Digging Into the Shang Dynasty’s Empire of Bones
In 1984, a team of archaeologists opened the tomb of a minor nobleman in the Shang dynasty capital of Yinxu, in what is today the central province of Henan. When they reached the burial chamber’s second floor, archaeologists were confronted with a puzzle: 14 adult skulls, one of which was contained in a Shang-era bronze vessel known as a yan. These were traditionally thought of as cooking vessels, and the archaeologists ultimately concluded that the head might have fallen in the vessel by chance.
Fifteen years later, in 1999, archaeologists excavated another Shang nobleman’s tomb, this one located in Liujiazhuang, not far from Yinxu. Unsealing the burial chamber, they found the headless skeleton of a young girl positioned to the right of the coffin. Atop the remains, where her head should have been, sat a bronze yan containing her skull. The skull’s grayish color indicated it had been steamed.
This time, the conclusion was clear. Excavation after excavation in Shang-era (roughly 1600-1046 B.C.) sites has turned up evidence of human sacrifice. Yet, for years there seemed to be an unspoken consensus about the practice: It was treated as an unglamorous — and ultimately insignificant — part of early Chinese civilization, nothing more. But what if human-sacrifice was not just a minor foible, a relic of a particular era, but central to the Shang way of life and system of rule?
That’s the explosive contention at the center of “Revelation,” a new book by historian Li Shuo published in Chinese last October. Li’s thesis is not new. He first attracted attention in academic circles in 2012, when his article, “The Zhou’s Destruction of the Shang and the Rebirth of China,” was published in the well-known magazine Duku while he was still a graduate student at Tsinghua University. An ambitious young scholar, Li soon switched his focus to more traditional topics, publishing the books “Three Hundred Years of Civil War” and “The Great History of Confucius.” It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, which led to an unexpected period of unemployment, that he returned to the subject of human sacrifice.
The first half of “Revelation” offers a systematic and detailed description of the emergence and development of human sacrifice in early Chinese civilization. Evidence of sporadic instances of human sacrifice have been found in both the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys as early as the Middle Neolithic period, roughly 6,000 years ago. Excavations at the Erlitou site, touted by some scholars as the capital of China’s earliest dynasty, the Xia, have also found signs of the practice.
But it was during the Shang that human sacrifice reached an apex in China. Violence was a part of life in the Shang; in the dynasty’s famous oracle bone script, two of the most common glyphs were those for “conquest” and “killing.” Studies of the era’s religious beliefs suggest a vision of the world as a cold place where ghosts and gods were temperamental and insatiable, and would only provide their blessings in exchange for sacrifices of life.
Human sacrifice was not just a form of religious devotion. It was also a tool for regime preservation. By sacrificing “barbarians,” known as qiang, the Shang rulers distinguished between the superior “us” and the inferior “them,” helping forge a common identity. The appetites of the ruling class tend to trickle down; so, too, did demand for sacrificial victims. Soon, human sacrifices were being performed by members of the Shang nobility and even wealthy non-nobles.
In “Revelation,” Li sets aside the conventions of academic writing, relying on the archaeological record to reconstruct scenes of large-scale sacrifice in vivid, chilling detail. “For the Shang, the killing of qiang during the gathering ceremony was not only a way to appease the gods, but also a spiritual ‘feast’ for the crowd,” he writes. “Many human sacrifice pits show signs of torture. When the number of human offerings was insufficient, their killers would ramp up the suffering, delaying their deaths and allowing them to struggle, wail, and curse.”
Human sacrifice largely disappears from the historical and archaeological record almost immediately after the Shang. The process by which human sacrifice was excised from Chinese culture forms the basis of the second and most controversial part of Li’s book. In contrast to the view held by most scholars — that human sacrifice receded gradually and naturally — Li attributes the demise of the custom to a conscious choice on the part of the founders of the Zhou dynasty (1046-221 B.C.), and especially the actions of the Duke of Zhou.
Li argues the Duke of Zhou moved quickly to ban human sacrifice and erase as much of the evidence related to human sacrifice as possible. To ensure the practice wouldn’t return, he developed a secular political and moral system, one in which obtaining the blessings of Heaven required not violence, but virtuous government. Five hundred years later, Confucius would praise the Duke of Zhou’s ritual system and defend the secularist attitudes of the dynasty he’d built.
As far as Li is concerned, the replacement of the Shang by the Zhou was more than a regime change. It was a landmark revolution in the history of the formation of Chinese civilization. The Duke of Zhou’s eradication of the human sacrifice system was so successful that the practice was essentially forgotten for 3,000 years. It was not until the excavation of the Shang capital Yinxu in the 20th century that the truth was rediscovered.
Late last year, Li sat down for a telephone interview with me from his home in the southwestern city of Chengdu. We talked about the work that went into “Revelation,” challenging the historical consensus on the Shang, and the difficulties of writing for a broader audience than just academics. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Wu Haiyun: One of the main points of your book is that human sacrifice was an important religious and political institution during the Shang. Given the Shang’s traditional place as the cradle of Chinese civilization, did you feel any nervousness making this argument?
Li Shuo: The Shang dynasty’s practice of human sacrifice is not news to the academic community. The Shang capital of Yinxu was discovered over a century ago, and almost every excavation since then has uncovered new human sacrifice pits. In the 2000s, some scholars, such as Huang Zhangyue, Wang Ping, and Gu Bin, wrote important books on the subject, and I learned about the sacrifices when I was a college student.
Our understanding of ancient history is in a constant state of flux. Traditional historiography is grounded in a view of history founded by the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 B.C.), in which ancient history is the province of the sage kings, and any tyrants quickly lost the mandate of heaven and were overthrown.
More recently, Chinese scholars adopted the Marxist theory of history as a series of stages. In this framework, the Shang dynasty was categorized as a “slave society.” But did it really conform to what Marx was talking about? The slave societies described by Marx and Engels were based on ancient Greek and Roman society, where slaves were mainly laborers who could be traded freely. The so-called slaves of the Shang dynasty, meanwhile, were mainly foreigners destined for sacrifice.
In general, our knowledge and understanding of the Shang is still very limited. In addition to sacrificial pits, the Shang dynasty saw the sudden rise of huge cities and the construction of large-scale storage facilities, the purposes of which are still unknown. It featured a diverse mix of cruelty, exuberance, and technological rationality.
Wu: Some of the content in your book is brutal. What is it like to write about human sacrifice?
Li: It’s hard to bear. As I wrote in the afterword, “Revelation” was “a journey of unrelieved horror, like walking alone through a wilderness of bones.” It’s not just the horror of facing the abyss of history; in writing it, I realized that human nature remains essentially unchanged. My takeaway from researching Shang sacrificial pit sites is that human beings sometimes like to see other humans suffer.
Wu: I’m curious about some of the hypotheses you advance in the book. In particular, you offer a new interpretation of the “I Ching,” arguing it should be understood as a collection of “black codes,” created by King Wen, which contain details of his role as an agent of the Shang dynasty tasked with capturing human offerings, various human sacrifice rituals he witnessed, and even details of the sacrifice of his own son. How have other scholars responded to your interpretation?
Li: I argue in the book that King Wen’s son, the Duke of Zhou, consciously eliminated the vast majority of evidence related to human sacrifice in the Shang. But he didn’t dare touch his own father’s work, in which a lot of information related to the human sacrifice system can be found, if you look closely.
The study of the “I Ching” is an area in which no definitive scholarly conclusion has been reached. What does it really mean? How exactly is it used to tell fortunes? There is very little consensus. One of the leading scholars studying the “I Ching” using a historical approach is Professor Edward L. Shaughnessy at the University of Chicago. I am not sure if he’ll read the book, but I’m looking forward to his reaction or criticisms.
Wu: You’ve said you originally hoped other scholars would write this story in a nonfiction style, but when no one did, you ended up having to do it yourself. This seems to reflect a broader phenomenon: China has a long history, with so many stories waiting to be told, but historical nonfiction aimed at a mass audience remains rare.
Li: First of all, I think professional researchers, especially young and mid-career scholars, have so many professional responsibilities that they simply do not have the time or energy to write non-academic works. When I was working at Xinjiang University, I didn’t have time to write the book. It wasn’t until early 2020, when the city where I was working implemented a strict pandemic-control policy, that I finally got around to it. And that was only because I quit my job and returned to the southwestern city of Chengdu to be with my family, giving me a window of time to start writing.
I think historians need to develop their writing skills. Some well-known scholars are good at writing academic essays, but can they tell independent stories like Ray Huang’s “1587, A Year of No Significance”? This step is very difficult, because most Chinese academics do not have the relevant training and experience.
Wu: One more detail that interests me is that the final hero of your book is Confucius. You argue that Confucius more or less realized the dark truth about the Shang dynasty, which is one reason he understood and respected the spirit of the Duke of Zhou’s reforms. This is a surprising, but cleverly argued hypothesis. How did you come up with the idea?
Li: It is logically reasonable that the story would end with Confucius. It was Confucius who compiled the achievements of the Duke of Zhou and compiled the Six Classics of Confucianism, and later generations’ knowledge of ancient China typically came from the Six Classics. In other words, Confucius really determined what was and wasn’t passed down from ancient times.
We all know that Confucius regarded the Duke of Zhou as his idol, but he was also a descendant of the Shang royal family and shared a common ancestor with King Zhou of Shang, an identity that may have made him more attentive to Shang history.
Wu: You spend a lot of time on larger-than-life figures like King Wen of Zhou, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius. It seems like you felt these individuals’ efforts were decisive. But could this interpretation be a bit elitist? Do you think history can really be turned around by the efforts of a small number of individual elites?
Li Shuo: That wasn’t my intention. There’s an old saying: “Even a clever woman can’t cook without rice.” When we study the distant past, the historical record is often a record only of major figures. If we find other historical materials that allow us to draw different conclusions, then we could certainly write the story from another point of view.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The tomb of Fu Hao, Anyang, Henan province, 2017. VCG)