The Zhou period of Ancient China was the key formative period in the development of Chinese civilization. During it, all the key features of later Chinese civilization made their appearance. these included the bureaucratic system of government, and the great belief systems which would shape Chinese culture up to the present day – Legalism, Daoism and above all Confucianism.
These and other elements would have a deep influence throughout eastern Asia, and much further afield. The Zhou period of China’s history therefore marked a chapter of prime importance in world history.
Summary overview of Zhou history
The Zhou (1046–256 BCE) followed the Shang dynasty. It ruled China from 1122 BCE to 256 BCE.
Although the dynasty lasted longer than any other in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Zhou dynasty’s ruling family only lasted during the first half of the period, which scholars call the Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE). This was a time of strong kings, who expanded their borders by conquest and colonization.
In 771 BCE, the Zhou capital was sacked by invaders, and was moved further east. Scholars use this event to mark a major transition, from the Western Zhou (1122-771 BCE) to the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE).
This second period was one of weak kings who allowed powerful regional states to emerge. It was a time of dramatic change for ancient China, in government, war, philosophy, economy and society.
We have seen that the old Shang state system formed a kind of confederation of states in which many semi-independent rulers acknowledged the overlordship of the Shang king. One of these states was the kingdom of Zhou, which lay on the western frontiers of the Shang-dominated area, and may not have been fully assimilated into it.
In c. 1045 BCE, the powerful and ambitious king of Zhou sent his army to defeat the Shang army in the battle of Muye. The last Shang king committed suicide, and the victor moved the capital to the city of Zhengzhou.
The Duke of Zhou
Shortly afterwards, the dynasty’s founder died, to be succeeded by an inexperienced youth. The founder’s brother, however, the duke of Zhou, proved to be a capable and loyal prince. His example of faithful service to the young king, and not grasping for supreme power for himself, made him one of the most revered figures in Chinese history.
A portrait of the Duke of Zhou
from Sancai Tuhui
When many of the former Shang-dominated states to the east tried to shake off Zhou rule, the duke of Zhou led an expedition which brought them firmly under control.
Despite these various upheavals, the civilization the Shang had ruled over continued almost unchanged into the Zhou period. There may have been a slight dip in material culture, but the fundamentals remained in place. Such elements that we today associate with modern China date back to a time long before the advent of the Zhou: literacy based in a complex system of characters, ancestor worship, fengshui, and so on.
The new Zhou rulers consolidated their rule by placing members of their clan and other loyal followers in charge of many of the states which had formed the old Shang confederation. Some of the previous rulers kept their territories by submitting to Zhou authority, and others were brought into the Zhou royal family by marriage, but the end result was that the old Shang confederation was welded into a much tighter political system under the control of the Zhou royal clan.
Thus was laid the foundations of the Western Zhou system of government. The kingdom was divided into principalities, each under a prince who was, in fact or in theory, a member of the Zhou royal clan.
The vassal prince owed the Zhou king loyalty and obedience, was expected to render the king advice and lead his armed followers on campaigns as part of the Zhou army. This army was constantly engaged expanding the borders of the kingdom at the expense of neighboring peoples.
Within two or three generations of the beginnings of the dynasty, the expansion of the Zhou kingdom had led to it being divided into over one hundred of these principalities. These in turn were subdivided into holdings, or fiefs, parceled out by the princes to their own relatives and followers.
These fief-holders were the successors of the Shang nobles. They wielded authority at the local level: collecting tribute from the peasants, and leading contingents of his warriors and peasants to fight in the Zhou king’s army.
These feudal lords each had an entourage of warriors at their beck and call, just as the Shang lords had had before them. These helped him in enforcing his authority over the locality.and followed their lord when he went on campaign with the Zhou king’s army.
An effective system
This hierarchical system of power proved to be highly effective in expanding the borders of the kingdom. It motivated ambitious military leaders to push out Zhou rule into neighboring lands in the expectation of being granted a slice of frontier territory as a reward for their efforts.
According to traditional Chinese histories, the early Western Zhou kings were supported by a strong army, split into two major units: “the Six Armies of the West” and “the Eight Armies of Zhengzhou.” Early Zhou kings were true commanders-in-chief, constantly at war with barbarians. Zhou military power was dealt a major blow, however, when, in c. 977 BCE, the “Six Armies” were wiped out – along with the king – on a campaign in the Yangtze valley.
The expansion of Zhou rule was not only outwards into neighboring lands. In the early days of the Zhou the principalities which made up the kingdom frequently consisted of a pocket of territory – a small town or city with a small area of farmland around it – which would be surrounded by large tracts of forests and wilderness, inhabited by “barbarians” beyond the reach of Zhou civilization.
To deal with this situation, princes would assign areas of as-yet-untamed land to family members or loyal followers, and give them a group of peasant-soldiers and their families with whom to plant a fortified settlement in the wilderness (in a settlement pattern later idealized as the well-field system).
Such colonies would act as bases from which the surrounding peoples would be brought under Zhou control. These areas of newly-absorbed land would become new lordships, or “fiefs”, with the original settlements often growing into local market towns and centers of trade, craftsmanship and Zhou culture.
In this way, the territories of the Zhou princes, into which the Zhou state had originally been divided, came themselves to be divided into many fiefs. A hierarchy of princes and lords had developed, in which the princes held their territories from the Zhou king in exchange for their loyalty and support, and subordinate lords held their fiefs from the princes, also in exchange for loyalty and support. This was a system similar to the Feudal System in Europe, which would grow up more than two thousand years later.
The Western Zhou period was a vital and formative one in ancient Chinese history. Literature, music and poetry flourished, bronzes reflected changing cultural preferences and there is abundant evidence for growing trade.
An early Zhou palace at Wenzhou, probably the residence of a high ranking member of the royal family, is very similar to those of the Shang, and the early Zhou adopted the ritual and burial practices of the Shang. Typical Shang forms of bronze ritual vessels continued to be made. The burial of chariots, horses and charioteers in pits associated with the nobility also continued from Shang times.
Chinese pu vessel with interlaced dragon design. Spring and Autumn period
One thing that seems to have changed immediately was that the use of oracle bones for divination ceased. With this practice stopped, many priests must have lost much of their importance, perhaps even their jobs. Their literacy skills, however, would have been very useful, and many probably found employment as scribes and officials with the court of the new king. Others may have found their literacy skills of use to the many Zhou princes who now found themselves needing all the help they could get to administer their new territories.
In styles of metalwork and other crafts, it was not long before new workmanship and decoration appeared, reflecting wider social changes under the early Zhou.
In the 9th century BCE, a ‘ritual revolution’ occurred, reflecting wider changes in society. A bronze industry hitherto dedicated to the provision of specific items for court ritual purposes now turned to the mass production of practically identical pieces. These were purchased by the expanding ruling class, which arose from the multiplying centers of royal power amongst more than a hundred Zhou rulers of principalities, and a much larger number of subordinate lords of fiefs. During these early Zhou centuries, marked regional styles also developed.
Zhou expansion may have been driven as much by growing populations as by military aggression. In the early Zhou period agricultural productivity began to rise.
Soya beans had been introduced into northern and central China towards the end of the Shang period. This highly nutritious crop was grown as part of a rotational system with millet. This would have significantly expanded the sustenance base of the population, and led to an increase in numbers.
Another development at this time was the introduction of the use of iron.
Iron objects are much easier and cheaper to produce than bronze ones, because whereas iron is found in many places in the earth, copper and tin are not nearly so widespread. They also have to be carefully smelted together to make bronze.
This means that, whereas bronze was used mainly in weapons and high-status decorative objects – that is, used only by kings and priests, lords and officials – iron could be used to make farmers’ tools. As the use of iron spread, farming could become much more productive.
Using tough new metal tools where previously they had to use wood, bone or stone ones meant that farmers could carry out more clearing, digging, chopping, ploughing and so on, and so produce more food.
At the same time, of course, iron could be used in making weapons and armor, on a scale which bronze could never match. The real of impact of this was to come later, however.
The early Zhou political system retained its cohesion for several centuries. The rulers of the principalities which made up the Zhou state continued by and large to be faithful in their allegiance to the Zhou kings. The frontiers of the Zhou state were pushed ever further outwards, including (despite several major setbacks) into the Yangtze region to the south.
As time passed, however, the ties of blood thinned, and the Zhou ruling clan, widely-distributed as it was over many principalities, became increasingly fragmented in its loyalties.
At the beginning of the Zhou period, princes who had been given charge over the different territories had often found themselves surrounded by hostile peoples, and dependent on the armies of the Zhou king to maintain them in their positions. Over the centuries, however, their control over their territories had grown.
As their local power-bases had become more secure, they princes themselves focussed more on their own territorial interests; their obligations to the kingdom as a whole were increasingly neglected. The occurrence of rich burials on a royal scale in different parts of the Zhou realm testifies to the growing wealth, independence and power of these territorial princes.
By the 8th century, also, the Western Zhou court was facing mounting external pressures. The Western Zhou period came to a sudden end when the royal capital, Haojing, which was located near to the frontier with hostile barbarians, was sacked by a coalition of invaders and rebels. The king was killed within his palace.
A new capital
Survivors of the royal court fled with an infant prince to the east, away from the frontiers. The prince was crowned as the new king, and established in a new capital, Louyang. Because of this shift east, later scholars have given the term Eastern Zhou to the following period (771-256 BCE).
After this, the Zhou kings were never able to regain their authority over the princes. These now became virtually independent rulers within their own territories. From being a single political entity, ancient China had become fragmented amongst numerous competing states.
As we shall see, th0ugh, violent political division would be accompanied by great economic and cultural progress. The Eastern Zhou period would be one of the most creative phases in China’s long history began.
China at the time of Confucius, (c. 551-479 BCE), showing its division into numerous states.
(c) Timemaps Ltd.
Such are the continuities between them that they can easily be seen as single phase. The Eastern Zhou kings were too weak to control the power of the territorial princes. With a power vacuum at the center, the numerous Zhou principalities fought ceaselessly amongst themselves. As the stronger annexed the weaker, large and powerful regional states began to emerge. The struggle between these states was only ended when one of them conquered all the rest, uniting all of China under its rule.
Despite the upheavals of these centuries, they mark the most transformative era in all Chinese history, up to the twentieth century.
This phase of Ancient Chinese history takes its name from the Spring and Autumn Annals, traditionally held to have been compiled by Confucius. This work was classed amongst the most prestigious writings of Chinese literature, the Five Classics.
The Annals consist of a terse chronicle of events in just one of the states of the time, Lu. Much more information, along with useful context and background, is given in the many commentaries which were written around it. Together, they provide a detailed account of China’s history during these centuries.
With the decline in the power of the Zhou kings, the later Zhou period saw the rise of a new inter-state system, to regulate the endemic conflict. This was the “Ba” system, in which the predominance of the ruler of one leading state was accepted by the others. Western writers borrow a term from Ancient Greek history to refer to these rulers as “hegemons”.
No “Ba” alliance ever included all the states, nor was any alliance permanent; the leading states changed on a regular basis, and for much of the time there was no “Ba” alliance in force – they tended to arise to meet particular threats.
In time this system was to prove inadequate in controlling the conflict between the states, and it fell out of use with the rise of a small number of large states, which were too powerful to submit to any hegemon.
At the same time as warfare between the princes spread, so did in-fighting amongst their leading families. Perhaps it was that the princes’ assertion of independence from the Zhou royal family undermined their own legitimacy. As likely is the fact that princes tried to concentrate power in their own hands at the expense of these nobles, so as to make their states stronger. This would have threatened the entrenched privileges of the nobles, and been resisted by them.
Whatever the cause, these centuries are noted for the vicious in-fighting which took place within many states. This led, in many of them, to the elimination of many princely and noble families. It was one of the factors which led to the decline of the aristocracy. It even caused the break-up of states, including one of the most powerful of them, Jin.
The same trends of inter-state and intra-state conflict continued into the Warring States period, except that by the time this period opens, most of the principalities have been swallowed up by, or become subservient to, just seven large states. The clashes between these are full-scale wars, hence the name for this period. This is derived specifically from a history of these centuries written much later, called the Record of the Warring States.
In the first centuries of the Eastern Zhou period, the forces which the states fielded against each other were based on chariots, manned by aristocratic warriors who fought according to widely-recognized rules of war. These often focussed on man-to-man combat between bronze-clad warriors.
The princes relied, as they had in the earlier Zhou period, on their subordinate lords contributing the bulk of the troops needed for their armies.
In the Spring and Autumn period these practices had proved increasingly inadequate for the new conditions. In the Warring States period they now disappeared completely. Wars of increasing scale and intensity were fought between ever-larger armies. An increasingly important component of these were large formations of massed infantry.
This was made possible by the spreading use of iron, which had begun some centuries before under the early Zhou. Thousands of conscripted peasant soldiers could now march into battle clad in metal armor and using metal weapons; in earlier times, in the days of bronze, only a few aristocratic warriors had such equipment.
At the same time, large cavalry formations were replacing chariots: massed cavalry could swamp a small number of chariots. The traditional aristocratic skills of chariot-fighting became less important – just part of a larger trend leading to the decline of the old feudal nobility.
New-style military leadership
The new skills of military leadership were mastery of military supply and organization, as well as tactics based on large armies. Unsurprisingly the period saw major advances, both in military strategy and technology. One of the world’s classics of military literature, Sunzu’s The Art of War, appeared at this time (although traditionally dated to some time earlier), and the cross-bow, one of the most important innovations in military technology before firearms, was probably first used in 4th century China.
Statue of Sunzu, author of the Art of War
The need for capable military commanders led to these armies being commanded by professional generals, increasingly of non-aristocratic birth.
Actual warfare was supplemented by active diplomacy and espionage, as states tried to forge alliances against their enemies and undermine their strength.
Spies were used liberally, enemy ministers were assassinated, corrupted or blackmailed, and all ways were used to gain advantage over other states. The mode of thought behind these practices is well illustrated in Sunzu’s The Art of War.
The most famous example of this policy is the measures that the state of Qin took to soften up enemies before attacking them.
The Chinese states did not only fight amongst themselves. The threat from barbarians beyond the frontiers of Chinese civilization, especially from the steppes of central Asia, continued to mount. Several states in the northern frontier areas built long walls – the early ancestors of the Great Wall of China – to keep out the steppe nomads, as well as invasions from neighboring states.
Also, but this time, large states had emerged in central and southern China. These were gradually being drawn into the Zhou world. By later Zhou times, these had become some of the most powerful of the states in China.
In due course the regions they covered would become fully Chines in their culture – indeed, in medieval times, become the center of Chinese civilization.
To achieve success in war, princes changed the way they governed their states. To raise and maintain large numbers of troops , they needed to be able feed and supply them. This in turn required taxes to be collected regularly and effectively.
Taxes, in the form of tribute in kind or coin, had traditionally been collected from the peasants by the local lords and forwarded to the prince’s court. Some of this tribute consisted of peasant labor for public works projects such as building temples and palaces, or maintaining flood defenses.
Now, the princes of all the leading states expanded the number of officials they employed. This enabled the central governments to regulate and tax their populations more effectively. The local lords were increasingly by-passed, with officials of central government directly organizing the collection of taxes from the peasants.
Moreover, the leading states began to divide their territories into provinces and districts, headed by officials appointed by the central government. This further restricted the power of the local aristocracies.
To oversee these changes, the princes were increasingly aided by ministers of ability and long experience. They, and officials in general, came to form a new element within society – educated, professional civil-servants, appointed to their tasks on the basis of their ability and loyalty to the prince rather than on aristocratic birth. These were the forebears of the scholar-officials belonging to the new gentry class, which would play such a key role in later Chinese history.
The measures taken by the great minister Shang Yang to strengthen the state of Qin are a good illustration of these developments.
As we have noted, continuities between the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods mean that, in many respects, they should be treated as a single phase of the history of China: the later, or Eastern, Zhou period, as it is traditionally called.
As this period wore on, the princes and their ministers realized that military and political power rested upon a sound economic base. They therefore took steps to develop trade and industry within their states.
Metal coins were first introduced in ancient China at this time (at about the same time as they were in the Middle East). This was done to facilitate the collection of taxes; however, it would also have helped stimulate trade.
The first large-scale irrigation projects were begun, to bring more land under cultivation and improve agricultural production. These often required the digging of canals, which would have greatly benefited trade (as carrying goods by water was always much cheaper than by land until the coming of railways).
Iron tools gradually became more common in agriculture, and enabled it to become increasingly productive. Chinese iron-workers began using casting technologies from c. 500 BCE, to manufacture huge quantities of iron tools and weapons. The casting of molten iron into moulds, requiring the control of very high temperatures, was not matched in the West for centuries to come. Foundries were large-scale industrial units, as were salt and coal mines.
The introduction of cast-iron agricultural tools greatly increased the productivity of the land, and acted as a further stimulus to population growth. Towns and cities increased in both size and number, though since buildings were made largely of wood very little has survived from this period. The density of populations within the walls of these towns was much higher than in Shang times.
All these developments stimulated social mobility. In earlier Zhou times, peasants were serfs, tied to the land and subject to the authority of their local lord. With the collection of taxes, military conscription and public labor service increasingly passing under the control of princes’ officials, the local lords’ authority over the peasants in their localities weakened.
During the Warring States period, more and more peasants were able to buy and sell their land, with the result that farms became more productive. New towns sprung up around markets. The merchant class was growing as the economy expanded. Some merchants amassed large fortunes and were able to invest their wealth in land, so joining the landowning class.
Chinese society was becoming much more complex and more fluid. Different social classes were growing up between the peasants, on the one hand, and the aristocracy, on the other. And as we have seen (above) the increasing centralization of state power in the hands of princes and their officials opened the way to high office (and, with it, great wealth) for men of more humble backgrounds, and the growth of bureaucracy began the rise of a key new class in ancient Chinese society, the gentry.
This period witnessed a general advance in education, stimulated by the greatly increased demand for highly literate officials. The tomb of Xi, a civil servant of the state of Qin, has revealed a mass of written documents, showing the extent to which law, diplomacy and administration now depended upon a literate class of bureaucrats.
Not unconnected to this, during the Eastern Zhou period Chinese philosophy developed, its initial stages beginning in the 6th century BCE.
The Eastern Zhou period was a time of change and uncertainty. The old order was vanishing – what would replace it? It was as a time of frequent warfare and violence, but also of economic expansion, increased trade, towns and cities growing, and the rise of new social classes such as merchants and government officials.
Confidence in traditional beliefs and practices was being undermined. It is no surprise that these times of change should bring forward teachers who sought to give guidance as to how people should behave and how society should operate.
These teachers usually belonged to the well-educated gentry class, which was producing the growing number of government officials and which was therefore now gaining increasing prominence.
Members of this class often moved around from state to state, offering their services to different princes. Likewise, a number of teachers arose and also travelled from court to court, offering advice to rulers and ministers, but also teaching and gathering disciples.
The whole period of the Eastern Zhou is also known as the period of “the One Hundred Schools” – a time when numerous teachers and their disciples preached new beliefs and new ways of doing things. Many of these “schools” soon died out, but four were to have a deep impact on later Chinese society: Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, and Taoism.
The greatest Chinese philosophers were Confucius (551-479 BCE), founder of Confucianism, and Laozi (slightly earlier in the 6th century), the founder of Daoism. Other philosophers, theorists, and schools of thought in this era were founded by Mozi (470-391 BCE, the founder of Mohism) and Shang Yang (390-338 BCE) and Han Fei (280-233 BCE), responsible for the development of Legalism, a school of thought in ancient China which would later be immensely influential. Other famous philosophers were the Confucian thinkers Mencius (372-289) and Xunzi (312-230).
A portrait of Confucius, by the Tang dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740)
This flowering of thought in Ancient China in mid- to late-Zhou times had a profound effect on all later Chinese history.
One of the symbolic changes which took place during the Warring States period was that the rulers of the surviving states did not even bother to acknowledge the Zhou king as their superior. They declaring themselves to be independent kings, ruling in their own right.
The Zhou dynasty itself came to an end in 256 BCE, when one of these kingdoms, the aggressive kingdom of Qin, invaded Zhou territory, occupied the Zhou capital and deposed the Zhou king (who died shortly afterwards). Qin then annexed the rump of territory still under Zhou control.
The late Zhou world was divided between a core area and a surrounding (and expanding) peripheral area. States outside the core area were viewed as, at best semi-barbarous. Inside the core area, states were subject to factionalism and splintering, and new states arose on the ruins of old.
It was the states in the frontier zones outside the core area which were able to expand their territories, however. Barbarous though they may have appeared to the civilized inhabitants of the core states, it was they which had become dominant by the Warring States period.
Southern states, beyond the pale of the early Zhou sphere, were gradually drawn into the Zhou state system in later Zhou times, as the older Zhou states of northern China reached out for allies in their constant struggles with one another. Some of the southern states, especially the huge kingdom of Chu, in the middle Yangtze basin, Wu and Yue in lower Yangtze, and Shu of Sichuan, became amongst the most powerful of the states.
It was none of these, however, which eventually triumphed over all the others. This state was the kingdom of Qin. and it would be one of its rulers who founded the Qin dynasty and therefore became the First Emperor of China, in 221 BCE. His reign marked the transition to a new phase in Chinese history.
To view maps charting the rise and fall of Ancient Chinese dynasties, go to our TimeMap of World History pages on Ancient China .
For a look at where the Zhou dynasty slotted into the whole period of China’s long history, go to the article The History of China.