In this post, we looked at the first historical dynasty in China, Shang, c 1500-c 1050 BC, and its location. Some elements of Shang derived from the last phase of the Longshan Neolithic culture (c 3000-2000 BC). Here we looked at Shang’s possibly mythical predecessor Xia. Xia may have had something to do with an early Bronze Age culture called Erlitou (c 2100-1600 BC).
In the Yellow River basin, the Shang dynasty was overthrown and replaced by its former vassals, the Chou [Wade-Giles; Pinyin is Zhōu], in 1122 B.C. according to the canonical chronology, or in 1027 B.C. according to an alternative reckoning that may come nearer to the true date. The Chou invaded the North-China plain from the basin of the Yellow River’s Wei tributary – that is to say from the direction from which, in previous ages, China may have received elements of culture from regions to the west, via the Eurasian steppe. But the archaeological evidence does not indicate that the Chou brought any further cultural innovations with them. The political change from Shang to Chou did not cause a breach of cultural continuity such as was caused in Greece by the overthrow of the Mycenaean principalities. The Chou seem to have been Chinese, or at any rate to have been thoroughly Sinified before they supplanted the Shang; and the arts of writing and of bronze-casting not only survived the change of regime; they continued to advance. Moreover, the change of dynasty does not seem to have produced any immediate substantial change in the political structure of Chinese society.
The Zhōu dynasty lasted longer than any other in Chinese history: from 1122 to 256 BC. It was founded by the Ji family. The age is divided into Western Zhōu and Eastern Zhōu: a mainly chronological division. Western Zhōu lasted from 1122 to 771 BC, Eastern Zhōu from 770 to 256. The earlier capital was at Hào, near the present Xi’an, on the Wei tributary. In 722 it moved eastward to Luoyang.
The real power of the Zhōu was in the earlier period. The Eastern Zhōu is divided into two sub-periods: the Spring and Autumn Period from 722 to 481 BC, and the Warring States Period, which ended with China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221. The last Zhōu king’s reign, however, ended in 256.
The Eastern Zhōu saw the flowering of Chinese philosophy, with Kong Fuzi (Confucius); Laozi, the founder of Daoism; Mozi (Micius); Mengzi (Mencius); and the founders of ancient Chinese Legalism, the core philosophy of the Qin dynasty, Shang Yang and Han Feizi.
The Western Zhōu developed the doctrine of sovereignty known as the Mandate of Heaven. It built on the Shang system of ancestor-worship, but oriented it towards a more universal idea of Tian or Heaven. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the Shang and Xia dynasties.
Bronze-ware making reached its zenith. The use of iron was introduced into China, but perhaps, since copper and tin were plentiful, not until the fourth century. The use of massed chariots in battle was imported from Central Asia: the implication of what Toynbee says below is that this happened in the fourth century. There were large-scale hydraulic engineering projects.
Even in their early days, before they were irremediably and progressively enfeebled by a disaster that overtook them in 771 B.C., the Chou did not rule over more than a small territory directly. For the most part, their regime was merely a hegemony over perhaps as many as seventy or ninety autonomous local vassals. This Chou regime was weak, even at its prime, by comparison with the unitary regime that was imposed on the Chinese World, about eight hundred years later, by Shih Hwang-ti. On the other hand, the Chou regime was probably a strong one, measured by the standard of its Shang predecessor. The Chou did govern the Chinese World of their day, even if indirectly. The Shang, whom the Chou had replaced, had perhaps merely dominated their neighbours by raids that had not led to the establishment of any international relation between the dominant power and the semi-independent communities within its reach, whom it terrorized but also feared.
In 771 B.C. [the Zhōu] were attacked by barbarians and were defeated so severely that they were constrained to move their capital eastwards from the basin of the Yellow River’s tributary, the Wei, to Loyang on the eastern plain. The Wei basin is China’s north-western march against barbarians beyond the pale. So long as the Chou were defending this march, they were performing a valuable service for the whole of the Chinese World. When they ceased to be marchmen, their prestige and power inevitably declined. They were followed in the Wei basin by the Ch’in [Qin, the eventual unifiers of China], and, once again, the performance of the marchman’s service was rewarded eventually with the gaining of a dominion over the Chinese World as a whole. However, we have no evidence that the barbarians who evicted the Chou from the Wei basin in 771 B.C. were Eurasian pastoral nomads. They may have been local sedentary barbarians. The earliest evidence of direct contact between China and the Eurasian nomads seems to be the record that, in the fourth century B.C., Yen, the north-easternmost of the local Chinese states in that age, imitated the nomads by creating a cavalry force in the nomad style. We have no evidence that the barbarians who defeated the Chou in 771 B.C. were a wing of the nomad cavalry that invaded South-West Asia and south-eastern Europe before the eighth century was over.
More on the Warring States later.
Western Zhōu boundaries
Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous