Zhou Dynasty

Zhou Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty

1046 BC–256 BC
Population concentration and boundaries of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1050–771 BC) in China
Capital Haojing, Luoyang
Language(s) Old Chinese
Religion Chinese folk religion, Hundred Schools of Thought
Government Monarchy/Feudalism
 - 1046–1043 BC King Wu
 - 314–256 BC King Nan of Zhou
 - Battle of Mùyě 1046 BC
 - Disestablished 256 BC
 - 273 BC est. 30,000,000 
 - 230 BC est. 38,000,000 
Currency Mostly spade coins and knife coins
Zhou Dynasty
Chinese 周朝
History of China
History of China
3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors
Xia Dynasty 2100–1600 BCE
Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BCE
Zhou Dynasty 1045–256 BCE
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn Period
   Warring States Period
Qin Dynasty 221 BCE–206 BCE
Han Dynasty 206 BCE–220 CE
  Western Han
  Xin Dynasty
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin Dynasty 265–420
  Western Jin 16 Kingdoms
  Eastern Jin
Southern and Northern Dynasties
Sui Dynasty 581–618
Tang Dynasty 618–907
  (Second Zhou 690–705)
5 Dynasties and
10 Kingdoms

Liao Dynasty
Song Dynasty
  Northern Song W. Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
Ming Dynasty 1368–1644
Qing Dynasty 1644–1911
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic
of China

Republic of
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The Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) (Chinese: 周朝; pinyin: Zhōucháo; Wade–Giles: Chou Ch'ao [tʂóʊ tʂʰɑ̌ʊ]) was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang Dynasty and preceded the Qin Dynasty. Although the Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Ji (Chinese: ) family lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as the Western Zhou.

During the Zhou Dynasty, the use of iron was introduced to China,[1] though this period of Chinese history produced what many[who?] consider the zenith of Chinese bronze-ware making. The dynasty also spans the period in which the written script evolved into its modern form with the use of an archaic clerical script that emerged during the late Warring States period.




According to Chinese legend, the Zhou lineage began with Emperor Ku and proceeded from him to Qi, Buku, Ju, and then Gongliu,[2] before Gugong Danfu[a] moved the Zhou clan from Bin (豳 or 邠)[b] to an area in the Wei River valley,[c] where they founded a town that became central to the Zhou clan's growing prosperity.

Gugong Danfu's son, Jili,[d] fought against the Rong as a vassal of the Shang Dynasty's King Wen Ding until the king killed him. Jili's son, King Wen of Zhou, moved the Zhou capital downstream to Fenghao;[e] Wen's son, King Wu of Zhou, led an army of 45,000 men and 300 chariots across the Yellow River in 1046 BC and conquered the Shang Dynasty's King Di Xin at the Battle of Muye, marking the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty.[f]

Western and Eastern Zhou

States of the Western Zhou Dynasty

Though King Wu died just a few years after the Battle of Muye, the Duke of Zhou assisted the young and inexperienced King Cheng in consolidating power for the Ji line: he managed a war against rebellious Zhou princes in the eastern lowlands (allied with feudal rulers and Shang remnants);[5][6] formulated the Mandate of Heaven doctrine to counter Shang claims to a divine right of rule; founded Chengzhou as an eastern capital;[7] and set up the fengjian "feudal" system designed to maintain Zhou authority as it expanded its rule over a larger amount of territory.[5]

However, this decentralized system became strained as the familial relationship between Zhou Kings and regional rulers thinned over generations and peripheral territories developed local power and prestige on par with that of the Zhou.[8] When King You replaced Queen Shen with the concubine Baosi (and designated Baosì's son as the crown prince), the former queen’s powerful father, the Marquess of Shen, joined forces with Quanrong to sack the western capital of Haojing in 770 BC. Nobles from Zheng, Lu, Qin, Xu, and Shen declared the Marquess's grandson, Ji Yijiu, as the new king. The subsequent move of the capital east from Haojing to Chengzhou in 771 BC marks the historical boundary between Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou.

The Eastern Zhou period, characterized by a breakup of Zhou territory into states that were essentially independent,[8] is further divided into two sub-periods. The first, from 722 to 481 BC, is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (403–221 BC[g]), after another famous chronicle and initiated by the partitioning of Jin.

The Eastern Zhou period is also designated as the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, a golden age of influential cultural and intellectual expansion facilitated by relative freedom of expression. Although there were a host of schools, four of them came to influence Chinese government and culture in meaningful ways: Confucianism, Mohism, Taoism and Legalism. The changes brought on played a large part in the decline of the Zhou dynasty.[9]


With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished, and the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. From King Ping's reign onwards, the Zhou kings ruled in name only, with true power lying in the hands of regional nobles. Towards the end of the Zhou Dynasty, the nobles did not even bother to symbolically acknowledge loyalty to the Ji family, declaring themselves to be independent kings. The dynasty ended in 256 BC when the last king of Zhou died and none of his sons proclaimed the nominal title of King of China. Qin Shi Huang's unification of China concluded in 221 BC with the establishment of the Qin Dynasty.

Culture and society

Feudalism and the rise of Confucian bureaucracy

A Western Zhou ceremonial bronze of cooking-vessel form inscribed to record that the King of Zhou gave a fiefdom to Shi You, ordering that he inherit the title as well as the land and people living there
Western Zhou Dynasty musical bronze bell

Western writers often describe the Zhou period as 'feudal' because the Zhou's early rule invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe but apart from some similarities in the decentralized system there are a number of important differences. One obvious difference is that the Zhou ruled from walled cities rather than castles. The Chinese term for the Zhou system is fēngjiàn (封建). When the dynasty was established, the conquered land was divided into hereditary fiefs that eventually became powerful in their own right. The fiefs or states themselves tended to become feudally subdivided. 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 centralization encouraged more war. If a duke took power from his nobles, the state would have to be administered bureaucratically by appointed officials.

The lowest rank of the Zhou ruling class was called Shi (士). When a dukedom was centralized these people would find employment as government officials or officers. In contrast to Western chivalry, the Shi was expected to be something of a scholar. 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 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, meaning "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.[10][11]

Mandate of Heaven

A Western Zhou bronze gui vessel, c. 1000 BC

In the Chinese historical tradition, the Zhou defeated the Shang and oriented the Shang system of ancestor worship towards a universalized worship, away from the worship of Shangdi and to that of Tian or "heaven". They legitimized their rule by invoking the "Mandate of Heaven," the notion that the ruler (the "Son of Heaven") governed by divine right and that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the Mandate. Disasters and successful rebellions would thus show that the ruling family had lost this Mandate.

The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the Xia and Shang dynasties and, at the same time, supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers. Before conquering Shang, Zhou was a state in Shaanxi. Gernet (1996:51) describes the Zhou state as a "city" which was in contact with the barbarian peoples of the western regions and more warlike than the Shang. The Zhou dynasty was founded by the Ji family and operated from four capitals throughout its history.[12] Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, established a large imperial territory wherein states as far as Shandong acknowledged Zhou rulership and took part in elite culture. The spread of Zhou bronzes, though, was concurrent with the continued use of Shang-style pottery in the distant regions, and these states were the last to recede during the late Western war. The mandate of heaven was based on rules. The emperor was granted the right to rule by heaven.


During the Zhou Dynasty, the origins of native Chinese philosophy developed, its initial stages 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; Mencius, 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.[13]


Established during the Western period, the Li traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: ) 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, Zhouli, 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)


Zhou vase with glass inlays, 4th-3rd century BC, British Museum.

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 of Wei, 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.

Art gallery

Western Zhou

Spring and Autumn period

Warring States period


Personal name Posthumous name Reign period
King Wu of Zhou
1046 BC-1043 BC
King Cheng of Zhou
1042 BC-1021 BC
King Kang of Zhou
1020 BC-996 BC
King Zhao of Zhou
995 BC-977 BC
King Mu of Zhou
976 BC-922 BC
King Gong of Zhou
922 BC-900 BC
King Yi of Zhou
899 BC-892 BC
King Xiao of Zhou
891 BC-886 BC
King Yi of Zhou
885 BC-878 BC
King Li of Zhou
877 BC-841 BC
  Gonghe Regency
841 BC-828 BC
King Xuan of Zhou
827 BC-782 BC
King You of Zhou
781 BC-771 BC
End of Western Zhou / Beginning of Eastern Zhou
King Ping of Zhou
770 BC-720 BC
King Huan of Zhou
719 BC-697 BC
King Zhuang of Zhou
696 BC-682 BC
King Xi of Zhou
681 BC-677 BC
King Hui of Zhou
676 BC-652 BC
King Xiang of Zhou
651 BC-619 BC
King Qing of Zhou
618 BC-613 BC
King Kuang of Zhou
612 BC-607 BC
King Ding of Zhou
606 BC-586 BC
King Jian of Zhou
585 BC-572 BC
King Ling of Zhou
571 BC-545 BC
King Jing of Zhou
544 BC-521 BC
King Dao of Zhou
520 BC
King Jing of Zhou
519 BC-476 BC
King Yuan of Zhou
475 BC-469 BC
King Zhendìng of Zhou
468 BC-442 BC
King Ai of Zhou
441 BC
King Si of Zhou
441 BC
King Kao of Zhou
440 BC-426 BC
King Weilie of Zhou
425 BC-402 BC
King An of Zhou
401 BC-376 BC
King Lie of Zhou
375 BC-369 BC
King Xian of Zhou
368 BC-321 BC
King Shenjing of Zhou
320 BC-315 BC
King Nan of Zhou
314 BC-256 BC
King Hui of Zhou
255 BC-249 BC
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 and Wei until 209 BC.

Zhou in astronomy

Zhou is represented by two stars, Eta Capricorni (周一 Zhōu yī, "the First Star of Zhou") and 21 Capricorni (周二 Zhōu èr, "the Second Star of Zhou"), in "Twelve States" asterism.[14] Zhou is also represented by the star Beta Serpentis in asterism "Right Wall", Heavenly Market enclosure (see Chinese constellation).[15]

See also


  1. ^ Also known as Tài Wáng (周太王) or "Great King."
  2. ^ Bin may have been close to Linfen on the Fen River in present-day Shanxi.[3][4]
  3. ^ In modern-day Qishan County.
  4. ^ 季歷 "King Jì"
  5. ^ Near present-day Xi'an.
  6. ^ Because the Zhou state existed before 1046 BC, there is some academic dispute as to the actual beginning of the Zhou dynasty, with proposed dates ranging between 1122 BC, 1027 BC. Chinese historians take 841 BC as the first year of consecutive annual dating of the history of China, based on the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian.
  7. ^ The Zhou Dynasty actually ended in 256 BC, though the Warring States Period extends to the beginning of Qin Dynasty.


  1. ^ Suzanne M. M. Young, A. Mark Pollard, Paul Budd and Robert A. Ixer (BAR international series,792), ed (1999). "The earliest use of iron in China, in Metals in Antiquity". Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 1–9. http://www.staff.hum.ku.dk/dbwagner/EARFE/EARFE.html. 
  2. ^ Wu (1982), p. 235.
  3. ^ Shaughnessy (1999), p. 303.
  4. ^ Wu (1982), p. 273.
  5. ^ a b Chinn (2007), p. 43.
  6. ^ Hucker (1978), p. 32.
  7. ^ Hucker (1978), p. 33.
  8. ^ a b Hucker (1978), p. 37.
  9. ^ Schirokauer & Brown (2006).
  10. ^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais (2006), p. 14.
  11. ^ Shaughnessy (1988).
  12. ^ Khayutina (2003).
  13. ^ Schirokauer & Brown (2006), pp. 25–47.
  14. ^ (Chinese)"AEEA – Astronomy Education Network (天文教育資訊網)" (in Chinese). July 4, 2006. http://aeea.nmns.edu.tw/2006/0607/ap060704.html. Retrieved December 5, 2010. 
  15. ^ (Chinese) "AEEA – Astronomy Education Network (天文教育資訊網)" (in Chinese). June 24, 2006. http://aeea.nmns.edu.tw/2006/0606/ap060624.html. Retrieved December 5, 2010. 
Works cited
  • Chinn, Ann-ping (2007), The Authentic Confucius, Scribner, ISBN 0743246187 
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley; Walthall, Anne; Palais, James B. (2006), East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-13384-4 
  • Gernet, Jacques (1996), A History of Chinese Civilization (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-49781-7 
  • Hucker, Charles O. (1978), China to 1850: A short history, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0804709580 
  • Khayutina, Maria (2003), "Where Was the Western Zhou Capital?", The Warring States Working Group, WSWG-17, Leiden, Germany: Warring States Project, pp. 14, http://www.sinits.com/research/WesternZhouCapital.pdf 
  • Schirokauer, Conrad; Brown, Miranda (2006), A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (Second ed.), Wadsworth: Thomson Learning, pp. 25–47 
  • Shaughnessy, Edward L. (1988), "Historical Perspectives on The Introduction of The Chariot Into China", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48 (1): 189–237 
  • Shaughnessy, Edward L. (1999), "Western Zhou History", in Loewe, Michael; Shaughnessy, Edward L., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, pp. 292–351, ISBN 9780521470308 
  • Wu, K. C. (1982), The Chinese Heritage, New York: Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-517-54475X 

Further reading

  • Feng, Li. 2006. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045-771 BC
  • Lee, Yuan-Yuan and Shen, Sinyan. (1999). Chinese Musical Instruments (Chinese Music Monograph Series). Chinese Music Society of North America Press. ISBN 1-880464-03-9
  • Shen, Sinyan (1987), Acoustics of Ancient Chinese Bells, Scientific American, 256, 94.
  • Sun, Yan. 2006. "Cultural and Political Control in North China: Style and Use of the Bronzes of Yan at Liulihe during the Early Western Zhou." In: Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Edited by Victor H. Mair. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. Pages 215–237. ISBN 9780824828844; ISBN 0-8248-2884-4.
  • Wagner, D. G. "The Earliest Use of Iron in China" in Metals in Antiquity, Edited by S. M. M. Young, A. M. Pollard, P. Budd and R. A. Ixer, Oxford: Archaeopress. 1999, pp. 1–9.

External links

Preceded by
Shang Dynasty
Dynasties in Chinese history
c.1045 – 256 BC
Succeeded by
Qin Dynasty

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