Article

Zhou Dynasty and Warring States

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Sometime around 1027 the Shang was conquered by the Zhou (Chou), a people living to the west in the region of modern Xi'an (Sian). The early or Western Zhou period (c.1027–771 ) does not represent a sharp break. The Shang supreme deity, Shangdi, was still recognized as a powerful god, but now more emphasis was placed on Shangdi's abode, tian (ti'en, or "heaven"). An early Zhou statesman explained the Zhou conquest by saying that the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming, or T'ien-ming) had been transferred from the wicked Shang to the virtuous Zhou, thus articulating the Chinese belief that the right to govern depended on a dynasty's moral qualities and heaven's continued favor.

Much like his Shang predecessors, the Zhou king, or "son of heaven," parceled out territories among family members and favored subordinates. The emphasis was on personal loyalties, the military obligations owed lords by vassals, and a chivalric code of conduct in battle was similar to that of later European feudalism. This code also had a parallel in civilian life in the form of complex rules of social etiquette and personal deportment called li. Those who practiced the li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as the peoples beyond the Zhou domains, were considered barbarians.

The military pressure of one of these barbarian peoples in concert with a rebellious Zhou vassal forced the Zhou to move the capital eastward to Luoyang (Lo-yang; modern Henan province) in 771 , thus beginning the period of Eastern Zhou (770–256 ). From this time the Zhou kings exercised far less political and military power over their semiautonomous vassals. Beginning in the 5th century , warfare among the states became endemic, serving to increase centralization and administrative efficiency within individual states.

This Period of the Warring States (403–221 ) also propelled new elements to positions of authority, as talent, not birth, increasingly became the criterion for employment. During this period of great upheaval, personal feudal relationships became outmoded, and a system of contractual relationships began to emerge. Bureaucrats, the forerunners of the Chinese scholar-official class, were given salaries, and peasants were expected to pay taxes to the government on their landholdings. The introduction of the ox-drawn, iron-tipped plow and the development of irrigation improved agricultural productivity and spurred population growth. A steady improvement in communications led to increased trade, and a money economy began to develop. Although the late Zhou was a period of widespread physical destruction, it was also a time of enormous intellectual ferment, producing China's oldest surviving literature, the Classics, and giving rise to China's golden age of philosophy, the most important schools of which were Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Legalism.

 

Copyright © 2006 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.

  • Subjects:
    Asian History, Asia, Politics, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
top