The Qiang and the question of human sacrifice in the late Shang period

Gideon Shelach*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


The character that many scholars read as Qiang appears in more than 800 known late Shang oracle bone inscriptions, most of which refer to the ritual sacrifice of Qiang people. More than half of all the human victims mentioned in the inscriptions are identified as Qiang, and among all the neighbors of Shang named in the inscriptions, only the Qiang are specifically mentioned as human sacrifices. Why were the Qiang so important and why were such large numbers of Qiang victims sacrificed during Shang court rituals? Contrary to the usual identification of the Qiang as a tribe of nomadic herdsmen, archaeological data point to a society that practiced a mixed economy, lived in permanent or semipermanent settlements, and had a developed social hierarchy. The Qiang were politically independent from the Shang and maintained a significantly different cultural and symbolic system. Comparison with known ethnographic examples of human sacrifice and analysis of the context in which these ceremonies were performed by the Shang suggest that sacrificing Qiang war captives was a mechanism by which the Shang elite legitimized their political power. Ethnographic comparisons suggest that human sacrifice was important for the Shang, as for other societies where social stratification is already very developed but where the system is not yet institutionalized or very stable. In this context, human sacrifice is viewed as part of a dynamic process that led to the development of social complexity.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)X-25
JournalAsian Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • China
  • Human sacrifice
  • Oracle bone inscriptions
  • Shang


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