Wonders and wickedness in the days of yore

The ancient capital of Yin produced the earliest Chinese characters and fine bronzeware 3,000 years ago. But it also had a dark side steeped in human sacrifice.


Looking at someone’s personal blog, I was so intrigued by photos of piles of human bones at one of China’s oldest archeological sites that I decided I wanted to see the ruins of the ancient culture with my own eyes.

So I traveled to the small city of Anyang in central China’s Henan Province, the nearest town to a site with the remnants of a culture dating back 3,300 years to the Shang Dynasty. The dynasty died in about 1046 BC, and its ruins weren’t unearthed until the last century.

The piles of human bones that had so piqued my interest were recovered from the crypts of royal tombs and from under the foundations of buildings.

The Shang era, which left traces of both its wisdom and barbarism at the site, is credited with creating the earliest written characters in China and with taking bronzeware forging to a new peak.

Yinxu (Ruins of Yin) is divided into two sections: the Ancestral Shrine and the Royal Palace. The ruins were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.

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The Chinese-style gate for visitors to enter the site of the Ruins of Yin

Unlike other World Heritage Sites in Henan that are so often jam-packed with tourists, Yinxu was relatively quiet and empty when I visited in May. The Ancestral Shrine site includes a museum, an oracle inscription pit, a chariot gallery and several remnants of building foundations.

According to the oracle inscriptions, the Shang Dynasty moved its capital multiple times, until around 1300 BC, when King Pan Geng chose what is today Anyang as the new imperial seat and called it Yin.

Farms were set up and houses were built in an area of about 2,400 hectares, or about double the size of downtown Shanghai’s Huangpu District.

In that time, people were in constant fear of two things: starvation and invasion by hostile tribes. So farming and defense were paramount concerns. The ancients turned to supernatural forces to predict the future.

For fortune-telling, they used tortoise shells and the bones of animals. They would drill holes in the shells and bones, then grill them over fires to see where cracks ran. Depending on the fractures, the future boded either good or ill.

These ancients also carved or wrote the oracles on the shells, with pictographics. They are known today as “oracle inscriptions.”

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Oracle inscriptions on a stone stele

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More than 17,000 pieces of shells and bones with inscriptions have been found at the YH127 Pit.

The archeological site of YH127 Pit is a landmark in Yinxu. In 1936, archeologists found more than 17,000 pieces of shells in one pit, by far the largest discovery of oracle inscriptions.

Although the bones and shells have since been transferred, the original pit is still there for visitors to view. Replicas were made to restore the original look.

In addition to shells and animal bones, human skulls were also visible in the pit.

Even gazing at the vivid replicas gave me goosebumps. But this was just the beginning of the discoveries.

Next to YH127 Pit is the chariot gallery. Replicas of six chariots and part of an ancient road demonstrate how Chinese people so long ago learned how to use wheels to economize manpower.

It is believed that when a slave owner died during the Shang Dynasty, his chariot, horses and sometimes even slaves were interred with him. In the gallery, horse bones could be seen on five chariots, and four chariots had human skeletons on them. The sacrifices were three grown men and a young boy.

Burying slaves alive with dead masters was a prevailing custom of the time. In the Fu Hao Tomb, another landmark of Yinxu, more than five skeletons were found in a crypt with a great array of burial objects. The bones lay on the four edges of the crypt, as if guarding the tomb from grave robbers.

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Replicas of chariots and horse bones found at site

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Funerary objects unearthed at the site

Fu Hao, who died in 1200 BC, was one of the 60-plus wives of King Wu Ding. Fu Hao was not her real name. Literally the name meant “a relative named or surnamed Hao.”

The oracle inscriptions say that Wu Ding entrusted Fu to host sacrificial rituals and undertake augury.

She must have been a very determined woman. When a tribe named Tufang launched a series of wars against the Shang, Fu is said to have won the decisive battle that repulsed the enemy for good.

Indeed, she is believed to be the first female general and politician in Chinese history. Nearly 2,000 pieces of funerary objects, many of them artistic jade and bronzewares, were unearthed from the crypt of her tomb. They show the high social status she enjoyed.

The temple above the crypt has been rebuilt, and a statue of Fu stands next to the tomb. The design of the statue was left to the sculptor’s imagination because Fu’s body was never found.

Walking past the tomb, I reached a clearing about the size of half a soccer field. A sign there advised me that this was a foundation of a building, now long gone. However, the underground timber piles are well-preserved.

There were glass covers here and there on the clearing. I assumed they provided a glimpse of the piles. How wrong I was! Under each glass cover was a small crypt, filled with between two to four skeletons. Some held weapon-like tools in their hands.

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A statue of Fu Hao, the first female general in Chinese history, stands next to her tomb.

It is a gruesome sight. The skeletons were human sacrifices buried alive in the foundation before construction work started. Some of the skeletons had wide-open mouths, expressing the horror and desperation of mud suffocating them.

As I stood there shocked by what I saw, a staff member of Yinxu walked past and explained the ancient practice to me.

“During the Shang Dynasty, there were four processes of building a house or palace,” she said. “That meant four groups of people were killed before laying the foundation and pilings, and before the gate was constructed. People who lived above these mass graves believed the sacrifices would please the gods.”

Her explanation gave me goosebumps again. I couldn’t help thinking what the slaves must have thought about a culture we so highly praise today. Every piece of fine bronzeware, jewelry and other objects was forged not only from their skills and wisdom, but also from their blood and tears.

No wonder the slaves eventually turned on their masters and joined rebellions led by Ji Fa, the founder of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC).

As a result, the city of Yin was destroyed and abandoned, and the once flourishing Yin culture was lost to the world until its remains were unearthed 3,000 years later.

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Replica of a jade bird displayed at the Yinxu Museum

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A horned mythical creature adorns the bronzeware at Yinxu Museum.

If you go:

There is direct high-speed train between Shanghai and Anyang, which takes around six hours. To save time, tourists can first take a flight to Zhengzhou, which takes two hours, and then transfer to Anyang by train that takes 50 minutes.

Yinxu is quite close to downtown Anyang. Buses No. 1, 5 and 41 go to the site. Free shuttle buses run between the Ancestral Shrine and the Royal Palace Shrine. The buses depart every half hour.

Large bronze vessel is an icon of Yin ruins

The Houmuwu ding, more commonly known as Simuwu ding, was unearthed in 1939 in Anyang.

It is largest and heaviest bronze sacrificial vessel ever found in the world.

Since 1959, it was kept at the Museum of Chinese History and then the National Museum of China.

The ding was carved with thunder-like patterns and mythical creatures, such as Chinese dragons and taotie, a motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels. Experts estimate that up to 300 craftsmen used more than 1,000 kilograms of material to forge the vessel.

The Houmuwu ding was dedicated to Fu Jing, a wife of King Wu Ding.

According to oracle inscriptions, Fu Jing enjoyed high social status among the king’s 60 or so wives, and one of her sons was designated the crown prince. Unlike Fu Hao, the wife who was such a skilled military warrior, Fu Jing was a farming specialist.

Her son Zu Geng ordered the making of the ding in memory of her.

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The Houmuwu ding is a rectangular bronze vessel of the Shang Dynasty.

In 1949, historian and archeologist Guo Moruo (1892-1978) read the inscriptions inside the vessel as simuwu. He explained that si means sacrifice, and wu is the posthumous title of the tomb owner. That was how the ding came to be called “Simuwu.”

In 1962, Taiwan oracle inscription expert Jin Xiang-heng translated the inscription as houmuwu, which means “the ding that is dedicated to the queen mother Wu.”

In 2011, when the National Museum of China was reopened after a restoration, the ding was officially introduced as the Houmuwu ding.

The name, however, was not acknowledged by either Yinxu or the National Museum of Chinese Writing. Experts argue that the character hou didn’t refer to the “spouse of a king” until the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), and that the character in inscription is definitely si, not hou.

A bit confusing, all that, and the matter has yet to be definitely resolved.



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