The Zhou Dynasty (also spelled Chou) roughly marks the historical period between 1046 and 221 BC, consisting of the last two-fifths of the Chinese Bronze Age. The Zhou Dynasty was the longest dynasty in Chinese history. It lasted for over 800 years and included the reigns of 37 emperors.
The Zhou Clan was an ancient tribe inhabiting the Loess Plateau which gradually developed into a new powerful force in the early years of the 11th century BC. They extended throughout the present Shaanx and Gaansu provinces which menaced the Shang Dynasty causing the conflicts to intensify. The Shang dynasty ended in 1046 BC and the Zhou dynasty was established by Zhou Wu with Haojing (the present Chang’an County, Shaanxi Province) as its capital. The dynasty can be broadly classified into three categories.
Western Zhou (ca 1046-771 BC)
During this period, the Zhou was based along the Wei River in Shaanxi Province. Their territory included much of the Wei and Yellow River valleys as well as portions of the Yangzi and Han river systems. The rulers were kin-based, and the society was strictly tiered with a strong aristocracy in place.
Eastern Zhou (ca 771-481 BC)
The period about 771 BC is also called Springs and Autumns (Chunqin). The Zhou leaders were forced eastward out of their previous strongholds near Mount Qi and into a reduced area near their capital city of Luoyang. The Eastern Zhou rulers were despotic, with a centralized administration and a ranked bureaucracy. Taxation and corvee labor were present.
Warring States (ca 481-221 BC)
About 481 BC, the Zhou dynasty fragmented into separate kingdoms, the Wei, Han and Zhao kingdoms. During this period, with iron working becoming prominent, the standard of living rose and the population grew. Currency was established enabling farflung trading systems. The Warring States period ended when the Qin dynasty reunited China in 221 BC.
The expansion of Chinese civilization took place during the zhou dynasty. Due to the massive size of the dynasty, lords (each receiving title through inheritance) were appointed to oversee each of the territory. The society hierarchy was followed by fighting men, peasants and domestic slaves. The zhou society was based on agricultural production. The religious practice of the zhou empire reflected the hierarchical way of life. The Zhou kings prayed and sacrificed to Shang Ti, the lord on high, now called Tien (Heaven) and the lords prayed to local nature and agricultural gods and their ancestors.
In 770 BC, the original zhou capital was defeated and a new capital was formed further east. The lords continued to rule their lands and there was great economic growth even with the constant warfare among territories. China entered its Iron Age at this time.
With the Iron Age came the improved irrigation techniques and iron-tipped ox-drawn plows which increased the agricultural yield and in turn increased the population. Increase in population led to greater wealth and people started to become merchants and traders. With the explosion of merchants and trader class, the improvement of communication as horseback communication came into play.
The kingdom of the zhou expanded into non Chinese countries and chose the aspects of newly acquired culture to assimilate into their own. One such aspect was the mounted cavalry whereas before, all the fighting was done by foot soldiers. By the 6th century, seven powerful states arose from the former zhou territories. The situation in china became unstable as the zhou dynasty declined. By the late 5th century, the dynasty fell into a state of interstate anarchy.
The age between 403 BC and 221 BC is referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy’. An intellectual movement that shaped china’s state and culture swept through china due to its instability. The ‘Hundred School of Thought’ blossomed with spiritual movements including Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism being formed.
Fall of the Zhou Dynasty
During the 4th century BC, the state of Ch’in emerged as a power. The Ch’in kingdom reformed its administration, economy and military and became stronger. The zhou empire weakened and eventually died in 256 BC.