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

Human Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient China

Human ritual sacrifice, a gruesome practice in which people were ceremonially slaughtered as offerings to gods, supernatural beings, or ancestors, has a haunting history across various civilizations. While these brutal killings have occurred in numerous civilizations throughout history, ancient Chinese culture was unique due to the intensity with which it occurred, its scale and brutality, and the hordes of people massacred.

Ancient China recognized two distinct forms of human sacrifice: Renxun and Rensheng.

Rensheng involved the ritual sacrifice of groups of people who were often subjected to torture and buried without any valuable items. In contrast, Renxun referred to the sacrifice of human companions, typically family members or servants of prominent figures, who were buried with valuable items.

The practice of human ritual sacrifice spanned millennia in ancient China. Archaeological findings at Shang Dynasty sites in the city of Anyang reveal thousands of human sacrifices dating back to 1600 B.C. to 1050 B.C.

During this era, monarchs and nobles sought to appease deities and ancestors through the ritual slaughter of both humans and animals. Even more chillingly, men and women were drowned as offerings to the river God Hebo, and slaves were buried alive alongside their masters, a prevalent practice during the Shang dynasty.

The Shang dynasty marked the zenith of human ritual sacrifice’s barbarity. After the death of their master, the slaves and servants of the Shang king were expected to commit ceremonial suicide or willingly be buried alive beside their lord. The Tomb of Fu Hao, discovered in Yinxu in 1976, is a prominent example of this dark practice. Archaeologists found the remains of various human slaves, likely sixteen, along with those of six dogs.

To satisfy the gods and monarchs’ ancestors, more than 13,000 individuals were sacrificed, primarily young men aged 15 to 35. Groups of about 50 individuals were sacrificed at a time, with the largest recorded mass sacrifice involving 339 people. Records from the Shang Dynasty suggest that human sacrifices were not merely done when prisoners were available; instead, the nobility had a reservoir of potential sacrifices at their disposal.

Ximen Bao, a legendary figure in Chinese folklore, is celebrated for his efforts to abolish the horrific bridal sacrifice ceremony to the river God. During the Warring States period, he exposed the foolishness of this practice and banned human sacrificial rites to the river God.

Warring States of China and Qin conquest, c. 250 BCE
Warring States of China and Qin conquest, c. 250 BCE Source:

A more common form of sacrifice involved high-ranking males’ slaves, courtiers, or servants upon their death, with the aim of providing companionship in the afterlife. Victims were either slaughtered, buried alive, or coerced into suicide.

The Qin Dynasty played a central role in the history of human sacrifice. According to Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, Duke Wu initiated the tradition by cremating 66 people in 678 BCE. Duke Mu followed suit, interring 177 individuals in 621 BCE, and Duke Jin added 186 people to this macabre tradition.

As enlightened intellectuals and rulers emerged in later periods, they vehemently condemned this barbaric practice. Their objections, combined with a growing respect for human life, led to a strong social movement against human sacrifice. Duke Xian of Qin marked a turning point by outlawing the practice in 384 BCE, akin to Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery in American history.

Following Duke Xian’s ban, human sacrifice became increasingly rare in central China. However, it was briefly resurrected during the Ming Dynasty, only to be once again prohibited by the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi in 1673.

Cremation was forbidden during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, with strict laws against disposing of corpses improperly. Under the weight of government enforcement, traditional land burial gradually supplanted the once-prevalent slaughtering practices. This marked the end of a dark era in China’s history, as the practice of human ritual sacrifice faded into the annals of the past.

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.

If You Enjoyed This Content, Feel Free To Leave A Tip Or Visit One Of The Sponsor Adverts