Lecture Three

The Zhou Conquest

Scope: The Shang state flourished for several centuries, expanding its territory by conquering neighboring peoples. By the 111,1 century B.C.E., one of these, the Zhou people, led a coalition of subordinate groups to overthrow the Shang. The Zhou then created a new dynasty and, in the process, elaborated critical concepts for China’s political culture over the next 3,000 years. The justification for the Zhou rebellion and the founding of a new dynasty was the Mandate of Heaven. The Zhou also began to build a new kind of political order and expanded the territory under their control far beyond what the Shang had held. The very success of the early Zhou state created the conditions that led to its fragmentation in the early 8th century B.C.E. and to the period of chaos and warfare that followed.


I. We have both mythological and archaeological accounts of early China.

A. As our modern understanding of the rise of Chinese civilization has developed, it has tended to confirm traditional mythological accounts.

B. China did not have a creation myth like those of the West.

C. The Sage Kings of High Antiquity, such as Yao and Shun, served as models of virtuous rule and founders of many cultural practices.

1. Yao passed the throne to Shun, who was not his son, because Shun was the best qualified morally.

2. This contrasts with the normal practice of Chinese states, which was to pass power down through families, and highlights the centrality of moral values in China’s political culture.

3. This moralistic aspect is key in the story of the rise of the Zhou.

II. The rise of the Zhou people took place over several generations.

A. The Zhou lived on the western periphery of the Shang realm. Their early history saw them adopt agriculture, revert to hunting and gathering, and adopt farming again, perhaps reflecting their marginal environmental niche on the periphery of the agricultural zone.

B. According to their traditions, their leader developed a plan to unite other peoples under their banner to rise up against the Shang kings.

1. This plan was formed by a man named Tai.

2. Over the next three generations, the Zhou people moved closer to the center of Shang power and built alliances with other disaffected peoples.

C. Under a man later known as King Wen, the Zhou planned their final rebellion around 1050 B.C.E.

D. Under Wen’s son, King Wu, the Zhou led a military coalition in an attack on the Shang capital at Anyang, most likely in 1045 B.C.E.

1. At the outset of the campaign, King Wu gave a speech calling for the overthrow of the Shang as unjust and corrupt rulers who abused their power.

2. According to ancient texts in the Classic of Documents, the battle was so fierce that the blood in the streets of the capital was deep enough to float blocks of wood.

3. At the time of the Conquest, King Wu was, in fact, a young boy, and real power was in the hands of his uncle, the Duke of Zhou.

III. After the Conquest, the Zhou elaborated the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven to validate their overthrow of the Shang.

A. The Mandate of Heaven said that Heaven, which is the guiding power in the universe, had originally given the right to rule to the Shang kings, but when they became cruel and oppressive, they lost the Mandate, and it passed to the Zhou leaders.

1. The worship of Heaven, Tian in Chinese, was the central religious belief of the Zhou.

2. Tian was not a divinity, but more of an operating system, which structured the way the world should function.

3. This was a shift from the primacy of ancestor worship by the Shang, but the Zhou, too, observed a royal ancestral cult.

4. Ancestor worship remained part of Chinese culture and became widespread even among ordinary farming families in later centuries.

B. The Zhou used the Mandate of Heaven to explain the rise of the Shang over the earlier Xia, as well.

1. The Mandate of Heaven became the basic rationale for political change in later Chinese political culture.

2. It was a system that validated success.

IV. The Zhou established a new, permanent capital and created a new form of political order.

A. The Zhou built a new city at what is now Xian, on the Wei River.

1. The city was based on the model of a basically square capital, which went back to the Xia.

2. The Zhou commitment to a permanent capital was a change from the Shang practice of shifting the capital every few decades.

3. The physical layout of the Zhou capital became the prototype for later Chinese capital cities.

4. It embodied the cosmological order in its orientation to the cardinal directions and its incorporation of ritual sites associated with the annual cycle.

B. As Zhou rule flourished, the territory under their control expanded apidly.

1. Zhou power was extended to the south, into the Yangzi River valley.

2. Zhou power was also extended to the north and southeast, beyond the limits of the former Shang domain.

C. Growth in both territorial extent and in the size of the population led to administrative innovations.

1. The Zhou kings could not manage all their lands from the capital.

2. They began to appoint local administrators, often from the royal family, but as time went by, more and more military leaders or other non-royal administrators were named.

3. Over time, these local leaders began to pass their positions on to their sons.

4. Relations of loyalty to the Zhou kings began to weaken as generations passed.

D. The success of the early Zhou state created the conditions for its fragmentation, which we will consider in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, 292-350.

Supplemental Reading:

Cho-yun Hsu and Katheryn M. Linduff, Western Chou Civilization.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did the Zhou feel they had to justify their overthrow of the Shang?

2. How did the change from the Shang royal ancestral cult to the Zhou worship of Heaven affect the nature of political legitimacy?

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