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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

1 - From the Stone Age to the End of the Spring and Autumn Period


The bow and arrow was for savagery what the iron sword was for barbarism and fire-arms for civilization – the decisive weapon.

Friedrich Engels (1820–95)

Women in Warfare

One of the first named martial artists in Chinese history is a woman known as Fu Hao. She was, of course, not the first martial artist in China; that distinction is lost to our records, but Fu Hao is the first person for whom we have a name, an account of her military exploits, and an intact tomb. Her particular importance is due to the fortunes of archaeology, though it is clear from what we know of her that she was a woman of considerable significance in her own time. Her tomb was discovered in 1976 at Anyang and was the only undisturbed royal tomb from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–ca. 1045 bce) royal cemetery complex, dated to approximately 1200 bce (Fu Hao’s tomb itself has been dated to 1180–70 bce). Lady Hao was a consort of the Shang king Wu Ding, and when she was buried, her tomb was filled with a staggering array of bronze, jade, stone, ceramic, and bone objects. These ranged from exquisitely carved knickknacks, to large bronze food vessels, to real bronze weapons. And yet despite this immense display of wealth, her tomb was actually one of the smaller ones.

By itself, Fu Hao’s tomb would have been simply sensational, even if the presence of weapons, both real and ritual, in a woman’s tomb might have been a problematic curiosity. But among the thousands of oracle bones recovered at Anyang, over a hundred inscriptions relate to Lady Hao, with twelve specifically concerned with her military activities. On one occasion, for example, she led some 13,000 troops in an attack on the Qiang. The oracle bones themselves, usually turtle plastrons or ox scapulae, were used in divination by the Shang kings to seek guidance from divine sources on many topics, including hunting and war. First recognized as ancient writing in 1899, these bones were eventually traced back to Anyang, where the first excavations were done between 1929 and 1937. Anyang is the birthplace of Chinese archaeology, and it is important to note that the history of warfare, and thus martial arts, in China is present in the earliest extant writings.