ZHOU (CHOU) DYNASTY (1046 B.C. to 256 B.C.)


rightThe Zhou Dynasty (Chou Dynasty) followed the Shang dynasty and lasted, by most reckonings, from 1050 B.C. to 256 B.C. It ruled parts of northern China and governed over a larger area than the Shang, but feudal states under it had a large measure of authority over their own affairs. The Zhou hailed from what is now the Shaanxi Province. They came to power when Emperor Wen led a revolt against the Shang dynasty. His son Emperor Wu was the first official Zhou emperor. Zhou emperors were priest kings who regarded themselves as "Sons of Heaven" with a "Mandate from Heaven" to rule.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “In about 1050 B.C. the Shang dynasty was defeated in battle by armies from Zhou, a rival state to the west, which seems both to have inherited cultural traditions from the Neolithic cultures of the northwest and to have absorbed most of the material culture of the Shang. The conquerors retained their homeland in the Wei River valley in present-day Shaanxi province and portioned out the rest of their territory among their relatives and local chiefs, creating a number of local courts or principalities. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv]

The Zhou Dynasty (1050–256 B.C.) period is divided into: 1) the Western Zhou — (1050–771 B.C.); 2) Eastern Zhou — (771–256 B.C.); 3) Spring and Autumn Period — (770–475 B.C.); and 4) Warring States Period — (475–221 B.C.). There are some variations in the dates. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The last Shang ruler, a despot according to standard Chinese accounts, was overthrown by a chieftain of a frontier tribe called Zhou, which had settled in the Wei Valley in modern Shaanxi Province. The Zhou dynasty had its capital at Hao, near present-day Xian, or Chang'an, as it was known in its heyday in the imperial period. Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, gradually sinicized, that is, extended Shang culture through much of China Proper north of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River). The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other. It was philosophers of this period who first enunciated the doctrine of the "mandate of heaven" (tianming), the notion that the ruler (the "son of heaven") governed by divine right but that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the two earlier dynasties and at the same time supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers. [Source: The Library of Congress]

The Zhou period was by no means a unified period of history. The first three centuries of Zhou rule were relatively peaceful. Around 800 B.C. feudal states under the Zhou began fighting among themselves for prominence.During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.) period, Chinese culture spread eastward to the Yellow Sea and southward to the Yangtze. Large feudal states on the fringes of the empire fought among themselves for supremacy but recognized the pre-eminence of the Zhou emperor, the Son of Heaven, who performed a largely ceremonial role. Beginning in the 7th century B.C. the authority of the emperors degenerated and hundred of warlords fought among themselves until seven major kingdoms prevailed. This led to the formulation of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The Spring and Autumn period (771-482 B.C.), the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.) and the Age of Philosophers (6th century to 3rd century B.C.) occurred within the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

Zhou Dynasty Area

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; 5) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 6) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 7) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009);

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Zhou People

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Shang people belonged to the Eastern Yi tribal group. The Chou clan, like the Hsia and Chiang clans, was a member of the greater Hua-Hsia tribal group, and lived in the Wei River basin in Shaanxi. Arising from different clans, the Shang and Chou naturally developed unique cultures yet these traditions also shared broad similarities due to the prolonged interaction between the two clans and the nature of their relationship as predecessor and successor to the royal house. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Zhouyuan oracle bones with inscriptions such as "Yu Zhou", "Wang Ji", and "Wen Wang" confirmed the accuracy of ancient histories, which recorded that during the pre-Zhou era, the ancestor, Gugongdanfu settled at Qishan, and was succeeded by King Ji and then King Wen. Engravings upon bronzes affirmed that after King Wu overthrew the Shang, King Cheng established a new city in the east, Chengzhou, establishing another administrative center for the dynasty. \=/

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Zhou were a tribe which occupied lands north of the Yellow River early in the second millennium. Zhou tradition claimed that they were among the earliest peoples to practice agriculture. The Zhou were led by a ruler whose office was transferred to his eldest son after his death. At some point, probably during the mid-Shang period, the Zhou gave up agricultural pursuits and migrated West, beyond the bend of the Yellow River and into the valley of the Wei River. Towards the close of the Shang, the Zhou rulers acted as the westernmost allies of the Shang kings, protecting the Shang against incursions of nomad groups further west. Tradition maintains that at this time, the Zhou returned to agriculture.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/]

All of the great philosophers of Classical Age China “considered themselves men of Zhou: that is, members of the cultural and political sphere established and still nominally ruled by the Zhou kings. Although these men saw the Zhou as only the latest of a series of cultural eras, following the Xia and the Shang (and varying line-ups of legendary sages rulers), the traditional story of the founding of the Zhou Dynasty had enormous influence on the way that they conceived of rulers, society, and the supernatural world. Moreover, the coming of the Zhou seems to have constituted a social revolution of sorts, and shaped the structures of the society in which our philosophers lived. To understand early Chinese thought, it is imperative to know the story of the Zhou founding in some detail. /+/

Establishing the Zhou Dynasty and the Lineage of the Zhou Kings

King Wen

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Zhou were adept at farming, and had well established themselves in the Shaanxi Guanzhong area by the twelfth century B.C., around Qishan, Zhouyuan, and the Jing and Wei rivers. Building up their strength, the Zhou eventually brought together a coalition of tribes to launch an expeditionary force that overthrew the Shang dynasty around 1046 B.C. The Zhou King Wen established his capital, Fengjing, on the west bank of the Feng River in what is now Xian City in Shaanxi. The Zhou King Wu moved his capital, Haojing, to the east bank of the river, where it went on to become "Zong Zhou", the political capital of Western Zhou. The Zhou gradually expanded to the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the mid-regions of the Yangtze, laying the foundation for an 800-year dynasty spanning the Western and Eastern Zhou periods. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

During the pre-Zhou era, the Zhou people undertook several migrations before finally settling at Zhouyuan and prospering to become one of the most important fang states in the west during the late Shang dynasty. King Wu of Zhou overthrew the Shang dynasty (circa 1046 B.C.) and established the Zhou dynasty. During the early Western Zhou, the Zhou kings expanded their territory and established structured systems. Beyond the middle Western Zhou, the unambiguous presentation of the feudal and patriarchal systems in the sumptuary system of ding arrays and overall artistic style confirmed the establishment of a unique Zhou culture. Years later, the Quanrong entered Haojing (circa 771 B.C.) and the Zhou were forced to abandon the "Zong Zhou" heartland. The Zhou moved their capital to Chengzhou (near what is now Luoyang of Henan Province) and established the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The Western Zhou dynasty had succumbed to a potent mix of internal strife and external invasion. \=/

“Western Zhou bronzes often bore long engravings of important historical events, with the implication that future descendants should preserve and cherish the history as well as the vessel. The 284-word engraving upon the bronze pan basin of Qiang and the 372-word engraving upon the bronze pan basin of Lai resemble genealogies, describing the feats of prowess performed by the ancestors of the Wei and Shan clans, and providing a clear record of the Western Zhou dynastic succession. The engravings respectively detail the royal lineage from King Wen to King Gong, and from King Wen to King Xuan, effectively proving the historical accuracy of the Western Zhou line of kings recorded in the Shiji, and dispelling two thousand years of skepticism regarding ancient Chinese history. The Western Zhou dynasty comprised eleven generations and twelve kings: King Wu, King Cheng, King Kang, King Zhao, King Mu, King Gong, King Yi, King Xiao, King Yi, King Li, King Xuan, and King You. \=/

Decline of Shang Dynasty and Rise of the Zhou

Weakened by corruption and decay, the Shang dynasty was overpowered in 1050-25 B.C. by the Zhou to the west that also knew how to effectively use horses, chariots and composite bows. The 29th and final Shang king, Di Xin, was known for his indulgences, appetites and whims. He reportedly hosted orgiastic parties around a palace pool filled with wine and ordered those who displeased him to be taken away and executed. Historians doubt the veracity of these tales, namely because they come from Zhou and Han dynasty sources, which likely portrayed dynasties before them as evil to make themselves look good.

Daji, concubine of last Shang king

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “It is recorded that when the army of King Chou (the last Shang ruler) was defeated, the king donned his shaman vestment sewn with many small jade animal figurines and committed suicide by fire. The king, who also held the position of chief shaman, may have hoped that the essential vital force of the jade and the power of the animals represented in this precious mineral would help his spirit find its way to heaven. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “There are a considerable number of inscriptions bearing on the Zhou people dating from the reign of Wu-ding, about 1200 B.C. One text refers to the Zhou as “Zhou-fang,” indicating that the Zhou could be pictured as an adversarial or alien people, all other instances drop the fang suffix. Perhaps at this time, the Zhou were relatively new members of the Shang polity. It is believed that during this period, the Zhou people inhabited an area in the Fen River Valley, northeast of the bend of the Yellow River. The Shang were in regular, but not close contact with them. The Shang king issued orders to the Zhou, divined about the welfare of the Zhou troops and commanders, inquired about the likely success of the Zhou hunts, and bestowed the title Hou upon their leader. “On the other hand, the King never visited the realm of the Zhou to tour or to hunt, nor called upon Zhou manpower to aid Shang public works. The king was concerned for the health of the Zhou ruler, but never divined about the success of the Zhou harvests. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“According to legend, the ruler of the Zhou about this time, the Old Duke, removed the Zhou capital to the Wei River Valley, west of the Yellow River elbow and far more distant from the Shang. In fact, the Zhou people do disappear entirely from the oracle records after the reign of Wu-ding, and reappear only at the close of the Shang, during the reign of Zhòu, again, as an allied people. The fact that the Zhou people could make so large a physical move without regard to the Shang indicates their essential integrity as a sovereign tribe. Their reemergence in the oracle record suggests that the influence of the Shang state had grown geographically, reaching during the dynasty’s last years, to the new Zhou homeland. /+/

“It is disappointing to find no record in the oracle texts of the impending Shang-Zhou conflict (nor, for that matter, any hint that something was awry in the kingship of Zhòu). But the basic facts recorded in legend make good sense. The later texts recount the coming of the Zhou conquest as a process in which the semi-independent chieftains to the west of the Shang center became disaffected with the Shang, eventually joining with the Zhou in its military conquest. This is certainly consistent with the evidence that the further away from the Shang center one travelled, the more likely it would be that the local lord would be the inheritor of both a Shang “feudal” title and also of an ethnically distinct tribal chieftainship. It would be on the basis of the latter that there would be a sense of freedom to abandon the Shang and ally one's people with a new overlord. /+/

“It is precisely this ambiguity as to ethnic loyalty which seems to rapidly disappear in northern China during the early Zhou, and in all of China by the Spring and Autumn period. By that date, even though the structures of the Zhou empire have been shattered into a multi-state polity, the differences between the states seem conceived as political rather than ethnic ones, and even such tangential states as Qin, Chu, Wu, and Yue assert loyalty to the (powerless) Zhou royal house. However, prior to the 11th century civil wars that followed the Zhou conquest, the principal state of China, the Shang, seems much more like a confederacy of intrinsically sovereign tribes than as a unified civilization, built upon a foundation of shared cultural identity.” /+/

Zhou Rule

According to the BBC: “The Zhou dynasty ruled what is now part of Shaanxi province - known as the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Already north China had cities, public works and coinage. There was no empire as yet, but even ruling a kingdom required skill and subtlety." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012]

The term feudal has often been applied to the Zhou period because the Zhou's early decentralized rule invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe. At most, however, the early Zhou system was proto-feudal, being a more sophisticated version of earlier tribal organization, in which effective control depended more on familial ties than on feudal legal bonds. Whatever feudal elements there may have been decreased as time went on. The Zhou amalgam of city-states became progressively centralized and established increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which probably occurred in the latter Zhou period, were manifested in greater central control over local governments and a more routinized agricultural taxation. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

In 771 B.C. the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invading barbarians who were allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027-771 B.C.) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished; the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. Eastern Zhou divides into two subperiods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). *

King Wen and the Emulation of the Shang

Dr. Eno wrote: “About 1100 B.C., an outstanding leader inherited the throne of the Zhou people. He is known to history as King Wen (Wen Wang). According to traditional accounts, King Wen considered the culture of the Shang to be superior to that of his own semi-nomadic tribe, and he engineered a cultural transformation of his people so that by the end of his reign, their style of living had absorbed the patterns of the Shang (his posthumous title, King Wen, means “the patterned king” – we will examine the meaning of the term wen further in class). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The virtue of King Wen is said to have far outshone the abilities of the Shang king (whose name was, confusingly, Zhou – we will add a diacritic over it to distinguish him from the dynasty that displaced him: Zhòu). Both these men had unusually long reigns, King Wen died only in 1050 B.C., while Zhòu occupied the Shang throne from about 1095 B.C. until the fall of the Shang in 1045 B.C. During the later decades of this period, Zhòu’s behavior became increasingly arbitrary and violent, and many members of the Shang “confederacy” turned to King Wen as a desirable alternative. Traditional accounts say that Zhòu even had King Wen imprisoned out of fear of his influence, but because of his limitless greed, he allowed King Wen to be freed in return for large bribes from other allied chieftains. The same accounts say that though King Wen could have easily led the allied tribes in an uprising, he refrained from doing so because of the virtuous awe in which he held the office of the Shang king. /+/

King Wen Ode

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The “Classic of Odes” (also known as the “Book of Songs”) was compiled around 600 B.C. from an oral tradition going back perhaps as long as four centuries earlier. The “Odes” include court poetry and popular songs and poems. The Ode entitled “King Wen” celebrates the founding king of the Zhou dynasty and the Zhou’s subsequent conquest of the territory of the Shang dynasty in about 1045/40 B.C. The poem refers to a Zhou deity (tian, translated here as “Heaven”) and a Shang deity (di or Shangdi, translated here as “God”). [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

King Wen fishing on the Wei River

King Wen (Ode 235):

King Wen is on high,
Oh, he shines in Heaven!
Zhou is an old people,
but its Mandate is new.
The leaders of Zhou became illustrious,
was not God’s Mandate timely given?
King Wen ascends and descends
on the left and right of God.
August was King Wen,
continuously bright and reverent.
Great, indeed, was the Mandate of Heaven.
There were Shang’s grandsons and sons,
Shang’s grandsons and sons.
Was their number not a hundred thousand?
But the High God gave his Mandate,
and they bowed down to Zhou.
The Mandate is not easy to keep;
may it not end in your persons.
Display and make bright your good fame,
and consider what Yin had received from Heaven.
The doings of high Heaven
have no sound, no smell.
Make King Wen your pattern,
and all the states will trust in you. <|>

King Wu and the Defeat of the Shang

Dr. Eno wrote: “The scruples of King Wen’s son did not go so far. Five years after the death of King Wen, his successor, King Wu (whose name means “the martial king”), led a coalition of tribes and destroyed the armies of the Shang in a single morning (an absurd story that recently discovered inscriptions seem to confirm). Chòu was killed and the Shang Dynasty came to an end. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“But the military conquest did not alone determine the shape of the future. King Wu and his closest followers faced daunting tasks. The Shang’s control over China had been loose, and much of its power had accumulated through the great length of Shang overlordship. It was far from clear that the Zhou leaders could prevail upon the various peoples of the Shang state to accept them as replacements for the fallen dynasty. The Zhou tribe was, after all, only a fringe member of the Shang polity, located far from the political centers of the Shang and without any long tradition of cultural interaction. /+/

“King Wu and his followers addressed the problem of legitimizing the conquest and solidifying Zhou rule through two principal devices: a religious justification for the conquest known as the theory of the “Mandate of Heaven,” and a new principle of political organization, known as “Zhou feudalism.” Both of these devices have fundamental bearing on the shape of Chinese philosophy and we will discuss them repeatedly throughout the term. Here, we will look at them only briefly. /+/

Zhou Military

left Soldiers during the Zhou dynasty used crossbows, spears, arrows and pikes. For protection they wore padded leggings and boots, heavy sleeves, chest protectors and padding. Their main battlefield weapon was the chariot. One excavation turned up 33 bronze battle chariots with the bones of 72 horses.

Zhou generals considered surprise attacks to be cowardly. Messages were sent between the commanders of opposing armies to set up times and places to do battle, and battlefields were often plowed before the clash to make it easier for the chariots to maneuver. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books /*\]

Zhou charioteers could be devious and cruel. During a battle between the rival Ch'u and Song states in 638 B.C., it was not uncommon for Zhou soldiers to assist a foe having trouble with his chariot and then slash him to bits. The son of a Song general once accused his enemy of being ungentlemanly for firing several arrows before he had a chance to shoot back. "The opponent gave him his chance and was shot dead." /*\

In a typical Zhou victory celebration, generals and lords presented their captives to the Emperor and then sacrificed them in an ancestral temple. The generals and lords then amused the Emperor with stories from their campaign, and finally the Emperor made a sacrifice to the dead emperors that preceded him on the throne. During the feast on the following day, meat from the sacrifices was cooked and eaten and lots of wine was consumed. The feast ended with the lords proclaiming their fealty to the Emperor and chanting poems and performing mime dances in his honor. [Source: "World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Warfare in Ancient China

Dr. Eno wrote: “Sometime during the second millennium B.C., probably during the era of the Shang Dynasty, the horse-drawn war chariot was introduced into China from the West, this technology having been diffused across Central Asia. In warfare, the leaders of the military generally rode in these two-wheeled chariots, which were drawn by two horses, and which permitted two to three men to stand abreast; the patrician warrior-leader, flanked by a driver, and often an armed escort, both of whom were themselves junior patricians. Large armies also included trained ranks of dismounted archers and large masses of infantrymen armed with spears, axes, and halberds, who were mostly untrained draftees from among the peasantry located on the lands controlled by the patrician lord leaders. During the last two centuries of the Classical era, mounted cavalry also became common. Armor, fashioned from leather or metal and usually covering only a portion of the torso, was common among the shi warriors. Naval technology developed only during the later Zhou in the states of the south, where navigable waterways were plentiful and control of the rivers an essential part of strategy. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Military goals included the less important one of occupying territory, which was, in general, lightly settled except near cities, and the central aim of successfully invading urban centers. Since these were defended by enormous earthen walls, this generally involved a prolonged siege, which could degenerate into a contest to see whether the inhabitants within the walls could consume their stores more slowly than the invading army could consume the crops and livestock in the fields and farms adjacent to the city walls. The size of the armies described in historical sources sometimes grows beyond credibility, and it is likely that no account exists free of some exaggeration, but the numbers here, near 50,000 total, could very well reflect the appropriate order of magnitude.’ /+/

Confucius On War: 13:29 The Master said, “When a good man has taught the common people for seven years, they should be ready to be employed in war.” 13:30 The Master said, “To lead the people to war without having taught them is to throw them away.”

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius (551-479 B.C.) lived at a time of political turmoil and transition. The China of his time consisted of a number of small feudal states, which, although theoretically subject to the kings of the Zhou Dynasty, were actually independent. Confucius and many of his contemporaries were concerned about the state of turmoil, competition, and warfare between the feudal states. They sought philosophical and practical solutions to the problems of government — solutions that, they hoped, would lead to a restoration of unity and stability. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

Mandate of Heaven

Mandate of Heaven

The Zhou emperors were the first to evoke the Mandate from Heaven — the axiom that noble and wise leaders ruled in accordance with the wishes of heaven while corrupt leaders were replaced — to justify their power over their vassals, who in turn evoked the same mandate to justify their control over the landowners below them. The Mandate from Heaven was the glue that held China together during a period otherwise marked by a great deal of fighting between vassals.

Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven" — also seen as a Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “A king and a dynasty could rule only so long as they retained heaven's favor. If a king neglected his sacred duties and acted tyrannically, heaven would display its displeasure by sending down ominous portents and natural disasters.”

The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty and was described as a divine right to rule. The philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.

Later the mandate idea was incorporated into the Taoist concept that the collapse of a dynasty was preceded by "Disapprovals of heaven," natural disasters such as great earthquakes, floods or fires and these were often preceded by certain cosmic signs. According to these beliefs on September 8, 2040 five planets will gather within the space of fewer than degrees "signaling the conferral of heaven's mandate." The legendary emperors did not need to govern at all because the moral certitude that emanated from them was enough to bring about peace and prosperity. One ruler is said to have done nothing but reverently face the south.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Zhou people worshiped a supreme deity known as Tian; the name means “sky,” and is generally translated in English as “Heaven.” Tian possessed a number of anthropomorphic features. Tian was pictured as the supreme governor of all of China, and was believed to be both omnipotent and benevolent. It was Tian’s role to ensure that China was well ruled to the benefit of all. Soon after the conquest” of the Shang “the Zhou leaders began to employ their idea of Tian to rationalize their uprising and legitimize their succession to Shang overlordship. They claimed that as an all-powerful and benevolent god, interested in the welfare of China, Tian would not have allowed the conquest to happen unless it were just. Tian endowed the rulers of China with a “mandate” ( ming), the Zhou claimed. This mandate was awarded not to individuals, but to clans, and was granted on the basis of outstanding virtue. The Shang had once been Tian’s mandated ruling clan, but their virtue had decayed and now the Zhou had been selected to replace them. The conquest was Tian’s doing, and the Zhou leaders, as Tian’s agents, were now the legitimate rulers of China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Rebellion of 1043-1040 B.C. and the Duke of Zhou

Duke of Zhou

Dr. Eno wrote: Two years after the conquest of the Shang by the Zhou, King Wu died. The Zhou state was far from stable and its permanence was threatened by the fact that the late king’s eldest son was only a child. The likelihood that the Zhou achievements would come unraveled seemed great. But the events that followed not only saved the Zhou state, they strengthened it immeasurably. Among the greatest contributors to the Zhou conquest had been the many brothers of King Wu (ancient China was a polygamous society, and it was not unusual for members of the elite to have dozens of brothers). By the time of his death, King Wu had already dispatched a number of his brothers to rule fiefs in the unstable eastern reaches of the state. A few others, though awarded fiefs, remained in the capital region to assist in central administration. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“One of these latter brothers, known to history as the Duke of Zhou (in Chinese, Zhou Gong), took charge of the political situation at the capital following the death of King Wu. He announced that he would act as “regent,” or acting ruler, on behalf of the new king until the boy came of age. But when news of the duke’s act reached his brothers in the east, they suspected that it was his intention to seize the throne for himself. Accordingly, they launched a rebellion against the duke’s forces at the capital. In order to rally sufficient eastern manpower to their side, they raised their revolt in the name of the son of the last Shang ruler, who had been awarded what might be called a “courtesy fief” near the old Shang homelands. /+/

“The Duke of Zhou was able to put down the rebellion, but only after three years of hard fighting. In order to strengthen the control of the Zhou kings over their feudal subjects in the east so as to prevent future outbreaks, the Duke commissioned the construction of a second capital city, located in central China on the River Luo, a tributary of the Yellow River. This capital was named Cheng-Zhou, and centuries later it became the home of the Eastern Zhou kings. /+/

“But the reason why these events are occupying space in this reading is not because of their military significance. It is because four years after the suppression of the rebellion, the Duke of Zhou took a step that raised the stature of the Zhou throne far beyond that of the Shang and gave new weight to the theory of the Mandate of Heaven – he gave the throne back to the son of King Wu, who had by then come of age. /+/

“The duke’s resignation of power at a time when his control was at its strongest is an act without parallel in Chinese history and it must have shocked many of his contemporaries, 15 who would have shared the view of the rebels that the duke’s regency was a sham. But the duke claimed that the Mandate of Tian was not subject to tampering: that the Zhou throne was not the possession of any man, but rather a divine charge. By backing these pieties up with an act of renunciation of such magnitude, the duke transformed the rule of the Zhou from an issue of power into an issue of shared responsibility. No propaganda could have approached the effect this had on the people of the new Zhou state; no military initiative could have rivaled the degree to which Zhou political control was thereby strengthened.” /+/

Conflict in the Zhou Period

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “During the late Western Zhou, political and economical changes led to conflicts between the Zhou King and his nobles, resulting in the exile of King Li. Power fell into the hands of the nobles until the restoration of King Xuan. Thus King Li does not enjoy a favorable opinion in history. Three bronzes commissioned by King Li are currently known, including the bronze zhong bell of Zong Zhou. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Skirmishes between the Zhou and the northwestern tribes were frequent during the late Western Zhou, such as the repelling of the Guifang described in the engraving of the bronze ding cauldron of Shi Tong. However, the heartland of Zong Zhou was bereft of natural barriers. By the time of King You, political instability provided an opening for the Quanrong to overrun the royal domain of Guanzhong, leading to the fall of Zong Zhou. \=/

Studying the Zhou Dynasty

Sacrifical horsepit of a Zhou duke

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The culture of the early Zhou is known to us not solely through archaeological evidence, but also through transmitted texts, such as the Book of Documents (Shujing), which describes the Zhou conquest of the Shang as the victory of just and noble warriors over a decadent and dissolute king. In these texts and bronze inscriptions alike, the rule of the Zhou kings was linked to heaven, conceived of as the sacred moral power of the cosmos. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

The “Shiji”, a monumental history of ancient China finished around 94 B.C. by Sima Qian, provides the basic framework for studying the Zhou Dynasty and other early dynasties. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Translators generally interpret difficult sections of the text by consulting three early commentaries that are often included in published editions of the book, and there are many contemporary studies and translations into modern Chinese. The best published English translation for the “Basic Annals of the Zhou” appears in volume 1 of The Grand Scribe’s Records, by William Nienhauser et al. (Bloomington & Indianapolis: 1994). The translation by Nienhauser’s group includes excellent and detailed scholarly annotations. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In studying pre-Classical China, we rely principally on materials that have been archaeologically excavated since the beginning of the twentieth century, although even when dealing with these, it is not possible to discard at least some textual sources that date from the Classical and post-Classical eras. Without the general frameworks provided by Han period histories such as the “Shiji”, it is unlikely that we could have made much sense of the archaeological materials. The way that the Shang and early Zhou have been studied by scholars in this century has always been in terms of how our newly uncovered evidence either confirms the accounts of the later texts or contradicts them.” We know “a substantial amount about late Shang culture and about the founding and first centuries of the Zhou...This is largely because China became literate in the mid-Shang, and among those objects that have been reclaimed from beneath the ground there are many that actually speak to us and address our questions (although often indirectly and in a language we still understand imperfectly). /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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