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.


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).


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)


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.).


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.





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