Zhou dynasty

Mary Stone | February 17, 2023


The Zhou dynasty (EFEO: Cheu) is according to traditional historiography the third Chinese dynasty. Led by kings belonging to the Jī clan (pinyin: Jī), it took power in the 11th century BC (c. 1046 BC), following the Shang dynasty, and remained in power until 256 BC, when the reign of the last Zhou king ended. It died out in 256 B.C. and its territory was integrated into the Qin kingdom in 249 B.C. This longevity makes the Zhou dynasty the longest of all those that succeeded or competed in the history of China.

The long period of the Zhou dynasty did not actually see it exercise effective domination over the countries of the Chinese Central Plain until the middle of the eleventh century B.C. until the beginning of the eighth century B.C. This period is called the “Western Zhou” (1046-771 B.C.), because of the western location of the capital of the Zhou kings. After this era, the Zhou dynasty exercised only a symbolic form of sovereignty in the face of the more powerful kingdoms that were asserting themselves in China. This is the period known as the “Eastern Zhou” (771-256 B.C.) because of the installation of the dynasty in an eastern capital. It is itself subdivided into two sub-periods: the Spring and Autumn period (771-481 BC) and the Warring Kingdoms period (481-221 BC).

This period of Chinese history corresponds to what many consider to be the heyday of Chinese bronze object manufacture. The dynasty also covers the period when Chinese characters evolved into an almost modern form with the use of an archaic version of the “scribe” style that emerges during the late Warring States period.

Another dynasty named Zhou existed between 690 and 705 CE, with Wu Zetian as the only empress.

Origins of the Zhou

According to Chinese mythology, the Zhou lineage was born when Jiang Yuan, a consort of the legendary Emperor Ku, miraculously conceived a child, Qi “the Forsaken”, after walking in the divine footprint of Shangdi. Qi then becomes a hero who survives being abandoned three times by his mother and greatly improves agriculture during the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty. This last feat earned him the title of Lord of Tai and the family name Ji from the Xia king of his time. Later, he also received the posthumous name of Houji the “Millet Lord”, which was bestowed upon him by the Tang king of the Shang dynasty. He even receives sacrifices as God of the harvests. It should be noted that the term Hòujì was probably a hereditary title attached to a lineage.

Many years later, Buzhu, the son of Qi, is said to have abandoned his position as Agrarian Master (pinyin: Nóngshī) in the last years of his life and he, or his son Ju, to have abandoned agriculture altogether in favor of a nomadic lifestyle in the manner of Xirong and Rongdi. However, Gong Liu, Ju Liu”s son, led his people to prosperity by re-establishing agriculture and settling in the city of Bin, over which his descendants would rule for several generations.

A debate has agitated historiography concerning the ethnic origin of the Zhou: Huaxia or nomads?

According to the proponents of a Huaxia ethnic origin, one must remember that the Shang were themselves a tribe and the Xia before them as well. In the writings of the disciples of Confucius, the latter does not seem to consider the Zhou as foreigners, even citing them very often as an example of righteousness and integrity. However, Confucius lived centuries before Sima Qian, and most writings before Qian contradict him. Moreover, some of the biographies left by the author, including that of Lao Tzu, seem doubtful. Therefore, supporters of the Huaxia origin of the Zhou consider that Sima Qian”s writings should be taken with some reservation. The Zhou were originally from Shaanxi and were like the Shang vassals of the Xia. However, they moved west to escape persecution by Jie Gui, a Xia king. For the pro-Huaxia, as this migration took place in a very remote time, they think that it was impossible for Sima Qian to know the exact reason and that he extrapolated that the Zhou were nomads. However, archaeology has shown that the Wei Valley was subject to extensive agriculture at the time of its occupation by the Zhou, which is contradictory to a nomadic lifestyle. Other elements that have been put forward include the language, the Zhou language being a Chinese language, and the cultural practice of the two or three character name. This is a typically Chinese practice, and none of the Zhou rulers in history ever had a name with more than three characters. While it is true that in posthumous names this cultural practice was not always followed, the failure to follow this tradition caused serious controversy among the Zhou at the time.

On the other hand, the supporters of the hypothesis of a people of nomadic origin take into consideration the testimony of Sima Qian. Thus, Christopher Beckwith assimilates them to Indo-European nomads for three reasons:

Between these two extremes, there are the proponents of the “mixed” hypothesis of the mixing of cultures. According to Nicholas Bodman, the Zhou seem to have spoken a language not fundamentally different in vocabulary and syntax from that of the Shang. A recent study by David McCraw, using lexical statistics, came to the same conclusion. The Zhou largely imitated Shang cultural practices, perhaps to legitimize their own rule, and became the successors of Shang culture. At the same time, the Zhou may also have been connected to the Xirong, a cultural group located to the west of the Shang”s territories and whom the Shang regarded as tributary vassals. According to historian Li Feng, the term “Rong” during the Western Zhou period was probably used to refer to political and military opponents rather than those considered to be the “others” from a cultural and ethnic perspective.

The proto-Zhou were first located in the Shaanxi-Shanxi highlands, where they absorbed elements of the Guangshe and steppe cultures. It is at this point that the legends meet reality, for the known sources tell us that it is at this time that King Gong Liu moves his people to the lower valley of the Fen River and to the western bank of the Yellow River. And it is indeed after this migration that the proto-Zhou became farmers again. His son, Qing Jie, led the Zhou to the upper Jing River valley, where they remained until Dan Fu (or Tai Wang) made them move again to the Wei River valley to avoid the incursion of the Rongdi nomads. During this period, the Zhou mixed with the Qiang people, who passed on to them the cultural heritage of the Siwa and Anguo peoples and formed a political alliance with them. In all these stages, the advanced Shang bronze culture constantly exerted its influence on the Zhou. The Qi area is the region in which all these influences materialize. The contact between the proto-Zhou, the Longshan of Shaanxi, the Qiang, the traditions of the northern steppes, as well as the tradition of the Shang provided the impetus for the slow transformation of the proto-Zhou into the Zhou and for their development.

Decline of the Shang and rise of the Zhou

Recent archaeological findings have clearly shown that the last Shang kings lost a great deal of power and authority over the adjacent peoples. The last kings of the Shang Dynasty were no longer able to produce bronze ritual objects and replaced them with a very common material, clay. This may mean that the last Shang kings would have become seriously impoverished, or that they would have lost their copper lode to the adjacent peoples whose power was increasing at that time.

From the reign of king Wu Ding, the Shang territory began to shrink and this in spite of several victorious military campaigns. But it is from the reign of Wu Yi that the Zhou began to expand. Indeed, Danfu, one of the descendants of Gong Liu, led his clan from Bin to Zhou, an estate located in the valley of the Wei river, close to the current Xian of Qishan. In the years following this settlement, Danfu worked to expand his new estate. When he died, this new duchy escaped his two eldest sons, Taibo and Zhongyong, and was passed on to a warrior named Jili. Once Duke of Zhou, Jili annexed the territories of several Xirong tribes. His successes worried the king Tai Ding who, pretending to reward him, had him assassinated. At this date Taibo and Zhongyong are supposed to have already fled to the Yangtze delta, where they established the state of Wu by ruling over the local tribes. Then the king Di Xin made imprison the duke Wen of Zhou, without reason, during three years. Wen managed to bargain for his release, returned home and moved his capital from Zhou to Feng, a city which was located near the present city of Xi”an.

The Zhou were victims of the jealousy of the Shang kings, who were worried about their success and saw them as a potential threat to their authority. However, instead of conciliating them, they turned their backs on them and accumulated serious political errors, paving the way for their overthrow. Nevertheless, if the collapse of the Shang was largely caused by the quasi-systematic policy of vexation of the Zhou rulers, their overthrow can also be analyzed as a continuation of the Zhou wars of expansion undertaken during the reign of king Wu Yi.

Foundation of the dynasty

The Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang dynasty, following an important uprising of the Shang vassals which took place either in 1122 BC or 1046 BC. The vassals of the Shang, never having appreciated the arrogance and cruelty of the latter, rallied around Ji Fa, a charismatic leader of men and future king Wu. Ji Fa conducted secret negotiations to win over several vassals of the Shang and to make them change their allegiance. In one of the very rare documents of the time, we also learn that Ji Fa secretly received the king of the Wei tribe in his palace.

Since Ji Fa met this king, can we deduce that the troubles fomented by the Wei in the East following this meeting were part of a large-scale war plan? It is allowed to think so. Indeed, the revolt in the East was fierce enough for a large part of the Shang army to mobilize and go on an expedition to the East, thus clearing the defenses of an important strategic point, the capital Yin. It is at the moment when the city was emptied of most of its troops, that the Zhou entered the scene. Ji Fa and his ally Jiang Ziya crossed the Yellow River at the head of an army of 45,000 men and 300 chariots, then marched with other former vassals of the Shang to Yin, confronting King Di Xin of the Shang at Muye. Defeated, the latter committed suicide. The Zhou then entered Yin, taking possession of the capital of the Shang. Magnanimous, the Zhou elevated one of the members of the Shang royal family to the rank of duke of Song, a title that would be held by the descendants of the said royal family until its disappearance. This practice is known as Two Kings, Three Reverences.

This was the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of a new era, the Zhou dynasty.

Western Zhou

The first period of this dynasty, from its foundation until 771 BC, is called the Western Zhou.

If King Wu keeps the old capital of the Shang for ritual purposes, he builds a new one nearby, in Hao, to install his palace and his administration. Although Wu”s premature death left a young and inexperienced heir on the throne, the new dynasty survived thanks to the Duke of Zhou, the brother of the deceased king, who helped his nephew Zhou Chengwang to consolidate royal power. Many members of the royal family were worried about the Duke of Zhou”s rise to power, so he did everything he could to reassure them. This was not enough to calm the “Three Guards”, Zhou princes stationed in the eastern plain, who revolted against his regency. They succeeded in obtaining the support of several nobles, the last supporters of the Shang and several Dongyi tribes; but this was not enough to overthrow the regent and the duke of Zhou succeeded in putting down the rebellion, while enlarging the Kingdom of Zhou towards the east. To consolidate the power of Zhou on a territory which had just extended considerably, the regent sets up the Fengjian system. In addition, he strengthened the legitimacy of the Zhou by expounding the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, while modifying important Shang rituals in Wangcheng and Chengzhou.

The end of Cheng”s reign and that of his successor Kang was a time of stabilization of Zhou power. Continuing the work of the Duke of Zhou, they created several territories which they entrusted to vassals, who were either members of the royal lineage or allies. This decentralized system enabled them to establish their hold on a large part of the Central Plain. Zhao, Kang”s successor, launched expeditions to extend the Zhou territory. They ended in a crushing defeat and the death of the king during a war against Chu, which marked the beginning of the weakening of the dynasty. Mu, the new king, had to deal with increasingly powerful vassals and an attack by an eastern people, the Huaiyi. Eventually, the Zhou lost their easternmost territories, retreated to the central regions of the kingdom and had to abandon any policy of expansion to defend what they still controlled. Mu and his successor Gong (917

In spite of these reforms, over time, this decentralized system deteriorated as family relations between the Zhou kings and the regional dynasties became more and more distant over the generations. The peripheral territories saw the development of local powers whose prestige was comparable to that of the Zhou. In addition to this, there was unrest within the court which made certain successions difficult and repeated conflicts with neighbouring peoples and kingdoms.

This period is also that of the “ritual revolution” or “ritual reform”, i.e. a series of evolutions of cults and rituals, which lead to the disappearance of traditions inherited from the Shang in favor of new ones specific to the Zhou.

King Li did what few politicians have done: he was unanimously opposed. His mismanagement, despotism and incompetence made him many enemies. Half of his cabinet turned against him, along with the nobility, the army and the rest of the population. The discontent degenerated into a revolution, which overthrew him, and he was deposed and exiled. A regency was then established for about 14 years because Li”s son, Xuan (Zhou Xuanwang), was too young to rule. He ruled until 782 BC and fought unsuccessfully against the barbarians.

His successor, You, was a clumsy king. The count of Shen, who had given his daughter in marriage to king You, saw her repudiated for a commoner. Indeed, infatuated with another wife, who was called Baosi, You repudiated the daughter of the count of Shen and exiled the son he had had from her, allowing the son of Baosi to become the new heir apparent. The Count of Shen then joined Zeng and the Quanrong before attacking and pillaging Hao in 771 BC. Some modern scholars have surmised that the sacking of Hao may be related to a raid launched by the Altai Scythians before the start of their westward expansion.

There is a legend giving a more romantic version of the fall of Hao. According to this legend, You was so infatuated with Baosi that he summoned the court barons and falsely told them that the capital was under attack. The barons panicked and rushed to the capital to defend it. When the king told them that it was a joke, Baosi, who was usually sad, started to laugh. The king repeated his antics, and later, when the barbarians actually invaded the capital, nobody defended him.

With the king dead during the fighting, a conclave of nobles met in Shen and made the Marquis” grandson the new king. The capital was moved east to Wangcheng, marking the end of the “Western Zhou”(西周, p Xī Zhōu) and the beginning of the “Eastern Zhou” (東周, p Dōng Zhōu) dynasty.

Eastern Zhou

Under the Eastern Zhou, royal power began to erode from 707 BC, after the defeat of King Huan by the Duke of Zheng. During the following years, the great vassals of the Zhou began to set up kingdoms one after the other, marking the beginning of a de facto decentralization of royal authority. This marked the beginning of the so-called “Spring and Autumn” period, which lasted until 481 B.C. This trend was accentuated under the reign of Zhou Pingwang (771 – 721 B.C.), who divided his territory into seven provinces, each one ruled by one of the allies who had helped him to gain power. These new provinces were hereditary, which meant that each time one of these princes died, his province was divided among all his sons. The consequence of this new policy was an accelerated fragmentation of China at the time. Despite this accelerated collapse of royal authority, the ritual importance of the king allowed the Eastern Zhou to continue to exist and rule for more than five centuries, even if their importance became increasingly symbolic.

Even as its power was eroded by the rise of these great lords, the Zhou dynasty was plagued throughout its history by quarrels and intrigues between the various clan members who all wanted to take power. The first intrigues began during the reign of King Zhuang, as Duke Heijian of Zhou planned to have him assassinated. Subsequently, other intrigues were to weaken the authority of the Zhou kings, including those leading to the succession crisis of King Jing, involving Prince Chao, and those resulting in the death of King Dao. Most of the quarrels and intrigues ended in violent settlements of accounts. The reigns of kings Ai and Si, in particular, ended with their assassinations. The intrigues calmed down with the advent of King Kao, who divided his domain in two and entrusted the management to his brothers to put an end to them. But if the Court is finally appeased by this decision, from now on the temporal power of the king is restricted to the capital and its immediate surroundings, which still decreases its importance and its real power.

All this combined means that the rulers are no longer able to exercise real authority over the great lords of the Central Plain. The first to take advantage of this situation were the dukes of Zheng, who held the office of prime minister between 719 and 696 BC. If officially they fought the recalcitrant vassals and the Barbarians in the name of the king, in reality they were the de facto masters of the Court and of royal policy. The inability of the kings to subdue their prime ministers marks the beginning of the period of the hegemons.

A “hegemon” (ba) is the leader of the most powerful clan of the moment, who confiscates the royal power for his own benefit, without questioning the symbolic domination of the Zhou. However, due to an unstable political situation, changing alliances and the regular appearance of new powers on the political scene, no clan succeeded in exercising a lasting hegemony. Thus, despite their power, the Zheng were eventually defeated by their rivals, which marked the beginning of the decline of the power of the principalities of the Central Plain to the benefit of the peripheral powers who took turns in seizing the position of hegemon from the first half of the 7th century.

The first to impose themselves were the dukes of Qi, who seized power and created the title of hegemons after intervening in a succession dispute. At first, their uncontested power allowed them to expand at the expense of their neighbors, but the death of the dukes and a new succession crisis of the Zhou throne reshuffled the cards. After a series of hegemons with very short reigns, the duke of Jin managed to defeat all his enemies. The hegemony of the dukes of Jin was opposed from the beginning by the Qin and the Chu, the latter being the most dangerous enemy of the new hegemons. By unifying and rallying to its cause the tribes of Wu, located at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the dukes of Jin gained a strong ally, located right on the eastern border of Chu. With the help of these new allies, the hegemons of Jin succeeded in forcing the Chu to temporarily lay down their arms. This relative peace lasts only for a time, and the conflicts between the great vassals of the Zhou resume and intensify during the first decades of the sixth century. The dukes of Jin had to face multiple challenges, aggravated by internal rivalries in their duchy. If, at first they succeed in keeping the power and in reinforcing their position in the kingdom, they end up in the incapacity to defeat their enemies; while these last ones are also in the incapacity to bring down the Jin. As no great lineage is able to impose itself on the others, the role of hegemon loses all its meaning and interest.

The sixth century thus saw the establishment of a political system in which no power managed to impose its hegemony in a lasting manner and in which the great principalities expanded by absorbing the smaller ones. But in spite of this rise in power of a handful of great feudals, each time that one of them seems on the point of imposing itself, internal troubles undermine its authority. This is how Jin sank into civil war during the first years of the 5th century, after having been on the verge of restoring its hegemony. Seeing its ally weaken, Wu tried in turn to impose itself, but it was exhausted in repeated wars and ended up being annexed by Yue in 473 B.C. In spite of this victory, the king of Yue proved incapable of ensuring a lasting hegemony.

There is no agreed upon date to mark the end of this so-called “Spring and Autumn” period. If we follow the classical historiography, this end is marked by two important events:

This event is the last one to be mentioned in the Annals of Spring and Autumn, so this period is supposed to have ended in 481 BC. According to the criteria of modern historians, it is rather a fact reflecting the rise of the aristocracy and the constitution of a new state order, which does not end until the following century. The next period of the Eastern Zhou reign, the so-called Warring Kingdoms period, would therefore only really begin in the 4th century BCE.

The period of the Warring Kingdoms opens on a political landscape dominated by seven or eight great powers which recognize less and less the symbolic authority of the Zhou king. Alongside these great powers, there were a few dozen vassal principalities, most of which were no longer able to play a significant political role and were destined to be subjugated or even annexed by their powerful neighbors. To this, one must add a context of growth of the military and of state centralization, marked by the emergence of a new political class and often of new dynasties.

In 403 B.C., the Eastern Zhou court recognized Han, Zhao and Wei as fully independent states. In 344 BC, Duke Hui of Wei was the first to claim the title of king (Chinese: wang

During the turmoil that occurred in Jin and Qi during the end of the previous period, several peripheral kingdoms were strengthened. After the annexation of Wu by Yue in 473 B.C., Yue, Chu, Qin and Qi expanded their territories by annexing several small principalities. This expansion stops rather abruptly, when the three kingdoms born from the ashes of Jin ally under the férule of Wei and attack Qi, Chu, Qin and Zhongshan.

Among the descendants of Jin, it is Wei who asserts his military superiority, thanks to the general Wu Qi, but the wheel turns when the latter puts himself at the service of Chu after having fallen into disgrace around 401 BC, benefiting Chu. It is the latter who takes the ascendancy until Qi”s death, before being overtaken by Qin. Seeing himself marginalized, Hui, the new king of Wei, reorganized his kingdom and set up an intense diplomatic activity to calm down the relations between the main kingdoms. The result was a period of relative calm during the second half of the 4th century, during which the monarchs of the major kingdoms all took the title of king (wang). But this is only the calm before the storm, as all of them put in place more centralized powers, which will allow them to engage in a military escalation and an increase in the number of armies from the 350 BC decade.

The Wei was the first victim of this change that he had initiated. The two defeats that this kingdom underwent during the battles of Guiling (353 BC) and Maling (341 BC), put it at the mercy of Qi. But the real threat comes from Qin who, thanks to the reforms undertaken by the minister Shang Yang, increases its power thanks to an extreme militarization of the society. Quin wins in his turn several victories against Wei, before imposing to the defeated king to take for prime minister the general who has just defeated him. With Wei out of the picture, the fate of China would be decided by the outcome of the Qi – Qin duel. It is then that two opposite principles of alliances are developed, dictated by the position adopted towards the most powerful kingdom:

In 316 B.C., the Qin annexed Shu and Ba, two rich kingdoms in the south, then definitively reduced the power of the Rong nomads in the north, so that they no longer represented a threat. Meanwhile, Chu also strengthened itself by annexing Yue in 334 BC, which allowed it to extend its territory as far as the sea in the east. In 307 B.C., a succession dispute weakened Qin and Qi took advantage of it to ally himself with Han and Wei against his rival. There followed a long and bloody conflict marked by multiple changes of alliances which allowed Qin, Qi and Chu to take the advantage in turn. Finally, Qi emerges terribly weakened from the fights and in 278 BC, Qin seizes Ying, the capital of Chu. The victor now dominated an enlarged and compact territory, while the vanquished had to abandon the whole western part of his kingdom.

At this point, the Zhao was the only kingdom with the military capabilities to oppose Qin. After adopting the cavalry and conquering Zhongshan around 295 BC, the Zhao spent this long period of warfare changing sides as the situation changed, while building up an ever more capable army. If the Qin won a victory against its new enemy at Huayang in 273 BC, its following offensives were all repulsed. Understanding the need for reform, King Zhaoxiang of Qin called upon Fan Sui, whom he appointed as prime minister. In a way, the new minister “completed” the reforms undertaken by Shang Yang by lowering the power of the nobility, reforming the army and developing a stable military strategy, based on the use of hezong and lianheng alliances for the benefit of the Qin. The first victim of this revival of power was the Han, which was both an ally of the Zhao and the weakest of the Qin”s border kingdoms. The Qin rivalry

In 256 BC, Qin seized Wangcheng, the capital of the Eastern Zhou, and King Nan died in the fighting. There is indeed a Hui king who is crowned after this death, but he reigns only on a small rump territory, which is definitively annexed by Qin in 249 BC. In fact, the Zhou dynasty died in 256 BC, at the same time as Nan.

There was no longer a dynasty ruling China, even symbolically, but only for a short time. In 246 BC, King Zheng ascended the Qin throne, although he did not reign until he reached adulthood in 238 BC. His reign, which is known to us thanks to the Shiji of Sima Qian, is punctuated by wars and annexations, which follow one after another. Zheng was not alone and he could count on the help of his two successive prime ministers, Lü Buwei, who died in 237 BC, and his replacement, Li Si, as well as his generals, including Meng Ao, Wang Jian and Meng Tian. In 230 BC, Han was annexed without fighting. He was followed in 228 BC by Zhao and in 226 BC by Yan, both after hard fighting. In 225 BC, it is Wei who falls, before Chu in 223 BC. To annex this kingdom, Qin must take twice before succeeding. In 222 BC, the previously annexed kingdoms are definitively pacified, by the elimination of the last resistants in Zhao then in Yan. In 221 BC, Qi surrendered without fighting when Qin”s troops entered the kingdom. The unification of China is completed, the king Zheng of Qin becomes the emperor Qin Shi Huang and founds the Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC).

The Zhou dynasty had 37 kings, or Wáng (王), a title they took over from the Shang dynasty. To this list, the Zhou added the direct ancestors of king Zhou Wuwang, namely, Danfu, Jili and Wen, who became Wáng posthumously, even if during their lifetime they were theoretically vassals of the Shang

After the capture of Chengzhou by Qin troops in 256 B.C., the nobles of the Ji clan proclaimed Duke Hui of East Zhou as the successor to King Nanwang. Ji Zhao, one of Nanwang”s sons, resisted the Qin for five years, until the fall of the duchy in 249 BC. The surviving members of the Ji clan ruled Yan and Wei until 209 BC.

Mandate of Heaven

After taking power, the rulers of the Zhou dynasty introduced what would prove to be one of the most enduring political doctrines in East Asia, the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven.” Indeed, the early Zhou kings claimed that it was their moral superiority that justified their seizure of power at the expense of the Shang and the confiscation of the latter”s territories and wealth, and that heaven had imposed a moral mandate on them to replace the previous dynasty and assure the people that the country would be governed justly.

The Mandate of Heaven was presented by the Zhou kings as a religious pact between their people and their supreme god in heaven (lit: the “god of heaven”). According to the Zhou, since the march of the world of men is supposed to align with that of the heavens, the heavens confer legitimate power on a single person, the Zhou king. In return, this king is obliged to respect the principles of harmony and honor of heaven. Any ruler who fails in this duty, who allows instability to creep into earthly affairs, or who allows his people to suffer, will lose the mandate. According to this politico-religious doctrine, it is the god of heaven, and he alone, who has the power to withdraw his support from any ruler who strays from the path of harmony and to find another, more worthy one. In this way, it is Shang Di, the god of heaven, who legitimizes the change of regime between the Shang and the Zhou.

While this concept was useful to the Zhou in legitimizing their power, they were forced to recognize that any group of rulers, including themselves, could be ousted if they lost the mandate of heaven because of bad practices. The Classic of Verses, which is written during the Zhou period, clearly warns the ruling dynasty of this risk.

One of the duties and privileges of the king was to create a royal calendar. This official document defines the good times to undertake agricultural activities and celebrate rituals. But unexpected events, such as solar eclipses or natural disasters, which upset this calendar, call into question the mandate of the ruling house. Since they were rulers who claimed that their authority came from the sky, the Zhou made great efforts to acquire an accurate knowledge of the stars and perfect the astronomical system on which they based their calendar.

Two Kings, Three Reverences

The dynasties that succeeded the Zhou took up the practice known as Two Kings, Three Reverences (二王三恪), ennobling fallen ruling families, just as the Zhou had done with the Shang. And the Zhou were the first to benefit, when the emperors of the Han Dynasty conferred the hereditary title of 周子南君 on Ji Jia (姬嘉), a descendant of their royal family. Thereafter, this title was passed down to Jia”s descendants. Similarly, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the later Jin awarded duchies to descendants of the royal families of the Zhou, Sui and Tang dynasties.

Alleged descendants

Many dynasties claimed to be more or less direct descendants of the Zhou kings, this filiation being seen as a source of legitimization of power. Thus, members of the Liu clan, the royal family of the Han dynasty, count the Li clan of Zhaojun and the Lu clan of Fanyang, both from Shandong, as well as the Yang clan of Hongnong (弘農楊氏), which is said to be descended from Duke Wu of Jin, as ancestors. According to the New Book of Tang, the emperors of the Sui Dynasty were patrilineal descendants of the kings of the Zhou Dynasty via ji Boqiao (伯僑), who was the son of Duke Wu of Jin. After the fall of the Sui, Ji Boqiao”s family will be known by the sobriquet “sheep”s tongue family”(羊舌氏). The Yang clan of Hongnong is also among those whom the Sui claim as their ancestors, allowing them to link themselves to the Zhou and Han at the same time. As for the Tang, the successors of the Sui, they also link themselves to the Zhou by claiming to be descendants of the Li clan of Longxi. The emperors of the Song dynasty also sought to link themselves to the Zhou by claiming to be descendants of the Yang clan of Hongnong, Jia of Hedong and Xiang of Henei. The Song also proclaimed themselves descendants of the Wangs of Taiyuan, a clan dating back to the Tang Dynasty.

The emperors were not the only ones to seek a connection with the Zhou and several clans

Even Mencius, the famous Chinese philosopher, has ancestors directly related to the Zhou royal family. The lineage is as follows: The Duke of Zhou had a son named Bo Qin, who ruled the state of Lu. Qin himself had a son who became Duke Yang (魯煬公) of Lu. This Duke Yang is the ancestor of Duke Huan of Lu, whose son, Qingfu (慶父), is himself the ancestor of Mencius. In view of their ancestor”s influence and royal ancestry, Mencius” descendants were given the title of Wujing boshi (五經博士) in the Han Dynasty.

For more details, see the family tree (in Chinese) of the descendants of the Dukes of Zhou.


In Chinese astronomy, the Zhou are represented by two stars, namely Eta Capricorni (週一 Zhōu yī, “The First Star of Zhou”) and 21 Capricorni (週二 Zhōu èr, “The Second Star of Zhou”), both of which are found in the asterism of the 12 states of the Xunu lunar lodge. The Zhou Dynasty is also represented by the star Beta Serpentis (天市右垣五 Tiān Shì Yòu Yuán wu), which is the fifth star in the asterism of the right wall of the celestial market enclosure.

Another reference to Zhou, in Chinese astronomy, the term Zhoubo is sometimes used to describe the appearance of a new star. Usually, the appearance of a star is a phenomenon called “guest star” by ancient Chinese astronomers. But in rare circumstances, this event is personified under the term Zhoubo (lit. “Count of Zhou”), which is attributed a major astrological importance. Generally Zhoubo are very bright yellow stars, and are considered to be the harbingers of an important event.

French translation of period texts

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  1. Dynastie Zhou
  2. Zhou dynasty
  3. a et b Shijing, Ode 245.
  4. Niektórym królom przypisano dwie daty rozpoczęcia panowania zgodnie z propozycją D.S. Nivisona, według którego król oficjalnie rozpoczynał swoje panowanie rok po śmierci ojca i później po zakończeniu okresu żałoby ustanawiał nowy kalendarz. Za: Paul R. Goldin: Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History. New York: Routledge, 2020, s. 85. ISBN 978-0-367-58066-7.
  5. ^ Fenghao is the modern name for the twin city formed by the Western Zhou capitals of Haojing and Fengjing.
  6. ^ The exact location of Wangcheng and its relation to Chengzhou is disputed. According to Xu Zhaofeng, “Chengzhou” and “Wangcheng” were originally synonymous and used to name the same capital city from 771 to 510 BC. “The creation of a distinction between Wangcheng and Chengzhou probably occurred during the reign of King Jing”, under whom a new capital “Chengzhou” was built to the east of the old city “Wangcheng”. Nevertheless, the new Chengzhou was still sometimes called Wangcheng and vice versa, adding to the confusion.[1]
  7. ^ The exact location of Bin remains obscure, but it may have been close to Linfen on the Fen River in present-day Shanxi.[14][15]
  8. ^ Sima Qian was only able to establish historical dates after the time of the Gonghe Regency. Earlier dates, like that of 1046 BC for the Battle of Muye, are given in this article according to the official PRC Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, but they remain contentious. Various historians have offered dates for the battle ranging between 1122 and 1027 BC.
  9. ^ There was a fringe thesis, proposed by sociologist Wolfram Eberhard, that the Zhou were Proto-Turkic intruders. However, Eberhard”s thesis has been demonstrated by Sinologist Edward L. Shaughnessy to be “without basis”.[18][19]
  10. Gernet 2001 58. o.
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