The Zhou dynasty ( ) was a Chinese dynasty
that followed the Shang dynasty
and preceded the Qin dynasty
. The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history
(790 years). The military control of China
by the royal house, surnamed Ji, lasted initially from 1046 until 771 BC for a period known as the Western Zhou
and the political sphere of influence it created continued well into the Eastern Zhou
period for another 500 years.
During the Zhou dynasty, centralized power decreased throughout the Spring and Autumn period
until the Warring States period
in the last two centuries of the dynasty. In the latter period, the Zhou court had little control over its constituent states that were at war with each other until the Qin state
consolidated power and formed the Qin dynasty
in 221 BC. The Zhou dynasty had formally collapsed only 35 years earlier, although the dynasty had only nominal power at that point.
This period of Chinese history produced what many consider the zenith of Chinese bronzeware
making. The latter period of the Zhou dynasty is also famous for the beginnings of three major Chinese philosophies: Confucianism
. The Zhou dynasty also spans the period in which the written script
evolved into its almost-modern form with the use of an archaic clerical script
that emerged during the late Warring States period
According to Chinese mythology
, the Zhou lineage began when Jiang Yuan
, a consort of the legendary Emperor Ku
, miraculously conceived
a child, Qi "the Abandoned One", after stepping into the divine footprint of Shangdi
[Shijing, Ode 245.] ["Hou Ji". ''Encyclopædia Britannica''.]
Qi was a culture hero
credited with surviving three abandonments by his mother and with greatly improving Xia agriculture,
to the point where he was granted lordship over Tai
and the surname Ji
by his own Xia king and a later posthumous name
"Lord of Millet
", by the Tang of Shang
. He even received sacrifice as a harvest god
. The term ''Hòujì'' was probably a hereditary title attached to a lineage.
Qi's son, or rather that of the ''Hòujì'', Buzhu
is said to have abandoned his position as Agrarian Master () in old age and either he or his son Ju
abandoned their tradition, living in the manner of the Xirong
(see Hua–Yi distinction
). Ju's son Liu
, however, led his people to prosperity by restoring agriculture and settling them at a place called Bin
, which his descendants ruled for generations
later led the clan from Bin to Zhou, an area in the Wei River
valley of modern-day Qishan County
The duke passed over his two elder sons Taibo
to favor the younger Jili
, a warrior in his own right. As a vassal of the Shang kings Wu Yi
and Wen Ding
, Jili went to conquer several Xirong
tribes before being treacherously killed by Shang forces. Taibo and Zhongyong had supposedly already fled to the Yangtze delta, where they established the state of Wu
among the tribes there. Jili's son Wen
bribed his way out of imprisonment and moved the Zhou capital to Feng
(within present-day Xi'an
). Around 1046 BC, Wen's son Wu
and his ally Jiang Ziya
led an army of 45,000 men and 300 chariots
across the Yellow River
and defeated King Zhou of Shang
at the Battle of Muye
, marking the beginning of the Zhou dynasty. The Zhou enfeoffed a member of the defeated Shang royal family as the Duke of Song
, which was held by descendants of the Shang royal family until its end. This practice was referred to as Two Kings, Three Reverences
According to Nicholas Bodman, the Zhou appear to have spoken a language not basically different in vocabulary and syntax from that of the Shang. A recent study by David McCraw, using lexical statistics, reached the same conclusion. The Zhou emulated extensively Shang cultural practices, perhaps to legitimize their own rule, and became the successors to Shang culture.
[Li, Feng (2006), ]
Landscape And Power In Early China
', Cambridge University Press, p. 286.
At the same time, the Zhou may also have been connected to the Xirong
, a broadly defined cultural group to the west of the Shang, which the Shang regarded as tributaries. According to the historian Li Feng, the term "Rong" during the Western Zhou period was likely used to designate political and military adversaries rather than cultural and ethnic "others".
King Wu maintained the old capital for ceremonial purposes but constructed a new one for his palace and administration nearby at Hao
. Although Wu's early death left a young and inexperienced heir, the Duke of Zhou
assisted his nephew King Cheng
in consolidating royal power. Wary of the Duke of Zhou's increasing power, the "Three Guards", Zhou princes stationed on the eastern plain, rose in rebellion
against his regency. Even though they garnered the support of independent-minded nobles, Shang partisans, and several Dongyi
tribes, the Duke of Zhou quelled the rebellion, and further expanded the Zhou Kingdom into the east. To maintain Zhou authority over its greatly expanded territory and prevent other revolts, he set up the ''fengjian
'' system. Furthermore, he countered Zhou's crisis of legitimacy by expounding the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven
while accommodating important Shang rituals at Wangcheng
Over time, this decentralized system became strained as the familial relationships between the Zhou kings and the regional dynasties thinned over the generations. Peripheral territories developed local power and prestige on par with that of the Zhou. When King You
demoted and exiled his Jiang
queen in favor of the beautiful commoner Bao Si
, the disgraced queen's father the Marquis of Shen
joined with Zeng and the Quanrong barbarians
to sack Hao
in 771 BC. Some modern scholars have surmised that the sack of Haojing might have been connected to a Scythian
raid from the Altai
before their westward expansion.
With King You dead, a conclave of nobles met at Shen
and declared the Marquis's grandson King Ping
. The capital was moved eastward to Wangcheng
marking the end of the "Western Zhou" (, p
''Xī Zhōu'') and the beginning of the "Eastern Zhou" dynasty (, p
The Eastern Zhou was characterized by an accelerating collapse of royal authority, although the king's ritual importance allowed over five more centuries of rule. The Confucian chronicle
of the early years of this process led to its title of the "Spring and Autumn
" period. The partition of Jin
in the mid-5th century BC initiated a second phase, the "Warring States"
. In 403 BC, the Zhou court recognized Han
, and Wei
as fully independent states. Duke Hui
, in 344 BC, was the first to claim the royal title of king
(Chinese: 王) for himself. Others followed, marking a turning point, as rulers did not even entertain the pretence of being vassals of the Zhou court, instead proclaiming themselves fully independent kingdoms. A series of states rose to prominence before each falling in turn, and Zhou was a minor player in most of these conflicts.
The last Zhou king is traditionally taken to be Nan
, who was killed when Qin
captured the capital Wangcheng
in 256 BC. A "King Hui
" was declared, but his splinter state was fully removed by 249 BC. Qin's unification of China
concluded in 221 BC with Qin Shihuang
's annexation of Qi
The Eastern Zhou, however, is also remembered as the golden age of Chinese philosophy: the Hundred Schools of Thought
which flourished as rival lords patronized itinerant ''shi
'' scholars is led by the example of Qi
's Jixia Academy
. The Nine Schools of Thought
which came to dominate the others were Confucianism
(as interpreted by Mencius
and others), Legalism
, the utopian communalist Agriculturalism
, two strains of Diplomatists
, the sophistic Logicians
, and the Naturalists
[.Carr, Brian & al. ]
Companion Encyclopaedia of Asian Philosophy
'' p. 466. Taylor & Francis, 2012. , 9780415035354.
Although only the first three of these went on to receive imperial patronage in later dynasties, doctrines from each influenced the others and Chinese society in sometimes unusual ways. The Mohists
, for instance, found little interest in their praise of meritocracy but much acceptance for their mastery of defensive siege warfare; much later, however, their arguments against nepotism were used in favor of establishing the imperial exam
Culture and society
painting from the Jingmen Tomb (Chinese: 荊門楚墓; Pinyin: Jīngmén chǔ mù) of the [[State of Chu (704–223 BC), depicting men wearing precursors to ''[[Hanfu'' (i.e. traditional [[silk dress) and riding in a two-horsed [[chariot
Mandate of Heaven and the justification of power
Zhou rulers introduced what was to prove one of East Asia's most enduring political doctrines: the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven
". They did this by asserting that their moral superiority justified taking over Shang wealth and territories, and that heaven had imposed a moral mandate on them to replace the Shang and return good governance to the people.
The Mandate of Heaven was presented as a religious compact between the Zhou people and their supreme god in heaven (literally the 'sky god'). The Zhou agreed that since worldly affairs were supposed to align with those of the heavens, the heavens conferred legitimate
power on only one person, the Zhou ruler. In return, the ruler was duty-bound to uphold heaven's principles of harmony
. Any ruler who failed in this duty, who let instability
creep into earthly affairs, or who let his people suffer, would lose the mandate. Under this system, it was the prerogative
of spiritual authority to withdraw support from any wayward ruler and to find another, more worthy one.
In this way, the Zhou sky god legitimized regime change.
In using this creed, the Zhou rulers had to acknowledge that any group of rulers, even they themselves, could be ousted if they lost the mandate of heaven because of improper practices. The book of odes written during the Zhou period clearly intoned this caution.
The early Zhou kings contended that heaven favored their triumph because the last Shang
kings had been evil men whose policies brought pain to the people through waste and corruption. After the Zhou came to power, the mandate became a political tool.
One of the duties and privileges of the king was to create a royal calendar
. This official document defined times for undertaking agricultural activities and celebrating rituals. But unexpected events such as solar eclipses
or natural calamities
threw the ruling house's mandate into question. Since rulers claimed that their authority came from heaven, the Zhou made great efforts to gain accurate knowledge of the stars and to perfect the astronomical
system on which they based their calendar.
also arose indirectly from Shang
material culture through the use of bronze ritual vessels, statues
, ornaments, and weapons
As the Zhou emulated the Shang's large scale production of ceremonial bronzes, they developed an extensive system of bronze metalworking that required a large force of tribute labor. Many of its members were Shang, who were sometimes forcibly transported to new Zhou to produce the bronze ritual objects which were then sold and distributed across the lands, symbolizing Zhou legitimacy.
Western writers often describe the Zhou period as "feudal
" because the Zhou's ''fēngjiàn
'' (封建) system invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe
There were many similarities between the decentralized systems. When the dynasty was established, the conquered land was divided into hereditary fiefs (, ''zhūhóu'') that eventually became powerful in their own right. In matters of inheritance, the Zhou dynasty recognized only patrilineal primogeniture
as legal. According to Tao (1934: 17–31), "the Tsung-fa or descent line system has the following characteristics: patrilineal descent, patrilineal succession, patriarchate, sib-exogamy, and primogeniture"
The system, also called "extensive stratified patrilineage", was defined by the anthropologist Kwang-chih Chang
as "characterized by the fact that the eldest son of each generation formed the main of line descent and political authority, whereas the younger brothers were moved out to establish new lineages of lesser authority. The farther removed, the lesser the political authority". Ebrey defines the descent-line system as follows: "A great line (ta-tsung) is the line of eldest sons continuing indefinitely from a founding ancestor. A lesser line is the line of younger sons going back no more than five generations. Great lines and lesser lines continually spin off new lesser lines, founded by younger sons".
K.E. Brashier writes in his book "Ancestral Memory in Early China" about the tsung-fa system of patrilineal primogeniture: "The greater lineage, if it has survived, is the direct succession from father to eldest son and is not defined via the collateral shifts of the lesser lineages. In discussions that demarcate between trunk and collateral lines, the former is called a zong and the latter a zu, whereas the whole lineage is dubbed the shi. ..
On one hand, every son who is not the eldest and hence not heir to the lineage territory has the potential of becoming a progenitor and fostering a new trunk lineage (Ideally he would strike out to cultivate new lineage territory). ..
According to the Zou commentary, the son of heaven
divided land among his feudal lords, his feudal lords divided the land among their dependent families and so forth down the pecking order to the officers who had their dependent kin and the commoners who "each had his apportioned relations and all had their graded precedence""
This type of unilineal descent-group later became the model of the Korean family through the influence of Neo-Confucianism
, as Zhu Xi
and others advocated its re-establishment in China.
Fēngjiàn system and bureaucracy
There were five peerage ranks
below the royal ranks, in descending order with common English translations: ''gōng'' 公 "duke", ''hóu'' 侯 "marquis", ''bó'' 伯 "count", ''zǐ'' 子 "viscount", and ''nán'' 男 "baron". At times, a vigorous duke would take power from his nobles and centralize the state. Centralization became more necessary as the states began to war among themselves and decentralization encouraged more war. If a duke took power from his nobles, the state would have to be administered bureaucratically by appointed officials.
Despite these similarities, there are a number of important differences from medieval Europe. One obvious difference is that the Zhou ruled from walled cities rather than castles. Another was China's distinct class system, which lacked an organized clergy but saw the Shang Zi
-clan yeomen become masters of ritual and ceremony known as ''Shi'' (士). When a dukedom was centralized, these people would find employment as government officials or officers. These hereditary classes were similar to Western knights in status and breeding, but unlike Western clergy were expected to be something of a scholar instead of a warrior. Being appointed, they could move from one state to another. Some would travel from state to state peddling schemes of administrative or military reform. Those who could not find employment would often end up teaching young men who aspired to official status. The most famous of these was Confucius
, who taught a system of mutual duty between superiors and inferiors. In contrast, the Legalists
had no time for Confucian virtue and advocated a system of strict laws and harsh punishments. The wars of the Warring States were finally ended by the most legalist state of all, Qin. When the Qin dynasty
fell and was replaced by the Han dynasty
, many Chinese were relieved to return to the more humane virtues of Confucius.
The Shi Qiang pan
, inscribed with the accomplishments of the earliest Zhou kings, circa 10th century BC
Agriculture in the Zhou dynasty was very intensive and, in many cases, directed by the government. All farming lands were owned by nobles, who then gave their land to their serfs
, a situation similar to European feudalism
. For example, a piece of land was divided into nine squares in the well-field system
, with the grain from the middle square taken by the government and that of surrounding squares kept by individual farmers. This way, the government was able to store surplus food and distribute it in times of famine or bad harvest. Some important manufacturing sectors during this period included bronze smelting, which was integral to making weapons and farming tools. Again, these industries were dominated by the nobility who directed the production of such materials.
China's first projects of hydraulic engineering
were initiated during the Zhou dynasty, ultimately as a means to aid agricultural irrigation
. The chancellor
, Sunshu Ao
, who served King Zhuang of Chu
, dammed a river to create an enormous irrigation reservoir
in modern-day northern Anhui
province. For this, Sunshu is credited as China's first hydraulic engineer. The later Wei statesman Ximen Bao
, who served Marquis Wen of Wei
(445–396 BC), was the first hydraulic engineer of China to have created a large irrigation canal system. As the main focus of his grandiose project, his canal work eventually diverted the waters of the entire Zhang River
to a spot further up the Yellow River
The early Western Zhou supported a strong army, split into two major units: "the Six Armies of the west" and "the Eight Armies of Chengzhou". The armies campaigned in the northern Loess Plateau
, modern Ningxia
and the Yellow River
floodplain. The military prowess of Zhou peaked during the 19th year of King Zhao
's reign, when the six armies were wiped out along with King Zhao on a campaign around the Han River
. Early Zhou kings were true commanders-in-chief. They were in constant wars with barbarians on behalf of the fiefs called ''guo'', which at that time meant "statelet" or "principality".
King Zhao was famous for repeated campaigns in the Yangtze
areas and died in his last action. Later kings' campaigns were less effective. King Li
led 14 armies against barbarians
in the south, but failed to achieve any victory. King Xuan
fought the Quanrong
nomads in vain. King You
was killed by the Quanrong when Haojing was sacked. Although chariots
had been introduced to China during the Shang dynasty from Central Asia, the Zhou period saw the first major use of chariots in battle. Recent archaeological finds demonstrate similarities between horse burial
s of the Shang and Zhou dynasties and Indo-European peoples in the west.
Other possible cultural influences resulting from Indo-European contact in this period may include fighting styles, head-and-hooves burials, art motifs and myths.
During the Zhou dynasty, the origins of native Chinese philosophy
developed, its initial stages of development beginning in the 6th century BC. The greatest Chinese philosophers, those who made the greatest impact on later generations of Chinese, were Confucius
, founder of Confucianism
, and Laozi
, founder of Taoism
. Other philosophers, theorists, and schools of thought in this era were Mozi
, founder of Mohism
, a famous Confucian who expanded upon Confucius' legacy; Shang Yang
and Han Fei
, responsible for the development of ancient Chinese Legalism
(the core philosophy of the Qin dynasty
); and Xun Zi
, who was arguably the center of ancient Chinese intellectual life during his time, even more so than iconic intellectual figures such as Mencius.
Established during the Western period, the ''Li'' () ritual system encoded an understanding of manners as an expression of the social hierarchy, ethics, and regulation concerning material life; the corresponding social practices became idealized within Confucian ideology.
The system was canonized in the ''Book of Rites
'', and ''Yili
'' compendiums of the Han dynasty
(206 BC–220 AD), thus becoming the heart of the Chinese imperial ideology. While the system was initially a respected body of concrete regulations, the fragmentation of the Western Zhou period led the ritual to drift towards moralization and formalization in regard to:
* The five orders of Chinese nobility
* Ancestral temples (size, legitimate number of pavilions)
* Ceremonial regulations (number of ritual vessels
, musical instruments, people in the dancing troupe)
The rulers of the Zhou dynasty were titled ''Wáng'' (), which is normally translated into English as "king" and was also the Shang
term for their rulers.
In addition to these rulers, King Wu's immediate ancestors Danfu
, and Wen
are also referred to as "Kings of Zhou", despite having been nominal vassals of the Shang kings.
NB: Dates in Chinese history before the first year of the Gonghe Regency
in 841 BC are contentious and vary by source. Those below are those published by Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project
and Edward L. Shaughnessy's ''The Absolute Chronology of the Western Zhou Dynasty''.
Nobles of the Ji family proclaimed Duke Hui of Eastern Zhou as King Nan's successor after their capital, Chengzhou, fell to Qin forces in 256 BC. Ji Zhao, a son of King Nan, led a resistance against Qin for five years. The dukedom fell in 249 BC. The remaining Ji family ruled Yan
until 209 BC.
In traditional Chinese astrology, Zhou is represented by two stars, Eta Capricorni
() and 21 Capricorni
(), in "Twelve States"
asterism. Zhou is also represented by the star Beta Serpentis
in asterism "Right Wall", Heavenly Market enclosure
(see Chinese constellation
*Family tree of the Zhou dynasty
*Historical capitals of China
*Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng
*Women in ancient and imperial China
Chinese Text Project
Rulers of the Zhou period – with links to their occurrences in pre-Qin and Han texts.
Category:3rd-century BC disestablishments in China
Category:11th-century BC establishments in China
Category:Dynasties in Chinese history
Category:Former countries in Chinese history
Category:Former monarchies of East Asia
Category:States and territories disestablished in the 3rd century BC
Category:States and territories established in the 11th century BC