Zheng Zhenxiang (born in 1929) was not only the first female archaeologist of New China, but also the person who proved the historicity of Lady Fu Hao, a Bronze Age female general and priestess who led thousands of troops in military campaigns against the Shang Dynasty’s enemies, performed sacrificial rituals that were normally reserved for the Shang kings, and whose name appears on numerous oracle bones.**
Chinese archaeology was still in its infancy when Zheng completed her graduate studies at Peking University in 1959. Although the turmoil of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution threatened to end her promising career in archaeology before it began, Zheng went on to become one of the leading experts on Shang Dynasty archaeology and make one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in China’s history.
In the winter of 1975, she and her husband, fellow archaeologist Chen Zhida, were able to convince local cadres to scrap plans to level a hillock outside of the village of Xiaotun. Zheng had reason to believe that this might be the site of a Shang royal tomb, an opinion not shared by her peers. Undeterred and determined to see her project through to the bitter end, she recruited a team of labourers to use “Luoyang shovels” to probe the ground for rammed earth walls. And on the morning of May 16th, 1976, weeks of hard work had finally paid off.
A soil sample extracted from a depth of 8 metres not only contained a layer of damp red lacquer but also a beautiful glittering jade pendant, confirming Zheng’s suspicions that a tomb lay buried beneath them. A quick survey revealed that the tomb was rapidly filling up with groundwater so Zheng’s team raced to retrieve the thousands of ritual bronzes, jade artefacts, and other grave goods from the pit, using buckets and ropes to speed up their removal.
Once the proverbial dust settled and Zheng’s team were able to study the grave goods, it became clear that they had found the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, one ofKing Wu Ding’s wives and his most trusted consort. Fu Hao’s name was inscribed on many of the ritual bronze vessels excavated from the tomb and a number of weapons, including a large bronze battleaxe, were found in the pit, which suggested that the tomb was indeed built for the female general and priestess Zheng had read about during her time at Peking University. The skeletons of 16 humans and 6 dogs found buried around the main burial pit were a grisly reminder that human sacrifice was still a common practice at the time of Fu Hao’s death.
Fu Hao’s tomb, which dates back to around 1200 BC, remains the only undisturbed Shang tomb discovered to date. Thanks to Zheng Zhenxiang, archaeologists have gained a valuable insight into Shang Dynasty China and the life of an extraordinary female general. And who better to uncover the tomb of an ancient female general than the First Lady of Chinese Archaeology?
Posted by Suzie
** Oracle bones are ox scapulae, turtle plastrons and other bones used in ancient Chinese pyromancy. Inscribed oracle bones have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of the Shang Dynasty and helped them establish a royal genealogy.
** Please note that many of the sources used (links) are only available in Chinese.