- Dynasty

- The Rise and Fall

- Chronology


The Western Zhou Dynasty
(11th century - 771 B.C.)

The Zhou clan had lived long and developed in the area of Shaanxi and Gansu. Later it centred its activities in Zhouyuan south of the Qi Mountains. By early 11th century B.C., the Zhou had become powerful. It attacked neighbouring states to expand its territory and moved its capital from Zhouyuan to the western bank of the Feng River in the Chang'an County. Its expansion east brought it into sharp conflict with the Shang Dynasty. King Zhou of the Shang once imprisoned Xi Bochang (King Wen of Zhou) in Youli. Subsequently, King Wen's ministers and subordinates kept presenting tribute of treasure and beautiful women to King Zhou for the release of King Wen. Upon returning home, King Wen made speedy preparation to attack the Shang, whose corrupt practice had caused much dissension. Before his death, King Wen instructed Heir-Prince Fa (King Wu) to commence preparation to overthrow the Shang. After King Wu succeeded to the throne, he mobilised a large army to march east and allied with those from various neighbouring states. King Wu called a pledge harangue in Muye to list the crimes of King Zhou of the Shang. King Zhou sent an army of 170,000 soldiers who turned against him, clearing the way for King Wu's forces. King Zhou fled and killed himself in Lutai. Thus a new Dynasty, the Zhou, began.

King Wu now controlled the area of the former Shang and other small states. But he was confronted by the problem of how to control the large territories in the east. He finally resolved to adopt a policy of "enfeoffing relatives and establishing feudatories to protect the Zhou". He thus granted titles and territories to his relatives and meritorious officials to establish fiefs in different areas. Each of these fiefs became a base for governing the people in that area and served as a strategic point of defence for the ruling Dynasty. King Wu enfeoffed Wu Geng (son of King Zhou of the Shang) at Yin, the original Shang capital, so as to control the Shang people. At the same time he appointed his two brothers Guan and Cai as marquis to watch over Wu Geng. Besides, he enfeoffed the Duke of Zhou at Lu, Jiang Shang at Qi, and Duke Zhao at Yan. After King Wu's death, his son succeeded to the throne and became King Cheng. As King Cheng was too young to rule, the Duke of Zhou acted as regent. Guan and Cai were discontented and spread rumors about the Duke of Zhou scheming to declare himself king. Wu Geng colluded with Guan and Cai to revolt in alliance with many small states. The Duke of Zhou then marched a large army eastward and crushed the rebellion three years later. He killed Wu Geng and Guan and exiled Cai. This overwhelming victory consolidated the rule of the Zhou Dynasty.

When King Wu returned to his capital Haojing after his defeat of King Zhou, he was concerned about the great distance between his capital and the newly conquered territories. He intended to establish a new district-city in the Yiluohe area where the Xia people lived. But he had died suddenly before his plan was realised. Inscriptions unearthed in Baoji (Shaanxi Province) show that King Cheng carried out his father's unfulfilled behest and established a new district-city (Luoyi) near Luoyang to have the newly conquered territories under rule within a manageable distance. Soon both the Luoyi City and the Haojing City became political, military and cultural centres of the Zhou. King Cheng also moved the unruly Yin people to Luoyi to completely wipe out their dreams of restoring the Yin Dynasty.

As the Duke Dan of Zhou acted as regent, his eldest son Bai Qin got enfeoffed as the marquis of Lu (the ruins of which found in Qufu, Shandong Province). The ruins of Qi, the fief of Jiang Shang was found in Lizhi, Shandong Province; while that of Yan, the fief of the Duke of Zhao, found in the Fangshan district of Beijing. After Wu Geng's rebellion was crushed, his fief was given to Kangshu, the younger brother of King Wu, who was appointed the marquis of Wei. The ruins of Wei was found in Jun, Henan Province. West of Wei, there was Jin, the ruins of which found between Yicheng and Quwo of Shanxi Province, which was enfeoffed to Shuyu, the brother of King Cheng who had eliminated the Tang. All these fiefs serving to contain, protect and restrain each other contributed considerably to the political stability in the early years of the Dynasty. It was recorded that "during the reign of Cheng and Kang, criminal laws were shelved for forty years", indicating that there was a stable and peaceful period after King Cheng's crushing of Wu Geng's rebellion.

After a series of wars and battles, the Zhou domain extended south across the Yangtze River, including Ba, Pu, Zheng, and Chu, north to Sushen, Yan, and Hao, east to the coastal area, and west to Gan (Gansu) and Qing (Qinghai), which was much larger than the Shang domain. The Zhou established complex state machinery to effectively control the entire country. Criminal laws instituted were more systematic than those of the Shang Dynasty. All land and people were nominally the property of the king of the Zhou. Therefore, when they were enfeoffed, the king would hold ceremonies. These enfeoffed vassals had to present themselves to the king at court at regular times. Meanwhile, they had the duty to protect the royal house and to pay tribute and be on active service (including military service). Otherwise, they would be punished for slighting the royal house. However, the vassal lords often ceded or exchanged, without the king's permission, their land which gradually became private property. At the same time, the quantity of private farm land kept on increasing because of the constant availability of new land. This resulted in sabotaging the Well-Field system-based public land-ownership system.

The Western Zhou achieved further development in social economy. Slaves were exploited in the production of more surplus labour products, spurring the development of the handicraft industry. The bronze industry became more prominent. In addition to the royal bronze workshops, there were also fief-owned ones. Bronze products greatly increased in quantity and became more popular among people. The development of the bronze industry also brought prosperity to other industries. The script became more widely used - in addition to inscription on oracle bones, epigraphs were engraved on thousands of bronze utensils, which recorded all sorts of social events of that time. Remarkable progress was also made in agriculture, animal husbandry, textile, metallurgy, architecture, astronomy, and geography. Smelted iron tools were also found in tombs of late Western Zhou, indicating that the Chinese had mastered the technique of iron smelting before that period.

During the reign of King Li, conflicts between the royal house and the people began to surface. The tyrannical rule of King Li - exorbitant taxing, oppressing the people, forbidding public discussion of state affairs - at last provoked a people's revolution in 841 B.C., resulting in King Li's flee to Zhi (Huoxian in Shanxi) and Gongbai's enthronement to become King Xuan. The first year of the Gonghe reign (841 B.C.) was the beginning of accurate chronology in Chinese history. King Xuan, having learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, made changes to state policies. To relieve the threat from the Rong Di Tribe, he waged a victorious war against them. Victories were also won in battles against the Jinchu and Huaiyi. Despite these victories, the country was still in turmoil.

History always undergoes unbalanced development. During the reigns of the Shang and the Zhou, the Central Plains (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) had reached the peak of the Bronze Age, while neighbouring regions still lagged behind. Therefore, the Western Zhou, driven by a desire for increased wealth and territory, frequently warred against them. The Jianghan Valley was the base of the Man tribe. King Zhao launched a large-scale attack against it but was met with a powerful defence. The Zhou army was almost completely destroyed with King Zhao killed in the Han River. This was a major defeat suffered by the Zhou during the early Western Zhou period, leading to its losing control over the southern states. Kings Mu and Xuan also attempted expedition to the south, but failed to have much success. The Yi and other states in the east, refusing to be enslaved any further by the Zhou, waged war against it which survived the attack only with the help of the vassal lords of the same surname. But what threatened the Zhou most was the Quan Rong in the northwest. During the reign of King Mu, the power of the Quan Rong increased and the communication and intercourse between the Zhou and other northwestern states were often interrupted by them. King Mu attacked the Quan Rong and captured five of their chiefs. King Mu then removed a large number of the Quan Rong to Taiyuan, thus clearing the way to the northwestern states. But the Quan Rong still kept invading the Zhou. King You, the son and successor of King Xuan, passionately indulged in Bao Si, one of his imperial concubines, intended to kill Yijiu, the Heir-Prince, and appoint Zi Bo, Bao Si's son, successor to the throne. But Yijiu's mother was the daughter of Marquis Shen. Marquis Shen, learning about King You's intention, immediately colluded with the Quan Rong and attacked King You who eventually got killed at the foot of the Li Mountain. The Quan Rong army took this opportunity to plunder the wealth and treasure of the Zhou. This was the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty. With the help of his vassal lords, Yijiu took the throne and became King Ping. He removed the capital to Luoyi. The Eastern Zhou Dynasty thus began.

(Authored by Professor Yin Weizhang, Archaeology Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; translated by Xu Fangfu, Associate Professor of English from the Petroleum University)