The Zhou Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou tribe came from the west and unseated the Shang dynasty around 1150 BC. Zhou leaders did not make vast changes to Shang culture, religion, or government. Instead, they made various refinements and amendments that defined Chinese culture as it would develop for the rest of history.

The Zhou dynasty remained in power until the second century BC, but it was already substantially weakened by the 700s, when the court was driven eastward all the way to Honan. During the second century, the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty replaced the Zhou. China gets its name from the Qin dynasty.

Society and Economics

During the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese civilization developed into a mercantile urban society, resembling Western Europe in the medieval period. The Chinese developed a standardized currency, built cities, and learned to forge iron.

Enough urban remains have survived to tell us that by 500 BC, the Chinese were living in what we can readily recognize as cities, divided like modern cities into neighborhoods on the basis of income and occupation. Aristocrats lived in a particular area of the city. Artisans grouped themselves around another location, which included living quarters for their families as well as a marketplace for manufacture and trade. Farmers tended the fields of crops immediately outside the city walls—all early Chinese cities were walled in for protection.

Early in the Zhou period, the Chinese developed a standardized currency of cowrie shells. The fact of standardized currency is clear evidence of a mercantile economy—one based on the buying and selling of goods. Archaeologists’ discoveries of jade, bronze, and ceramic artifacts are also evidence of this type of economy; if there is an artisan class manufacturing goods, then the goods are obviously being bought and sold. In all civilizations of the world, the development of a mercantile economy is a major shift from the simple subsistence farming that characterizes tribal cultures.

The Chinese arrived at the ability to cast and forge iron in the fifth century BC. Extremely high temperatures are required for the forging of iron—this technology did not arrive in the West for the better part of the next nineteen hundred years.

Government and Philosophy

During the Zhou dynasty, a major debate arose over how China should be governed. The feudal system had given rise to a class of powerful clan rulers whose standing posed a threat to the king. If the clan rulers grew too strong, they could band together and defy the king, refusing to pay tribute or to muster an army when commanded. Giving the clan rulers enough power to keep them happy, while at the same time keeping them weak enough not to threaten his own position, called for a tricky balancing act on the part of the king. By around the seventh century BC, this tense situation had created a social and political crisis.

Chinese scholars debated various solutions to the crisis. One group, called the Legalists, argued for a code of laws that would apply equally to all. They believed that such a legal code would naturally give rise to a wealthy, powerful state with a strong central government. The king favored the Legalist position, but the clan rulers raised many objections to it.

The birth of China’s most influential thinker in the sixth century BC brought a new voice into the debate. K’ung-Fu-tzu, known in the West as Confucius, was born into the minor nobility and probably rose no higher than a minor official position. In the end, he became a teacher and a scholar. Despite his relatively humble life, Confucius’s teachings carried as much weight in Chinese tradition as the teachings of Jesus would later carry in the West. To this day, he is the most important influence on Chinese thought and culture.

Confucius took a conservative view of society and government. He argued in support of the established order, in which everyone had a place. For the established order to function smoothly, all that was needed was for each person to know and keep his place, to do his duty, and to respect traditional culture. Confucius’s system of thought relied on personal integrity; integrity would lead naturally to just government and to a wise and benevolent use of authority.

One other major figure in ancient Chinese thought is Lao-tzu, about whom historians know almost nothing—it is not even known with certainty whether he lived during the Shang or Zhou periods. According to tradition, Lao-tzu is the author of the Tao Te Ching, a collection of short poems that can be interpreted as advice to princes or philosophy by which all people should live. The basic message of the Tao is noninvolvement in the affairs of others; it advocates the wisdom of living as simply as possible and allowing the outside world to take care of itself.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Ancient China and India Practice Test

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