Where are the girls of ancient China?

It’s a hard period to cover – over 2,000 years of history. Some of it is even mythical, since China’s first known dynasty – Xia – has not been confirmed by archaeological evidence. Even when Xia evidence is possibly found, the subsequent Shang dynasty often utilized the same sites as the Xia, thus mingling the two dynasties together into a complex archaeological puzzle. Even more difficult is finding girls and women in order to understand their daily lives.

But evidence of girls and their daily lives exist. Around 1675 BCE, the Shang dynasty rose to power. Its first ruler was King Tang, who worked for the advancement of his people by creating a powerful and stable government. (Unfortunately, none of his descendants thought this a worthy endeavor.) As a direct result, the Shang Dynasty was the first literate period of Chinese history, as well as being the first literate culture east of ancient Mesopotamia. The Shang Dynasty survived for nearly 600 years.

Yet girls and women were not at the forefront. Instead, they were seen as inferior to men, which resulted in a strong preference for sons rather than daughters. For some reason, they thought boys were naturally smarter. (We now know intelligence has nothing to do with gender, but the Shang didn’t know that.) It may be that sons only appeared smarter, as girls were not educated. Though some girls did become literate, it was often because their father was a scholar who taught his family. Even when educated, women were not able to participate in any formal examinations or rise to a powerful status. Instead, female education was centered on how to create a successful home life, with lessons in preparing food, looking after children, and cleaning a home. Girls were taught by their mothers how to spin, weave and sew, which could in turn be a form of manual labor to produce an additional income for their family.  


Marriages were fairly simple during the Shang Dynasty, with a marriage proposal being instigated by the family of a prospective suitor. Marriages were always arranged by the parents of both parties, and would commonly occur when a daughter was between the ages of 13 and 16. Astrological and birth charts were consulted prior to any agreement being reached, in order to assess the spiritual compatibility of the two families. No consultation was made with the daughter before an agreement was made, and her father always had the final word. Poorer families would often not arrange a marriage for their daughter, as it meant finding a small dowry to provide to her husband’s family. Instead, they would sell girls into servitude, where she would wait on a richer family.

Once a marriage agreement was reached, the Shang Dynasty implemented a formal “meeting the bride” ritual, where a suitor would meet his future wife in the company of her entire family. After the wedding ceremonies had taken place, a wife was expected to live with the family of her husband. The morning after the wedding ceremony, the bride would be expected to bow to each of her husband’s relatives in turn, and serve them tea in order to demonstrate that she now belonged to them. All ties to her previous family were formally severed upon her marriage, as she was now seen as a possession of her husband. If she was unable to produce a son, then it was common practice for her husband to take another wife in order to better his chances of producing a male heir. 

Religion and Female Deities

Most religion during the Shang Dynasty was ancestral, meaning that it was directly linked to the deceased members of a family. Also known as “ancestor veneration,” it was a ritual practice that centered around the belief that family members could continue to exist and influence the living following their death. Ancestral worship had become extensively developed by the Late Neolithic Chinese period, so by the beginning of the Shang Dynasty it was considered to be the main religion of China. These ancestors were linked exclusively through the male bloodline, as all women were associated with another family following their marriage. As a result, women were not able to participate in any form of ancestral worship following their marriage, as they were not biologically connected to those who had died and were unable to request any assistance from them. Instead, women would worship the central Chinese deities who were honored by all throughout ancient China.

Somewhat surprisingly, while women were considered to be a subservient gender in their daily life, they did feature prominently in mythology and religion. For example, Xihe was considered to be a powerful solar deity, with the goddess Chang-e being her lunar counterpart.  Chang-e was worshipped by all on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month in the Chinese calendar, a date which became known as the Mid-Autumn Festival. This date parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, and is a date where the moon is considered to be at its fullest. In modern times, this date is considered to be in September for those in the Northern Hemisphere, and in March for the Southern Hemisphere. 

The earliest textual mention of Chang-e dates to the Shang Dynasty, so we know that her worship was firmly established by this period. Unlike many other lunar deities, Chang-e was believed to reside on the moon rather than be a personification of it. While the details differ slightly between sources, she is predominantly considered to be a beautiful woman who resided in the Jade Emperor’s Palace in heaven. While there she broke a vase, and as a punishment was condemned to spend her life on earth as a mortal until she made a difference to mankind. Instead, she swallowed a pill for immortality that she stole from her ‘Archer King’ husband Hou Yi, and returned to the stars to live upon the moon. Hou Yi built his own palace on the sun following his death, and in later Chinese mythology they are believed to personify the Yin and Yang. 

Shang Dynasty jade. 1300-1046 BCE. China, Henan Province, Anyang Jade, height 2.75 in. (7cm) COURTESY NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CHINA, BEIJING.

Lady Fu Hao

As we have previously mentioned, a woman could not reach a position of authority within the Shang Dynasty. However, towards the end of the period, one woman was believed to be prominent enough to be included on the Shang Dynasty oracle bones in celebration of her extensive military campaigns. This woman was Lady Fu Hao, one of the many wives of the 23rd Shang Emperor, Wu Ding, in the 13th century BCE. Emperor Wu Ding had many wives, as he married one woman from each of the local tribes in order to secure their allegiance to his rule. After a period of time and strong dedication, Fu Hao rose to become his leading military general and high priestess. Many generations of Shang kings had battled ineffectively against the neighboring Tu-Fang tribe, and had been unable to neutralize their threat. However, the military prowess of Lady Fu Hao meant that she was able to destroy them after just one battle. Alongside this she also led many other successful military campaigns, such as those against the Yi, Qiang and Ba tribes.

As well as her extensive military abilities, Lady Fu Hao was also a prominent high priestess in the centralised Chinese religion. In this role, she would receive instructions from Emperor Wu Ding to conduct certain high profile rituals, as well as offer sacrifices to the gods independently. This autonomy demonstrated her vast power, as well as the high esteem that her husband held her in. Her tomb was excavated throughout the 1970’s, and remains one of the best preserved tombs from the Shang Dynasty. It was found unlooted and contained over 400 inscribed bronze relics, 755 items of jade and 564 pieces of decorative and inscribed bone.

-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

Pin It on Pinterest