Human Sacrifices-Shang Dynasty (China)

Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom: Shang Dynasty, China – IDST 190 WordPress Project

Janvi Patel, Mariana Price, Nikki Salazar

The ancient art of human sacrifice consisted of purposefully killing a human as an offering to ancestors and or to a deity through ritual. Although inhumane, the sacrifices played an important role in many historical cultures. Human sacrifice has plagued the history of many East Asian, South Pacific, Native American, and African cultures (Perry, 2018). In this post, we will be focusing on the scientific, cultural, and ethical perspectives on one of such cultures, the Shang Dynasty, that reigned in China from the 16th through the 11th century.

The Shang state was a highly controlled state, where the Emperor was both a military general and a priest (“Introduction,” 2019). Yinxu, the current day Anyang in Henan Province of China, the capital of the Shang state claimed 13,000 human sacrifices over a period of 200 years (Choi, 2018). The period of the Shang Dynasty is widely believed to be the period in which Chinese culture originated. After overthrowing the previous Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, King Tang of Shang made many positive changes in favor of the citizens of Shang. Whereas the previous ruler, King Jie, was considered to be a self-serving and pleasure-obsessed Tyrant, “Tang abolished Jie’s tyrannical policies and excessive taxes and instituted a new government which worked for the people instead of against them” (Mark, 2019). Not only were people granted better treatment under King Tang, but the Shang Dynasty was considered to be very prosperous. With so much positivity surrounding the rule of King Tang, it’s difficult to believe that human sacrifice played a role in Shang’s culture. In fact, the fact that humans were sacrificed so brutally contradicts King Tang’s so-called inclination to “work for the people”.  So how could a leader who supposedly cares for the people allow and initiate such brutality, and how was this idea so widely accepted by the people? Bob Yirka makes the point that the victims of the sacrifices carried out during the Shang Dynasty were not members of the Shang civilization (Yirka, 2017). Often, the victims were war captives, which could have been an ethical justification for the King because he wasn’t doing as much harm to his own people, but instead focusing the majority of human sacrifices on enemies of Shang, and therefore eliminating those who posed a threat of harm to his own people.

Source: https://www.mostluxuriouslist.com/ritual-human-sacrifice-practiced-in-ancient-cultures/

The image seems to display the courses of action taken by Shang leaders towards their victims soon to become human sacrifices.

 

These foreign victims were just one type of human sacrifice, burials, during the Shang Dynasty, the other type being worship rituals. Both are well documented through archeological evidence. Oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty have documented the methods used for human sacrifices in worship rituals. Oracle Bones, usually turtle bone or cattle scapulae, were used to depict divinatory activities (Recht, 2019). Divination activities included questions such as when would be a good time to hunt, to plant, wage war, and when to offer human sacrifices. We will be focusing on burials for the interest of this post. As for burials, when a royal, namely an emperor died, human sacrifices were made to accompany the Emperor in the afterlife to serve the royalty (Recht, 2019).

Source: http://history.followcn.com/2019/01/28/religious-worships-of-the-shang-dynasty/

The image displays a common layout of a burial site during the ruling of the Shang Dynasty in China.

 

Whether it was to please the gods or to affirm the Emperor has servants in the afterlife, could there have also been a political aspect behind human sacrifice? Psychologist Joseph Watts proposed that the Social Control Hypothesis may be able to explain these phenomena.Watts argues that “human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification” (Watts et al., 2016). In other words, human sacrifices were a way for leaders to practice their power while instilling fear into their subjects; human sacrifices helped to keep the social stratification in order in high functioning societies, such as China. Many studies looking at large-scale human sacrificial rituals from other archaeological cultures have suggested that in early state societies, sacrificial rituals involving human victims often intensified during times of political instability political shifts. Their control over the lives and death dates of the victims caused fear that turned into fearful submission. In Yinxu, epigraphic evidence implied that most sacrificial activities occurred during the earlier phases of a ruler’s establishment when the ruling group was trying to establish its authority at the then new capital. (Cheung, Jing, Tang, Weston, & Richards, 2017) As wars waged, prisoners of war and residents of captured land were at hand a compromise was made to productively use the prisoners. Sacrificing them was one way in which the Shang rulers used these bodies. According to Oracle inscriptions, many of the young men killed in the Yinxu sacrifices were war captives from the “Qiang,” a name given to groups of barbaric pastoralists living to the west of Yinxu. (Cheung, 2018)

Source: https://search.proquest.com/docview/1311776103?pq-origsite=summon

The image displays skeletal positions of human sacrifice victims, many died with their hands tied behind their backs and with broken skulls, both signs of torture.

 

Another form of ethical justification can be built upon the grounds of religion. People in ancient Chinese civilizations often believed that human sacrifices would suffice the Gods and that in return they would be granted answered prayers, blessings, and avoid the wrath of the Gods (Bulling, n.d.). Since it was widely accepted that human sacrifice would bring rain, prosperity, and protection from disastrous events such as war, flooding, and famine, it was believed that human sacrifice was essential to the well-being of entire Kingdoms (Yirka, 2017). Therefore, it is likely that although human sacrifice was brutal, it was viewed by King Tang as a necessary measure in order to assure the overall well-being of his people.

Other than human sacrifices a more popular and accessible option were animals. Animals sacrificed during the period included horses, dogs, pigs, and other types of farm animals. (Baker, 2011). It was believed animals, especially dogs, that their presence would continue to be of service after death by guiding and protecting the souls and by guarding the site against evil spirits (Bulling, n.d.).  The Shang state religion called for sacrifices to the Shang person’s ancestors, and oracle bones were used for divination to decide upon the best days to offer such sacrifices (“The Ancestor”).

Ironically, while the Shang state used religion to justify their control and show of power, researcher Kevin Rounding at Queen’s University argues that “the primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control, which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors,” and that it encourages more self-monitoring (Herbert, 2011). So perhaps, human sacrifices hold more to it than religious and political connotations, societal norms of favoring tradition was a big factor. The strength of tradition in regards to human sacrifice was particularly strong for the settlers living under the rule of the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese history played a major role in the way of life and social norms of the time, great importance was set on the spiritual realm.

In search of the origin of human sacrifice, an old tale of oral and written tradition was found. The ancient tale centers around the founder of the royal house of Shang, Tang offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people to the gods, for there was a long-concurring drought seen as punishment. According to legend he hardly finished his prayer when it started to rain. This story introduced the understanding that the gods would answer prayers when offered human sacrifice. Not only were sacrifices made to the Gods but to the ancestors of the honored deceased.  This also added to the notion that there was greater importance in the value of royalty and nobility versus commoners and peasants and much less value on the lives of prisoners of war. (Bulling, n.d.).

Source: https://quizlet.com/134148046/chapter-20-ancient-china-flash-cards/

The image seems to display and emphasize the class difference between the Shang Dynasty elite versus peasants/commoners through clothing and power stances.

 

Although human sacrifices themselves could be justified in a number of ways, there is still a question of why the sacrifices were so brutal. Common methods of human sacrifice were burning alive, stoning, and slow removal of limbs and other body parts (Bulling, n.d.).  If one must be killed, why not kill in the most humane way possible, instead of making it brutal and painful? One big implication of human sacrifice during the Shang Dynasty is that it served as a way to promote social stratification. By carefully choosing victims who are prisoners of war and/or from the lower rungs of society, human sacrificing for religious reasons also took on a sociopolitical agenda. Societal elites, the more wealthy, and those in close proximity to the King were rarely subjected to the horrors of human sacrifice, whereas those who were poor or prisoners of war were the most commonly sacrificed. These people were considered unimportant to society, and those higher up on the social ladder strived to maintain that sense of  importance and privilege by keeping others down, The fact that social elites have the privilege of being spared from sacrifice, highlights the inclination towards of preservation of social hierarchy among societal elites and oppression of the lower class (Benson et al, 2016).  So how does the idea of social stratification play into the brutality of the killings? Since people who were sacrificed were so low in society, and elites aimed to reinforce this separation of classes, the killings were likely unnecessarily brutal so that a higher sense of superiority, control, and power could be established. Treating sacrifices with as little respect as possible further enforces their lack of importance and power than giving them a more humane death.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Baker, C. F. (2016, April). Human Sacrifice! Retrieved April 8, 2019, from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A259389264/SCIC?u=unc_main&sid=SCIC&xid=78fa9c8b

Benson, E., Escobar, H., Couzin-Frankel, J., Normile, D., Cornwall, W., & Mervis, J. (2017, December 09). Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/human-sacrifice-may-have-helped-societies-become-more-complex

Bulling, A. G. (n.d.). A Late Shang Place of Sacrifice and its Historical Significance. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1311776103?pq-origsite=summon

Cheung, C. (2018, May/June). The Chinese History That Is Written in Bone: The bones of 3,000-year-old sacrificial victims in China are revealing unexpected new twists. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=SCIC&u=unc_main&id=GALE|A537718656&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon

Cheung, C., Jing, Z., Tang, J., Weston, D. A., & Richards, M. P. (2017). Diets, social roles, and geographical origins of sacrificial victims at the royal cemetery at Yinxu, Shang China: New evidence from stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 48, 28-45. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2017.05.006

Choi, C. (2018, August 17). Unearthing Secrets of Human Sacrifice. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2018/08/17/human-sacrifice-archaeology/#.XKwLp_ZFxyx

Geographic, N. (2010, March 02). Retrieved April 09, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8FnVkk6lcs&feature=youtu.be

Herbert, W. (2011, November 9). Why Do We Have Religion Anyway? Retrieved April 1, 2019, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/why-do-we-have-religion-anyway.html

Introduction to the Shang Dynasty. (2019). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/shang-dynasty/a/introduction-to-the-shang-dynasty

Mark, E. (2019, April 08). Shang Dynasty. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Shang_Dynasty/

Perry, P. (2018, September 17). Researchers Discover a New Reason Why Ancient Societies Practiced Human Sacrifice. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/researchers-discover-a-new-reason-why-ancient-societies-practiced-human-sacrifice.

Recht, L. (2019). Human sacrifice: Archaeological Perspectives From Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Ancestor Cult in Ancient China. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from http://www.ancientchina.co.uk/staff/resources/background/bg12/home.html

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. D. (2016, April 04). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from https://www.nature.com/articles/nature17159

Yirka, B. (2017, June 19). Skeletal tests suggest sacrificial victims during Shang Dynasty were held for a time. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2017-06-skeletal-sacrificial-victims-shang-dynasty.html

 

 

 

10 Comments

  1. This article seemed to be colored with biased language, which made it difficult to gain a full understanding of the topic at hand. Although we currently think of human sacrifice as being unacceptable in this culture and time period, it is important for research posts to provide a more unbiased look at the topic to provide readers with a sense of what happened and why it happened. That being said, this article provided me with new information on human sacrifice; I’ve read about sacrifice in the Andes, but I’ve never heard about it’s history in China. The element of sociopolitical control was especially interesting, and seems to relate to the use of fear tied to death and uncertainty as used in Argentina during the 20th century, as described by Antonius Robben in his piece titled “State Terror in the Netherworld.” Exercising control over death and the body enables the state to work towards its own ends by using the people as a means of doing so.

  2. I found this post very interesting as it gave me a new perspective on human sacrifice and also informed me about Chinese culture. There are many parallels between this post and “Human Sacrifice: Mayans Vs Aztecs”. In particular both posts present information about human sacrifice rituals in societies that existed thousands of years ago. Firstly, the Shang Dynasty practiced human sacrifice as an important aspect of their religion which both the Mayans and Aztecs also did. This is interesting as these cultures are located across the world and had no contact with each-other. Which brings up a question in why these cultures would praise the killing of another human being. Another similarity between the posts is that both the Shang Dynasty and Mayans tended to sacrifice prisoners of war while the Aztecs tended to sacrifice only their own people. Furthermore, these posts bring up an interesting thought in how far our society has come on its views of death in particular human sacrifice, rituals and cannibalism.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post! Which might be strange to say, given its subject matter, but it was super interesting and well-researched. I’m in the pod on Human Sacrifice in the Mayans and Aztecs, and our area of focus also included the religious influence on human sacrifice. Both of our cultures practiced sacrificing people from other nations, since they weren’t really part of the club, so to speak. But does that make it right? Eh, who’s to say, really. They also included animal sacrifice from time to time, as did the Shang dynasty. I do have a question, though. Your post mentions several methods of execution, including “burning alive, stoning, and slow removal of limbs”. Was there any rhyme or reason to how the method was chosen for a particular victim? Did some cultures get dismembered while others burned, was it on a gender or age basis, or just personal preference? Was there symbolic significance to the methods of execution? I think I will be using some of the sources in your bibliography to do more research into the subject matter myself!

  4. I enjoyed reading the post because it is well-researched and organized. As a Chinese, I am well-aware of ancient history in China. The part when you mentioned “how could a leader who supposedly cares for the people allow and initiate such brutality, and how was this idea so widely accepted by the people” is interesting and I really agree that it is a paradox because why would the leader sacrifice people for the good of people. The purpose of sacrificing people is to bring better goods for the dynasty. However, it is also paradoxical when Shang dynasty sacrificed so many people while it was prosperous.

  5. Reading this, I was just a little curious about the public’s attitude towards human sacrifice at the time. You mentioned that a majority of the sacrifices were prisoners of war or people from the lowest rungs of the social ladder, yet you also claim that the tactics of human sacrifice kept all of society under this blanket of fear. So, were the higher up people in support of human sacrifice? Were there more people in favor or against the human sacrifice practices of the Shang Dynasty? And, on the note of the people who were killed to be buried with royals and serve them in the afterlife, did people ever volunteer for this practice? I know that there are many societies, even today, that show such strong support for their leaders that they are even willing to die for them and especially when religion and tradition dictate what must be done as well.

  6. Madison Bencini

    April 24, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    I really enjoyed your analysis of this topic. The use of human sacrifice to instill fear within the subjects of the Shang dynasty painted a fearsome image of the leaders of ancient China. However, it is alarming how history repeats itself. In the United States, the death penalty is used for a very similar purpose. Capital punishment is a tool to insight fear in the marginalized and disadvantaged populations of the United States. The torture described by historians of the Shang Dynasty can be compared to the torture that was felt at the hands of the electric chair, hangings, and even lethal injection. Human sacrifice is a term used to make these killings seem removed and barbaric in comparison to modern day. In reality, they seem to be parallel to what we witness in today’s society. This was an extremely interesting read and topic.

  7. Human sacrifice has always represented worship in some way to me, but I’d never stopped to consider that it could also be used as a political tool. The utilization of sacrifice as a complex political mechanism to affirm tiered social structures is a concept most would fail to consider. There is even more complexity to the matter considering these sacrifices could dually serve as executions depending on the will of the servant being sacrificed; unwillingness to go obviously being a sign of such a state. Is it possible that even people within lower tiers of the social construct received the lives of others after passing? If so, what were the conditions for such a situation to occur?

  8. I found your post fascinating, the phenomenon of human sacrifice is very complex. When I think of human sacrifice I always associate it with religious rituals, but it was surprising to read this practice also served as a power mechanism in the Shang Dynasty. The practice of human sacrifice was used to instill fear into citizens. Additionally, your post touches on how status impacts the value of one’s life in Shang culture. The story about the origin of human sacrifice in Shang culture was interesting. I think this concept ties into the post “How the Age of the Deceased Affects the Grieving Process” relating to the ideology of how our identity truly alter how we are viewed in life and death.

  9. Human sacrifice is such an interesting topic, and I loved your detailed explanation about the process and history of human sacrifice during the Shang dynasty. I was particularly interested in how humans were killed when an emperor died to follow and serve him in the afterlife. I was reading the other post about Ancient Egyptian burial, and there are a number of similarities. For instance, both cultures believe in an afterlife, and both highly value the burial of their leaders (pharaohs and emperors respectively). In addition, both groups bury their leaders with objects to help them live comfortable lives in the afterlife. However, the Egyptians did not sacrifice human beings like the Shang dynasty did. However, many Egyptians were killed in the building of the pyramids to commemorate the pharaohs. It would be interesting to compare these two death tolls.

  10. I have read Chinese myths about human sacrifice with the same purposes: tradition, political power, and weather. But they are often associated with supernatural characters , such as the Monkey and the devils in Journey to the West. So I never realized that they were put really in to practice in ancient times. Human sacrifice is shocking from today’s perspective, but the article did a good job providing the historical context of Shang Dynasty and the various reasons behind this practice, which makes it more understandable. If the writing perspective could be more neutral, it would be better.

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