Revelation: Scythians and Shang

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I was stunned when I read the following article in the South China Morning Post, both because it was published in Hong Kong, which is now completely under the censorial control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) / Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and because it raises some disturbing political issues and troubling linguistic problems.

"Why the rewriting of China’s history 3,000 years ago still matters today"

Confucius uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts
Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.

Zhou Xin, SCMP (4/25/23)

The first thing that caught me up short is why they translate the Chinese title, Jiǎn Shāng 翦商 (lit., "cut with scissors [often referring to paper cutting]; scissors; clip; trim; kill; annihilate; wipe out; remove", often written with the knife radical as 剪 + Shāng (ca. 1600 BC-1045 BC) — the first historically attested dynasty of the East Asian Heartland.

Derived from:

“Shī·Lǔ sòng·bì gōng”
(Poetry Classic, Praise Odes of Lu, Secret / Hidden Temple)

Shí shǐ jiǎn Shāng
("Where the clipping of Shang began", tr. James Legge [1815-1897]) — a full explication of just this one line would require a separate, lengthy post

The liberty and license taken with the translation of the book's title is reminiscent of how Western movie titles are rendered in Chinese with wildly dissimilar wording, see herehere, and here.

We will further discuss the meaning of the book's title later toward the end of the post.

The first part of the article is surprisingly trenchant, so I quote it at length:

A book written about Chinese history 3,000 years ago has become an unlikely bestseller. In Revelation, or Jian Shang in Mandarin, the author, historian  Lǐ Shuò 李碩 (a professor at Tsinghua University) concluded, through the study of oracle bone scripts and archaeological discoveries, that the Shang Dynasty [ca. 1600–1045 BC] in the early bronze age had embraced brutal cannibalism and human sacrifices. Further, the book describes how that part of the country’s dark history was rewritten by the succeeding Zhou Dynasty, which overthrew Shang in 1,046 BC.

According to the book, the Shang rulers believed in day-to-day intervention by gods in human life and offered human flesh to the heavens like the Aztecs did – prisoners of war, slaves and tribal leaders were tortured and slaughtered to “celebrate” occasions such as building a new house or commemorating a deceased noble. The founding father of the Zhou Dynasty, King Wen (ca. 1112-1050 BC), lost a son in a brutal sacrifice and started to question the rituals. His other son King Wu overthrew Shang’s rule, and came up with a new ritual system so that people would forget about the human sacrifices.

Li’s book is eye-opening in many ways as it sheds new light on the roots of Chinese culture. The way of life and ideology employed in the Shang Dynasty was covered up by Zhou and lost for later Chinese generations. The book provides a plausible explanation as to how and why it happened, hence the English title Revelation.

As part of the Shang-Zhou transition, the church retreated from Chinese state affairs at a very early stage and Chinese politics has no representation for priests. History is an important source of legitimacy, starting a tradition of the state building up a narrative about the past.

Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher born five centuries after the collapse of Shang, uncovered the truth of the Shang dynasty but agreed with King Wen and the Duke of Zhou to cover up disturbing facts with a unified narrative. Confucius further articulated these coded messages into classic texts that formed the origins of Chinese beliefs and society’s moral compass. The famous Confucius quote of “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”, for instance, is a subtle but strong warning against any resurrection of human sacrifices.

In a way that is similar to the transition period from Shang to Zhou, the Chinese state is again working to forge a coherent view of history as the country seeks an elevated standing in the world. On the one hand, Beijing has targeted “historical nihilism” in a crackdown on narratives that run against official ones, similar to King Wen erasing the records of Shang’s brutal rites. On the other hand, the Chinese state is investing heavily to build up a fresh narrative on the country’s past, in an endeavour like the Duke of Zhou’s efforts to establish new rites and belief systems.

But unlike 3,000 years ago, contemporary efforts to shape group memory are much more complicated, as modern technologies have made it easier for individuals to keep a record of what has happened. It is much easier to take a picture by phone than to carve characters on a turtle shell. Meanwhile, the official narrative, if it is a simplified one, would face questions. Beijing’s claimed triumph over Covid-19, for instance, may not echo with all who endured the draconian quarantines.


A well-known scholar of early Chinese religion who wishes to remain anonymous observes:

The article ends on a stupid note, but the essence has been said: Chinese history books lie (we all know that, but the Chinese don't).  For one indication of that fact, see Yuri Pines' chapter, “Chinese history-writing between the sacred and the secular,” in John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, eds., Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (Leiden: Brill, 2009), Volume 1: 315-340.  In it, Pines shows in great detail how the standard historiography of the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) [VHM:  traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius; composition likely completed in the 5th c. BC] variety systematically conceals the truth. It is only thanks to the Zuo Zhuan (The Zuo Tradition or The Commentary of Zuo) [VHM:  composition completed by roughly 300 BC] that, occasionally, we have a glimpse of the historical truth.

The concluding paragraph is so weak and contrary to the rest of the piece that I can't bring myself to print it here, and can only think that the censors tacked it on or that the author or the publisher added it to satisfy the censors.

Revelation already received a major review in another relatively liberal newspaper, Sixth Tone, by Wu Haiyun (1/23/23):

"Digging Into the Shang Dynasty’s Empire of Bones"

For centuries, the rulers of China’s first dynasty practiced a brutal form of human sacrifice. What did it mean? And more importantly, why did they stop?

Wu's article is longer and more archeologically detailed, with explicit illustrations and direct quotations from Li Shuo (the author).  It also raises additional, historiographically significant, issues.

Li concentrates on the Shang dynasty capital of Yīnxū 殷墟, which means "Ruins of Yin" (Yin being another name for the Shang), and other sites near the modern Chinese city of Anyang.

In 1984, a team of archaeologists opened the tomb of a minor nobleman in the Shang dynasty capital of Yinxu, in what is today the central province of Henan. When they reached the burial chamber’s second floor, archaeologists were confronted with a puzzle: 14 adult skulls, one of which was contained in a Shang-era bronze vessel known as a yan. These were traditionally thought of as cooking vessels, and the archaeologists ultimately concluded that the head might have fallen in the vessel by chance.

Fifteen years later, in 1999, archaeologists excavated another Shang nobleman’s tomb, this one located in Liujiazhuang, not far from Yinxu. Unsealing the burial chamber, they found the headless skeleton of a young girl positioned to the right of the coffin. Atop the remains, where her head should have been, sat a bronze yan containing her skull. The skull’s grayish color indicated it had been steamed.

This time, the conclusion was clear. Excavation after excavation in Shang-era (roughly 1600-1046 B.C.) sites has turned up evidence of human sacrifice. Yet, for years there seemed to be an unspoken consensus about the practice: It was treated as an unglamorous — and ultimately insignificant — part of early Chinese civilization, nothing more. But what if human-sacrifice was not just a minor foible, a relic of a particular era, but central to the Shang way of life and system of rule?

Human sacrifice largely disappears from the historical and archaeological record almost immediately after the Shang. The process by which human sacrifice was excised from Chinese culture forms the basis of the second and most controversial part of Li’s book. In contrast to the view held by most scholars — that human sacrifice receded gradually and naturally — Li attributes the demise of the custom to a conscious choice on the part of the founders of the Zhou dynasty (1046-221 B.C.), and especially the actions of the Duke of Zhou.

Li argues the Duke of Zhou moved quickly to ban human sacrifice and erase as much of the evidence related to human sacrifice as possible. To ensure the practice wouldn’t return, he developed a secular political and moral system, one in which obtaining the blessings of Heaven required not violence, but virtuous government. Five hundred years later, Confucius would praise the Duke of Zhou’s ritual system and defend the secularist attitudes of the dynasty he’d built.

As far as Li is concerned, the replacement of the Shang by the Zhou was more than a regime change. It was a landmark revolution in the history of the formation of Chinese civilization. The Duke of Zhou’s eradication of the human sacrifice system was so successful that the practice was essentially forgotten for 3,000 years. It was not until the excavation of the Shang capital Yinxu in the 20th century that the truth was rediscovered.

Since my brother Denis and I have been working  on a translation and analysis of the Yìjīng 易經 (Classic of Changes) for more than two decades (now nearing completion), I quote here a key portion of Wu's interview of Li (the author of the book):

Wu: I’m curious about some of the hypotheses you advance in the book. In particular, you offer a new interpretation of the “I Ching,” arguing it should be understood as a collection of “black codes,” created by King Wen, which contain details of his role as an agent of the Shang dynasty tasked with capturing human offerings, various human sacrifice rituals he witnessed, and even details of the sacrifice of his own son. How have other scholars responded to your interpretation?

Li: I argue in the book that King Wen’s son, the Duke of Zhou, consciously eliminated the vast majority of evidence related to human sacrifice in the Shang. But he didn’t dare touch his own father’s work, in which a lot of information related to the human sacrifice system can be found, if you look closely.

The study of the “I Ching” is an area in which no definitive scholarly conclusion has been reached. What does it really mean? How exactly is it used to tell fortunes? There is very little consensus. One of the leading scholars studying the “I Ching” using a historical approach is Professor Edward L. Shaughnessy at the University of Chicago. I am not sure if he’ll read the book, but I’m looking forward to his reaction or criticisms.

Gruesome evidence of such rampant human sacrifice during the Shang dynasty was already known from archeological excavations undertaken nearly a century ago.  See, for instance, Li Chi, Anyang: A Chronicle of the Discovery, Excavation, and Reconstruction of the Ancient Capital of the Shang Dynasty (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1977).  Before Li Shuo, however, nobody made a determined effort to put this human sacrifice into a comprehensive context for the entire sweep of Chinese history, much less Eurasian history, which not even Li Shuo has yet attempted, though we at Language Log have been making a modest effort to do so through the lens of historical linguistics combined with archeological and historical research.


Skulls excavated from tomb M1550 at Yinxu. On each step sit 10 skulls. Sixth Tone, Courtesy of Li Shuo.

A skeleton in pit H310 at Yinxu. Its legs have been severed. Courtesy of Li Shuo


Human skeletal remains, many without heads, neatly laid out on the floors of tombs.

There are many other photographs showing such scenes of sacrificial carnage, some looking down into burial pits with scores of headless skeletons.  What the early Chinese did to humans, they also did to horses in even greater excess, witness these equines sacrificed to the glory of a late Bronze Age duke in northeast China.

Sacrificial burial of horses in Shandong, at the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (r. 547-490 BC; d. 490 BC) in the village of Yatou 崖头 in Linzi District of Zibo

On September 20-21, 2019, a US-China Chu Culture Symposium, co-organized by the National East Asian Languages Resource Center of The Ohio State University (OSU) and Yangtze University, Jingzhou, Hubei Province, China, was held at OSU.  Among the featured events at the symposium (including a full orchestral concert played on replicas of ancient instruments — bronze bells, stone chimes, ocarinas, wind instruments including pan flutes, various string instruments, drums, etc. — recovered from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾侯乙墓, which dates to around 433 BC), the most spellbinding for me was a paper delivered by Professor Xu Wenwu 徐文武 of Yangtze University.  In his paper, Professor Xu analyzed the relationship between the extensive description of chariots in Chǔ cí 楚辭 (Elegies of Chu) and archeological materials from the excavations undertaken around Jingzhou.

As I heard Professor Xu speak, I was dumbfounded by the thought of such intimate knowledge of horses and chariots as that presented in this southern literary work, Chu ci, since these are cultural manifestations of the northern steppes.  Even more astonishing was the good professor's account of the two thousand tumuli in the Jingzhou area, many with horse burials in them, including one with the remains of upwards of six hundred horses.  Such a lavish expenditure of horses, which must have been extremely costly and rare in that hot, humid environment, simply boggles the mind.

I know of a similar excessive burial sacrifice of horses hundreds of miles to the northeast in Shandong, at the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (r. 547-490 BC; d. 490 BC) in the village of Yatou 崖头 in Linzi District of Zibo (see photograph above), where the procurement of such large numbers of horses would be somewhat less unlikely than in Jingzhou, southern Hubei, but still hundreds of miles south of their natural steppe habitat.  From such extravagant funeral outlays, the power and prestige of the horse and its equipage — even in regions that are distant from their native terrain — can readily be imagined.


Returning more directly to the monograph under discussion, I want briefly to discuss a linguistic controversy that has grown up around the character mǎo 卯 (for glyph origin, etymology, and definitions see here), which is mentioned by Li Shuo.  As vigorously debated on Reddit, there is a question whether it refers to splaying a human body only or could also refer to doing the same to an animal body.  Jonathan M. Smith, "The Di Zhi 地支 as Lunar Phases and Their Coordination with the Tian Gan 天干 as Ecliptic Asterisms in a China before Anyang", Early China, 33 (2011), 199–228, states that "the word in its sacrificial applications mean[s] 'to blood-let'".  However the argument on that linguistic point concludes, the archeological evidence is clear:  numberless human sacrifices were carried out during the Shang period.

Be that as it may, Revelation is an explosive book, one that constitutes an unprecedented approach to early Chinese history.  It is supposedly the first volume of the author's projected History of China.  If the author is able to continue his research and publishing on the trajectory that he has embarked on in Revelation, it will lead to a revolution in contemporary Chinese historiography. If there was ever a need for a new Chinese academic book to be translated into English, this is it.

For myself, what Revelation boils down to is its signal contribution to the resolution of two nagging problems:

1. How do we account for the rise and role of the 周易 (Zhou [Book / Classic] of Change]) in Chinese history?

2. How does the evolution of Sinitic civilization comport with the development of Eurasian civilization as a whole.

Taking a look at a Taiwanese online bookshop description might help us to understand how Revelation does this, especially the following part:

Zhōu Wénwáng yīn shòudào Shāng Zhòuwáng huáiyí, bèi zuòwéi rén shēng jūjìn zài Yīndū, zuìhòu, Wénwáng de zhǎngzǐ Bó Yìkǎo bèi Zhòuwáng xiàn jì. Wénwáng xuéxíle shāngrén de yì guà zhàn suàn jìshù, fāzhǎn chū “Yì jīng” de guà, yáo cí tǐxì — jìlù Zhōu Wénwáng qīnlì hé rèn zhī de zhūduō shìjiàn, zuìzhōng mùdì shì tuīsuàn"jiǎnshāng"de zhànlüè.


King Wen of Zhou was detained in the capital of Yin as a human sacrificial victim because he was suspected by King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty. Finally, King Wen's eldest son Bo Yikao was sacrificed by King Zhou. King Wen learned the divination techniques of merchants* and developed the system of hexagrams and line statements in the Classic / Book of Changes" — recording many events that King Wen of Zhou personally experienced and recognized, with the ultimate goal of calculating the strategy of "Jian Shang / Clipping Shang".

[*All major online translation AI — Google, Baidu, Bing, and DeepL — render shāngrén 商人 here as "merchants", not "people of Shang".]

Comments by Denis Mair:

Translating 商人 as "merchants" is a pretty big mistake, showing that the AIs lack a sense of context. I am puzzled by this sentence in the Chinese original: 被作为人牲拘禁在殷都 . Wenwang was not kept in the Yin capital as a sacrificial victm: he was kept under house arrest, probably as a hostage. And his period of house arrest began during the penultimate Shang ruler's reign, not during the reign of the final ruler, King Zhou. After all, he was the son-in-law of the penultimate Shang ruler.

It seems that Revelation deals partly with how King Wen of Zhou devised the system of the I ching / Book of Changes and deployed it in the annihilation of the Shang dynasty. "Revelation" seems to point to the revelatory nature of I ching / Yi jing divination.

As for the second problem that has vexed me since I embarked on a Sinological career more than half a century ago, Revelation helps by providing abundant textual and archeological evidence for the key role of human and animal sacrifice by the Shang.  All the way across Eurasia, from the kurgans of Crimea and the Pontic-Caspian Steppe to the tumuli of Northeast Asia and East Asia, there are burials of horse sacrifices.  Of course, there are human sacrifices too, but to simplify matters, for the remainder of this communication I will focus mainly on horse sacrifice.

In Sanskrit, the horse sacrifice was called aśvamedha अश्वमेध, which had its parallels among Germanic, Armenian, Iranian, Greek, and — most significantly for this post — early Sinitic peoples.  Because I have travelled to and studied such tumuli / kurgans / barrows / burial mounds with human and horse sacrifices across the length and breadth of Eurasia and have witnessed their striking similarities, I cannot shake the idea that they are related — with the Crimea and Pontic Steppes their epicenter or linchpin in the west, and arcing across Central and Inner Asia, down through what is now Central and South China to the Bronze Age Dian Culture in Yunnan Province in the southwest during the first millennium BC (see hereherehere, and here).

For a rich assemblage of materials pertaining to horse sacrifice among Iranian peoples, see herehere, and here in Encyclopaedia Iranica.  The last article — on the Scythians — is especially crucial for understanding the transmission of horse culture across Eurasia and down into the southern part of what is now China.

Here are some references for those who are interested in this topic:

  • Victor H. Mair, “Horse Sacrifices and Sacred Groves among the North(west)ern Peoples of East Asia”, Ouya xuekan 欧亚学刊 (Eurasian Studies), 6 (Beijing:  Zhonghua shuju, 2007), 22-53; also available as chapter 11 in Victor H. Mair, China and Beyond:  A Collection of Essays (Amherst, NY:  Cambria, 2013).
  • Prods Oktor Skjaervø, "The Horse in Indo-Iranian Mythology", review of Philippe Swennen, "D'Indra à Tištrya: Portrait et évolution du cheval sacré dans les mythes indo-iraniens anciens", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 128.2 (April-June, 2008), 295-302.
  • Saikat K. Bose, "The Aśvamedha: in the context of early South Asian socio-political development", Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 25.2 (2020).
  • "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 7" (1/11/21) — with extensive discussion of Indo-European horse sacrifice
  • "Horse sacrifice" (Wikipedia)
  • "Ashvamedha" (Wikipedia)
  • For the horse-sacrifice ceremony as it was taken up by Altaic shamanic ritual see Encyclopedia Britannica — full article available only by subscription.

Selected readings

[Thanks to John Lagerwey, Zihan Guo, and Mark Dickens]


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 11:27 am

    *陰虛 > 殷墟

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 12:15 pm

    Yīnxū 殷墟
    fixed now

  3. Chris Button said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 3:03 pm

    … a linguistic controversy that has grown up around the character mǎo 卯

    卯 maɨw' ← ʁǝwɁ when cutting represents 劉 luw ← rǝːw

    … witness these equines sacrificed …

    貉 ɣak ← ɢak is also read maɨkʲ ← ʁak and then loaned for 禡 maɨʰ ← mraɣːs (or mraks–horse 馬 being maɨ' ← mraɣɁ), which could perhaps have represented a horse sacrifice.

    And on the topic of ʁ- → m- (when not its ɢ- allophone) with the same ʁ- ~ r- confusion:

    麥 məɨkʲ ← ʁək (loaned for 來 ləj ← rəɣː) looks suspiciously like the Proto-Indo-European root rugh- (or rw̩kʱ-) "rye"

  4. John Swindle said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 6:47 pm

    The SCMP article was apparently posted in April, but the subtext is "Don't forget June 4!"

  5. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 7:52 pm

    To put oneself into an appropriate mood for absorbing this post’s information, now might be a good time to listen—at loud volume!—to the Scythian Suite by Prokofiev, his 1915 musical remnant of a never-realized Ballets Russes project whose scenario, by poet Sergey Gorodetsky, was to be an ancient-Scythian mythological drama. The second movement—which may have been a partial inspiration for John Williams’s Jaws theme—depicts a sacrificial ritual.

  6. magni said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 4:13 am

    > "If the author is able to continue his research and publishing on the trajectory that he has embarked on in Revelation, it will lead to a revolution in contemporary Chinese historiography."

    Sadly, however, Li Shuo is in worrying health conditions which will more than likely force him out of his research for a while. In March he announced on social media (WeChat Moments) that he was terminally ill and bidding farewell to friends, fellow researchers and readers. He underwent surgery in May and thankfully the prognosis looked good, according to his friends (source:

  7. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 1:19 pm

    I am delighted to hear a hypothesis that at its origin the Yi Jing was a memetic weapon, so effective at wiping out the memes it was aimed at that it is now largely incomprehensible.

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 2:30 pm

    OT, but I am interested to learn if I am unusual in being able to look at the photographs of human skeletons, even the one with severed legs (which led me to wonder whether they had been severed while the owner was still alive and he was trying to claw his way out of the pit when he died), yet could not look for even a fraction of a second at the massed skeletons of horses and scrolled down as fast as I was able.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 4:16 pm

    From Edward Shaughnessy:

    Regarding 卯, I think looking at its many uses in oracle-bone inscriptions would be more informative than speculations about etymology. It routinely takes 牛 and 羊 as direct object. I may be wrong, but my recollection is that it does not take 人 or any of its variants as direct object.

    I just checked the only oracle-bone concordance I have on my computer here in Italy (something that my student 蔡芳沛 and I—and also my brother, supplying the computer wherewithal, did a long time ago—35 years ago). It is of only the 小屯南地 oracle bones, but I think they are reasonably representative. I give part of the page for 卯. When it is a verb and has a direct object, it is almost always 牛, occasionally 牢. My sense is that a fuller search would show that 羊 could also be 卯'd, but again, I recall no case of 人 or anything that could be construed as human being the direct object. Someone could check this quite easily.

    [VHM: For those who are interested,I have photographs of the pages mentioned by Ed.]

  10. Chris Button said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 8:58 pm

    Shima has a dedicated section for all the instances of “penned sheep” being “liu” (mao) cut. There are some cows and a few pigs.

    When it comes to human sacrifices, they seem to be decapitated as 伐.

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