EASTERN ZHOU PERIOD (770-221 B.C.)

EASTERN ZHOU PERIOD (770-221 B.C.)


dagger with a human face

The Eastern Zhou (771 – 256 B.C.) was the second half of the Zhou dynasty (1046 -256 B.C.) of ancient China. Beginning in the 8th century B.C. the authority of the emperors degenerated and hundreds of warlords fought among themselves until seven major kingdoms prevailed. This led to the formulation of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.). 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.

Fleeing foreign attack in 771 B.C., the Western Zhou abandoned its capital near Xian and established a new capital farther east at Luoyang (Loyang). The new state, known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–256 B.C.), produced the great Chinese philosophers including Confucius (K'ung Futzu or Kong Fuzi) and the semi-historical figure, Lao Tzu (Lao Zi). [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Zhou patriarchal system established in the Western Zhou period gradually collapsed in the latter half of the Zhou dynasty — the Eastern Zhou period — leaving a new upper class in its place. This period also saw the development of thriving trade and commercial activity with remote regions During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty 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.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “During the Eastern Zhou period the Zhou kings exercised little real power. The feudal lords of the various constituent parts of the Zhou set themselves up as the kings of independent states and fought innumerable battles against each other in a constantly shifting pattern of alliances and enmities. It was in this context that men like Confucius, Mencius, Lord Shang, Han Fei and others offered their advice and services to the various feudal lords as civilian officials and political advisers. At the same time, other men offered their expertise in the arts of war. The most famous of the military strategists of the Eastern Zhou period is Sunzi (also called Sun Wu), the putative author of a collection of teachings entitled Sunzi’s Art of War. [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 ]

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 ;
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)

Creation of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In 771 B.C. an alliance of northern feudal states had attacked the ruler in his western capital; in a battle close to the city they had overcome and killed him. This campaign appears to have set in motion considerable groups from various tribes, so that almost the whole province of Shaanxi was lost. With the aid of some feudal lords who had remained loyal, a Zhou prince was rescued and conducted eastward to the second capital, Loyang, which until then had never been the ruler's actual place of residence. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In this rescue a lesser feudal prince, ruler of the feudal state of Qin (Ch'in), specially distinguished himself. Soon afterwards this prince, whose domain had lain close to that of the ruler, reconquered a great part of the lost territory, and thereafter regarded it as his own fief. The Qin family resided in the same capital in which the Zhou had lived in the past, and five hundred years later we shall meet with them again as the dynasty that succeeded the Zhou.[Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The new ruler, resident now in Loyang, was foredoomed to impotence. He was now in the centre of the country, and less exposed to large-scale enemy attacks; but his actual rule extended little beyond the town itself and its immediate environment. Moreover, attacks did not entirely cease; several times parts of the indigenous population living between the Zhou towns rose against the towns, even in the centre of the country.

Eastern Zhou Dynasty Rule


bronze arrows

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Now that the emperor had no territory that could be the basis of a strong rule and, moreover, because he owed his position to the feudal lords and was thus under an obligation to them, he ruled no longer as the chief of the feudal lords but as a sort of sanctified overlord; and this was the position of all his successors. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“A situation was formed at first that may be compared with that of Japan down to the middle of the nineteenth century. The ruler was a symbol rather than an exerciser of power. There had to be a supreme ruler because, in the worship of Heaven which was recognized by all the feudal lords, the supreme sacrifices could only be offered by the Son of Heaven in person. There could not be a number of sons of heaven because there were not a number of heavens. The imperial sacrifices secured that all should be in order in the country, and that the necessary equilibrium between Heaven and Earth should be maintained. For in the religion of Heaven there was a close parallelism between Heaven and Earth, and every omission of a sacrifice, or failure to offer it in due form, brought down a reaction from Heaven. For these religious reasons a central ruler was a necessity for the feudal lords. They needed him also for practical reasons. In the course of centuries the personal relationship between the various feudal lords had ceased. Their original kinship and united struggles had long been forgotten.

“When the various feudal lords proceeded to subjugate the territories at a distance from their towns, in order to turn their city states into genuine territorial states, they came into conflict with each other. In the course of these struggles for power many of the small fiefs were simply destroyed. It may fairly be said that not until the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. did the old garrison towns became real states. In these circumstances the struggles between the feudal states called urgently for an arbiter, to settle simple cases, and in more difficult cases either to try to induce other feudal lords to intervene or to give sanction to the new situation. These were the only governing functions of the ruler from the time of the transfer to the second capital.

Social Chaos and the Issue of Theodicy in Eastern Zhou Period

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The circumstances of the fall of the Western Zhou led to dramatic changes in the political structure of China. The basic events are that in 771 B.C., the capital of Zong-Zhou was sacked by nomad invaders who killed the Zhou king. One of the sons of this king fled to the eastern capital of Cheng-Zhou, which had been founded by the Duke of Zhou, and revived the Zhou court there. Within a year or two, the nomads had been driven from the Zong-Zhou region and peace was restored. Superficially, it would not appear that the transition should have had any fundamental impact. Yet from 770 B.C. on, the Zhou state is effectively no more than a shadow. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The key element of the transition is that the prince who fled east to continue the Zhou did so under the protection of a group of patrician fief-holders who became the chief ministers of the Eastern Zhou court. The early kings at Cheng-Zhou were effectively the puppets of this group of lords. From 770 B.C. on, the dukes and marquises who possessed hereditary fiefs became virtual sovereigns in their own territories, and by the end of the eighth century B.C., the Zhou kingdom was in reality a collection of independent states. (In this, the Eastern Zhou balance of power actually seems more closely to resemble European feudalism than does the system of “Zhou feudalism” that prevailed in the western Zhou, which involved a strong royal center.)

Warfare and Social Dislocation During the Eastern Zhou Period

Dr. Eno wrote: “The leaders of these states, realizing that no anchor of stability existed to ensure the safety of their positions under the new regime, quickly began to compete for political power. The result was a period of domestic warfare among the feudal states that erupted within decades of the Western Zhou collapse and lasted over five centuries, gradually increasing in bitterness and bloodiness. During the first centuries of this era of disunity, the Spring and Autumn period, the warfare among the states was virtually constant. However, armies were relatively small and combat, directed by patricians fighting from chariots, was governed by ceremonial rules. After the mid-fifth century, wars became slightly less frequent but spectacularly destructive, with armies of close to a million men slaughtering tens of thousands in a single battle. Gradually, over 500 years, the multitude of feudal states was whittled down to a few dozen, then half a dozen, until finally, in 221 B.C., a single state, the state of Qin, reunified China under a revolutionary new regime. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The fluidity of this era of multi-state competition led to fundamental changes in Chinese society, most of them unintended and poorly understood at the time. Along with incessant warfare that proved an immense burden to the farming population, critical demands for skilled manpower, technological innovation, and economic growth in the competing states created unprecedented opportunities for social mobility and innovation. As the old pillars of the Western Zhou began to crumble, the institutions that had distinguished life in China and characterized its orderly nature began to disintegrate. /+/

Suspension of the Mandate of Heaven During the Eastern Zhou Period

Dr. Eno wrote: “As the Zhou kingship fell into decay and the prerogatives of the hereditary elite were undermined by new forces of social mobility, the status of the high deity Tian came into question. As an all-powerful and all-benevolent force, Tian had been a fitting fiction to anchor the religious life of the stable Western Zhou. The success of the early kings validated the Mandate theory, and Tian, as the king’s god, served to guarantee the meaningfulness of life under the Zhou monarchy. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“But from the time that the Zhou monarchy first comes unraveled we begin to find, in ancient textual and inscriptional sources, questions about the nature of Tian arise. If the dislocations that followed the ninth century were the products of random events, then the benevolence of Tian was no longer assured. If they were the products of a debasement in the virtue of the Zhou kings, which our historical sources suggests was the common view, then why did not Tian shift the Mandate to a new house and restore order? The issue of the justice of Tian, which in philosophical terms we call the issue of theodicy ( theo = god; dike = justice), became an object for intellectual inquiry. /+/

“As the chaos of the Classical era was prolonged century after century and warfare grew increasingly devastating, Tian ceased to be seen as a satisfactory guarantor of the meaningfulness of social life. Its endless suspension of the Mandate for so many generations could not conceivably be explained on the basis of earlier historical precedents, and the pre-Classical view of the relationship between man and Tian – between man and the order of the universe – began to be questioned. This is the origin of philosophical thought in China. /+/

“When we explore the teachings of the earliest Chinese philosopher, Confucius, we will see that, in part at least, Confucius’s intellectual enterprise was an attempt to find an alternative foundation for meaning and value to replace the religious concept of Tian-mandated order. Although Tian retains an apparently basic role in Confucius’s formulations, this role is actually secondary and superfluous. In constructing a new foundation for meaning and value, Confucius looked to history rather than to religion. Viewing the institutions of the Western Zhou, rather than its ruling kings, as the true expression of Tian’s Mandate, Confucius grounded China’s first philosophy in the cardinal value of Zhou ritual, li, rather than the omnipotent benevolence of a supreme deity. /+/

Rise of the “Gentleman” During the Eastern Zhou Period


Dr. Eno wrote: “Another major impetus for the rise of philosophy was connected to the changes in the structure of Zhou society that gradually emerged during the era of civil war. Among the profound social changes that mark this period, none is as important as the diminishment in the security of aristocratic privilege and the rise of a new class of people who competed with the nobility for access to wealth, power, and prestige. This new class is sometimes called the class of “scholars,” and other times the class of “knights,” because many of its members sought to rise in society by leans of learning or by means of skills in warfare. We will refer to it here as the class of “gentlemen,” which translates the Chinese termshi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is likely that there was no point in Chinese history when class divisions were so firm that no avenues for social advancement existed. But through the Shang and Zhou, the division between those who were highborn and commoners was seen as important and, to some degree, reflected a notion that ability and excellence were familial rather than individual attributes. The nobility was viewed as an innately better class of people than peasants and other lowborn people – though the firmness of this division was probably never as absolute as it tended to be in most premodern European cultures. Moreover, only members of the aristocracy were entitled to take part in the political life of the state. All significant offices of responsibility and reward were hereditary in nature. Moreover, warfare, which during the Western Zhou meant warfare against non-Chinese peoples rather than civil war, was very much an aristocratic sport. The Chinese were skilled at chariot war, archery, and swordsmanship, and all these types of war required considerable training. Although wars were fought with peasant conscripts serving as weakly armed supporting infantry (the bronze used in weapons of war was too expensive to supply to common troops), only noblemen were raised with the kind of leisure time and family training that could nurture expertise in chariot war. /+/

“The exaltation of the aristocracy was relatively easy to maintain during the stable era of the Western Zhou (that is, until the fall of the Western capital in 771). Under the strong rule of the central Zhou kings, there was no pressing threat to the political well being of those in power that would require them to look outside the nobility for people whose worth could add to their security. This began to change when the dynasty moved east and power began to be fragmented among the feudal lords. Under conditions of civil war and political intrigue, power-holders could not always afford to accept the fact that the son of the last chief-general of the state army had to inherit his father’s post, regardless of his abilities. The risks of aristocratic incompetence and the lure of the untapped talents of the lower class became increasingly apparent, and from the late eighth century on, we begin to note the appearance of low-born men of ability in roles of political significance. /+/

“Most of our philosophers were members of this new “middle” class. Confucius, for example, was born to parents who appear to have had some noble ancestors, but who were themselves insignificant subjects of the ruler of the state of Lu. Confucius’s considerable contemporary reputation rested entirely on his achievements rather than on his birth, and he was also known for his willingness to accept men of any social backgrounds as his students. Mozi, the first great opponent of Confucianism, seems to have been a man from the lowest classes of society, as were most of his followers. Much of his opposition to Confucianism was due to his suspicion of the Confucian ritual syllabus, which celebrated many aspects of the aristocratic society of the Western Zhou. But Mozi and Confucius were united in their agreement that all people were born with similar capacities, and that social advancement should be open to any person (actually, any man) who could make good use of those capacities. Even thinkers who were, by birth, noble, such as the Legalist Han Feizi, agreed with these ideas. /+/

“The birth of philosophy in Classical China may legitimately be viewed as the expression of the new gentleman class, members of which used learning as a way to gain social leverage. By formulating the prescriptions that would rescue China from the chaos that aristocratic rule had brought, this commoner class was seizing the intellectual prerogative of the aristocracy to design the governance of China. Even further, many of these thinkers articulated a new vision of personal excellence that superseded the traditions of the aristocratic class, and instead pictured perfection – sagehood – as a quality that could be attained by any person, regardless of birth. The path to this new “moral aristocracy,” each thinker proclaimed, was nothing more than his own Dao (“Way” or teaching), which could recreate an ordinary peasant as a sage as great as the legendary emperors Yao and Shun – and it was no accident that in the stories of these greatest of all rulers, each rejects his own son as heir to his throne and passes the kingship instead to a man of low birth and high merit. For the early Chinese philosophers, anyone could achieve the goal of becoming “a sage within and king without.” In this, they were simply reflecting the new values of the age in which they lived. /+/

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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