Western Zhou Dynasty Begins in China

The Western Zhou Dynasty introduced a mechanism of using kinship as a political institution and the idea of using the mandate of heaven to legitimize the ruling power of the royal line.

Summary of Event

The Zhou people began as a semiagricultural and seminomadic clan that lived to the west of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1066 b.c.e.). Although the Zhou themselves were an agricultural people, they interacted with the sheepherding nomads of the northwest and gradually adopted a nomadic way of life. This nomadic lifestyle enabled them to deal with people of different cultures. They later settled in the Wei Valley, west of the great bend of the Yellow River, and became vassals of the Shang, protecting the western regions of the realm. Wenwang
Duke of Zhou

By the early eleventh century b.c.e., the Zhou had become powerful and had begun their expansion. They attacked their neighboring states and finally came into sharp conflict with the Shang. At one point, King Zhou of the Shang imprisoned Wenwang. To obtain Wenwang’s release, the Zhou presented tributes of treasures and beautiful women to King Zhou. After his release, Wenwang began preparing to attack the Shang, whose moral corruption had already incited much internal dissension. After the death of Wenwang, his successor Wuwang, assisted by his brother Zhou, allied with the neighboring states and deployed a large army to march east. The Shang army collapsed in the face of the Zhou attack. King Zhou of Shang fled and committed suicide. This marked the beginning of the Western Zhou Dynasty. Traditionally, the start of the Western Zhou Dynasty has been placed at c. 1122, however, other scholars suggest dates such as c. 1066 and c. 1050.

The Western Zhou controlled the area formerly dominated by the Shang and other smaller states. The Western Zhou territory stretched from the Wei Valley in the west to Shangdong in the east, and from southern Manchuria to the middle and lower Yangtze (Changjiang) Valley. The ruler of Zhou had to solve the problem of how to govern the vast expanse of land. He eventually resolved to adopt a policy of feng zhu hou, jian jiang tu (enfeoffing relatives and establishing principalities), which has been interpreted by Western scholars as a form of feudalism. However, it is worth noting that the feudalism of Western Zhou and the successive dynasties in China differs from that practiced in Europe and Japan two millennia later. In Europe, feudalism was a political and economic system based on the relation of lord to vassals held on legal or contractual bonds; however, in China, the system depended on familial ties—bonds between the lord and the vassals based on blood or pseudo-blood relations. The Zhou rulers delegated authority to a large number of vassals. The vassals were for the most part the descendants or relatives of the Zhou royal family but also included unrelated subordinates and local aristocrats who had acknowledged Zhou suzerainty.

After Wuwang’s unexpected death, his son succeeded to the throne and became King Cheng (Chengwang). As Cheng was too young to rule, his uncle, the duke of Zhou, acted as a regent, who loyally and successfully assisted Cheng. In addition to the primary capital Haojing (west of Changan County, near present-day Xian, Shaanxi Province), the Zhou established a secondary capital at Luoyi (near present Louyang, Henan Province), in the heartland of the old Shang. Soon both the cities of Haojing and Luoyi became political, military, and cultural centers of the Western Zhou. Cheng and Zhou also moved the unruly Shang aristocrats to Luoyi to keep a close eye on them and to prevent any potential revolts by them.

The Western Zhou achieved further social economic development. It was a sharply divided class society, in which the hereditary lord, supported by his aristocratic vassals and warriors, ruled over the peasant masses and the slaves, who were primarily used as domestic servants or exploited in producing the products of the handicraft industry. The bronze-casting industry became more prominent. In addition to the royal bronze workshop, there were feoff-owned workshops. During this time, the quality and quantity of bronzes were increased, and bronze became more popular among people. The development of the bronze industry prompted the start of other industries. Chinese script became more widely used. Inscriptions appeared not only on oracle bones but also on bronze utensils. Noticeable progress was also made in agriculture, animal husbandry, textiles, metallurgy, architecture, astrology, and geography.

In the Western Zhou, reportedly, eight farming families, each with their own field, collectively cultivated a central field for the support of the lord. As the system resembles the Chinese character for “well,” which depicts the pattern of nine fields as a unit, it has been called the well-field system. Although the well-field system may be a later idealization rather than a historical reality, it certainly reflects a time when farmland and agricultural produce were shared within a community.

The royal succession during the Western Zhou was from father to son. The Zhou worshiped tian (heaven) as their chief deity, and each Zhou king called himself the Son of Heaven and further justified his conquest and rule on the grounds that he had received the mandate of heaven.

During the reign of King Li (Liwang), the tenth king of Zhou, conflicts between the royal family and the people began to surface. The despotic rule of King Li, which included exorbitant taxation, ruthless oppression of people, and prohibition of public discussion of state affairs, eventually provoked a revolt in 841 b.c.e. In that year, citizens drove King Li out of the capital. The event was hailed by the Marxist Chinese historians as the first popular uprising in Chinese history. During the reign of King You (Yu; Youwang), the thirteenth king of Zhou, rebels, allied with the barbarians from outside Zhou, destroyed the capital in 771, thus ending the Western Zhou Dynasty. Although the royal line was restored at the secondary capital of Louyi, the Zhou kings never again exercised any significant political or military power.


The Western Zhou introduced kinship as a main element of political institutions. The Chinese form of feudalism therefore endured over the centuries and was often used by rulers of later dynasties alternately with centralization (the concentration of power in the ruler or the central government). The Western Zhou also created a new basis of legitimacy for their rule by instilling the theory of the mandate of heaven. The Zhou kings claimed that their right to rule came from a supernatural and powerful source, heaven, whose mandate could be bestowed to any family that was morally deserving of the responsibility and power. This doctrine asserts the divine right of rulers, theoretically legitimizing the ruling power of the royal house. The theory of the mandate of heaven also asserts a ruler’s accountability to a supreme moral force that is above humankind.

The Western Zhou expansion necessitated that they acculturate, at least to some degree, those cultures who submitted to them and that they commingle with the mainstream culture of the central plains (the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) and the peripheral cultures of the non-Chinese, including seminomadic groups of the north, northeast, and northwest, and tribal peoples of South China. Although the central plains had reached the zenith of the Bronze Age, the neighboring regions still lagged behind. The cultural mingling continued throughout the following periods, becoming a significant element of Chinese history.

Further Reading

  • Adler, Joseph A. Chinese Religious Traditions. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. A study of Chinese religions starting 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 on 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. Translated by Raymond Rudorff. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A comprehensive ancient Chinese history.
  • 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.
  • 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, covering 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.