Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC)

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The period of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty is usually divided into Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) and Eastern Zhou (771-221 BC), while the latter is further divided into the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). The Zhou coexisted with the Shang Dynasty for many years and had their own state western from Shang territory in today’s Shaanxi province before defeating the last Shang king and establishing themselves as the new Chinese ruling dynasty in 1046 BC.

Image of King Wu of Zhou
King Wu of Zhou (1046-1043 BC)

The Zhou Dynasty ruled ancient China for almost a millennium and introduced far reaching political and cultural changes which greatly influenced the history of China. The Zhou legitimized their rule by the Mandate from Heaven, a divine right to rule which was given or taken by heaven god Tian and the concept which was later adopted by the Chinese emperors. The Zhou Dynasty introduced a political system similar to medieval feudalism. The throne after king’s death was inherited by the oldest male descendant (with few exceptions), while all younger sons were founders of cadet branches and were granted fiefdoms. Land was given also to nobles in return for military assistance. Thus was created an array of feudal states and the Zhou kings held only nominal power.

The capital city near today’s Xi’an was moved after it was sacked by the western barbarian tribes eastward to Luoyang in 771 BC. Henceforth the Zhou Dynasty is commonly referred as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty which is subdivided into the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period.

The power of the Zhou kings began to decline during the Spring and Autumn Period or Chunqiu (771-476 BC) , while the local lords struggled for supremacy. Despite the decline of royal power the Spring and Autumn Period was the time of “hundred schools and thoughts” and the period of Confucius, Laozi, Mozi and many other great philosophers and thinkers. The period also saw construction of large irrigation and water-control projects, canals, roads as well as long protective walls.

Portrayal of Qui Shi Huang
Qui Shi Huang

The process of disintegration of Zhou power which started in the Spring and Autumn Period continued in the Warring States Period or Zhanguo (476-221 BC). The small states consolidated into several larger states and seven major states rose to prominence by the 3rd century BC: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin. The Qin defeated the other states by 221 BC when Qin Shi Huang unified China under his authority and started the Imperial Period. The Zhou Dynasty came to an end before Qui Shi Huang’s victory - the last Zhou king died in 256 BC, while his sons did not proclaim the nominal titles King of China.

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