An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE)

Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE)

Eastern Zhou 東周 (770-221 BCE)

Spring and Autumn Period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE)

Warring States Period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE)

The Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) was probably the dynasty that reigned for the longest period of time not only among all Chinese dynasties, but of the whole world. Such a long rule contributed to the image of the Zhou rulers and their political and ritual institutions as paradigms and guidelines for all later dynasties, at least in theory. The founders of the Zhou dynasty, King Wen 周文王 and King Wu 周武王 (abbreviated to the couple Wen-Wu 文武), and the Prince Regent, the Duke of Zhou 周公, were seen as ideal and morally superior monarchs. The Confucians (see Confucius 孔子) venerated them as moral saints, as arbiters of humanity and righteousness.

The Zhou dynasty was one of the Three Dynasties of antiquity (Sandai 三代: Xia 夏, Shang 商 and Zhou).

900 years of history were also characterized by profound changes in society, administration and thought. The first kings of the Zhou invested their kinsmen and followers as regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) over large domains. These rulers - after several generations - became virtually independent from the Zhou: the central government lost its authority, and the "feudal system" (modern Chinese term fengjian zhidu 封建制度) with its ritual and political obligations disintegrated.

The flight of the Zhou rulers in 770 BCE from their western capital Zongzhou 宗周 (near modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi; hence called Western Zhou period, Xizhou 西周, 11th cent.-770 BCE) to the eastern capital Chengzhou 成周 (modern Luoyang 洛陽, Henan; hence called Eastern Zhou period, Dongzhou 東周, 770-221 BCE) marked the beginning of a new era. The regional rulers competed for power, and some among them took over the position of hegemon (ba 霸), and thus the duty to protect the royal house of Zhou against the "barbarian" tribes of the north (see Di 狄 and Rong 戎) and to bring order among the various regional states by organizing inter-state meetings and alliances (meng 盟).

This age of change, called the "Spring and Autumn period" (Chunqiu 春秋, 770-5th cent. BCE), encouraged members of the ruling elite to develop new views on society and the universe. The philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism emerged. At the same time, politicians tried to implement new forms of administration, in order to strengthen their state. Most prominent among these new politicians was Guan Zhong 管仲.

The political changes inside the regional states led to a replacement of the ancient "dynasties" by newcomers and family sidelines. In the state of Jin 晉, the houses of Zhao 趙, Han 韓 and Wei 魏, destroyed the ancient ducal house. In the state of Qi 齊, the noble house of Tian 田 replaced the ancient dynasty, and in the state of Lu 魯, the lateral branches of the ducal house (the Three Huan Families 三桓) took over the real power.

These changes became evident in the 5th century, which marks the beginning of the Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國, 5th cent.-221 BCE). Among the many regional states that had flourished during the Western and early Eastern Zhou period, quite a few did not survive the belligerent age of the Warring States, and vanished, like Song 宋, Cao 曹 or Chen 陳. At the same time, states in the periphery of the Zhou empire gained prominence and became military powers, like Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越 in the south, Qi and Yan 燕 in the east and northeast, and Qin 秦 in the west.

The rulers of these states were advised by practical philosophers and strategists. A "hundred schools" of thought (zhuzi baijia 諸子百家) are said to have emerged. The most application-oriented of them were the military strategists (bingjia 兵家), diplomatists (zonghengjia 縱橫傢), and the legalists (fajia 法家), the latter advocating a more stringent administrative system. The Confucians (rujia 儒家) dropped their old humanist idealism and became more realistic with the teachings of Mengzi 孟子 and Xunzi 荀子. The Daoists (daojia 道家) and dialecticians (mingjia 名家) became ever more skeptical about society and state.

The most ruthless and aggressive regional state was that of Qin in the west. It adopted an effective administrative system and successfully exploited its population for a huge war machine. Qin overcame one by one of the six remaining regional states, and in 221 BCE the king of Qin, after "unifying the empire" (bing tianxia 並天下) adopted the title of August Emperor (huangdi 皇帝).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Zhou period, the changing geography of the kingdom and its surroundings, provides a list of its kings, describes the administration and political structure of the kingdom, and gives insight into the religion and philosophy, literature and economy of the Zhou period, as well as the fine arts (if one may use this term in that historical stage) and the history of technology and inventions. In addition to that, the history of each of the regional states is narrated in detail, based on the most important primary source, the universal history Shiji 史記.