Fu Hao (died circa 1200 BC) was one of Chinese history’s most extraordinary women. She was one of the Shang emperor’s numerous wives, but she was so remarkable that she not only became the imperial favorite, but also the leading figure in court and throughout China in her lifetime. In addition to being a wife and mother, she was also a formidable general who led armies into battle, as well as a priestess and a capable politician.
It was traditional for Shang Dynasty emperors to cultivate and cement the allegiance of neighboring tribes by marrying a wife from each, and that is how Fu Hao came to be one of emperor Wu Ding’s 64 wives. Once at court, she exhibited remarkable intelligence, as well as military aptitude, and rose rapidly, becoming the emperor’s favorite wife and his most trusted confidant.
She also rose to command the Shang armies, and led them into battle, defeating and subduing restive tribes, and bringing them into the Chinese fold. One of her earliest victories came against an obstinate tribe that had troubled the Shang for generations. Fu Hao decisively defeated them in a single battle, and ended their menace once and for all.
She led numerous other military campaigns to consolidate Shang rule, and is credited with successfully carrying off the earliest large-scale ambush in Chinese history. She led an army of 13,000 men, which was huge for that era, and the largest ever assembled under anyone Shang general. With that force, Fu Hao successfully expanded and pacified the Shang borders.
She was given her own fiefdom on the Shang border, the better to guard against potential enemy encroachment. She predeceased her husband, who built her a lavish tomb. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered Fu Hao’s tomb, intact, with a treasure trove of jade and bronze. It also included a wide variety of war artifacts, such as great battle-axes, which were apparently her favorite weapon.