Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Chinese History - 1100-771 BC - Western Zhou Dynasty

China History Map - Western Zhou The Duke of Zhou is probably the first real person to step over the threshold of myth into Chinese history. Not much is known about the Duke of Zhou. He is more a personality cult than a person. But the seed of the cult lies in a real historical figure and real events. The duke helped his brother sweep away a corrupt ruler and found the Zhou dynasty in the 11th Century BC. Already north China had cities, public works and coinage. There was no empire as yet, but even ruling a kingdom required skill and subtlety.

The Duke of Zhou set China a glowing example. A paragon of virtue, he spelled out a philosophy of a ruler in harmony with heaven that inspired Confucius. Mostly in Chinese history everyone seems to be behaving badly. Regent uncles, dowager empresses, concubines, brothers… all end up doing the wrong thing. Skim read the dynastic ups and downs of imperial China and it is a terrifying bloodbath of unexplained deaths, heads severed, babies strangled, siblings thrown down wells, kings poisoned, whole families executed or challengers torn limb from limb. But not the Duke of Zhou.

The mandate of heaven is the Duke of Zhou's big idea. The ruler governs by virtuous example, which spreads virtue throughout the land, and in turn demonstrates his harmony with the divine. But there's a get-out clause for rebels. If the king fails to rule virtuously, harmony is ruined and can only be restored by removal of the king.

There are many references in Shang oracle bone texts to a people called Zhou who lived west of the Shang center, in the area of modern Shanxi Province. The Zhou, who were considered to be an important tributary state, were at first culturally and technologically inferior to the Shang, but learned rapidly and by the eleventh century BC challenged the Shang for political supremacy.

The final Zhou conquest took place in about 1050 BC. Remnants of the Shang royal line were allowed to continue their ancestral practices in the small state of Song, in exchange for pledging loyalty to the Zhou. When the Shang Empire suffered a rebellion in the eastern kingdom, the empire failed to see a great army gathering to the west, led by a tribe called the Chou. This federation of tribal armies sacked the capital, ending the Shang dynasty, and the eight hundred years of Chou began. The dynasty of Chou is the longest lived of all the imperial lines in the history of China and includes the reigns of thirty-five sovereigns, aggregating a total of nearly nine centuries. Wars continued for the greater portion of the time, against the Huns on the northern frontier and against the aboriginal tribes south of the Yangtse Kiang.

The Zhou dynasty had its capital at Hao, near the city of Xi'an, 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 Chou carried forward most of the characteristics of the Shang except that the throne would pass not from brother to brother but from the father to the eldest son. Other sons and royalty were set upon thrones of rival but now conquered capitals, spreading the Chou state throughout all of the former Shang lands and the territory from the Yangtze River to the deserts.

The period as a whole reveals a gradual weakening of the central authority by reason of the increase of power in the vassal and confederate states. The number of these at one time was as many as a hundred and twenty-five and even in the time of Confucius there were fifty-two. 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.

An important feature of the epoch is in the gradual enforcement of the (so-called) Confucian system. under a series of able teachers, philosophers and administrators. These include such men as the sage, Confucius, himself, and his great disciple and interpreter, Mencius. Towards the end of the Chou dynasty there are some indications of reaction against this system through the pressure of forces such as were doubtless reinforced by the infusion of a strong Tatar element from the north. These forces indeed triumphed for a time in the overthrow of the Chous and the establishment of the Ch'in dynasty, but ultimately the foreign elements were themselves assimilated to the Confucian ideal.

The real founder of this dynasty was the Ch'ang, Duke of Chou [BC 1281-1135], who headed the revolt against Chou Hsin. He had been hereditary prince of the principality of Ch'i and was thrown into prison by the tyrant as suspect and dangerous. In prison he utilized two years and attained fame as the author of a work on the Sixty-Four Hexagrams which had been evolved from the Eight Trigrams of Fu Hsi. This treatise together with the additions made through the filial affection of his son, the great duke of Chou, constitutes that most bewildering of all the Confucian classics known as the I Ching, or "Book of Changes."

Wen Wang's literary labors were, however, no barrier to his fitness for military achievement. Through the intercession of the people who loved him and because of the promise to get for the Emperor a beautiful concubine and some splendid horses from the west, he was after two years released from prison and sent west to fight the frontier tribes. But he soon returned and headed the revolt against Chou Hsin with the result that has already been recorded. He "found the people hanging head downwards and set them on their feet" and was known to all future times as Wen Wang, "the Lettered Sovereign."

Wu Wang, or Fa, his son, became the first reigning sovereign of the Chou line, which received its name from the Duchy of Chou on the western frontier. He seems to have been a genuinely great monarch, commencing his rule with generous actions and a conciliatory attitude towards the conquered. He opened the prisons which were doubtless filled with the victims of Chou Hsin's tyranny and also the granaries whose contents at this juncture were badly needed.

Traditional histories speak of the Zhou conquering the Shang and proclaiming a mandate of heaven. The Zhou justified their conquest by citing the moral depravity and excesses of the last Shang king. They set up a network of kin relationships (zongfai) in various regions, which formed the basis of a new unified state. The Western Zhou mandate was seen as a model for future generations to emulate. In the proclamation which he made exposing the misdeeds of the late dynasty, the following is spoken of as one of the crimes of Chou Hsin. "He has put men into office on the hereditary principle," - a striking testimony to the essentially democratic character of the early Chinese government.

In reality, the formation of the Zhou state was a much more difficult undertaking. The defeat of the Shang by King Wu of Zhou around 1045 B.C. was actually the second of two campaigns into Shang territory. King Wu died two years later, and a power struggle erupted into a brief civil war. This conflict extended Zhou rule into the northern and eastern regions, where relatives were dispatched to strategic points to defend the Zhou heartland along the Wei River valley.

Wu Wang established his capital at Singanfu, a city which had the honor of being the center of government at several subsequent epochs [and was the natural refuge for the Emperor and Empress Dowager during the months following the Boxer revolt of 1900]. Wu Wang also reformed the calendar, created schools of various grades, and made other memorable improvements in methods of government and administration. The archaeological record suggests that the Zhou were cultural opportunists. They were quick to adopt the material culture of the Shang, perhaps as a way to establish their legitimacy. Zhou art also borrowed heavily from the Shang, and the Zhou practice of casting inscriptions in bronze vessels, as well as the design of the vessels themselves, suggests a direct Shang influence.

The great glory of the reign of Wu Wang was the character and statesmanship of the King's brother, Tan, better known as Chou Kung, "the Duke of Chou." He was the Duke of Chou par excellence, for he is included by Mencius in the number of the "Three Great Sages" of China, of whom the other two are Yu, the patriarch king of the Hsia dynasty, and, of course, Confucius. The philosopher adds the reason for his estimate as follows: "In former times Yu repressed the vast waters of the inundation and the empire was reduced to order. Chou Kung's achievements extended even to the barbarous tribes of the west and north; he drove away all ferocious animals; and the people enjoyed repose." He did even more than his father, Wen Wang, for the perfecting of the "Book of Changes," the I Ching, interpreting the significance of each line of the hexagram, as his father had interpreted the general meaning of the whole. As he showed by this voluntary labor his filial love, so he showed his fraternal love by constituting himself the pillar of Wu Wang's throne.

He might almost be regarded as the most potent force in the permanent organization of the Chinese administration system. His zeal was so great that he received interviewers even while he was having his bath, rushing out holding his wet hair in his hand rather than keep them waiting. His seriousness is illustrated by his rebuke of the Emperor for bestowing a certain symbol of power upon another jokingly. "I was only joking," said the prince. "Nay," replied Chou Kung, "a prince never jokes. His words are written down as history, take shape as ceremonial rites, or are set to 'music and sung."

His delicacy of feeling was shown by his prayer for the recovery of Wu Wang when the monarch was dangerously ill. Chou Kung's appeal to the ancestors and his divination with the tortoises were regarded as the real cause of the King's recovery. The same feeling was shown later on the death of Wu Wang and the accession of the child-king, Ch'eng. Chou Kung feared it might be supposed that he was himself aiming at the supreme power, so, although he was appointed regent, he went voluntarily into exile to escape suspicion of self-seeking. Fortunately for the realm, he was recalled when certain impending difficulties and dangers made his presence once again necessary.

The great Duke's was often described as the inventor of the Mariner's Compass on the strength of the mention of a wonderful "south-pointing chariot " which he devised to assist the return of the envoys from Tongking to their own home. The reference, however, is of doubtful meaning.

Chou Kung died about the year BC 1105 and was buried, as he deserved, with royal honors and amid the lamentation of the whole nation. The kings who succeeded Wu Wang may be passed over with but slight notice. Perhaps little is lost by the omissions. Ch'eng Wang selected a new capital, Loyang, the present city of Honanfu, a city which, like Singanfu, had its vicissitudes. Chao Wang, BC 1052-1002, helps to illustrate the growing importance of popular feeling. He drew down on himself much ill will because of the heedlessness with which, when engaged in war or hunting, he trampled down the crops of his subjects. For this they revenged themselves in the following summary manner: On the king requiring to cross a certain river, the people provided him with a boat so constructed as to come apart in the middle of the stream. The king managed to swim ashore, but he died not very long after, either as a result of the wetting or through another similar "accident."

Mu Wang, who succeeded Chao Wang and reigned possibly from BC 1001 to 947, deserves mention on account of his travels. With his charioteer Tsao-fu and his eight marvelous horses he went "wherever wheelruts ran and the hoofs of horses had trodden." The book giving an account of these adventures only dates, however, from the second or third century BC, so there is considerable room for doubt. One interesting visit was to the Hsi Wang Mu or "Royal Lady of the West." The identity of this princess is one of the mysteries of history and Taoist writers have woven around the story a mass of marvelous fairy lore, describing the Queen as inhabiting a magnificent mountain palace, hard by which was the Lake of Gems and the Peach Tree of Immortality from whose branches flew azure-winged birds on errands of love. Here she lived surrounded by troops of genii and by and by a consort was found for her in Tung Wang Kung, the Eastern King Lord. Others have used their imaginations in a different direction by recognizing in the Hsi Wang Mu the Queen of Sheba. It is quite possible that by means of some such expeditions as these referred to there was introduced into China the particular philosophic and religious element which appears a little later in the teaching of Lao Tzu.

Inferior names succeed to that of Mu Wang and the growing inability of the Emperors to manage their vast feudal domains becomes increasingly evident. Some of the statesmen, however, seem to have been men of more dignity and resource than their masters.

Suan Wang [BC 827-782] furnishes another illustration of the danger of disregarding the popular will and the maintenance of governmental traditions. There was a time-honored customunder the Chou dynasty that the Emperor had to perform the ceremony of working in person in the 'Fields of a Thousand Acres' set aside for the purpose, a ceremony similar to that of the handling of the plow by the Emperor in the 19th Century. Suan Wang declined to comply with the practice in spite of the remonstrances of his dukes, with the result that in BC 789 his army was defeated in a battle against certain Tangutan tribes. The name of the battle field, according to Ssu-ma Ch'ien, was Ch'ien miao, which means 'a thousand acres,' but it would appear that the name was given to the locality afterward in commemoration of the Emperor's disinclination to listen to his minister's remonstrations.

Part of the success of the Western Zhou may have rested with their ability to use ritual traditions to unite far-flung regions. These customs underwent a significant change in direction around the early ninth century B.C. Wine vessels were used less than sets of ding and food basins called gui. Changes also began to take place in divination, shifting from the use of oracle bones to the observation of change in nature, codified in the Zhou yi (better known in the West as the Yijing or I Ching). A century had already passed since the start of the dynasty and it is possible that the Zhou wished to set new standards of ritual practice as a way of exercising control over a changing political landscape.

These changes coincided with a time of military instability, and inscriptions on ninth-century B.C. vessels sometimes mention conflicts in the south and east. Having a core state surrounded by alliances may have contributed to a feeling among the Zhou that the outside world was filled with barbarians. Notions of what constituted "Chinese-ness" were beginning to develop, and are reflected in poetry of the time. As more land was conquered and more vassal capitals established, the Chou king found it more difficult to maintain control of his far-flung empire, as Mongols, Turks, and Tibetans raided outlying provinces. Gradually these provinces looked less and less toward the king, and more toward their own dukes.

Suan Wang was succeeded by Yu Wang [BC 781-771] who reigned just ten years. In the sixth year of this reign occurred the eclipse of the sun which gives the earliest fixed point in Chinese chronology, viz: - 29 August 776 BC, it being regarded as a sign of the Heavenly indignation at Yu-Wang's crimes. There is a presentiment of coming disaster in the story of this ruler and his favorite, Paossu. Of mysterious birth, Pao was ordered slain when an infant, but, wrapped in a piece of matting, she was rescued from the river, put out to nurse, and later presented to the king because of her great beauty. She soon displaced the legitimate wife of Yu Wang and caused the banishment of the heirapparent. And now no folly was too great for Yu Wang to perpetrate in order to amuse his mistress, who, for her part, found it by no means easy to be amused. The king had established outposts at which beacon-fires could be kindled and drums beaten to give warning of the incursions of the Huns. The melancholy princess could not be induced to smile until she was permitted to give the order for the lighting of the beacon in order that she might enjoy the discomfiture of the feudatory princes when they responded to the false alarm.

As loyalties crumbled, an alliance of dukes and barbarians sacked the Chou capital in 771 BC. The enemy had arrived in reality; the cry of "Wolf" was given as usual, but this time in vain; no troops appeared; the king was taken prisoner and slain, and Pao-ssii herself carried off, together with much booty. She is said to have committed suicide by strangling herself. The royal family fled to the eastern city of Loyang to begin a new period of its dynasty called Eastern Chou.

P'ing Wang [BC 770-720] followed his father, Yu, and reigned for the most part peacefully. But the Chou dynasty was now past its zenith and although destined to brave the storms of time for five centuries longer, the story was to be one of anarchy, assassination, misrule and trouble. The vassal princes became more and more powerful and therewith more and more independent. They began to take possession of entire provinces and to govern them without reference to the decrees of the Emperors.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 28-12-2017 18:37:14 ZULU