bronze mirror

Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “After the Shang collapsed in 1045 B.C., divination using oracle bones was continued by the Zhou... But the practice of human sacrifice gradually became less common, and royal tombs began to feature mingqi, or spirit objects, as substitutes for real goods. Ceramic figurines took the place of people. The terra-cotta soldiers commissioned by China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, who united the country under one dynasty in 221 B.C., are the most famous example. This army of an estimated 8,000 life-size statues was intended to serve the emperor in the hereafter. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The Zhou conquerors “brought with them, for their own purposes to begin with, their rigid patriarchate in the family system and their cult of Heaven (t'ien), in which the worship of sun and stars took the principal place; a religion most closely related to that of the Turkish peoples and derived from them. Some of the Shang popular deities, however, were admitted into the official Heaven-worship. Popular deities became "feudal lords" under the Heaven-god. The Shang conceptions of the soul were also admitted into the Zhou religion: the human body housed two souls, the personality-soul and the life-soul. Death meant the separation of the souls from the body, the life-soul also slowly dying. The personality-soul, however, could move about freely and lived as long as there were people who remembered it and kept it from hunger by means of sacrifices. The Zhou systematized this idea and made it into the ancestor-worship that has endured down to the present time. The Zhou officially abolished human sacrifices, especially since, as former pastoralists, they knew of better means of employing prisoners of war than did the more agrarian Shang.[Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

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

Age of Philosophers

Confucianism and Taoism developed in a period of Chinese history from the sixth century to the third century B.C., described as "The Age of Philosophers," which in turn coincided with the Age of the Warring States, a period marked by violence, political uncertainty, social upheaval, a lack of powerful central leaders and an intellectual rebellion among scribes and scholars that gave birth to a golden age of literature and poetry as well as philosophy.

During the Age of Philosophers, theories about life and god were debated openly at the "Hundred Schools," and vagrant scholars went from town to town, like traveling salesmen, looking for supporters, opening up academies and schools, and using philosophy as a means of furthering their political ambitions. Chinese emperors had court philosophers who sometimes competed in public debates and philosophy contests, similar to ones conducted by the ancient Greeks.

The uncertainty of this period created a longing for a mythical period of peace and prosperity when it was said that people in China followed rules set by their ancestors and achieved a state of harmony and social stability. The Age of Philosophers ended when the city-states collapsed and China was reunited under Emperor Qin Shihuangdi.

Zhou Religious Practitioners

After the conquest of the Shang Dynasty by the Zhou, Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: One professional class was severely hit by the changed circumstances—the Shang priesthood. The Zhou had no priests. As with all the races of the steppes, the head of the family himself performed the religious rites. Beyond this there were only shamans for certain purposes of magic. And very soon Heaven-worship was combined with the family system, the ruler being declared to be the Son of Heaven; the mutual relations within the family were thus extended to the religious relations with the deity. If, however, the god of Heaven is the father of the ruler, the ruler as his son himself offers sacrifice, and so the priest becomes superfluous. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Thus the priests became "unemployed". Some of them changed their profession. They were the only people who could read and write, and as an administrative system was necessary they obtained employment as scribes. Others withdrew to their villages and became village priests. They organized the religious festivals in the village, carried out the ceremonies connected with family events, and even conducted the exorcism of evil spirits with shamanistic dances; they took charge, in short, of everything connected with customary observances and morality.

“The Zhou lords were great respecters of propriety. The Shang culture had, indeed, been a high one with an ancient and highly developed moral system, and the Zhou as rough conquerors must have been impressed by the ancient forms and tried to imitate them. In addition, they had in their religion of Heaven a conception of the existence of mutual relations between Heaven and Earth: all that went on in the skies had an influence on earth, and vice versa. Thus, if any ceremony was "wrongly" performed, it had an evil effect on Heaven—there would be no rain, or the cold weather would arrive too soon, or some such misfortune would come. It was therefore of great importance that everything should be done "correctly". Hence the Zhou rulers were glad to call in the old priests as performers of ceremonies and teachers of morality similar to the ancient Indian rulers who needed the Brahmans for the correct performance of all rites. There thus came into existence in the early Zhou empire a new social group, later called "scholars", men who were not regarded as belonging to the lower class represented by the subjugated population but were not included in the nobility; men who were not productively employed but belonged to a sort of independent profession. They became of very great importance in later centuries.”

Zhou Rituals

ritual wine vessel

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Western Zhou rites involved complex ceremonies and a variety of ritual vessels. Divination and music were adopted from the Shang, and the bi discs and gui tablets for summoning deities and spirites and worshipping gods of heaven and earth were developed by the Zhou themselves. Although oracle bone divination was influenced by the Shang, the Zhou had their own unique ways of drilling and rendering, and the numerically-shaped characters of the inscribed lines hint at the future development of the I Ching. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Like their predecessors the Shang, the Zhou practiced ancestor worship and divination. The most important deity in the Zhou era was T'ien, a god who was said to have held the entire world in his hand. Other prominent figures in heaven included deceased emperors, who were appeased with sacrifices so that they would bring nourishing rain and fertility, not lighting bolts, earthquakes and floods. Emperors participated in fertility rites to honor their ancestors in which they pretended they were plows while their empresses ritually spun silk from cocoons.

Priests held a very high position in the Zhou dynasty and their duties included making astronomical observations and determining auspicious dates for festivals and events on the Chinese lunar calendar. The continuation of human sacrifice is best reflected in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in modern Suixian, Hubei Province. It contained a lacquered coffin for the marquis and the remains of 21 women, including eight women, perhaps consorts, in the marquis' burial chamber. The other 13 women may have been musicians.

Clan Religious Practices in the Zhou Dynasty

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One pivot of social and political life among the patrician ranks during the Zhou was the system of clan religious practice. Ancient Chinese society is probably better pictured as an interaction among patrician clans than as an interaction among states, rulers, or individuals. The identity of individual patricians was largely governed by their consciousness of their connections to and roles in various clans, all visible periodically within the context of the ceremonies of sacrifice offered to ancestors. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

In the story “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng”: Kong Zhang is the senior member of a “cadet” (junior) branch of the ruling clan’s lineage, hence the specific ritual connections described here. By means of this description, Zichan is exculpating himself from any blame concerning Kong Zhang’s conduct — he is documenting the rituals which show that Kong is a fully integrated member of the governing clan: his conduct is the state’s responsibility (the ruling clan’s responsibility), not Zichan’s.

According to the text story of “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng”: “The position that Kong Zhang occupies is one that has been settled for several generations, and in each generation those who have held it have performed its functions properly. That he should now forget his place – how is this a shame to me? Were the misconduct of every perverse man to be laid at the door of the chief minister, this would signify that the former kings had given us no code of punishments. You had better find some other matter to fault me by!” [Source: “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng” from The “Zuo zhuan,”a very large historical text, which covers the period 722-468 B.C. ***]

Li Ritual Culture and the Yili (Ceremonies of Ritual)

Dr. Eno wrote: “In the minds of the people of the Classical period, nothing distinguished China more decisively from the nomad cultures that surrounded and in places permeated it than the ritual patterns of Chinese social life. Ritual, known to the Chinese as “”li”,” was a priceless cultural possession. Just how pervasive this ritual culture was or what specifically belonged to it is difficult to say and surely varied from period to period. There exist no ritual texts that can be dated with assurance to any period before about 400 B.C. All our accounts of the standard rituals of the early Zhou date from far later times. Some of these texts claim that even common peasants lived lives permeated by ritual – and the verses of the “Book of Songs” would support such a claim to some degree. Other texts flatly state that ritual codes were restricted to the elite patrician class. A number of texts give very detailed accounts of court or temple rites, but their accounts conflict so starkly that one can only suspect that all are fabrications. /+/

“The term “li” (it may be singular or plural) denoted a far broader range of conduct than what we normally label as “ritual.” Religious and political ceremonies were part of “li”, as were the norms of “courtly” warfare and diplomacy. Everyday etiquette also belonged to “li”. “Do not point when standing on a city wall”; “In a chariot, one always faces to the front” – these were as much a part of “li” as were funerals and ancestral sacrifices. “li” were performances and individuals came to be judged according to the grace and skill with which they acted as life-long performers. Gradually, “li” came to be seen by some as the key to the well ordered society and as the hallmark of the fully humanized individual — the mark of political and ethical virtue. /+/

“As our ritual texts are late, we cannot rely on them for specific information concerning early Zhou “li”. But we may assume that the “flavor”of ritual performance may be tasted by surveying the scripts used by late Zhou ritualists – which, after all, must surely have been based on earlier practice. We can also glimpse the way in which ritual as a whole came to be understood as a category of significant activity by reading late texts that attempt to explain the reasons behind the rituals, to make ethical sense of them. /+/

“On these pages are gathered together selections from two complementary ritual texts. The first is a portion of a text called the”Yili”, or “Ceremonies of Ritual.” This is a book of scripts that prescribes the proper enactment of a wide variety of major ritual ceremonies; it may date from a time as early as the fifth century. The selection here is from the script for the District Archery Meeting, which was an occasion for the warrior patricians of districts to celebrate their mastery of that martial art. (The translation is based on John Steele’s 1917 version, referenced below.)2 The second text is from a later text known as the “Liji”, or “Records of Ritual.” This book was probably compiled from earlier texts about 100 B.C. The selection here is a self-conscious explanation of the “meaning” of the archery match. “The “junzi” never competes,” Confucius is supposed to have said, “but then there is, of course, archery.” The archery match held a unique place as a gymnastic arena of “li”. “They bow and defer as they ascend the platform; they descend later and drink to one another – what they compete in is the character of the “junzi”!” Thus Confucius rationalized the ethical meaning of the archery match, and as we shall see, our second ritual text goes even further.” /+/

Li Expressed in “The District Archery Meeting”

ritual altar set

The following is from the Yili: 1) “The li of notifying the guests: The host goes in person to apprise the principal guest, who emerges to meet him with two bows. The host responds with two bows and then presents the invitation. The guest declines. In the end, however, he accepts. The host bows twice; the guest does likewise as he withdraws. 2) The li of setting out the mats and vessels: The mats for the guests are set out facing south and graded from the east. The host’s mat is laid at the top of the east steps, facing west. The wine-holder is placed to the east of the principal guest’s mat and consists of two containers with footless stands, the ritual dark wine being placed on the left. Both the vases are supplied with ladles.... The musical instruments on stands are placed to the north-east of the water jar, facing west. [Source: "The Yili",, translation by John Steele, 1917, Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

3) The li for stretching the target: Then the target is stretched, the lower brace being a foot above the ground. But the left end of the lower brace is not yet made fast and is carried back across the center and tied at the other side. 4) The li of hurrying the guests: When the meat is cooked, the host in court costume goes to hurry the gusts. They, also in court costume, come out to meet him and bow twice, the host responding with two bows and then withdrawing, the guests sending him on his way with two more bows. 5) The li of receiving the guests: The host and the principal guest salute one another three times as they go up the court together. When they reach the steps there are the three yieldings of precedence, the host ascending one step at a time, the guest following after. 6) From the li of the toasts: The principal guest takes the empty cup and descends the steps, the host going down also. Then the guest, in front of the western steps, sits facing east, lays down the cup, rises, and excuses himself the honor of the host’s descent. The host replies with a suitable phrase. The guest sits down again, takes up the cup, rises, goes to the water jar, faces north, sits, lays the cup at the foot of the basket, rises, washes his hands and the cup. [After this are many pages of instructions on wine toasts and music.]

bronze arrows

7) The li for initiating the archery contest: The three pairs of contestants chosen by the director of archery from among the most proficient of his pupils take their stand to the west of the western hall, facing south and graded from the east. Then the director of archery goes to the west of the western hall, bares his arm, and putting in his finger cover and armlet he takes his bow from the west of the western steps and at their top, facing north, announces to the principal guest, “The bows and arrows are ready, and I, your servant, invite you to shoot.” The principal guest replies, “I am not adept at shooting, but I accept on behalf of these gentlemen”[After the archery implements are brought in and the targets further readied, the musical instruments withdrawn and the shooting stations mounted]

8) Demonstrating the method of shooting: “The director of archery stands to the north of the three couples with his face to the east. Placing three arrows in his belt, he lays one on his string. He then salutes and invites the couples to advance.... He then places his left foot on the mark, but does not bring his feet together. Turning his head, he looks over his left shoulder at the center of the target and afterwards he bends to the right and adjusts his right foot. Then he shows them how to shoot, using the whole set of four arrows.... /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: “This concludes the preliminaries of the contest. The actual contest and the carefully staged drinking ritual between winners and losers at the close of the contest are described in similar detail in the following portions of the text. It should be clear now how intricately choreographed these “li” were intended to be, at least in the view of late Zhou patricians. It is worthwhile to pause and consider the amount of training that would be required to ensure that all the participants in this courtly athletic dance execute their roles with speed and precision. When rules proliferate in such number, it is essential that they be followed with all the speed of spontaneous action, otherwise the occasion will become interminable for all involved, and the “li” will simply cease to be followed. /+/

Meaning of the Archery Contest

“The Meaning of the Archery Contest” from the Liji is a much briefer text selection. According to Dr. Eno: “It is not an instruction manual, but rather a rationalization designed to show the moral significance of the archery meet.” The text reads;“In the past it was the rule that when the patrician lords practiced archery, they would always precede their match with the ritual of the Ceremonial Banquet. When grandees or “shi” met to practice archery, they would precede their match with the ritual of the Village Wine Gathering. The Ceremonial Banquet illustrated the proper relation of ruler and minister. The Village Wine Gathering illustrated the proper relation of elder and younger. [Source: “The “Liji” with standard translation by James Legge in 1885, “modernized” in an edition published by Ch’u and Winberg Chai: “Li Chi: Book of Rites”(New Hyde Park, N.Y.: 1967, Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In the Archery Contest, the archers were obliged to target “li” in all their movements, whether advancing, retreating as they circuited round. Only once intent was aligned and body straight could they grasp their bows with firm skill; only then could one say that their arrows would hit the mark. In this way, their characters would be disclosed through their archery. “To regulate the archers’ rhythm music was performed. In the case of the Son of Heaven, it was “The Game Warden”; in the case of the patrician lords it was “The Fox’s Head”; in the case of the high officers and grandees it was “Plucking the Marsilea”; in the case of “shi” it was “Plucking the Artemisia.”

“The poem “The Game Warden” conveys the delight of having court offices well filled. “The Fox’s Head” conveys the delight of gathering at appointed times. “Plucking the Marsilea” conveys the delight of following the rules of law. “Plucking the Artemisia” conveys the delight of not falling short in performing one’s official duties. Therefore for the Son of Heaven the rhythm of his archery was regulated by thought of appropriate appointments at court; for the patrician lords, the rhythm of archery was regulated by thoughts of timely audiences with the Son of Heaven; for high officers and grandees, the rhythm of archery was regulated by thoughts of following the rules of law; for the “shi”, the rhythm of archery was regulated by thoughts of not failing in their duties. /+/

“In this way, when they clearly understood the intent of those regulating measures and were thus able to avoid any failure in performance of their roles, they were successful in their undertakings and their characters in conduct were well set. When their characters in conduct were well set, there would be no cases of violence and wantonness among them, and when their undertakings were successful, the states were at peace. Thus it is said that in archery one may observe the flourishing of virtue. /+/

“For this reason, in the past the Son of Heaven chose the patrician lords, high officers and grandees, and “shi” on the basis of skill in archery. Because archery is a pursuit so well suited for men, it is embellished with “li” and music. Nothing matches archery in the way that full ritualization through “li” and music is linked to the establishment of good character through repeated performance. Thus the sage king treats it as a priority. /+/

Sacrifical horsepit of a Zhou duke

Dr. Eno wrote: When the Yili and Liji texts on archery “are compared there seem to be substantial differences in the underlying scripts of the archery ceremony. Even more striking is the degree to which the later text ranges wide of the ceremony itself in reading moral and political meanings into the ceremony...It is not the accuracy of these texts nor their specific content which makes them valuable for our purposes. It is their ability to convey the intensity of ritual expectations among at least portions of the elite class that makes them worth reading. All of us encounter from time to time contexts of ritual intensity, religious ceremonies, holiday rituals, and so forth. But they stand as islands in our lives, which are governed by a code of informality – particularly in late twentieth century America. Imagining a society in which the choreography of elaborate ritual encounter is a basic pattern of life resembles envisioning an alien world where one’s skillful execution of mannered behavioral norms counts as self-expression and provides others with a glimpse of the “inner” person.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; 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 \=/ 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 August 2021

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