Zhou dynasty

Eyridiki Sellou | Mar 22, 2024

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According to traditional historiography, the Zhou dynasty (EFEO: Tcheou) was China's third dynasty. Led by kings belonging to the Jī clan (pinyin: Jī), it came to power in the 11th century BC (c. 1046 BC), following on from the Shang dynasty, and remained in power until 256 BC, when the reign of the last Zhou king came to an end. The dynasty died out in 256 BC, and its territory became part of the Qin kingdom in 249 BC. This longevity makes the Zhou dynasty the longest of any succeeding or competing dynasty in Chinese history.

The long period of the Zhou dynasty saw it exercise effective domination over the countries of the Chinese Central Plain only from the mid-11th century B.C. to the early 8th century B.C. This period is known as the "Western Zhou" (1046-771 B.C.), due to the western location of the Zhou kings' capital. After this era, the Zhou dynasty exercised only a symbolic form of sovereignty in the face of the more powerful kingdoms asserting themselves in China. This is the period known as the "Eastern Zhou" (771-256 BC), due to the dynasty's move to an eastern capital. It is itself subdivided into two sub-periods: the Spring and Autumn period (771-481 B.C.) and the Warring Kingdoms period (481-221 B.C.).

This period of Chinese history corresponds to what many consider to be the apogee of Chinese bronze object manufacture. The dynasty also covers the period when Chinese characters evolved into an almost modern form, using an archaic version of the "scribe" style that emerges during the late Warring Kingdoms period.

Another Zhou dynasty existed between 690 and 705 CE, with Wu Zetian as sole 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 stepping into the divine footprint of Shangdi. Qi went on to become a hero who survived being abandoned three times by his mother and greatly improved agriculture during the semi-legendary Xia dynasty. This latter 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", awarded to him by the Tang king of the Shang dynasty. He even received 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, Qi's son Buzhu is said to have abandoned his post 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 in the city of Bin, over which his descendants would rule for several generations.

Historiography has been rife with debate as to the Zhou's ethnic origin: Huaxia or nomadic?

According to proponents of a Huaxia ethnic origin, it should be remembered that the Shang were themselves a tribe, as were the Xia before them. In the writings of Confucius' disciples, Confucius does not seem to regard the Zhou as foreigners, even citing them frequently as an example of righteousness and integrity. However, Confucius lived centuries before Sima Qian, and most writings prior to Qian contradict him. What's more, some of the author's biographies, including that of Lao Tzu, seem dubious. Supporters of the Huaxia origin of the Zhou therefore consider that Sima Qian's writings should be treated with a certain amount of caution. The Zhou were originally from Shaanxi and, like the Shang, were vassals of the Xia. However, they moved west to escape persecution by Jie Gui, a Xia king. Pro-Huaxia supporters believe that, as this migration took place at a very remote time, it was impossible for Sima Qian to know the exact reason for it, and that he extrapolated from it that the Zhou were nomads. Archaeology has shown, however, that the Wei Valley was subject to extensive agriculture at the time of its occupation by the Zhou, which is inconsistent with a nomadic lifestyle. Other elements put forward include language, the Zhou 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 have ever used it.

On the other hand, supporters of the nomadic hypothesis take Sima Qian's testimony into consideration. Christopher Beckwith likens them to Indo-European nomads for three reasons:

Between these two extremes, we find the proponents of the "mixed" hypothesis of the blending 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 reign, 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, whom the latter regarded as tributary vassals. According to historian Li Feng, the term "Rong" during the Western Zhou period was probably used to designate political and military adversaries rather than those considered to be the "others", from a cultural and ethnic point of view.

The proto-Zhou were first located in the Shaanxi-Shanxi highlands, where they absorbed elements of the Guangshe and steppe cultures. It's at this point that legends meet reality, for known sources tell us that it was at this time that King Gong Liu moved his people to the lower Fen River valley and the west bank of the Yellow River. And it was indeed after this migration that the proto-Zhou once again became farmers. His son, Qing Jie, led the Zhou into the upper Jing River valley, where they remained until Dan Fu (or Tai Wang) moved them back into the Wei River valley to avoid the incursion of the Rongdi nomads. During this period, the Zhou mingled 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 came to fruition. Contact between the proto-Zhou, the Longshan of Shaanxi, the Qiang, the traditions of the northern steppes and the Shang tradition provided the impetus for the slow transformation and development of the proto-Zhou into the Zhou.

Decline of the Shang and rise of the Zhou

Recent archaeological discoveries have clearly shown that the last Shang kings lost considerable power and authority over 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 became seriously impoverished, or that they lost their copper vein to the adjacent peoples, whose power was increasing at the time.

From the reign of King Wu Ding, Shang territory began to shrink, despite several victorious military campaigns. But it was not until the reign of Wu Yi that the Zhou began to expand. Indeed, Danfu, one of Gong Liu's descendants, led his clan from Bin to Zhou, an estate located in the Wei river valley, near present-day Qishan Xian. In the years that followed, Danfu worked hard to expand his new estate. When he died, the new duchy passed from his two eldest sons, Taibo and Zhongyong, to a warrior named Jili. Once Duke of Zhou, Jili annexed the territories of several Xirong tribes. His successes worried King Tai Ding who, pretending to reward him, had him assassinated. By this time, Taibo and Zhongyong had supposedly fled to the Yangtze delta, where they established the state of Wu, ruling over the local tribes. King Di Xin then had Duke Wen of the Zhou imprisoned for no reason for three years. Wen managed to buy his release, returned home and moved his capital from Zhou to Feng, a city near present-day Xi'an.

The Zhou fell victim to the jealousy of the Shang kings, who worried about their success and saw them as a potential threat to their authority. Instead of conciliating them, they turned their backs on them and accumulated serious political errors, paving the way for their overthrow. Nevertheless, if the Shang collapse was largely caused by the Zhou rulers' almost systematic policy of vexation, their overthrow can just as easily 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, following a major uprising of Shang vassals in either 1122 BC or 1046 BC. The Shang vassals, never particularly fond of the Shang's arrogance and cruelty, rallied around Ji Fa, a charismatic leader of men and future Wu king. Ji Fa conducted secret negotiations to win over several Shang vassals and make them switch allegiance. In one of the very few documents of the period, we also learn that Ji Fa secretly received the king of the Wei tribe at his palace.

Since Ji Fa had 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? We may well think so. In fact, the revolt in the East was sufficiently fierce to mobilize a large part of the Shang army for an expedition to the East, thus clearing the defenses of an important strategic point, the capital Yin. Just as the city was emptying of most of its troops, 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 Shang vassals 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 Shang capital. Magnanimous, the Zhou elevated a member of the Shang royal family to the rank of Duke of Song, a title held by descendants of the royal family until its demise. This practice is known as Two Kings, Three Reverences.

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

Western Zhou

The first period of this dynasty, from its foundation to 771 BC, is known as the Western Zhou.

While King Wu retained the ancient Shang capital for ritual purposes, he built a new one nearby, in Hao, to house his palace and administration. Although Wu's untimely death leaves a young, inexperienced heir on the throne, the new dynasty survives thanks to the Duke of Zhou, the late king's brother, who helps his nephew Zhou Chengwang consolidate royal power. Several members of the royal family are worried by the Duke of Zhou's rise to power, and he does everything in his power 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 managed to enlist the support of several nobles, the last Shang supporters 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 expanding the Kingdom of Zhou eastwards. To consolidate Zhou power over a territory that had just expanded considerably, the regent set up the Fengjian (en) system. He also reinforced Zhou legitimacy by expounding the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, while modifying important Shang rituals at Wangcheng and Chengzhou.

The end of Cheng's reign, and that of his successor Kang, was a time of stabilization for 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 over a large part of the Central Plain. Kang's successor, Zhao, launched expeditions to expand Zhou territory. These ended in a crushing defeat and the death of the king in a war against the Chu, marking the beginning of the dynasty's weakening. Mu, the new king, had to contend with increasingly powerful vassals and an attack by the Huaiyi, a people from the east. Eventually, the Zhou lost their easternmost territories, retreated to the central regions of the kingdom and were forced to abandon any policy of expansion, contenting themselves with defending what they still controlled. Mu and his successor Gong (917

Despite these reforms, this decentralized system deteriorated over time, as family relations between the Zhou kings and regional dynasties weakened over the generations. Outlying territories saw the development of local powers whose prestige was comparable to that of the Zhou. Added to this were unrest within the court, making certain successions difficult, and repeated conflicts with neighboring peoples and kingdoms.

This was also the period of the "ritual revolution" or "ritual reform", a series of changes in cults and rituals that led 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 ever done: he was unanimously opposed. His mismanagement, despotism and incompetence made him many enemies. Half 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 some 14 years, as Li's son Xuan (Zhou Xuanwang) was too young to reign. He reigned until 782 BC, fighting 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. In fact, infatuated with another wife called Baosi, You repudiated the Count of Shen's daughter and exiled the son he had had with her, allowing Baosi's son to become the new heir presumptive. The Count of Shen then joined Zeng and the Quanrong before attacking and pillaging Hao in 771 BC. Some modern scholars have speculated that the sack of Hao may have been linked to a raid launched by the Altai Scythians prior to the start of their westward expansion.

There is a legend that gives a more romanticized version of Hao's fall. 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. Panic-stricken, the barons rushed to the capital to defend it. When the king told them it was a joke, Baosi, who was usually sad, burst out laughing. The king repeated his antics, and later, when the barbarians actually invaded the capital, nobody defended him.

The King having died 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 in 707 BC, following King Huan's defeat by the Duke of Zheng. In the years that followed, 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 "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 headed by one of the allies who had helped him conquer power. These new provinces were hereditary, meaning that each time one of these princes died, his province was divided between all his sons. The consequence of this new policy was an accelerated fragmentation of the China of the time. Despite this accelerated collapse of royal authority, the ritual importance of the king enabled the Eastern Zhou to continue to exist and reign for over 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 undermined throughout its history by quarrels and intrigues between the various clan members, all of whom wanted to seize power. The first intrigues began during the reign of King Zhuang, with Duke Heijian of Zhou planning to have King Zhuang assassinated. Further intrigues were to weaken the authority of the Zhou kings, including those that led to the succession crisis of King Jing, involving Prince Chao, and those that resulted in the death of King Dao. Most of the quarrels and intrigues ended in violent settlements of scores. The reigns of kings Ai and Si, in particular, ended with their assassinations. The intrigues subsided with the advent of King Kao, who divided his domain in two and entrusted its management to his brothers to put an end to them. But although this decision finally calmed the court, the king's temporal power was now restricted to the capital and its immediate surroundings, further diminishing his importance and real power.

All this combined meant that the rulers were no longer able to really exercise their 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 position of Prime Minister between 719 and 696 BC. While officially they fought recalcitrant vassals and Barbarians in the name of the king, in reality they were the de facto masters of the court and of royal policy. The kings' inability to subdue their prime ministers marked the beginning of the hegemon period.

A "hegemon" (ba) is the leader of the most powerful clan of the time, who confiscates royal power for his own benefit, without however calling into question the symbolic domination of the Zhou. However, due to an unstable political situation, shifting 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, marking the beginning of the decline in the power of the principalities of the Central Plain to the benefit of the peripheral powers, who took it in turns to seize the position of hegemon from the first half of the 7th century onwards.

The first to assert 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 enabled them to expand at the expense of their neighbors, but the death of the dukes and a new succession crisis on the Zhou throne reshuffled the cards. After a series of short-lived hegemons, the Duke of Jin succeeded in defeating all his enemies. From the outset, the hegemony of the Dukes of Jin was opposed by the Qin and the Chu, the latter being the most dangerous enemy of the new hegemons. By unifying and rallying to their cause the tribes of Wu, located at the mouth of the Yangzi Jiang, the Dukes of Jin gained a powerful ally, located right on the eastern border of the Chu. With the help of these new allies, the Jin hegemons succeeded in forcing the Chu to temporarily lay down their arms. This relative peace lasted only a short time, and conflicts between the Zhou's great vassals resumed and intensified during the first decades of the 6th century. The Dukes of Jin faced many challenges, compounded by internal rivalries within their duchy. While they initially succeeded in retaining power and strengthening their position in the kingdom, they eventually found themselves unable to defeat their enemies; while the latter were equally unable to bring down the Jin. As no great lineage is able to impose itself on the others, the role of hegemon loses all meaning and interest.

The 6th century thus saw the establishment of a political system in which no single power was able to impose its hegemony on a lasting basis, and in which the great principalities expanded by absorbing the smaller ones. But despite this rise in power of a handful of great feudal lords, every time one of them seems on the verge of imposing himself, internal unrest undermines his authority. This is how Jin fell into civil war in the early years of the 5th century, after having been on the verge of restoring its hegemony. Seeing its ally weaken, Wu in turn sought to impose itself, but became exhausted in repeated wars and ended up annexed by Yue in 473 B.C. Despite this victory, the king of Yue proved incapable of ensuring lasting hegemony.

There is no universally accepted date to mark the end of this "Spring and Autumn" period. If we follow classical historiography, this end is marked by two important events:

This event is the last to be mentioned in the Annals of Spring and Autumn, so the period is assumed to have ended in 481 BC. By the standards of modern historians, however, this event reflects the rise of the aristocracy and the establishment of a new state order, which did not come to fruition until the following century. The next period in the reign of the Eastern Zhou, known as the Warring Kingdoms, would not really begin until the 4th century BC.

The period of the Warring Kingdoms began with a political landscape dominated by seven or eight great powers who increasingly failed to recognize the symbolic authority of the Zhou king. Alongside these great powers were dozens of vassal principalities, most of which were no longer in a position to play a significant political role and were destined to be subjugated or even annexed by their powerful neighbors. Added to this was a context of growing military strength and state centralization, marked by the emergence of a new political class and often new dynasties.

In 403 BC, 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 in Jin and Qi at the end of the previous period, several peripheral kingdoms were strengthened. Following Yue's annexation of Wu in 473 BC, Yue, Chu, Qin and Qi expanded their territories by annexing several smaller principalities. This expansion came to an abrupt halt when the three kingdoms born of the ashes of Jin joined forces under the leadership of Wei and attacked Qi, Chu, Qin and Zhongshan.

Among Jin's descendants, it was Wei who asserted his military superiority, thanks to general Wu Qi, but the tables turned when the latter entered Chu's service after falling from grace around 401 BC, to Chu's advantage. 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 undertook intense diplomatic activity to calm relations between the main kingdoms. The result was a period of relative calm in the second half of the 4th century, during which the monarchs of the major kingdoms all took the title of king (wang). But this was only the calm before the storm, as they all established more centralized powers, enabling them to embark on a military escalation and increase the size of their armies from the 350 BC decade onwards.

The Wei was the first victim of the change he had brought about. The two defeats this kingdom suffered at the battles of Guiling (353 BC) and Maling (341 BC) left it at the mercy of Qi. But the real threat came from Qin, who, thanks to the reforms undertaken by minister Shang Yang, increased its power through extreme militarization of society. Quin in turn won several victories against Wei, before forcing the defeated king to take as prime minister the general who had just defeated him. With Wei out of the picture, the fate of China would depend on the outcome of the Qi - Qin duel. It was at this point that two opposing principles of alliance were developed, dictated by the position adopted vis-à-vis the more powerful kingdom:

In 316 BC, the Qin annexed Shu and Ba, two wealthy 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 its position by annexing Yue in 334 BC, extending its territory as far east as the sea. In 307 BC, an inheritance dispute weakened Qin, and Qi took advantage of the situation to ally himself with Han and Wei against his rival. A long and bloody conflict ensued, marked by multiple changes of alliances that enabled Qin, Qi and Chu to gain the upper hand in turn. In the end, Qi emerged terribly weakened from the fighting, and in 278 BC, Qin captured Ying, the capital of Chu. The victor now dominated an enlarged and compact territory, while the vanquished had to abandon the entire western part of his kingdom.

At this stage, the Zhao was the only kingdom with the military capabilities to oppose Qin. After adopting cavalry and conquering Zhongshan around 295 BC, the Zhao spent this long period of warfare changing sides as the situation evolved, while building up an ever more efficient army. Although the Qin won a victory against their new enemy at Huayang in 273 BC, their subsequent offensives were all repulsed. Realizing the need for reform, King Zhaoxiang of Qin called on Fan Sui, whom he appointed prime minister. In a way, the new minister "completed" the reforms undertaken by Shang Yang by reducing the power of the nobility, reforming the army and developing a stable military strategy based on the use of hezong and lianheng alliances to Qin's advantage. The first victim of this renewed 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. A Hui king was crowned after his death, but he only reigned over a small rump territory, which was 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 from a symbolic point of view, but only for a short time. In 246 BC, King Zheng ascended the Qin throne, although he didn't actually reign until he reached adulthood in 238 BC. His reign, which we know from Sima Qian's Shiji, was punctuated by one war and annexation after another. Zheng was not alone and 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 a fight. He was followed in 228 BC by Zhao and in 226 BC by Yan, both after hard fighting. In 225 BC, Wei fell, followed by Chu in 223 BC. To annex this kingdom, Qin had to think twice before succeeding. In 222 BC, the previously annexed kingdoms were definitively pacified, with the elimination of the last resistance fighters at Zhao and then Yan. In 221 BC, Qi surrendered without a fight when Qin troops entered the kingdom. The unification of China was complete, and King Zheng of Qin became Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founding the Qin dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC).

The Zhou dynasty included 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 though during their lifetime they were theoretically vassals of the Shang.

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

Mandate of Heaven

After seizing power, the rulers of the Zhou dynasty introduced what would prove to be one of East Asia's most enduring political doctrines, the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven". Indeed, the first Zhou kings asserted 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 the heavens (lit: the "sky god"). According to the Zhou, since the course of the human world was supposed to align with that of the heavens, the heavens conferred legitimate power on a single person, the Zhou king. In return, this king is bound to respect heaven's principles of harmony and honor. Any ruler who fails in this duty, who allows instability to creep into earthly affairs, or who lets his people suffer, loses the mandate. According to this politico-religious doctrine, it is the god of heaven, and he alone, who has all the power to withdraw his support from any ruler who strays from the path of harmony and find another, more worthy one. In this way, it is Shang Di, the sky god, 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 obliged to recognize that any group of rulers, including themselves, could be ousted if they lost the mandate of heaven through bad practices. The Classic of Verses, written during the Zhou period, clearly warns the reigning dynasty against this risk.

One of the king's duties and privileges was to create a royal calendar. This official document defined the best 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 their authority came from the heavens, the Zhou made great efforts to acquire precise 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 Han dynasty emperors conferred the hereditary title of 周子南君 on Ji Jia (姬嘉), a descendant of their royal family. The title was subsequently passed down to Jia's descendants. Similarly, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the later Jin awarded dukedoms to descendants of the royal families of the Zhou, Sui and Tang dynasties.

Alleged descendants

Numerous dynasties have 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 among their ancestors 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), said to be descended from Duke Wu of Jin. According to the New Book of Tang, the emperors of the Sui dynasty are 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 became known as the "Sheep-tongued Family"(羊舌氏). The Yang clan of Hongnong is also among those claimed by the Sui 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, 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 descent from the Yang of Hongnong, Jia of Hedong and Xiang of Henei clans. 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 links with the Zhou, and several clans

Even Mencius, the famous Chinese philosopher, has ancestors directly linked 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 their royal ancestry, Mencius' descendants received the title of Wujing boshi (五經博士) during 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.

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 a "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 major astrological significance. Zhoubo are generally bright yellow stars, and are considered to herald an important event.


  1. Zhou dynasty
  2. Dynastie Zhou
  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.
  11. Gernet 2001 59. o.
  12. Gernet 2001 58. o.

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