The Zhou Dynasty was the third dynasty of Ancient China, and the longest lasting. It followed the Shang Dynasty.
The history of the Zhou era is divided into two different periods: Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou.
The split in Zhou history is marked by the Zhou capital being moved eastwards to reduce the risk of invasion.
Many of Ancient China’s most famous philosophers originated from the Zhou era: for example, figures like Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi, all of whom are among the world’s most famous thinkers.
Much of their work is still read, analyzed and celebrated to this day, particularly Confucius’.
The first leader of the Zhou was King Wen, who ruled between 1099-1056 BC. He became king of the Zhou in 1099 BC, during the last days of the Shang Dynasty.
The Zhou had planned to come to power by military conquest, just as the Shang Dynasty had started when the tyrant Emperor Jei was overthrown.
King Wen went behind the Shang’s back and created alliances with neighboring territories that gave the Zhou a great deal of military power.
But before he could lead the attack himself, he was imprisoned by the Shang, held captive in the city of Youli.
He was soon released, however, when Wen’s supporters showered the Shang with gifts and bribes.
But where Wen had failed, his son Wu succeeded. In 1046 BC, King Wu led an army of 50,000 troops against an army of 700,000 Shang in the Battle of Muye.
The Shang people were so unhappy under the final Shang King’s rule that they barely put up any fight at all; many even turned traitor and joined King Wu’s side.
The Shang King retreated to his palace following his army’s “defeat,” and died inside after setting it on fire. Wu seized control immediately afterward.Though the Zhou took control by military conquest, they did not kill all the Shang.
In fact, many Shang men were left working in the government (though under strict Zhou supervision.) Wu returned to his home and died shortly after rising to the position of emperor. He was succeeded by his son, Cheng.
The Zhou were not able to fully control all the land that the Shang had managed, and King Wu had failed to detail his plans for seizing control of Northern China. Because of this, the Zhou Dynasty’s China never came together as a united country.
The Zhou court spread its control to the eastern plains by establishing a network of city-states: where each mayor ruled their own territory but submitted to the higher authority of the Zhou Emperor.
Any leaders who resisted this new hierarchy were punished and killed. This system lasted for about three centuries; but after that, the local rulers began to ignore the Zhou Emperor, and became more loyal to themselves.
A period of great political unrest followed, where the Zhou Dynasty fought battles both within and outside the country.
Eventually, the Zhou were even forced to move their capital city to protect it from invasion. (This is when the second period of Zhou history, the Eastern Zhou Period began.)
Zhou power declined further in this period as other territories (such as the state of Qin) became more important, and the Zhou bloodline was weakened by the continual arrangements of political marriage.
The city-states also grew more powerful at this time. They became more independent and less reliant on the emperor for support, which meant that the emperor’s seat became increasingly trivial.
The Zhou Dynasty came to an end during the Warring States period in 256 BC, when the army of the state of Qin (who had previously been an important ally of the Zhou) captured the city of Chengzhou and killed the last Zhou ruler, King Nan.
At this point, the King had lost so much power that his death hardly had an effect on the politics of the country.
The Zhou Dynasty ended in disgrace, following a miserable reign which was filled with war and suffering.
Compared to the prosperity of the Shang Dynasty which came before it, the Zhou Dynasty was a poor follow-up.
Art and culture stagnated in this period; aside from the developments in philosophy and architecture, little changed from the previous dynasty.