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Ancient Bronze Age China, The Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 bc)

Chuci, frontier state, King Wen, pastoral people, vassalage

In the 11th century bc a frontier state called Zhou rose against and defeated the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (1045?-771 bc), when the capital was near modern Xiían in the west, and the Eastern Zhou (770-256 bc), when the capital was moved further east to modern Luoyang.

Like the Shang kings, the Zhou kings sacrificed to their ancestors, but they also sacrificed to Heaven (Tian). The Shujing (Book of History), one of the earliest transmitted texts, describes the Zhouís version of their history. It assumes a close relationship between Heaven and the king, called the Son of Heaven, explaining that Heaven gives the king a mandate to rule only as long as he does so in the interest of the people. Because the last Shang king had been decadent and cruel, Heaven withdrew the Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming) from him and entrusted it to the virtuous Zhou kings. The Shujing praises the first three Zhou rulers: King Wen (the Cultured King) expanded the Zhou domain; his son, King Wu (the Martial King), conquered the Shang; and King Wu's brother, Zhou Gong (often referred to as Duke of Zhou), consolidated the conquest and served as loyal regent for Wuís heir.

The Shijing (Book of Poetry) offers another glimpse of life in early Zhou China. Its 305 poems include odes celebrating the exploits of the early Zhou rulers, hymns for sacrificial ceremonies, and folk songs. The folk songs are about ordinary people in everyday situations, such as working in fields, spinning and weaving, marching on campaigns, and longing for lovers.

In these books, which became classics of the Confucian tradition, the Western Zhou dynasty is described as an age when people honored family relationships and stressed social status distinctions. The early Zhou rulers did not attempt to exercise direct control over the entire region they conquered. Instead, they secured their position by selecting loyal supporters and relatives to rule walled towns and the surrounding territories. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. Within each state, there were noble houses holding hereditary titles. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility were the officers (shi) and the peasants, both of which were also hereditary statuses. The relationship between each level and its superiors was conceived as a moral one. Peasants served their superiors, and their superiors looked after the peasantsí welfare. Social interaction at the upper levels was governed by li, a set of complex rules of social etiquette and personal conduct. Those who practiced li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as those outside the Zhou realm, were considered barbarians.

The Zhou kings maintained control over their vassals for more than two centuries, but as the generations passed, the ties of kinship and vassalage weakened. In 770 bc several of the states rebelled and joined with non-Chinese forces to drive the Zhou from their capital. The Zhou established a new capital to the east at Chengzhou (near present-day Luoyang), where they were safer from barbarian attack, but the Eastern Zhou kings no longer exercised much political or military authority over the vassal states. In the Eastern Zhou period, real power lay with the larger states, although the Zhou kings continued as nominal overlords, partly because they were recognized as custodians of the Mandate of Heaven, but also because no single feudal state was strong enough to dominate the others.

The Eastern Zhou period witnessed various social and economic advances. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn plows and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase. Other economic advances included the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced. The Zhou developed the crossbow and methods of siege warfare, and adopted cavalry warfare from nomads (wandering pastoral people) to the north. Social changes were just as important, particularly the breakdown of old class barriers and the development of conscripted infantry armies.

As the kingís political authority declined, the states on the periphery of the old heartland gained the most power because they had room to expand their territory. During the 7th and 6th centuries bc, brief periods of stability were achieved through alliances among states, under the domination of the strongest member. By the late 5th century bc, however, the system of alliances had proved untenable. The years from 403 to 221 bc became known as the Warring States Period because the conflicts were particularly frequent and deadly.

In addition to warring with and sometimes absorbing other Zhou states, the peripheral states of Chao, Yen, Qin, and Chu expanded outward, extending Chinese culture into a larger area. The southern state of Chu, for example, expanded rapidly in the Yangtze Valley. Chu also defeated and absorbed at least 50 small states as it extended its reach north to the heartland of the Zhou territory and east to absorb the old states of Wu and Yue. By the 3rd century bc, Chu was on the forefront of cultural innovation. It produced the greatest literary masterpieces of the late Zhou period, which were later collected in the Chuci (Songs of Chu). The Chuci is an anthology of fantastical poems full of images of elusive deities and shamans who can fly through the spirit world.

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Article key phrases:

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