains that the city was planned in accordance with Shang cosmology, with all buildings oriented at 13 degrees east. This is seen at other Shang sites, and researchers are hoping to decipher the meaning of this orientation. The complex itself, which would have served as both a temple and palace, contains at least sixty buildings. In the largest of these (the largest Bronze Age building ever found in China), a number of sacrificial pits have been discovered containing several skeletons. ~|~

“A layer of red burnt earth covers the buildings, and the team have concluded that the whole city was destroyed by a single fire. The lack of bodies or other evidence of a battle suggests that the city may have been torched by its own rulers rather than invaders – a theory supported by the fact that few examples of pottery, gems or jewellery were found at the site. Jing suggests that the inhabitants took everything with them before setting the city alight. The whole city was abandoned, and another city, Yinxu, was founded on the other side of the river. ~|~

“However, the inhabitants left behind a particularly large number of human sacrifices, with at least 40 in the largest building. Professor Jing explained that that further scientific analysis needs to be done on the bodies, but that oracle bone inscriptions found at other Shang sites suggest that sacrifices were prisoners of war. “According to oracle bones inscriptions the victims for the ritual killings (were) likely the captives of the war the Shang engaged with neighbours,” said Jing. “Definitely by the end of the dynasty the war captives were the primary source of human victims.” Another possibility is that some of the sacrifices might be criminals, who were made to pay the ultimate price for their alleged crimes. Strontium analysis performed on human bones show that when Yinxu was first founded, after the abandonment of Huanbei, many of the sacrifices were local people. ~|~

“Even though only a small portion of the site has been excavated, Huanbei, along with Yinxu, has recently been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a designation that will help protect it from modern development. Over 30 square kilometers have been designated as protected. Without the threat of development archaeologists will be able to excavate the site slowly and carefully, and will hopefully reveal more about the inhabitants of the hastily abandoned Shang city.” ~|~

Shamanism and Shang Religion

owl-shaped ritual wine container

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The oracle texts suggest a religious structure that focuses on interactions with the realm of spirits that pivot on ritual performance, sacrificial offerings, and the technical manipulation of numinous materials (prepared bone and shell). Communication with spirits is, in this sense, at one remove from direct encounter. But some interpreters, such as K.C. Chang, argued strongly that this picture was incomplete, and that Shang religion was permeated with shamanistic practices. These could be understood through proper understanding of the remnants of Shang myth that survived in later texts and in the iconography of Shang ritual bronzes, as discussed in the earlier reading on that topic. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Some interpreters see confirmation of the shamanistic basis of Shang religion in the oracle texts themselves. It is certainly true that we find in the oracle texts a written character that corresponds with the later Chinese term wu, which we generally translate as “shaman,” and which figures, for example, in the religion of Chu during the later Zhou period. We even encounter in the inscriptional records individuals who bear the term wu as a title. But whether this term actually corresponds to figures who functioned as shamans – that is, as people who, through trance or some other skill or gift could have direct contact with the world of spirits – is not clear. /+/

“For example, Victor Mair, a scholar who has explored the long history of contact between China and Inner Asia has argued from archaeological, artistic, and linguistic evidence that the term wu is etymologically and culturally related to the term magus (plural magi, as the in the Biblical “Three Magi”), which originally denoted priests in Persian Zoroastrian religious practice. Mair’s archaeological evidence suggests that wu (which, in Old Chinese, would have had pronunciation similar to “ myag”) were originally non-Chinese religious figures, members of migrant Iranian communities who occupied Central Asian regions adjacent to and interacting with China. Magi were not shamans with a gift for spirit contact; they were priests whose powers came from learned knowledge (the term “magician” is a descendant of magus).Mair argues that the Shang wu are best understood in these terms as people able to communicate with spirits through the media of ritual and manipulative arts, not through personal mediation and trance. /+/

“But other scholars note that oracle texts picture the Shang king as uniquely equipped to “hear” the messages of the spirits through oracle divination – only the king prognosticates the future on the basis of the cracks made in bone and shell during the divination process. Moreover, as art historian Elizabeth Childs-Johnson has pointed out, the “guest” ritual that many oracle texts refer to suggests that the Shang king acted as the direct host of powerful spirits descending during sacrificial ceremonies. In her view, the Shang king himself must be understood to have been a shaman, wielding power as a consequence of personal mediation with royal ancestors and other powerful spirits. /+/

“Shamanism – if we allow some flexibility to the definition – was a widely dispersed religious form in traditional societies, and it is not unreasonable to anticipate that it was a feature of Shang religion, particularly since we have strong evidence for shamanism, denoted by the term wu, a millennium later in Chu religion. However, on the basis of current evidence, it is probably most accurate to say that claims for Shang shamanism, while not inconsistent with the evidence, are also not required by it, and that the theory remains speculative. /+/

“Some of the ideas in this reading draw on general theories of religion and the history of religion that may be of interest to those who find this brief section engaging. For example, those intrigued with the role of Chu shamans may want to look at the classic general study Shamanism, by Mircea Eliade (1951; English trans., Princeton: 1964), which has been most influential in delimiting the features of shamanism in the strict sense. To follow up on the general religious function of ritual, it may be interesting to consult the somewhat more theoretical Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice by Catherine Bell (Oxford: 1992), whose scholarly background lies in the study of medieval Chinese religion. /+/

“For an account of traditional sources concerning shamanism (or, more accurately, wu) in ancient China, including issues of their social status, see Fu.shi Lin, “The Image and Status of Shamans in Ancient China,” in John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski, ed., Early Chinese Religion (Leiden: 2009), vol. 1, pp. 397.459. (Lin does engage the theoretical issue of whether the figures recorded in ancient Chinese religion conformed to descriptions of shamans in a strict sense.) /+/

Ancestors and Ancestral Sacrifice During the Shang Dynasty

altar vessel

Dr. Eno wrote: “The oracle texts make it very clear that the royal clan – the lineage group bearing the king’s surname (Zi q) – lived in the shadow of its dead, and we presume that this held true for other levels of society as well. As Keightley’s imaginative reconstruction of a divination ceremony illustrated, it did not seem to have occurred to the superstitious king Wu-ding that his toothache could have come from natural causes; its supernatural agency was certain and that agency was sure to be ancestral. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When we read the oracle texts inscribed during the reigns of Wu-ding and his immediate successors, we see that the king was deeply in awe of the powers of the ancestors. These powers include not only the ability to affect the royal person, the ancestors are also viewed as influencing the outcome of battles, the success of the hunt, and childbirth – whether the royal consorts would be fortunate and give birth to boys – and virtually all other affairs of life, including the weather and harvests. Sacrifices to the ancestors were often offered on a quid pro quo basis, as Pan- geng was offered a dog and a sheep to convince him to improve the king’s dental well being. In addition to such sacrifices in response to the needs of the occasion, the Shang also offered the ancestors sacrifices on a regular schedule – after all, if ancestors were fed with regularity they would have no cause to become upset and bring bad fortune to their descendants. /+/

“As we progress through the oracle records, we find that communication with the ancestors increasingly concerned the routine of scheduled sacrifice, and quid pro quo offerings almost disappear. The scheduled sacrifices, however, become the dominant feature of life at the Shang capital. Towards the end of the Shang, each major ancestor – the former kings or chief consorts (queens) – was treated during the course of the year to five grand ceremonies of sacrifice, huge affairs, which included many smaller steps of sacrifice and ritual performance. These rituals, into which the Shang poured enormous resources in the form of slaughtered animals and the labor of ceremonial specialists, musicians, and rows of dancers, grew in number by the end of the dynasty to a total of just over 360, thus ensuring that the Shang royal house would be engaged in mounting major ritual ceremonies on every day of the year. In fact, the word “sacrifice” came to denote a year, so closely did the sacrificial cycle correspond to the natural calendar, and when an inscription refers to the “third sacrifice” of some king’s reign, it means year number three. /+/

“One interesting aspect of Shang society that we can see through the inscriptions relating to sacrifice is the role that women may have played. While the sacrifice inscriptions do not speak directly to the role they played in life, they tell us about the role they played later. It is clear that ancestral mothers and grandmothers were powerful and not always friendly forces in the lives of their children and descendants. While the influence of dead males predominated, the spirits of women past played a forceful role as well. They may not have dominated, but they counted, at least once they were dead. (We will see in a later section that there are other inscriptions which show us that they could play very significant roles in life as well.)

Oracle Bone Inscriptions Related to Ancestors and Ancestral Sacrifice

The following inscriptions are related to the ancestors and how they appear as spirits appear in the oracle texts: 1) Crack-making on bing-wu day, Xing divined about whether if on the next ding-wei day we make yi-sacrifice to Father ding there will be no misfortune. 2) Crack-making on ding-mao day, Yin divined about whether if the King takes Da-ding as guest in the xie-sacrifice there will be no flaw. 3) We shall protect the king’s eyes against Grandmother Ji. [This and the following inscriptions are abbreviated, leaving out the divination “preface” (date, diviner, and so forth). I have translated the remainder of each as a statement for the spirits to respond to.] 4) [The king] has a toothache; it is [caused by] Father yi. 5) We shallju -sacrifice to Father yi on account of a stomach ailment. 6) The king’s son Yu has encountered disaster on account of Mother Geng. We shall perhaps pray for a child to High Grandmother Bing.. These are a sample of the hundreds of thousands that exist. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “As we move “up” the ancestral ladder, from recent to distant ancestors, we find that earlier ancestors – the first generations of kings of the Shang Dynasty – the range of powers that ancestors seem to possess, as reflected in the oracle texts, grows. While most ancestors seem to have powers that pertain principally to the persons of the living king and members of the royal Zi lineage, distant ancestors seem to exercise powers that more directly affect the state. /+/

Shang-era jade knife

“Although the Shang Dynasty was founded about 1600 B.C. by the king known as Tang the Successful, the senior member of the Zi lineage during his lifetime, the oracle records make clear that the Zi lineage traced its origins to a much more distant progenitor, a leader referred to in divination texts as Shang-jia , who lived six generations prior to Tang. This figure, along with the generations of lineage leaders in the generations that follow prior to the establishment of the dynasty, are sometimes sacrificed to as a group. Both Shang-jia and these pre-dynastic leaders, who are sometimes referred to together as the Six Sprits (the remaining five being referred to as the Lesser Spirits), seem to have been pictured as able to influence such natural phenomena as the weather, which determined the size of the annual harvest.” One inscription related to this reads: “Crack making on ding-wei day, we divined about requesting good harvest of Shang-jia through the Six Spirits with an ox, ji-sacrificing a sheep to the Lesser Spirits.” /+/

“Such powers, as we will see below, are more often associated with spirits who are not ancestors of the Shang kings, and the overlap between these remote ancestors and spirits more directly associated with aspects of Nature leads to interesting questions about whether the Shang royal family, and perhaps all members of the Shang polity aware of the activities of the Shang state, viewed any clear division between the royal dead and spirit entities that were not conceived as human in any respect. /+/

Hou-Chia-Chuang Tomb No.1001 and Its 39 Decapitated Bodies

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The last phase of the Shang dynasty began about 3,300 years ago, when the Shang ruler P'an Keng moved his capital to a site at what is now Hsiao-t'un village in Anyang county, Henan Province. Twelve kings ruled there during the following 273 years, and the culture of the Shang people flourished. When these kings died, they were usually buried under large grave-mounds north of the Hsiao-t'un site, across the Huan River in an area called Hsi-pei-kang in the township of Hou-chia-chuang. From the fall of 1934 to the spring of 1935, archaeological teams from the Academia Sinica Institute of History and Philology carried out extensive excavations at one of these tombs (No.1001), which produced some of the most imporant finds in modern Chinese archaeology. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“When finally excavated, the tomb was a large southward-facing cross-shaped pit. The legs of the cross were ramps leading down into the earth; the north-south leg was about 69 meters long and seven meters wide, while the east-west leg was about 46 meters long. The actual burial chamber was at the intersection of the ramps, in the lowest part of the pit, and was shaped like the Chinese character ya. This area was 10.5 meters below ground level and contained traces of a wooden stucture, also shaped; the structure was 9.7 meters from north to south (with an entrance at the south end) and 11.2 meters from east to west. It was three meters high, so that the roof would still have been 7.4 meters underground when the pit was filled in. This structure originally contained the sarcophagus of the Shang king (thought to be one of the earlier rulers of the late Shang period) along with the funerary foods that were customarily buried with late-Shang rulers. Unfortunately, grave-robbers began to rifle the tomb at an undetermined date, and most of the more valuable treasure was removed; even the king's bones were scattered. Thus,when the Academia Sinica archaelolgists uncovered the tomb, they found only a small portion of the original contents. \=/

“Although the funerary items excavated from this tomb were relatively few in number, they nevertheless constituted a considerable find, including stone and bone carvings, white-clay pottery, jades and bronze vessels. The free-standing stone carvings are lively and realistic depictions of animals, and the stone tigers and owls among them have since become especially famous. Other important finds included a carved bone hsun or ocarina, one of the earlier known examples of a Chinese wind instrument, and two ladlelike ssu utensils, also of carved bone, whose colorful painted decors indicate that the traditional Chinese hair writing-brush was being used for painting during the late Shang period. The white-clay pottery found in this tomb represented a new stage in the cultural development that had begun with the previously-known painted and black-clay potteries of the Late Neolithic period; its decorations were knife-carved, a clear departure from the painted pottery. Moreover, the finely-carved decorative motifs on the bone objects show that the Shang people possessed the tools and techniques for working such hard materials. These motifs are in the same style as those on the pottery and bronzes of the time, and brilliantly display the Shang artisans' genius for capturing living movement in simplified, expressive patterns that are the precursors of traditional Chinese decorative design. \=/

“Besides the strikingly beautiful funerary objects, the excavation also yielded large numbers of human bones. These were the bones of sacrificial victims who had either allowed themselves to be buried alive or were killed outright at the time of the king's burial. Those who apparently died voluntarily included soldiers, ceremonial attendants and the king's servants, but most frightful was the discovery of the bones of at least fifty-nine people who had been decapitated like cattle on the southern ramp of the tomb as part of the burial ceremonies. After the central structure had been buried, the ramps leading to it were gradually filled in with layers of earth and groups of decapitated victims were buried in each layer; the heads of all the victims were collected and finally buried in the uppermost layer. The victims were separated according to age, with youths between fifteen and twenty years of age in the lower layers and adults in the middle and upper layers. It is possible that these people were prisoners of war captured by the Shang king on a campaign against the Ch'iang nomad tribe of the northwest, who were the traditional enemies of the Shang. In all,at least 164 sacrifical victims were found in various parts of the tomb, an indication of the awesome grandeur of a Shang king's funeral.

Why Did the Shang Practice Human Sacrifice

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]

“In order to promote the fertility of the earth, it was believed that sacrifices must be offered to the gods. Consequently, in the Shang realm and the regions surrounding it there were many sorts of human sacrifices; often the victims were prisoners of war. One gains the impression that many wars were conducted not as wars of conquest but only for the purpose of capturing prisoners, although the area under Shang control gradually increased towards the west and the south-east, a fact demonstrating the interest in conquest. In some regions men lurked in the spring for people from other villages; they slew them, sacrificed them to the earth, and distributed portions of the flesh of the sacrifice to the various owners of fields, who buried them. At a later time all human sacrifices were prohibited, but we have reports down to the eleventh century A.D., and even later, that such sacrifices were offered secretly in certain regions of central China.

In other regions a great boat festival was held in the spring, to which many crews came crowded in long narrow boats. At least one of the boats had to capsize; the people who were thus drowned were a sacrifice to the deities of fertility. This festival has maintained its fundamental character to this day, in spite of various changes. The same is true of other festivals, customs, and conceptions, vestiges of which are contained at least in folklore. In addition to the nature deities which were implored to give fertility, to send rain, or to prevent floods and storms, the Shang also worshipped deceased rulers and even dead ministers as a kind of intermediaries between man and the highest deity, Shang Ti. This practice may be regarded as the forerunner of "ancestral worship" which became so typical of later China.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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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