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What is Zhou Dynasty?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Zhou Dynasty, also seen spelled as the Chou Dynasty, was an early dynasty of Classical China, and the longest dynasty in Chinese history, lasting from 1045 BCE to 256 BCE. Preceded by the Shang Dynasty and followed by the Qin Dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty marked a major period in Chinese history. The intellectual flowering which occurred during this period created the foundations of Chinese philosophy, and many of the most famous philosophers and thinkers in Chinese history lived and worked during the Zhou Dynasty.

This dynasty was established by the Zhou people, who overthrew the Shang. They created a system of government which relied on highly independent city-states, overseen by a central authority. The Zhou created the idea of a mandate from heaven, enforcing the idea that Chinese rulers ruled by the will of heaven. They also suggested that the Shang had been conquered because they were corrupt and weak, perpetuating the idea that the Zhou people were sent by heaven to save China from corruption.

One of the major innovations of the Zhou Dynasty was the development of ironworking, along with the refinement of bronzeworking techniques. The Zhou also pushed through a number of cultural and religious reforms, in addition to fostering an explosion of philosophy and debate. Confucianism and Daoism both arose during the Zhou Dynasty, along with many other approaches to philosophy and religion. The Chinese script also evolved radically during the Zhou Dynasty.

In addition to bringing cultural innovations into China, the Zhou also adopted many artisanal techniques from the Shang. Works such as metal cauldrons from the Shang and Zhou, for example, are remarkably similar, demonstrating the cultural exchange which occurred. However, the Zhou also kept themselves separate socially, creating a tiered society which kept the Zhou firmly in power.

The Zhou consolidated and held power with a strong military, especially during the Western Zhou, a period which lasted between 1045 and 770 BCE. The second part of the Zhou Dynasty, the Eastern Zhou, was marked by a decline in power, and a shift of the capital to the East. The Eastern Zhou is usually further broken into the Spring, Autumn, and Warring States Periods. The Warring States Period ultimately destabilized the Zhou, allowing the Qin Dynasty to take power. The Qin was quite shortlived, as were a number of the dynasties which followed, illustrating the difficulty involved in governing and controlling a territory as vast and diverse as China.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ceilingcat — On Oct 06, 2011

@SZapper - Yeah, the Zhou Dynasty leaders did think they ruled by divine right, just as the article said.

I think it's kind of interesting, because by their logic, the end of their dynasty was divinely ordained as well. Somehow I doubt they felt the same way about the end of their dynasty as they did the end of the Shang dynasty.

By SZapper — On Oct 05, 2011

@Misscoco - Yeah, 800 years is a pretty long time for any dynasty to last. Partly because, as the article said, the Zhou kept themselves apart from other people and made people think they were divinely inspired to rule.

Anyway, I saw a documentary about the Zhou on television awhile back. One thing that I thought was interesting is that castration was used as a punishment A LOT during this time period. It was usually reserved for men who had committed rape or adultery. After castration, the man was then forced into service of the ruling class as an eunuch.

By Misscoco — On Oct 05, 2011

It really amazes me how long the Zhou Dynasty lasted. I don't know how they kept control over so many people in distant geographical areas. Or how they spread culture to so many people.

They developed so much philosophical thinking, artistic culture, and an advanced government, there must have been at least two different classes of people - those who did the manual labor and those who spent their time pursuing intellectual work.

By Esther11 — On Oct 04, 2011

It seems to me that the dynasties and periods of history really built on the past dynasty in China. Unlike some civilizations, the Chinese culture didn't seem to crumble between historical periods. They managed to pass along their accomplishments and build upon them from one dynasty to the next.

I guess that's why they have such a rich and thorough body of knowledge in medicine, art, writing and much more.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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