Eastern Zhou Dynasty Begins in China

During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese experienced political division but witnessed economic growth, political and social innovation, and major intellectual achievements.

Summary of Event

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 770-256 b.c.e.) began in 770 b.c.e., after the rebels and northern barbarians drove the royal family of the Western Zhou out of the capital, Haojing (west of Changan County, near present Xian, Shaanxi Province), and killed King You (Yu), the last king of the Western Zhou. Pingwang, King You’s son, was forced east to the secondary capital at Luoyi (near present Louyang, Henan Province) and became the first king of the Eastern Zhou, which covered the area from the Wei Valley to Shangdong, and from southern Manchuria to the middle and lower Changjiang (Yangtze) Valley. Pingwang
Qin Xiaogong
Shang Yang

During the Western Zhou Dynasty, the royal house was sufficiently powerful to control its vassal states and prevented them from attacking and annexing each other. During the Eastern Zhou, although the royal line was restored and the king retained his position as a nominal overlord, he was no longer able to control the activities of his vassals. Economic imbalance of the states led to some of the stronger states declaring war on the weaker ones and annexing them regardless of the prohibition by the Zhou king. Thus, unlike the Western Zhou, which maintained its suzerainty, the Eastern Zhou was politically divided and weakened by the contending vassal states.

The Eastern Zhou is further divided into two time periods, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. The Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 b.c.e.) is named after Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals), a history of Lu, one of the vassal states of the Eastern Zhou, which was adapted by Confucius. The Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.) took its name from the power struggles between the large states that were trying to gain control over all of China.

During the Spring and Autumn Period, there were more than 150 kingdoms. One of these kingdoms, the Eastern Zhou, declined in power. The stronger kingdoms included Qi (Ch’i), Lu, Jin (Chin), Yan (Yen), Qin (Ch’in), Chu (Ch’u), Wu, and Yue (Yüeh). These powerful states, relying on their economic and military advantages, launched wars to expand their territories and forced small states to follow them in order to establish their dominance as overlords. At one time, five dukes—Huangong of the Qi state, Xianggong of the Song, Wengong of the Jin, Mugong of the Qin, and Zhuangwang of the Chu, known as the Five Overlords of the Spring and Autumn Period—fought for the overlordship (ba, or hegemon). The system of hegemony gave China only brief and sporadic stability, lasting no longer than the lifetime of each strong man who was able to establish himself as hegemon.

During the sixth century b.c.e., some stability was achieved through a formalized balance of power between Jin in the north and Chu in the south. In 579 and 546 b.c.e., two treaties were made between the states of Jin and Chu, resulting in a short peace in the central plains. Continuous wars created many problems for the people. According to historical records, during this period, a total of thirty-six kings were killed, and fifty-two vassal states were destroyed. After this period of drastic upheavals, reshufflings, and regroupings, seven states—Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao (Chao), Wei, and Qin—eventually emerged, and China entered the Warring States Period.

To expand their forces and territories, the seven states, known as the Seven Overlords of the Warring States, carried out internal reforms designed to increase their strength. Meanwhile, they constantly waged war against each other and schemed to annex other states. Among the seven states, Qin gradually emerged as the most powerful.

Situated in the remote west, Qin was once to be a vassal state enfeoffed by Pingwang to reward Qin Mugong’s contribution of escorting the Zhou king on his move east. During the Spring and Autumn Period, Qin Mugong annexed twelve states, largely expanding his territory and making himself an overlord. During the Warring States Period, Qin was more backward than the states in the central plains because of its remote locale. When Qin Xiaogong gained power, he made Shang Yang, an aristocratic descendant of the Wei state, his chief minister. Shang Yang carried out a series of reforms in 359 and 350 b.c.e. to strengthen the power of Qin. Shang Yang’s reforms included abolishing the outdated well-field system, legalizing the private ownership of land, canceling the hereditary system of rank, and establishing a county system.

Qin also improved its agriculture by encouraging new farming technologies and building dams. Around 250 b.c.e., Libing, governor of Shu Prefecture (present-day Sichuan Province), along with his son, directed the construction of Dujiangyan Irrigation Project. The completed project not only controlled flooding but also irrigated the entire Chengdu Plain.

Because of its reforms and economic improvements, Qin soon became a powerful state, laying a solid foundation for the future unification of China. In 256 b.c.e., Qin dispatched an army and destroyed the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Ten years later, Yingzheng, the young king of Qin, succeeded to the throne. He continued the effort of expansion and annexation, and finally in 221 b.c.e. united China, establishing a unified, autocratic, and politically centralized state and ending the Warring States Period.

Although sociopolitically turbulent and tumultuous, the Eastern Zhou Dynasty witnessed technological and economic growth and cultural brilliance. By the end of eighth century b.c.e., China was the most populous land on Earth and about twenty million Chinese resided in the seven largest states. Iron became common in China by the fifth century b.c.e. and was used to make weapons and farming tools. Grain yields also were increased as a result of large-scale irrigation and water-control projects. The rapid development in trade helped formulate a society consisting of four classes (in descending order): the warrior-administrators, the peasants or primary producers, the artisans or secondary producers, and the merchants.

The Eastern Zhou was also a period of great intellectual development, in which a wide array of philosophical and religious approaches, known as the Hundred Schools, were contending for the attention and patronage of lords of the various states. Among the Hundred Schools, Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism (Taoism) captured the fascination of the ruling houses and intellectuals.

Confucianism traced its origin to Confucius, a member of a lower aristocratic family and a minor official in the state of Lu. Confucius repeatedly tried to convince rulers that a ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example for his subjects and that only a benevolent ruler could earn the respect of the people. The two prominent disciples of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi, each developed opposite views of human nature. While Mencius asserted that human nature was fundamentally good as everyone was born with the capacity to recognize what was right and act on it, Xunzi believed that people were born selfish and that it was only through education and ritual that they learned to give up evil and return to good.

The Legalist school sought to strengthen the state and increase its agricultural capabilities and military power. The Legalists defined the duties of people in society by creating detailed laws and determining rewards and penalties for the following or flouting of these laws. Unlike the other two schools, the Daoists preferred to understand the Dao (Tao) as the way of nature as a whole, advocating a lifestyle of spontaneity and harmony.


Although the royal house of the Zhou restored its line in the east, it never really exercised political and economic power over its vassal states. Politically divided and socially turbulent, the Eastern Zhou nevertheless saw great economic and technological growth, social changes, political development, and intellectual advances. Above all, the Hundred Schools have proved to be the most influential philosophical contributions of China.

Further Reading

  • Adler, Joseph A. Chinese Religious Traditions. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. A study on Chinese religions, beginning with the Zhou Dynasty.
  • Cullen, Christopher. Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China: The Zhou bi suan jing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An intellectual history of the scientific development of the Zhou.
  • Embree, Ainslie T., and Carol Gluck, eds. Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. A useful guide for teaching Asian history.
  • Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. A comprehensive Chinese history from antiquity to the present.
  • Gernet, Jacques. Ancient China from the Beginning to Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A comprehensive history of ancient China.
  • Hsu, Cho-yun, and Katheryn M. Linduff. Western Chou Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. A history of the Zhou Dynasty.
  • Li, Jun. Chinese Civilization in the Making, 1766-221 b.c.
    New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Ancient Chinese history from the Shang Dynasty to the beginning of the Qin Dynasty.
  • Li, Xueqin. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A history of the Eastern Zhou and Qin Dynasties.
  • Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.
    New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Ancient Chinese history from antiquity to the end of the Zhou Dynasty.
  • Meyer, Milton W. China: A Concise History. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. A comprehensive Chinese history from antiquity to the present.
  • Wang, Aihe. Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. An intellectual history of ancient China.

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