Human Sacrifice during Shang Dynasty

Keren Wang
Jun 11, 2015 · 8 min read
Fig.1, Bronze ceremonial axe (Yue / 钺) from middle to late Shang period, c. 1400 BCE ~ 1000 BCE, symbol of state power. Excavated from tomb M1 at the Sufutun site, currently part of the Shandong Museum collection.

Sharing some of my ongoing research on ancient practices of human sacrifice. Here I specifically examined oracle bone fragments from Shang dynasty China (c. 1600 BC — 1046 BC) containing scripts about human sacrifice. These textual artifacts demonstrates Shang human sacrificial rituals were truly exceptional in terms of the sheer number of people sacrificed, the frequency at which it was done, and the high degree of formalization of their sacrificial rituals.

*Originally posted by Keren Wang on 5/28/2015 at

Human sacrifice refers to the practice of ritual killing of human beings as offerings to divine patrons, ancestors, or other superhuman forces. While the phenomenon of ritual human killings have been present in many societies throughout history [1], the types of human sacrifice that were practiced by ancient Chinese and pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures, which were exceptional in terms of the sheer number of people sacrificed, the frequency at which it was done, and the high degree of formalization of their sacrificial rituals. Large-scale, systematic human sacrifice functioned as important political and religious spectacles in Shang dynasty.[2]

The Shang dynasty marked the height of Chinese Bronze Age, where it ruled over the fertile Yellow River basin for more than half a millennium, from c.1600 BC to 1046 BC. Traditional Chinese historiography has divided periods of Chinese history into ‘dynasties’ — a formal historical term referring to periods of “unified rule” (天下共主, lit. “a single sovereign uniting the world under Heaven”), where the land corresponding to the contemporary China-proper was ruled by a single sovereign clan. The change of imperial rule signaled a change in dynasty, and also signified a change in the Heaven’s mandate. [3] Officially, of course, imperial rule of China only officially started with the Qin dynasty under Emperor Shihuangdi in 221 BC. Prior to establishment of the Qin dynasty, the previous dynasties — Xia, Zhou, and Shang — were organized in the form of a confederate feudal state system, in which the state that managed to acquire hegemony via military conquest will be recognized by other feudal clans as having the Mandate of Heaven, and the monarch of that state would be referred to as Tianzi,which literally translates as “Heaven’s son.” The title Tianzi, which once referred to those kings of the hegemonic feudoms during Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, was carried on as the honorific title of the emperor throughout the imperial China, which lasted from 221 BC until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 AD.

According to official historical records compiled during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC), Shang was the second Chinese dynasty the quasi-legendary Xia dynasty (c.2070 BC — 1600 BC). However as there are no conclusive archaeological records proving the existence of the Xia dynasty, Shang is so far the earliest confirmed Chinese dynasty in that the earliest written record were dated to this era. Written artifacts excavated from Shang archaeological sites were predominantly in the form of oracle bone script. These writings were used specifically during state divination ceremonies where the Shang ruler both acting as a king and as a high priest, would carve scripts concerning matters of state importance (such as military affairs, prayers for bountiful harvest, and matters concerning sacrificial offerings) onto specially prepared tortoise carapaces and cow bones. [4] The Shang king would then prod the oracle bones with a red-hot bronze rod, which would cause the bones to crack under the intense heat, indicating that the singular supreme deity of the Shang people, Shang-Di (上帝, lit.: “the lord from above”) had answered the questions inscribed on the bones, and the cracks left on the bones were supposedly Shang-Di’s divine answers. only the Shang king could interpret these and announce them to his people as divine mandates. Oracle bone script is the earliest known Chinese writing system; it is, nonetheless, a highly developed iconographic form of writing that resemble contemporary Chinese characters, and written in a grammar consistent with classical written Chinese. Thus, despite its ancient origin, the oracle script has been surprisingly legible for modern day archaeological scholars, perhaps due to the fact that it is, like contemporary Chinese, a purely logographic medium that transmits meaning without relying on phonetic representation, and therefore remained relatively static across millennia. [5]

Current understandings of Shang religious practices, mostly based from a relatively large body of surviving written records from Shang and the subsequent Zhou dynasties, suggest that a amalgamation of ancestor worship, natural totemism and shamanism practices were present in the Shang society. However, the religion practiced by the Shang ruling class is distinctly monotheistic in character, of which the Shang-Di (lit. “lord above) is recognized as the one and only divine Lord (Di). Shang political theology frames Shang-Di as an incorporeal, omnipresent, and omnipotent metaphysical deity whom wields absolute power over all human, natural and spiritual forces. While the Shang people viewed the spiritual domain (e.g. spirit of dead ancestors) is simply an extension of the human world and can be readily accessed, the divine will of Shang-Di is radically inaccessible except through the divination of the Shang king.[6]

Fig. 2. Guo Moruo 郭沫若(ed), Jiaguwen Heji 甲骨文合集 (Beijing: 中华书局影印本, 1980–1983), 1079. The oracle bone inscription reads: “甲辰 ····至戊陷人.丙午雨 (On the sexagenary cycle day of Jiachen…human were sacrificed on the hour of Wu, it rained on the sexagenary cycle day of Beingwu.”

A sizable portion of the oracle bones uncovered in Shang archaeological sites contain script specifically concerning human sacrifice (see figure 2 above).These written records are also corroborated by the discovery of numerous sacrificial mass-graves in those sites. In most Shang sacrificial rituals, only animals and valuable chattels (such as bronze wares) would be used as offerings. There were only two exceptional circumstances where human sacrifices were made: xunzang 殉葬 and renji 人祭. Xunzang 殉葬 (lit. “burial sacrifice”) refers to the practice in which personal slaves and servants of Shang king, upon their master’s death, were expected to commit ritual suicide or to “volunteer” themselves to be buried alive alongside with their master. While the practice of committing ritual suicide upon the master’s death has lingered throughout Chinese history, the second type of human sacrifice, renji 人祭 (lit. “human offering sacrifice) is practiced only during the Shang dynasty period, and also the most massive in scale in terms of number of people killed in a typical renji ceremony. The demographic pattern of Shang sacrificial victims is also quite interesting. Xunzang victims (or “volunteers”) were mostly personal slaves (i.e. house servants), and therefore in xunzang burial sites we could find a pretty even mix of male and female human remains. Renji victims, on the other hand, appears to be predominately male. Unlike xunzang, the people sacrificed for Renji were not personal slaves, but mostly prisoners of war and field slaves (keep in mind that Shang field slaves were typically captured from distant lands outside of Shang domain).

Fig.3, oracle bone inscription (Heji 1027): “不其降冊千牛千人 shall one thousand cattle and one thousand human be sacrificed?” Guo Moruo (1980–1983), Heiji, 1027.

Specifically, renji functions as prayers to Shang-Di to deliver the Shang people from famine. This kind of sacrifice would only take place during periods of severe food shortage (usually due to drought or war). Hundreds of captured slaves were typically executed during a renji ceremony, usually via decapitation (see figure 3). The corpses of the victims, along with their severed heads, were buried in mass sacrificial pits or collectively incinerated, in order to placate what they thought was an angry Shang-Di.

Fig.4, oracle bone inscription (Heiji 32035) “shall human blood be offered on the day of Xinyou? 辛酉其若亦氿伐”

To pray for the end of the famine brought by Shang-Di’s wrath, the Shang king would demonstrate to the supreme deity of their devoutness through the specular spilling of sacrificial human blood. Oracle bone inscriptions refer to such sacrificial human blood as qiu (氿, lit. “cascade”), but the precise method for extracting the sacrificial blood unknown (see fig. 4). The largest recorded human sacrifice of this kind was done by Shang king Wuding, where over 9,000 slaves were slaughtered as offerings to Shang-Di.

Originally posted by Keren Wang on 5/28/2015 at


1 See generally, Richard E. DeMaris, “Sacrifice, an Ancient Mediterranean Ritual,” Biblical Theology Bulletin vol. 43 no.2 (2013): 60–73.
See also, e.g.: Sigmund Freud. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by A. A. Brill (New York, NY: Random House, 1961)
Ch.II-3: “The reconciliation customs practised on the island of Timor, after a victorious band of warriors has returned with the severed heads of the vanquished enemy, are especially significant because the leader of the expedition is subject to heavy additional restrictions. …Similar customs are found among the Palu in Celebes; the Gallas sacrifice to the spirits of their dead enemies before they return to their home villages.” Ch.IV-6: “… the first kings of the Latin tribes were strangers who played the part of a deity and were solemnly sacrificed in this rôle on specified holidays. The yearly sacrifice (self-sacrifice is a variant) of a god seems to have been an important feature of Semitic religions. The ceremony of human sacrifice in various parts of the inhabited world makes it certain that these human beings ended their lives as representatives of the deity. This sacrificial custom can still be traced in later times in the substitution of an inanimate imitation (doll) for the living person.”
See also, Michael Rudolph, Ritual Performances as Authenticating Practices. (Berlin: LIT Verlag Münster, 2008);
John Noble Wilford, “Ritual Deaths at Ur Were Anything but Serene,” New York Times, October 26, 2009: [quote]“A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associajted with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say. …Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania reached that conclusion after conducting the first CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old cemetery.”[/quote] Available:
Austine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism (1895), at 516: [quote]”Human sacrifice seems undoubtedly to have been regularly practised in Tibet up till the dawn there of Buddhism in the seventh century.”[/quote]

2 See generally, Wang Ping and Wolfgang Kubin, 甲骨文与殷商人祭 / Oracle bone inscriptions and human sacrifice during the Yinshang period / Jia gu wen yu Yin Shang ren ji, Chinese, 1st ed., (Zhengzhou, China: 大象出版社, 2007).

3 陈启云, “封建与大一统之间 — — 关于中国传统政体的理论和史实,” 学术月刊 2 (2007)

4 See generally, 中国社会科学院考古研究所 , 殷墟与商文化-殷墟科学发掘80周年纪念文集 (Beijing: 科学出版社, 2011)

5 See generally, Gao Ming 高明, Zhongguo Guwenzi Xuetonglun 中国古文字学通论, (Beijing: Peking University Press, 1996)

6 See 《周禮-春官宗伯》: [quote]“以吉禮事邦國之鬼神示:以禋祀祀昊天上帝,以實柴祀日月星辰,以槱燎祀司中、司命、風師、雨師。以血祭祭社稷、五祀、五岳,以貍沈祭山林川澤,以副辜祭四方百物。”[/quote]

《商書 — 伊訓》: [quote] “嗚呼!嗣王祗厥身,念哉!聖謨洋洋,嘉言孔彰。惟上帝不常,作善降之百祥,作不善降之百殃。”[/quote]

See also, 《商書 — 湯誥》: [quote] “爾萬方有眾,明聽予一人誥。惟皇上帝,降衷于下民。若有恆性,克綏厥猷惟后。…爾有善,朕弗敢蔽;罪當朕躬,弗敢自赦,惟簡在上帝之心。其爾萬方有罪,在予一人;予一人有罪,無以爾萬方。”[/quote]

See generally, 中国社会科学院考古研究所 , 殷墟与商文化-殷墟科学发掘80周年纪念文集 (Beijing: 科学出版社, 2011)E

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade