Human Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient China
Human Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient China

Human Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient China

The ceremonial slaughter practices of human beings to give tribute to Gods, supernatural entities, and forefathers is what human ritual sacrifice is all about. While these brutal killings have occurred in numerous civilizations throughout history, ancient Chinese culture was unique due to the intensity with which it occurred, and the hordes of people massacred [1]. In Ancient China, Renxun and Rensheng were considered the two distinct types of human sacrifice. Where Rensheng refers to the ritual sacrifice of a swarm of people frequently tortured and buried together without luxury items. On the other hand, Renxun refers to human companions, more likely to be the family members or servants of prominent figures, frequently buried with valuable items [2].

Human ritual sacrifice was a common trend back in the millennium. Thousands of human sacrifices have been discovered at Shang Dynasty sites in the contemporary city of Anyang, according to archaeologists. Ritual sacrifice was a rich and varied cultural phenomenon throughout the later decades of China’s Shang dynasty, which spanned from 1600 B.C. to 1050 B.C. In this era, monarchs, and nobles, placated deities and ancestors by slaughtering human beings and animals.  Men and women were drowned and sacrificed to the river God Hebo by the ancient Chinese [3]. Moreover, their slaves were also been buried alive alongside their masters as part of this burial service, which was very prevalent during the Shang dynasty.

During Shang’s reign, the cataclysm of human ritual sacrifice reached its pinnacle. After their master died, the Shang king’s slaves and servants were supposed to commit ceremonial suicide or “volunteer” to be buried alive beside their lord [4]. The Tomb of Fu Hao, an archaeological site in Yinux found by Zheng Zhenxiang in 1976, is one of many examples of royal evidence of human sacrifice. Military General Fu Hao, who died in 1200 BCE, was thought to be buried at this location. This site is considered as the only Shang royal tomb that archaeologists have discovered entirely and with its contents. Various human slave skeletons, most likely sixteen in number, were discovered during the dig. Six sacrificed dogs’ remains were also discovered in addition to human remains.

To appease the gods and the ancestors of the monarchy, over 13,000 individuals were slaughtered. Young men between the ages of 15 and 35 comprised most of the victims. Around 50 individuals would be sacrificed at a time, but in the largest mass sacrifice ever discovered, 339 people were killed at the same time. These findings are consistent from Shang Dynasty written documents, which indicate that human sacrifices were not done just because prisoners were seized. Instead, it appears that the nobility had access to a reservoir of possible sacrifices that they might call upon as needed.

Ximen Bao of Wei is considered a mythical figure in Chinese folklore owing to his strategies and efforts to eradicate the awful bridal sacrifice ceremony for the river God [6]. During the Warring States period, he forbade human sacrificial rites to the river God by exposing the foolishness behind this concept [7]. A more typical form was the sacrifice of a high-ranking male’s slaves, courtiers, or servants upon his death. The declared goal was to provide afterlife companionship for the deceased. Victims were either slaughtered or buried alive in the past, and later, they were frequently compelled to commit suicide.

The ancient Chinese empire of Qin was a hub for funeral purposes of human sacrifice. According to Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the tradition was initiated by the tenth emperor of Qin, Duke Wu, with whom 66 people were cremated in 678 BCE. This savage tradition was later carried on by the fourteenth dictator of Qin, Duke Mu, who interred 177 people along with him in 621 BCE as well as the eighteenth ruler Duke Jin, who took 186 people with him [8,9].

However, during the later period, when the first movement of humanistic and rationalist thought developed in China, this cruel and barbaric practice was harshly condemned by enlightened intellectuals and rulers. These objections, combined with a widespread awakening of humanistic consciousness, reawakened respect for the value of human life, and created a powerful social impetus to end the barbaric practice of human sacrifice. At last, the practice of human sacrifice was outlawed by the Duke Xian of Qin in 384 BCE. This rebellious act of Duke Xian occupies a great significance in the history of China, which modern historian Ma Feibai compared with American history of abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln [10,11]. After the abolishment of this unethical practice by Duke Xian, ritual sacrifice becomes relatively infrequent throughout central China. Nevertheless, it was resurrected by the ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, upon the death of his second son in 1935. The process continued till the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi made it illegal to sacrifice servants in 1673.

Cremation was banned by legislation throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Codes of Law of the Great Ming Dynasty and the Codes of Law of the Great Qing Dynasty carry harsh penalties for destroying or leaving carcasses, such as burning or throwing them into rivers. The once prevailing slaughtering will finally be supplanted by traditional land burial under the heavy weight of government law enforcement.

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3.	Strassberg, Richard E. (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 202
6.	Xu, Bohai. (2018). The Comparison between Human Sacrifice in Egypt and that in China. 10.31235/
7.	"Ximen Bao". 2003-09-24. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 2010-05-25
8.	Burns, John F. (4 May 1986). "China hails finds at ancient tomb". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 May 2012
9.	秦公一号大墓 [First tomb of Qin dukes] (in Chinese). Baoji city government. 2011-06-07. Archived from the original on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
10.	Han, Zhaoqi (2010). "Annals of Qin". Annotated Shiji (in Chinese). Zhonghua Book Company. pp. 415–420. ISBN 978-7-101-07272-3
11.	Zhu, Zhongxi (2004). "On Duke Xian of Qin". Long You Wen Bo (陇右文博) (in Chinese). Gansu Provincial Museum (2). Retrieved 3 May 2012.

2 thoughts on “Human Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient China

  1. The ancient Chinese are known to have made drowned sacrifices of men and women to the river god Hebo. They also have buried slaves alive with their owners upon death as part of a funeral service. This was especially prevalent during the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

  2. The practice of human sacrifice in ancient China is a sobering reminder of the beliefs and rituals that existed in early civilizations. It’s important to acknowledge and study these historical events, even if they may be difficult to understand or accept, as they offer insights into the cultural, social, and political conditions of the time. Understanding the role of human sacrifice in ancient China can help us better comprehend the development of early Chinese society and the evolution of human beliefs and practices