Chinese history: the Zhou dynasty

For students of Chinese philosophy, the Zhou dynasty is one of the most exciting, because during this dynasty lived the most famous Chinese philosophers—if mostly during the era when the Zhou reign was well along its descent and many small states were fighting for power.

Power takeover of the Zhou

The Zhou were former vassals of the Shang who appropriated Shang culture after their takeover. The Zhou originated in Shenxi; the Shang’s fall dates back to between 1050 and 1025 B.C.E. The king who toppled the Shang dynasty was King Wen, who took advantage of the Shang king’s absence during war maneuvers to march into Henan. Wen died during these maneuvers; his heir was King Wu, who was able to defeat the Shang in the battle of Muye on the Yellow River. Zhouxin, the last Shang king, was hanged. King Wu of the Zhou was the first king who claimed a heavenly mandate that the Shang had lost and was transferred to him. Later historians appropriated this principle for the preceding dynastic change when the Shang had taken power. Likewise, the principle played a legitimizing role for future dynasties.

With the administrative division of his demesne, King Wu laid the groundwork for the empire’s later splintering. He divided the empire into more than a thousand districts administered by noblemen.

The Zhou dynasty is traditionally subdivided into two epochs: the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century – 771 B.C.E.) and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 – 256 B.C.E.), according to the location of the capital city, first in Xian (destroyed 771 B.C.E. by Quan Rong barbarians and enemy princes). The son of the king who died during the 771 conquoring moved the capital to Luoyang in the province Henan. With that move, the impending power collapse of the Zhou dynasty was sealed; although they remained nominal rulers until their final takeover by the Qin, their kings possessed hardly any real power. The new rulers in China were feudal lords who struggled for power in China.

Spring and Autumn-tide (Chunqiu)

The period of disunity, unrest, and power struggles in China is known as the “Spring and Autumn Period” after the annals of the state Lu (the Spring and Autumn Annals). This time of political dilapidation brought forth the most famous philosophical schools of China, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and Moism. All these schools’ teachings tried to offer a method of finding a way out of the turmoil of the times. The solutions these schools offered were very different; in later dynasties reigned a mixture of Confucian teachings, which were officially propagated, and legalist methods, which were applied in practice but officially condemned. Civil servants at the ends of their carriers often turned to the world-eschewing Daoism.

The Spring- and Autumn-tide dates to 772 – 481 B.C.E., according to traditional Chinese historiography. The time from 481 – 256 B.C.E. is described as the time of the competing empires (Chinese zhanguo), in which the state Qin finally emerged as victor. The Zhou dynasty was officially deposed in 256; in 221 B.C.E., the empire’s unification was consummated.

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