THE story of the woman warrior Hua Mulan has been passed down in history through ballad, film and drama for 1,600 years. Much of the tale’s popularity comes from the rarity of a heroine in a time when women were largely relegated to domesticity.
No artifacts have actually been discovered yet to prove the existence of Mulan, but an exhibition at Capital Museum is capturing attention with revelations of an even earlier female warrior named Fu Hao.
She lived more than 3,000 years ago. Her life is being pieced together through oracle bones, bronze and jade weapons, jewelry and vessels found at an excavation of her tomb in what is now Henan Province in central China.
The museum tribute to her is entitled “Queen, Mother, General — the 40th Anniversary of the Excavation of the Shang Tomb of Fu Hao.” The exhibition at Capital Museum in Beijing runs until June 26.
Curators selected 411 objects from Henan Museum and the Institute of Archaeology to put on display. They recreate the life of Fu Hao, who died at the age of 33. Many of the objects are being exhibited for the first time ever.
As the title suggests, Fu Hao was a queen, mother and military general. Those facts have been confirmed by historical records found on oracle bones and burial artifacts in her tomb. Among the items are delicately carved bone hairpins that were considered a luxury at the time, bronze containers commissioned by her children and a bronze axe weighing 9 kilograms, which functioned as a general’s scepter.
The texts and burial objects also show Fu Hao as a high priestess. Wine vessels believed to have been used in religious ceremonies were unearthed, along with oracle bone texts suggesting Fu Hao hosted visits to the king by distinguished foreign guests.
“Fu Hao’s name was discovered frequently on oracle bone artifacts long before her tomb was unearthed,” archeologist Zheng Zhenxiang told visitors at the opening of the museum exhibit.
“The oracle bones record her as a queen, revealing that she has presided over religious rituals, led troops and never lost a battle. We can see that she was well respected, and she was the first woman general in existing documents.”
Zheng, now 87, led the excavation 40 years ago in Anyang, Henan. Her team unearthed nearly 2,000 burials objects in the queen’s tomb, which was 20 square meters and 7.5 meters deep.
The tomb, soaked in water for thousands of years, left very few remains of the legendary woman herself, but her burial objects survived time and water.
It was a thrill for the team and other archeologists to find Fu Hao’s name, one familiar to them, engraved on some of the bronze objects discovered in the tomb.
Her name had already appeared more than 200 times on oracle bones discovered earlier in royal tombs of that period.
“It’s easy to consider her surname to be Fu and her first name to be Hao, according to our custom today,” Feng Hao, the exhibition’s co-curator and deputy director of the museum’s Research and Exhibition Planning Department, explained to Shanghai Daily. “But Fu, which means woman, was a title for aristocratic women. Hao is actually her surname, probably the name of her tribe. She was one of the queens of King Wu Ding. It was a prosperous time of the dynasty.”
Experts think that she possessed her own lands and people, visiting her royal husband at court a few times a year. Feng said each object in the exhibit reveals intriguing facts about that period.
“This exhibition helps to reconstruct the civilization, history and culture of the Shang Dynasty (about 1600-1046 BC),” he explained. “It was not too far from a matrilineal society, and women enjoyed relatively high respect. They were not restricted to the domestic sphere.”
But the prominence of women in society didn’t last long. After the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 BC), women no longer enjoyed such freedom and choices, he said.
Religion played a significant role in the Shang Dynasty. Some of texts on bones in the exhibition reveal how the gods were consulted on everything from how to relieve toothache to whether a pregnancy involved a son or daughter. The texts indicate that Fu Hao gave birth to at least one daughter in her lifetime.
The most famous of the texts tells us that she was in charge of 13,000 soldiers, further confirming her military role in the court. Those troop numbers were equivalent to about 10 percent of the kingdom’s military strength.
“The text says she was in charge of drafting 13,000 soldiers, though not necessarily commanding them in battle,” Feng explained. “My analysis is that she might have been asked to recruit soldiers from her home tribe for her husband’s army. But either way, we have no doubt about her involvement in military activities.”
The large axe on display is added indication of her role in military matters. The bronze relic is nearly 40 centimeters long, about 37 centimeters wide and weighs 9 kilograms. When it was excavated, the axe puzzled experts. How could Fu Hao have wielded such a heavy weapon?
She may have not have actually needed to raise it in battle, some experts surmise. The axe was probably a symbol of authority, more like a scepter. It is engraved with Fu Hao’s name and bears the pattern of two tigers, with a human captured between them. The axe was believed to possess magical powers and could also be used to frighten enemies.
Bird patterns are frequent symbols on objects recovered from the Shang dynasty, probably because the dynasty’s founding mythology involves birds.
Jade parrots, with tails connected, are only 0.3 centimeter thick, revealing the delicate skill of the period’s craftsmen. And a bronze owl-shaped wine vessel was also found in the tomb.
“A lot of wine vessels were found in her tomb,” Feng said. “They reveal how the Shang people enjoyed wine. Fu Hao herself could well have been a good drinker. But some of the vessels were probably mainly used in religious rituals, since she also served as a high priestess.”
Birds were not the only animals Shang craftsmen carved out of jade, bronze and bones. A crouching jade dragon in the exhibit suggests how the image of the mythical creature was already popular more than 3,000 years ago. The dragon was said to be able to “expand, shrink, hide, reveal, lengthen or shorten itself.”
“From these birds and monsters, you can see how people of the period believed in the power of nature,” Feng said. “For them, human beings were only one element of nature, neither the conqueror nor the master. Everything was in the hands of the gods.”
Among the nearly 2,000 burial objects, almost 500 were bone hairpins, believed to be jewelry Fu Hao wore when she was alive. They were delicately sculptured in animal shapes from the bones of bulls, pigs, deer and sheep.
“They reveal the womanly side of her and her appreciation of beauty and aesthetics,” Feng added.
Oracle bone texts also indicate that Fu Hao was possibly “married” to some of her husband’s ancestors after she died — an odd custom by today’s standards. Some experts believe it was out of love and respect that her husband, the king, hoped his courageous and heroic ancestors would take good care of her in the afterworld.
“The excavation of this tomb was archeologically significant because it is complete and unique,” said Zheng. “It was never pillaged — the only one from that time period that was not raided. It contains enough evidence to identify the owner and the period in which she lived.”