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Zhou Period Society, Customs, Religion

The religion of the Zhou people was quite different from that of the Shang. While the Shang kings saw the universe filled with real ghosts and spirits of good and evil, the Zhou religion was much more abstract and transcendental. Heavenly spirits (tianshen 天神), terrestrial forces (dizhi 地祇) and human ancestors (rengui 人鬼, zuxian 祖先, zongzu 宗祖) were the three realms of deities. The highest celestial deities were Heaven (Haotian Shangdi 昊天上帝, Shangtian 上天), sun, moon and the stars and planets and different anthropomoph forces reigning the universe and celestial phenomena like wind and rain. The highest terrestrial deities were the spirits of soil and grain (sheji 社稷), the Five Sacrifices (Wusi 五祀), the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽/岳) and geographical phenomena like hills, riverines and swamps.

Furthermore, human sacrifices (renxun 人殉) during the burials of high nobles or the kings seemed to have disappeared. The vanishing of the belief in ghosts can also be observed in the patterns of the ritual bronze vessels where dragons and monsters - very common during the Shang period - were gradually replaced by abstract decorations.

The four highest priests of the Western Zhou period were prayers (zhu 祝), sacrifiers (zong 宗), diviners (bu 卜) and astrologers (shi 史). The astrologers also recorded natural phenomena and later historical events, one of the two scribes is said to have recorded royal activities, the other royal decretes. Oracles taken with oxen scapulae or tortoise plastrons (jiagu 甲骨; bufa 卜法 oracles) were inherited from the Shang Dynasty, but the divination by counting out milfoil stalks (shicao 蓍草) soon became the prevalent divination method (shifa 筮法 oracles).

While the ancestral ritus became more and more a matter of a bureaucratic state, poetry and writing became more individual and allowed to express own opinions about the ruling social stratum. The view of the writing people changed from the religion centered inscriptions to a nature and human centered world vision. It was not any more the ancestors and Great Heaven that determined the life of people, but mankind itself.


Continuity Certainly there was cultural exchange from the Shang to the Zhou, regarding their history of alliances and probably intermarriage (King Wen’s consort might have been a Shang princess). Oracle bone inscriptions of the pre-dynastic period of the Zhou in Shaanxi discovered in 1976 show that King Wen of the Zhou sacrificed to the powers of the Shang dynasty and maintained shrines for them (Eno 2009: 97). Yet while the ancestral system of the Shang was arranged according to the system of the Ten Celestial Stems, the Zhou organized their lineage according to the binary zhao-mu system. Bronze inscriptions from the early Western Zhou period, even if most of them reflect the beliefs of a different level of society than the royal oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang, show that the Zhou did not know “Former Lords” not did they bring sacrifices to natural powers (Eno 2009: 99). Yet above all, Zhou religion introduced an element unknown in Shang theology: the principle of “moral rule”, according to which the supreme power, “Heaven”, mandated who would ruler over the oecumene. The earlierst reference to the “mandate of Heaven” appears on the inscription of the tripod Da Yu ding, dated c. 998 BCE. Heaven was an ethical guardian rewarding and punishing rulers according to the quality of their stewardship of the state. The king as “Heaven’s chosen one” bore the title of “Son of Heaven” (tianzi). the Zhou rulers created an expansive,unified state far exceeding any prior polity in China, characterized by lengthy eras of military stability.161 Th e innovation chiefl y responsible for this success was probably the development of the fengjian 􀧞􀧬􀊳system, in which the king delegated power and responsibilities to a network of dispersed hereditary lords. > growing uniformity not just in politics, but also in religious matters. Alain Thote (2009). “Shang and Zhou Funeral Practices: Interpretation of Material Vestiges”, in John Lagerwey, Marc Kalinowski, ed. Early Chinese Religion, Part One, Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD) (Leiden/Boston: Brill), 103-142. The continuity of funeral rites can only proved incompletely because up to date no tomb of a Zhou king has been discovered. Research must thus rely on the founds of the tombs of the regional rulers of the Western Zhou and of those of dignitiaries buried close to the Zhou capitals Zongzhou and Chengzhou. All tombs seem to follow close models with one or two ramps leading down to the tomb chamber and a correlation (yet an imperfect one) between the status of the tomb owner and the number of grave goods. The shape and contents of groups of graves show that there were detailed sumptuary regulations for burials, according to which the status of the tomb owner was made clear. The cross shape of the royal Shang tombs was not taken over by the Zhou dynasty, and the number of human victims was drastically reduced, without being abolished, but the custom of accompanying persons, such as consorts, concubines, servants, musicians or charioteers, lingered on. Yet the two ramps of the larger tombs were asymmetric. The longer ramp perhaps served to bring down the coffin and grave goods, while a shorter ramp in the north, forming a series of stairs, might have served the audience of the funeral (Thote 2009: 118). In most cases, the head of the buried persons is found in the north. This corresponds to a statement in the ritual Classic Liji (wo?), where this orientation is explained as a method to allow the spirit (or soul) of the deceased to go directly to the (northern) dwelling of the death. Western Zhou burial practices changed in more ways. While grave goods increased in number, the body of the death was treated with greater care: Faces of the death were covered with cloth and decorated with semiprecious stones, forming a kind of mask. Jades became more important as direct protective elements places close to the body. A new type of vessel containing grains became more important, the gui, while the number of vessels used for alcohol decreased. This custom is reflected in repeated charges against the Shang dynasty to have exaggerated the use of alcoholic beverages, like for instance, the chapter xxx in the Classic Shangshu Book of Documents. The decorations of vessels also changed and became more repetitive and uniform, leaving no space for zoomorph creatures other than the dragon. Moreover, the Zhou introduced the use of sets of identical vessels, which could so more easily reflect the status of the tomb owner. Inscriptions followed standard patterns, appealing to the descendants to “forever preserve and use” (yong xxx bao yong) the vessels for worship. The grave goods also included musical instruments like bells and musical stones, objects whose number can also express status. After the downfall of the Western Zhou dynasty, regional rulers systematically exceeded the sumptuary rules of status. While the use of bronze vessels was thus more confined to the expression of political status that of personal wealth found new forms, namely adornment. Many regional states of the Zhou period had distinct cultures from that of the Zhou kings. Quite outstanding from the patterns common to the Zhou realm are the tombs from the regional states of Qin in the far west and Chu in the south. The tomb of Duke Jing of Qin, for instance, contained 166 human victims, was as deep as 24m, and included a very complex structure of the outer coffin (Thote 2009: 127). The Qin also knew the model of a catacomb-tomb in which the coffin was posed in a kind of tunnel, and the custom of burying a dog in the waist-pit. Also, the head is turned towards the west, not the north. The state of Qin, which had perhaps lesser economic ressources than the other regional states, introduced the custom of replacing precious grave furnishings with cheaper surrogate items, like lead or clay imitations of bronze vessels, wooden models of human victims or sacrificial animals, and even of constructions like granaries or chariots. The Qin thus invented the microcosm (Thote 2009: 132) of tombs in which the death were allowed similar convenience (even if on a more modest level) as the living persons, and increased the amount of symbolism in burial objects (mingqi 明器) in order to reduce the cost for burials (jie zang), an idea usually attributed to the philosopher Mozi. duke Jing: Nanzhihui 南指挥, Fengxiang翔县 county (Shaanxi), where catacomb: Xianyang咸陽 Ta’erpo塔兒坡(Shaanxi In the regional state of Chu, which had different cultural origins than the Zhou dynasty, imitations of costly tomb offerings were sometimes much better than in Qin, but not in each case. rich cemetery on the site of Xiasi, Xichuan county, in Henan (6th century BC), that of a Chu prime minister surrounded by his relatives. The other cemeteries, particularly in Hubei those of 赵家湖Zhaojiahu (Dangyang 当阳county),of Yutaishan 雨台山 and Jiudian 九店 (Jiangling江陵county), The most outstanding example of a tomb of Chu is that of Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾乙侯 found in Suizhou 随州 Leigudun 擂鼓墩 (Hubei), dated c. 433 BCE. From the 8th century on, the outer coffins took extreme measures and were divided in several compartments or “rooms” imitating the structure of a palace, and so gave the deceased person the opportunity to continue the habits while living. The outer “coffin” of the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng, for instance, consisted of four rooms, one containing the “inner” coffin (along with the coffin for a dog), vessels for eating and drinking, and clothes in chests, one containing ritual vessels and musical instruments, one made to contain the coffins of thirteen females (concubines, dancers or musicians), and the fourth – a kind of armoury - containing weapons, parts of chariots. The custom of accompanying persons (renxun) continued. This construction allowed the po soul 魄 of the deceased person to circulate through symbolic doors painted on the coffin or the boards of the enclosure, or real openings between the chambers and enjoy his afterlife. The hun soul 魂 travelled to the neitherworld. The earliest reference to the existence of two souls is found in the Classic Chunqiu-Zhuozhuan “Spring and Autumn Annals”, and the belief became widespread in the 4th century BCE (Thote 2009: 136). The whole construction of the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng was tightly sealed, and the body laid down in two nested coffins. The coffins were sealed with lacquer and wrapped together to close them hermetically. These measure helped to prevent the decay of the body, and could be quite successful, as can be seen in the case of the tomb of Mawangdui from the very early Han period. In contrast to this measure, the tomb of a noble of the regional state of Jin found at Shangma 上馬 in the district of Houma 侯馬, Shanxi, consists of an outer coffin made of loosely connected boards and logs. During the Han period, it became custom to provide permanent access to the tomb chamber (Thote 2009: 141). Unlike the Shang and Zhou, the people of Chu did prefer elevated areas for their tombs, and not plains (Thote 2009: 137). From the 4th century on, this custom spread to the other regional states, yet in many cases, artificial tumuli were heaped up instead of selecting a natural elevation. Ritual bronze vessels, which had played a great role in the Western Zhou period for the signification of the tomb owner’s status, became less important than object for daily life, like furniture, tableware or personal effects like manicure cases or stationery. Warring States-period bronze vessels are much more sophisticated in technical and artistic means, but do not bear inscriptions (apart form bells, on which the tone is marked). In the regional state of Chu, a new means of magic protection was invented in the shape of tomb-protecing beasts (zhenmushou 鎮墓獸). These “beasts” had often the shape of birds armoured with antlers. Some scholars believe that they did not ward off evil spirits from the tomb, but should ward off revenants trying to haunt the living (Thote 2009: 142).