right Under the Zhou, China was changed dramatically by the intensification of agriculture, the development of a bureaucracy, the inventions of iron technology and the spread of urbanization and commerce. During the latter part of the Zhou reign — in the Spring and Autumn period (771-482 B.C.) and the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.) — China expanded demographically and developed systems of political and social philosophy.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The craftsmanship of the Western Zhou dynasty holds an important place in the history of technology. Major advances were made in the production of bronze and proto-glass vessels, as well as the development of proto-porcelain. The bronze burning-lens, designed according to optical theory, was also a noteworthy achievement. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

The first sections of the Great Wall were built between 770 and 450 B.C. by small independent, often warring, kingdoms. It was first thought that the fortifications were built by small Chinese kingdoms to protect their irrigated lands along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers from steppe nomads to the north because the first walls were built roughly on a line originally thought to separate the fertile river valleys of the south from the steppe to the north. This was not always true, however. Sections of wall rose and fell with provincial states and were defined by a number of factors.

In 2014, Archaeology magazine reported: “Experts have revealed a multiplication table that might have been used to calculate land area, crop yields, and taxes during the Warring States Period, around 305 B.C. The table was among 2,500 bamboo strips that contain many significant historical texts donated to a university in Beijing. Twenty-one of them contain numbers and, when properly arranged, allow for the multiplication of whole and half integers from 0.5 to 99.5. It is among the oldest and most sophisticated tabular calculators known. [Source: Archaeology magazine, May-June 2014]

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ;
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)

Development in the Zhou Period

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 \=/ ]

20080215-zhou bronze count of yu.jpg
zhou bronze
“After overthrowing the Shang dynasty, the Zhou proposed the "Mandate of Heaven", forging the basis for a moral code of ethics that served to check and balance the power of rulers. In order to effectively govern their vast territories, the Zhou adopted the feudal system, granting fiefdoms and establishing systems for defense and administration. Manifested in the sacrificial worships held at the ancestral temples, the clear hierarchy and complex rites of the patriarchal system served to regulate the smooth execution of rights and duties dictated by the feudal system. By the middle to late Western Zhou, sets of bronze and jade ritual artifacts designated for specific hierarchical ranks, and bronze vessels with long engraved texts extolling the virtues of particular clans and families, all bore witness to the maturity and stability of the Zhou ritual system. \=/

“Heavily populated with Zhou nobles and graced with the presence of innumerable ancestral temples, the Shaanxi Guanzhong area is where people pay tribute to the cultural grandeur of the Western Zhou dynasty. In order to showcase the contributions made by the Western Zhou to Chinese history and culture, this exhibition has coordinated the lease of many rare and important artifacts from the archaeological and conservational institutions of Shaanxi, including the collections of the Wei and Shan clans, the funerary artifacts of the Yu and Ruei states, and articles recovered from the Zhougongmiao site. Oracle bones, jade artifacts, and vast numbers of bronze vessels with long engravings support the lineage and history outlined in historical texts such as the Shiji, Shangshu, Shijing, and Guoyu, in addition to offering insights into the concepts and merits of the Zhou patriarchal and ceremonial systems. The bronzes, gold ornaments, jade and stone artifacts, glassware, pottery, and porcelain displayed in the exhibition are not merely daily utensils, luxurious ornaments, or ritual vessels for the summoning of gods and spirits and the preparation of offerings and sacrifices; they represent a living testimony to the craftsmanship, technology, and aesthetic achievement of the Western Zhou dynasty.” \=/

Earliest Iron in China

The first iron in China dates to the Zhou period. The earliest iron foundry yet discovered in China was found in the Yangtze area. In May 2003, archeologists announced they found remains of an iron casting workshop along the Yangtze River, dating back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 B.C.-256 B.C.) and the Qin Dynasty (221 -207 B.C.). Iron smelting was first developed by the Hittites in present-day Turkey and Africans in Termit, Niger around 1500 B.C. The technology is believed to have made its way to China via Scythian nomads in Central Asia around 8th century B.C.

In May 2003, the People’s Daily reported: “Archeologists in central China’s Hubei province have found remains of an iron casting workshop along the Yangtze River, dating back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 B.C.-256 B.C.) and the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-207 B.C.). The foundry remains, the first known from the Yangtze River, were unearthed at a highway construction site in Yaojiawan in Qiantang village of Xishui county. [Source: People’s Daily, May 27, 2003 -]

“An excavation layer 150-250 centimeters thick contained numerous red pottery sherds and fragments of molds, red soil furnace walls, cinders, slag, and various forms of casting tools, according to Wu Xiaosong, curator of the Huanggang Municipal Museum. He noted that iron was first widely used in central China in making farming instruments and weaponry. Researchers from Beijing University of Science and Technology and the Chinese University of Science and Technology found that the molds were used in making everyday iron appliances such as kettles. Archaeologists are exploring residential and burial sites around the iron casting workshops, seeking further information on ancient iron casting process and crafts. -

“Ruins of mines have been found in Hubei province and its adjacent Hunan province. This discovery disclosed where the plentiful ore resources in the area finally went and the iron products might have been shipped through the Yangtze to other parts of China, said Li Taoyuan, a noted researcher with the Hubei Provincial Archeology Institute. Archeologists have already excavated a wealth of iron casting relics along the Yellow River in northern China.” -

Beginning of Iron in China

iron sword with two bronze swords

In 1995, Donald B. Wagner of the University of Copenhagen wrote: “Until very recently it was a reasonable hypothesis that the first use of iron in China was in the Southeast, perhaps in the 6th century B.C., and that is the position I took in my book, Iron and steel in ancient China (Leiden: Brill, 1993, ch. 2-3). New finds, together with old finds only recently studied and published, have made this position untenable. It now seems likely that the technology of iron smelting diffused to China by the 8th century B.C. from the West via Scythian nomads in Central Asia. [Source: Donald B. Wagner, Society for East Asian Archaeology (SEAA) Announcements, Autumn 1995]

“Meteoritic iron had been used to some extent in China as early as the 11th century B.C. for the blades of luxury weapons, cast into bronze handles which were sometimes inlaid with silver or precious stones. The tradition of making luxury weapons with cast-in iron blades continues to about the 5th century B.C., but in this period the makers shift from meteoritic to smelted (presumably bloomery) iron. The group of burials of the Guo state recently excavated near Sanmenxia, Henan, with cultural connections to the Northwest, five bronze-iron edged artefacts were unearthed, all clearly related in style, and on analysis it turns out that three are of meteoritic iron and two of smelted iron.

“The following is tentative, for a good deal of material has not yet been properly published, and a further problem is that Russian archaeologists are divided on when or even whether the steppe peoples knew the technology of iron smelting. Nevertheless I suggest as a working hypothesis that the craftsman of an indigenous Chinese tradition of making luxury weapons with meteoritic iron blades, which were probably better than bronze weapons, at some time learned bloomery smelting from steppe peoples and began substituting bloomery iron for meteoritic iron. These weapons were probably not a match for bronze weapons, but by this time they were probably intended for display rather than actual fighting.

“Perhaps it was not until this technology had spread to the Southeast that it was used to make anything useful. In most of China the only uses for bronze had been for ritual objects and weapons; the ‘barbarian’ peoples of the Southeast were the first in the region of Chinese influence to use bronze agricultural implements to any great extent, and iron presumably provided a useful cheap substitute for bronze in this sort of application. It was probably here that iron casting was first developed, beginning with the carburisation and melting of iron blooms in the kind of furnace that was used to melt bronze. The blast furnace probably developed here as well, as bloomeries were optimised for the purpose of providing iron for casting rather than forging”.”

China’s Transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “While bronze was the most advanced mode of technology throughout the late Shang and early Zhou, sometime during the sixth century B.C., China developed iron technology. The spread of iron technology improved agricultural techniques and yields, thus making greater populations possible, and also improved technologies of war. It is possible to trace many of the differences between Chinese social patterns of the Spring and Autumn period and those of the Warring States era to the entrance of China into the Iron Age. For example, the abandonment of chariot warfare and the mobilization of huge infantry forces grew in part from the availability of iron weaponry, and in fact this type of transition in warfare is linked to the advent of the Iron Age in societies other than China. /[Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Ancient China developed both wrought (hammered) and cast iron processes. From an early date, perhaps about 500 B.C., the bellows-driven smelter became common. Large forges equipped with a line of bellows could drive temperatures extremely high, allowing advances in iron technology which placed China from one to two millennia in advance of European technologies, which employed relatively brittle wrought iron until a much later date. Sophisticated experimentation resulted in an ability to forge steel, which was used in the highest quality weaponry, such as famous swords from the states of Han and Chu, the colorful names of which appear periodically in contemporary accounts. /+/

“Iron mine technology was also very advanced. Likely sites were identified by land configurations and iron-related surface minerals. Perpendicular shafts were driven up to 150 feet down, with horizontal shafts, supported by wood-beam frameworks, dug at various levels. Systems of ropes and pulleys allowed the ore to be raised to the surface, and other debris was lifted to higher, exhausted shafts, where it was deposited as fill to stabilize the mine and to facilitate proper air flow. During the Warring States period, virtually every state possessed domestic mines and ironworks, where weaponry and agricultural tools, such as spades, adzes, hoes, and so forth, were manufactured.” /+/

Implications of Iron Development in the Zhou Era

Zhou helmet

Dr. Eno wrote: “Iron technology fundamentally changed the social conditions that had sustained class divisions in China. The iron plough greatly increased crop yields, leading to a population explosion. The number of commoners rose to outstrip the aristocracy’s ability to exercise control. Furthermore, iron technology led to a new generation of weapons, far cheaper and easier to make than the bronze weapons of earlier generations. Spears, pikes, battle axes, and knives could now be supplied to commoner infantry troops, and the role of aristocratic chariot warriors rapidly diminished. As populations grew, wars came increasingly to pit huge infantry armies of commoners against one another, in service of their kings. By the end of the Warring States period, million-man battles were being fought on the plains of eastern China. The political stakes had risen many-fold since the aristocratic heyday. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The conditions of this new Iron Age society fostered the rapid rise of talented commoners. These men of the gentlemen class were drawn both from very junior branches of aristocratic clans, which often fell from privilege but retained high social aspirations and traditions of education, and also from the lowest classes of society. Even a peasant youth, if he possessed martial skill and courage, or if he had the talent and initiative to study successfully with a private teacher such as a Confucian, could impress a power-holder in need of men of worth and secure a position of value at court or in an army. /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; 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 August 2021

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