Zhou Dynasty: The Long March Toward Chinese Nationhood

Spanning over a millennium, the Zhou Dynasty was the longest among all lineage of political clans that held sway over China. Their long period of dominance helped various social, cultural, political and economic institutions crystallize into a distinct Chinese form.

The period saw the emergence of hundreds of celebrated philosophers, including Confucius and Lao zi, who led various philosophical schools defining intellectual and spiritual dimensions of human life. The Zhou era was also responsible for many  inventions in science, technology, agriculture, artistry, architecture and culture that are still used in modern civilisation today.

History of Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty ruled over the modern-day Qingcheng County in Gansu during the Xia rule. They added the modern Qishan County of Shaanxi to their dominion and continued to be tributary state under the Shang rulers.

The Zhou clan traced their lineage to legendary Chinese cultural hero Houji or Ji Qi, son of Emperor Ku, a semi-historical and mythological figure. In 1046 BC, Zhou King Wu led an army of about 50,000 men across the Yellow River and decisively defeated the then Shang King at Muye following large-scale defections in the royal rank. The Zhou occupied capital Anyang after the last Shang ruler committed suicide.

The Zhou rulers established a new capital at Haojing and expounded the theory of Mandate of Heaven to justify their legitimacy. A decentralized system of administration through feudal structure called Fengjian was also introduced to quell opposition. The capital was moved to Luoyang around 771 BC following the invasion of Quanrong tribesmen. The reign became fragile as semi-independent feudal clans, such as Han, Qin, and Wei asserted their power and ignored the king. In 256 BC, the last Zhou ruler was killed by the invading Qin army and the eventful rule of the dynasty came to an end.

The Zhou Legacy

Political Legacy

The extended rule of Zhou Dynasty laid the foundation for Chinese national system that later reached the zenith under the Hans. Political stability created a suitable ambience for intellectual and artistic developments. The ruler drew their legitimacy from the Mandate of Heaven theory. According to it, a ruler had divine right to rule and they would lose mandate only when confronted with massive natural disasters and successful rebellions. All subsequent Chinese dynasties evoked this to justify their rule and dethronement of previous regimes.

Bronzeware from Zhou dynasty

Economic Legacy

Rapid technological inventions led to successful development of intensive agriculture. The dynasty began the well-field system, which allowed the rulers to stock one-sixth of production to meet natural disasters. The iron plow, canal irrigation, and hoe were also introduced to increase agricultural production. New hydraulic engineering projects were commenced that supported irrigation and damming up of rivers. Most of the tool, craft and metal industry were dominated by feudal elites and state patronage enabled their development.

Cultural Legacy

The era of the Zhou Dynasty saw massive intellectual development in China. Hundreds of schools of philosophy emerged during this period which allowed Chinese philosophy to reach  its zenith. Confucius taught his philosophy that became the keystone of statecraft in the later years. Laozi founded Taoism while Mozi established the school of Mohism. Shang Yang, a feudal baron, propounded the theory of Legalism that became the basis of the Qin Empire. The age saw Mencius, Han Fei, Xun Zi, and other iconic figures contributing to the everlasting impact on Chinese intellectual horizon.


Iron was introduced in China during the Zhou era while bronze craftsmanship reached its pinnacle of glory. The army used trebuchets that allowed soldiers to shoot projectiles with ease. The lost wax technology, iron casting technology, music temperation using pipes and bells, hydraulic engineering and weaving and dying techniques came into existence with support from the Zhou rulers.

The age also saw the beginning of glass production, discovery of magnetism, developments in medicine, creation of first geographical maps and use of multi-color lacquering on wooden objects. Kites were invented for recreational purpose while artisans created a variety of earth tiles. Dougong or corbel brackets are considered among the most prominent architectural inventions of the Zhou Dynasty period.

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