History Of A Nation: The Western Zhou Dynasty

1046 BC – 771 BC

We’re back in China for the third installment of ‘what a great pre-Chinese dynasty we have here’. Dens of opulence, some fighting, barbarians at the gates, China the centre of civilisation, the Zhou actually lasted longer than any other Chinese dynasty in all of history, at least in name. What I’m going to go over today is the Western Zhou dynasty, the name for the period for the first three centuries of Zhou rule where they had unchallenged control of the country. Beyond this, things got a little more complicated and I’ll cover them in another post. Today, this’ll be when the Zhou ruled united over their bit of China with an intact Mandate of Heaven – they were the first dynasty to properly use this concept as a method of maintaining their power and making their overthrow of the Shang legitimate because there were naturally some people who questioned this. And no one questions the Emperor of China.


And the Zhou’s bit of China was largely the same area as the Shang, with the Western capital set not far from the Shang capital, at Haojing, on the Wei and Feng Rivers, with another city, Feng, on the other side, sometimes leading people to call it the twin capital. This was far to the west of the Zhou’s rule, which is why this part of the dynasty is called the Western Zhou, as the capital would move east later on.

They didn’t directly control all of this area, the marked smaller ethnic groups like Chu and Wu had some autonomy from the Zhou but they were still tributary states of the Zhou, even if they weren’t always loyal subjects.


We start with King Wu of the Zhou, the opportunist who took advantage of a poor king on the Shang throne to seize power. He was a decent military commander too. Sadly, he only lived to see his dynasty take power for a mere three years – and this short reign and a young heir, his son, meant that his many younger brothers and the remnants of the Shang initially caused a lot of instability to the young dynasty. King Cheng had a lot of rebellions, but thanks to one of Wu’s more trustworthy brothers ruling as regent, known mainly as the Duke Of Zhou, a civil war was not quite avoided but downplayed, five years to defeat a small rebellion. The Duke Of Zhou was a pretty instrumental figure in Chinese history, he was the one who drafted the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, that the Shang had lost their rule because they had angered the gods and King Zhou of Shang (why does he have the same name in English as the dynasty who replaced him, I presume it’s slightly different in Chinese as it was a perjorative name) had lost the favour of heaven. He also housed the Shang in a new religious settlement at Chengzhou – and he peacefully gave up the throne once Cheng came of age. Truly an enlightened man. He’s also known in China as a figure who speaks through dreams or the God of Dreams, thanks to Confucius later looking to his government system as an ‘ideal’, a ‘dream’, and that getting diluted in meaning down the ages. Even though we’re on the third dynasty, this guy was still half a millennium before Confucius.

King Cheng was followed by King Kang. Rumours of him becoming a giant Klingon gorilla are disputed. Not much else happened in his reign except Zhou power continued to be propagated.

King Zhao of Zhou came to the throne in 977 BC. He was a campaigner and conqueror, he warred against the Chu to the south to bring them under the rule of the Zhou. See, while not much happened under Cheng and Kang, they had secured the central plains of China quite well, so what was left but to go south against the Chu in the Yangtze basin, there was certainly not much valuable to the north and west at this point. It was certainly a wealthy region and therefore the most obvious route to go – but while he was victorious and did bring much of the Chu under tributary to the Zhou, he launched a second campaign and died during it. Apparently he drowned when retreating across the Han River. Not the best way to go but this defeat was really bad for the Zhou, for the first time, their Mandate over China had been challenged and they looked weak – from here on out, the Zhou would be in decline.

But not quite immediately, for King Mu, the son of Zhao, would look to have one of the longest reigns of the Zhou, reigning 55 years. He was a traveller and allegedly travelled all across China and beyond at this point. Now he got attacked by the Xu towards the southeast (not to be confused with the nearby Wu, who the Xu would get subsumed into later on). This ended with the Xu having to gain power. See, the Zhou were only really powerful the closer to their heartlands they were, they were trying to expand their mandate to be the one true ruler into all the city states and petty kingdoms that littered mainland China daring to be independent (and that while I might have done a post on each of them at one point, I think it’d be better for this whole project if I just got on with it). And expanding into all of them leads to unrest. This will be important when I do the later Zhou periods, when I do those, I will make sure to include a map of all the inner states that were nominally under the Zhou. But for now, it meant that the Zhou were not as almighty as they wished to be.

Following Mu was his son Gong, who had 22 years on the throne, then to his son Yi, who had seven years but left, leaving the throne to his uncle – and there’s speculation that he was removed from power this way but we don’t know. Uncle Xiao ruled for five years before he was replaced with another Yi. Who was apparently the son of the first Yi, making him Yi II but sadly China doesn’t really deal with regnal numbers. Speaking of which, reminding myself of the Shang kings, they all used two names for their rule, but the Zhou only use one name (along with their consistent surname of Ji, which isn’t used in most correspondence) and describe themselves as Yi of Zhou, for instance. Intriguing to see the cultural differences apparent.

As each Chinese dynasty gets worse over time, Yi II’s son Li was a corrupt and decadent king allegedly. Either way, he got exiled by nobles and this started what is known as the Gonghe regency, Gonghe being a word that could mean ‘joint harmony’ – indication it was ruled by two regents for Li’s heir. Notably, the first year, 841 BC, is the first Chinese year that we have absolute certainty for events recorded, thanks to notable Chinese Han historian Sima Qian. As I mentioned in earlier Chinese posts, the current government of China has sponsored attempts to get an accurate read on earlier history but that hasn’t been the most accurate. Once King Xuan took the throne troubles would not let up, states like Lu and Qi had become unruly, barbarians were buzzing around again and on top of it all he was killed by a ghost’s arrow. That apparently really happened, I completely believe that part. Either way, Xuan’s son You (oh you’re all very aware of Chinese names being occasionally humorous to Western ears, keep the fake confusion down), King You of Zhou, was the last of the Western Zhou dynasty. Meanwhile, an earthquake hits Guangzhong. Eerie…

Because You was clearly not a sensible man, when a woman named Bao Si came sniffing around the palace and gave him a son, he said to his wife and heir ‘I don’t need you any more, get out’, and took the concubine and her son to be his new wife and heir. He apparently did not see anything wrong with this. His original wife was one of his vassal lords, of Shen (a state which would not long survive the oncoming storm, how Game Of Thrones…. x100) and the Marquess of Shen was not pleased. So he attacked the Zhou palace and no nobles came to defend You, because he had pissed them off by abusing his power of lighting the beacons. Oh yes, they had beacons, like Gondor. Only You was really trigger happy at lighting them and saying ‘gotcha’ to the nobles when they thought dangerous (Quanrong) nomads were about to attack. Rather aptly, the nomads were reported to have aided Shen in bringing down You. How much of all that is true and how much is a cautionary tale of ‘don’t cry wolf’? I’m going to say the overthrowing was true at the very least. The nobles chose to support You’s original son, once Yijiu, but on taking the throne took the much more kingly name of Ping. Because Haojing was quite damaged from the whole battle, Ping chose to ping-pong the capital over to Luoyang. And so ended the period of the Western Zhou. The second half will take two posts I’m pretty sure, one for the Spring and Autumn period, the other for the Warring States, but it’s a big ride.


Before I finish up, I want to say a bit about the Zhou’s organisation, because this feeds into why the later eras happened. It can almost be described as ‘feudalism before European feudalism’, which means that there was a big decentralised government, the Zhou were the people in charge but lords all across China (in five ranks, Duke, Marquess, Count, Viscount and Baron – well, Chinese equivalent names that would correspond to what we expect of those titles) ruled states that could almost be independent and many were in the early days when the Zhou were still conquering, and many of the Zhou had to deal with one or another of these states rebelling. Eldest sons would inherit everything while younger sons would start cadet branches that would be decreasing in prestige. Not a system that’s sustainable forever either.

The Western Zhou had a very strong army, split into fourteen armies, six armies for the West, eight for the East, where there were more vassal lords. It was the six armies of the west that Zhao lost on the Han River – he was the Zhou king to find the most success when campaigning and after he lost, that was it for the Zhou’s expansion, for the most part. Later kings would be too focused on internal struggles to expand ‘China’ (not yet called China, although the Chinese name, Zhongguo, or 中国, did start to come into use about this time) any further.


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