Zhou Dynasty — Longest Dynasty of Ancient China with Great Philosophical Schools

Restoration Map of Zhou Dynasty's Palace

Restoration Map of Palace of the Zhou Dynasty 

 

What Is Zhou Dynasty?

 

Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) was the third and longest dynasty of ancient China, when most of the important Philosophical Schools were formed and flourished, including Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Legalism, Military Strategy, Yin Yang and Five Elements, etc.

It was divided into two periods, the Western Zhou (1046 BC — 771 BC), and the Eastern Zhou (770 BC — 256 BC). 

 

  • The Western Zhou was a relatively peaceful era when hundreds of vassal states were all respected and tributed to the kings of Zhou. This was also the period that Confucius highly admired. 

 

  • In Eastern Zhou, the kings of Zhou lost control and many lords started to fight and compete against each other. Hence, this era was also called the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) and the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC).

In about 790 years of the Zhou, 37 kings had reigned the empire.

Bronze Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of the Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed Bronze Ritual Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of Zhou — Baoji Museum

 

Facts About the Zhou Dynasty

 

  • The end of the Western Zhou was caused by King Ji Gongsheng and his beautiful icy queen Bao Si. 

 

  • The ideas of the Divine Right of Kings and Mandate of Heaven were proposed and well accepted in Zhou Empire. 

 

  • The appearances and popularity of all important ancient Chinese Philosophies made Zhou the starting point of Atheism in Chinese culture. 

Unearthed Bronze Watering Utensils (Yi) of the Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed Bronze Watering Utensils (Yi) of the Western Zhou — Baoji Bronzeware Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Compared to celestial beings and ghosts, Zhou’s people honored their departed ancestors more.

 

  • The first code in the history of China was published in the Zhou Dynasty, which stipulated explicit rights and duties, as well as strict etiquettes of different hierarchies.

  • People of Zhou recorded their important events and achievements on the bronze wares. 

Unearthed Bronze Bell with Inscriptions Carved on of the Western Zhou Dynasty

Bronze Bell of Western Zhou with Inscriptions Carved on — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Zhou Dynasty

 

Mysterious Ancestor of the Zhou Clan

The earliest ancestor of the Zhou was named Ji Qi, whose mother got pregnant after having accidentally walked on a giant footprint. 

The way she got pregnant and Ji Qi's appearance was all too special, which made her think this baby boy was a little monster and threw him away.

However, nearly all of the animals were trying their best to protect and feed this baby boy; he never got hurt in the wild nature and grew into a decent young man. 

Though his given name Qi means to abandon, which kept reminding him of his sad, special experience, he was quite a diligent and smart person who started to plant wheat and millet. 

Then he served as the Minister of Agriculture for Kings Yao and Shun. Gradually, more people came to him, and soon they formed a big clan named Zhou. 

Soon, they pledged their loyalty to and became a vassal state of the Shang Dynasty

Bronze Bells on Horse Collar of Early Western Zhou Dynasty

Bronze Bells on Horse Collar of Early Western Zhou — National Museum of China

Vengeance and Establishment of Zhou

Generations later, a lord of Zhou was wrongly sentenced to death by a king of the Shang Dynasty.

 

Afterward, Zhou's people started to plan for vengeance, while kept extending their territory. 

Later, in the Battle of Muye, Lord Ji Chang and Ji Fa of Zhou defeated the last king of the Shang Dynasty, and established a new empire, under the assistance of a mysterious minister Jiang Ziya, the founder of Military Strategy. 

Unearthed Ritual Bronze Vessel (Li Gui) with Inscriptions Carved inside Recorded the Battle of Muye that Perished Shang Dynasty, and the Establishment of the Zhou Dynasty
Inscriptions about the Battle of Muye on the Unearthed Bronze Bowl (Li Gui) of the Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed Ritual Bronze Vessel (Li Gui) with Inscriptions Carved inside Recorded the Battle of Muye that Perished Shang Dynasty, and the Establishment of the Zhou Dynasty — National Museum of China

Flourishing and Expanding of the Empire Zhou

In the next half a century, the Zhou Empire defeated rebellions and kept developing.

Later, King Ji Xia started to further expand the realm. He led his army and marched eastward and southward several times, but he mysteriously perished in a river.

 

Afterward, his son, King Ji Man, was enthroned.

As the most legendary, ambitious king of Zhou, Ji Man further extended the territory.

 

When he was marching to the west, in some legends, he met the Goddess of Mount Kunlun, the Xi Wang Mu.  

King Ji Man’s military achievements also cost lots of money.

Unearthed Exquisite Jade and Gold Accessories of Zhou (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Pulling Back, Reforming, and Falling of the Empire Zhou

Therefore, when his son Ji Yihu became the next king, he legalized Land Privatization and made more money for the kingdom. As a peace worshiper, however, King Ji Yihu did perish a vassal state because of beautiful women. 

Around half a century later, King Ji Hu implemented a controversial reform that jeopardized many people’s benefits. Soon, a big riot against the king happened, Ji Hu escaped to a mountain and starved to death there.    

Decades later, King Ji Gongsheng tried to amuse his beautiful queen, the Lady of Ice, by sending false alarms to fool and make fun of his armies, several times. 

Then, in the year 771 BC, when a real invasion outburst, no army showed up to protect the king; he was soon caught and assassinated because of his ridiculous behavior. 

Later, his son claimed king and re-established their empire, the Eastern Zhou.

Unearthed Set of Weapons of the Western Zhou Dynasty

Set of Weapons of Western Zhou — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Shrinking of Eastern Zhou and Losing of Power and Land

The first half of the Eastern Zhou period was also named the Spring and Autumn (770 BC — 403 BC) when many vassal states kept fighting against each other to occupy more land and people.

 

Powerful lords still respected the kings of Zhou as honorable monarchs, as well as political pawns. 

Overlords of big states, such as Lv Xiaobai and Ji Chonger, still cared about decent reputations, public opinions, hierarchies, and basic rules that had been set at the beginning of Zhou.

 

No matter how powerful they became, they never attacked the kings of Zhou. 

Unearthed Exquisite Jade Decoration (Yu Yuan) of Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Exquisite Jade Decoration (Yu Yuan) of Eastern Zhou — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Thriving of the Seven Kingdoms and Ending of the Zhou Dynasty

 

Decades later, here came the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), when all the lords claimed themselves kings and their realm kingdoms, and when all the kings were aimed at conquering other kingdoms and unifying the whole of the nation.

Many of the former decency and etiquettes in ancient Chinese culture were all expelled, because of the conspiracies and wars. 

When those former vassal states were expanding into independent, powerful kingdoms, the Zhou government, on the contrary, was shrinking. 

In the late period, the Zhou rulers were only in charge of the capital city with around 30,000 civilians, while huge kingdoms like Qin had over a million soldiers. 

The last king of Zhou passed away in his palace old and sick and left no heir. 

One year later, the King of Qin occupied Zhou’s capital city and put an end to the empire. 

Jade Pieces (Yu Fu Mian) Sewn on Fabric that Was Used to Cover Face of the Deceased

Jade Pieces (Yu Fu Mian) of Zhou, Used to Sew on Fabric to Cover Face of the Deceased — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Zhou Dynasty

 

Population:

 

About 5 million to 20 million. 

 

Political System:

 

System of Enfeoffment.

  • The king was the most honorable monarch, while lords and their vassal states paid tribute and followed the king. 

 

  • The ruling class and noble status were hereditary and stable. They were in charge of everything inside their vassal states. 

  • Based on social status, strict rituals were established and widely applied. 

Official Selection System:

 

Aristocratic Hereditary.

Unearthed Bronze Ding, the Representative of Paramount Royalty, of the Zhou Dynasty

Bronze Ding, the Representative of Paramount Power, of Zhou — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Tax:

 

People should help with the cultivation of some public farmlands, which belonged to the royals.

 

Military Service:

 

  • Everyone in the kingdom had the obligation to fight in their army and protect their family.

 

  • The nobles and civilians could serve as warriors, while slaves were only allowed to do miscellaneous affairs.

 

  • King of Zhou was the supreme military commander, sometimes the king also led his army and fought in battles.

 

Land System:

 

The ruling class included kings and nobles, owned all of the lands; civilians only had the right to cultivate and pay tribute, but could not own any land. 

Unearthed Pottery Jar and Eggs of the Zhou Dynasty

Pottery and Eggs of Zhou — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Scientific Achievements and Artifacts of the Zhou Dynasty

 

  • Bronze manufacturing arrived at the peak level in terms of its appearance and quality. ​