The Zhou Dynasty: The Longest-Lasting Dynasty in Chinese History
The Zhou Dynasty was the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history. It persisted all the way from the 11th to the 3rd century BC. The rulers of this epoch were no strangers to battle, but they also created an environment where fascinating and long-standing cultural elements thrived.
The Zhou Dynasty succeeded the Shang Dynasty. The history of the Zhou Dynasty may be divided into two parts – the Western Zhou and the Eastern Zhou. Additionally, the latter may be divided between the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, which saw the decline of Zhou authority, and the fragmentation of China. The Zhou Dynasty came to an end when the Qin state emerged victorious from the power struggle, unified China, and established the first imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin Dynasty.
A Chinese bronze "gui" ritual vessel on a pedestal, used as a container for grain. From the Western Zhou Dynasty, dated c. 1000 BC. The written inscription of 11 ancient Chinese characters on the bronze vessel states its use and ownership by Zhou royalty. (PericlesofAthens/CC BY SA 3.0)
The First Zhou Dynasty Rulers
The founder of the Zhou Dynasty is recorded to have been King Wu of Zhou, though it was his father, King Wen of Zhou, who is credited with sowing the first seeds of revolt against the Shang Dynasty. By forming alliances with neighboring chiefs, King Wen was able to build up a military force that could take on the Shang forces. King Wen is also recorded to have been just and benevolent ruler, and it is often said that it was his accumulated merit that contributed to the Mandate of Heaven being bestowed on his son - allowing the Zhou Dynasty to be established.
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In any case, the Shang were defeated by the Zhou at the Battle of Muye, which took place around 1046 BC, and King Zhou of Shang, the last Shang ruler, committed suicide, thus bringing the old dynasty to an end.
The history of the Zhou Dynasty is split into two parts, the Western Zhou and the Eastern Zhou. The former existed from around 1045 to 771 BC and the latter from around 770 to 256 BC. Whilst King Wu succeeded in toppling the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou were still not able to exercise complete control over the former Shang lands in the east. Thus, the task of consolidating the position of the new dynasty fell onto the shoulders of the king’s brother, the Duke of Zhou.
Apart from conquering these areas for the Zhou, the Duke of Zhou also served as regent to his nephew, King Cheng of Zhou, who ascended the throne as a child. The Western Zhou came to an end in 771 BC, when King You of Zhou was slain during an attack on his palace by his father-in-law, the Marquis of Shen (who was furious that his daughter was deposed as queen and his grandson as crown prince) and the Quanrong, a nomadic tribe.
A portrait of the Duke of Zhou from Sancai Tuhui. (Public Domain)
After King You was killed, his deposed son, Prince Yijiu (the grandson of the Marquis of Shen), was installed as King Ping of Zhou, thus marking the beginning of the Eastern Zhou. Although this period of the Zhou Dynasty lasted until 256 BC, it can be divided into two major parts – the Spring and Autumn Period, and the Warring States Period. Even as King Ping was installed as the new ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, the central power of the Zhou was already declining, and his kingdom was fragmenting, thus giving rise to the Spring and Autumn Period.
Spring and Autumn and Warring States
This period, which lasted until around 476 BC, saw the rise and fall of many petty states in China. Whilst this was a time of political chaos, it was also marked by the flourishing of Chinese philosophy. It was during the Spring and Autumn Period that the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’ thrived, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism.
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Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Buddhist Arhat (三教). ( Public Domain )
Returning to the political front, seven major states – Qin, Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, and Wei eventually emerged from the chaos, this initiating the Warring States Period. This did not bring an end to the turmoil, however, as these states continued to fight each other for about two centuries. During this period, real power was concentrated in the hands of these seven states, whilst the Kings of Zhou wielded power only in name.
The Zhou Dynasty came to an end in 256 BC, when the Zhou capital of Chengzhou (now known as Luoyang) was captured by the Qin, and its last ruler, King Nan of Zhou, was killed. As the actual power of the Zhou Dynasty was so greatly diminished by then, the extinction of this dynasty was not regarded to have been a major historical event.
Photo of modern statue celebrating the Duke of Zhou, founder of the original city of Luoyang. (John Hill/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top Image: Fittings in the form of tigers, Baoji, Shaanxi province, Middle Western Zhou dynasty, c. 900 BC, bronze - Freer Gallery of Art. Source: CC0
By Wu Mingren
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