Home China Guide China History The Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC)

The Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC)

The Zhou dynasty era lasted 800 years until the end of China's bronze age. It was the longest lasting dynasty, but the accounts say that the ruling clan slowly lost power until they became ceremonial figureheads.

The era is divided into three parts: Western Zhou rule from 1045 until 771 BC, the empire divided into dozens of competing kingdoms during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476), and these finally coalesced into several big and warring kingdoms during the the Warring States Period (475–221).

Major philosophies and religions emerged that were the basis of religious and social belief in later eras such as Confucianism and Daoism from about 600 BC onwards.

The Western Zhou Period (1045–770)

According to written accounts, the king of the Zhou tribe who was called Zhou Wu attacked the last king of the Shang Dynasty and became the first Zhou emperor.

The Zhou Dynasty is said to have been initially strong. The ruling clan's name was Ji. But over time, as the territory grew, local rulers became more powerful. It is thought that the Zhou Empire was initially politically centralized over a small territory around the Yellow River. But as the empire expanded in size, various strong clans emerged and expanded their territories over time.

In 771 BC, after King You replaced his wife with a concubine, the capital was attacked by his wife's father who ruled a region called Shen and by a nomadic tribe called the Quanrong. The rulers of several of the regions in the empire proclaimed the queen's son who was named Ji Yijiu to be the new king.

The capital was moved eastward in 770 BC from Haojing in Xi'an to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. The sack of the king and the change of capital mark the end of the rule of the Ji clan over the whole region. After 771, the Zhou Dynasty became the nominal leading clan.

In the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an, vessels and tools from the Western Zhou era are displayed. China Highlight's Xi'an tours, almost without exception, include a visit to the museum.

The Spring and Autumn Period (770–476)

The Spring and Autumn Period was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou Period. The first king to rule in the eastern capital, Luoyang, was said to be King Ping. King Ping is said to have reigned from 771 to 720. 

长江壹号在瞿塘峡_副本The Yangtze River

The Zhou kings ruled as figure heads. Though the dynastic clan did have a small territory of their own at Luoyang, their territory was too small to raise an army. They depended on the surrounding regions for their defense. They performed religious ceremonies.

During this period, the Zhou Empire reached the Yangtze River, and it was basically centered on the eastern part of the Yellow River.

There was warfare between the states, and by the middle of the 500s BC, three big states emerged: Qin, Jin and Qi. To the south, the state of Chu became powerful also.

Finally, at the end of this period, the state of Jin was divided by civil war into three states. Finally, there were 8 states in the whole region.

Tour Luoyang, the Eastern Zhou capital, with us.

The Warring States Period (476–221)

The eight warring states were Qin that had a stronghold in a valley in the west, Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Wei, Yue and Zhao.

The state of Qin adopted a militant total-war approach to conquering the whole region and had a philosophy that justified total subservience to their centralized bureaucracy. From their stronghold in the Yellow River basin, they eventually conquered the whole empire. They used the people to create large construction projects to strengthen their empire.

In the Warring States Period, technology advanced so that iron tools and weapons became common. Instead of companies of chariots, armies of organized mounted soldiers with masses of infantry became common. In the end, the Qin could muster armies of hundreds of thousands.

xian the terra-cotta warriors and horsesTerracotta Warriors

In 221 BC Qin conquered the last state of the eight called Qi. The first emperor made Xi'an his new capital. He was famous for building huge projects such as a mausoleum for himself with Terracotta Warriors and the original Great Wall.

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The Ancient Historical Accounts

The main ancient written accounts about the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty are in the Records of the Grand Historian (史記) that were written between about 109 BC and 91 BC by Sima Qian and another text that is called the Bamboo Annals (竹書紀年).

It is said that the text of the Bamboo Annals was buried with the King of Wei who died in 296 BC and that it was rediscovered in 281 AD during the Jin Dynasty era. The text was written on flat pieces of bamboo, and this is why it is called the Bamboo Annals.

A tersely worded but detailed text called The Spring and Autumn Annals also contains an account of the Spring and Autumn Period. It was traditionally one of the Five Confucian Classics and was ascribed to Confucius, but modern scholars doubt that he wrote it.

More material about the Spring and Autumn Period was published during the Han era in three texts. These texts are called the Three Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals. It is said that they date from the Warring States era.

The written accounts may not be accurate. There is a lot of myth and legend concerning this early period of time.

Basic Philosophical and Religious Literature

The great literary works of philosophy and religion that became the basis for Chinese religious and social belief stem from the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476) and the Warring States Period (475–221). Daoism, Confucian literature, Legalism and other prominent religious and philosophical schools all emerged during these two periods.

The Chinese call this simultaneous emergence of religions and philosophies the "One Hundred Schools of Thought". Since there were many separate states, there were hundreds of philosophers and writers who wrote conflicting documents, and there was discussion and communication. The philosophers and writers could write and propagate their ideas simultaneously because they lived in small kingdoms that supported them.

In Chinese history, the dominant rulers generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression that contradict their own.

The first Qin Emperor decreed a "Book Burning" that destroyed most of this work except some approved texts. If there were great fictional books created, they have been lost. Much science and history was also lost.

So the main contributions of the Zhou era to Chinese literature were the prose works of the Confucian Classics, the Daoist writings, Legalism texts, and preserved poems, histories, and songs.