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Zhou Dynasty - The Western Zhou Period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE)

The Western Zhou period Xizhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) was the first half of the reign of the Zhou dynasty 周 that ruled over China from the mid-11th century to 221 BCE, at least nominally. The Zhou kingdom (or empire) was established in the western region of China (modern province of Shaanxi) and expanded to the east, where the Zhou, in alliance with other polities, overthrew the kings of the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). The Zhou dynasty established a network of vassal states throughout the Yellow River Plain to ensure its domination over all parts of their empire. Additionally, a secondary capital was founded in the east. The feudal lords (zhuhou 諸侯) of these vassal states were to a great part relatives to the house of Zhou. The consolidation of the Zhou dynasty was achieved not by the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wu 周武王, but by his brother, the Duke of Zhou 周公, who acted as regent for the young King Cheng 周成王. The enemies of the early Zhou were non-Chinese tribes in the Huai River 淮水 region, and then, from the 9th century on, the nomad tribes of the Rong 戎 from the west that in 770 forced the Zhou court to flee to the east.

In the eyes of later generations, the rule of the early Western Zhou kings was seen as a government of righteousness and benevolence, of proper conduct and utmost virtue. It was especially hailed by the Confucians who lamented the replacement of orally transmitted and therefore "natural" rituals and etiquette by written law and regulations.

King Wu, son of the Viscount of the West 西伯 (also known as King Wen 周文王), appointed Lü Shang 呂尚 (posthumously known as Qi Taigong 齊太公 or Taigong Wang 太公望) as chief commander, his brother Ji Dan 旦 (known as the Duke of Zhou 周公) as chief minister, and two other brothers, the Duke of Shao 召公 and the Duke of Bi 畢公 (Gao, Duke of Bi 畢公高, ancestor of the house of Wei 魏), as right and left aides. He then decided to overthrow the Shang dynasty and marched to the Ford of Mengjin 盟津 at the Yellow River, where a white fish was delivered to him as an auspicious omen. Although 800 former vassals of the Shang declared their allegiance to the Zhou, King Wu was aware that the time was not ripe yet, and returned to the west. Two years later, when King Zhou of the Shang had killed Prince Bi Gan 比干 and encarcerated Prince Ji Zi 箕子, and the grand and small preceptors of the king of Shang fled to the court of King Wu of Zhou, he estimated that the empire would fall to him. He assembled the vassals and feudal lords at the Ford of Mengjin and proclaimed the "Great Speech" (Taishi 太誓, today a chapter of the Classic Shangshu 尚書), in which he accused the king of Zhou of all his crimes. He marched on to the plain of Muye 牧野, where he prepared his army with the "Speech at Muye" 牧誓 (also included in the Shangshu). The army of the king of Shang was defeated, and a last contingent defending the capital was also unable to resist the attackers. King Zhou burnt himself on the Deer Terrace 鹿臺, and his two wives killed themselves. Zhou historiography blames King Zhou's consort Da Ji 妲己 of interfering into governmental affairs. The people of the Shang received King Wu of Zhou outside the capital. Archeological sources make evident that the overthrow of the Shang house must have occurred very suddenly and almost without any previous indications. The central region (jinei 畿內) was divided into three fiefs, Bei 邶 (given to King Zhou's surviving son Lu Fu 祿父, later to King Wu's brother Huo Shu 霍叔), Yong 鄘 (given to King Wu's brother Guan Shu Xian 管叔鮮), and Wei 衛 (given to King Wu's brother Cai Shu Du 蔡叔度).

He enfeoffed the descendants of Shen Nong 神農 with Jiao 焦, descendants of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 with Zhu 祝, those of Emperor Yao 堯 with Ji 薊, those of Emperor Shun 舜 with Chen 陳, and the descendants of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE) with the fief of Qi 杞. King Wu then rewarded his followers with territories as vassals: Shang Fu 尚父 (Lü Shang) was made lord of Qi 齊, his own brother, the Duke of Zhou, was made lord of Lu 魯, the Duke of Shao 召公奭 was made lord of Yan 燕. His brother Xian 鮮 was made lord of Guan 管, for which reason he is known as Guan Shu Xian, and Du 度 (Cai Shu Du) was made lord of Cai 蔡. One surviving son of King Zhou, Prince Lu Fu, was granted the position of head of the house of Shang (Yin). In order to control him, Guan Shu Xian and Cai Shu Du were appointed Lu Fu's counsellors. The Zhou kingdom or empire covered the region from the modern province of Shaanxi to the Shandong peninsula and from the Beijing area southwards to a line from the Rivers Han 漢 and Huai 淮. The kingdom was divided into many fiefs that were bestowed to nobles belonging to the royal family of Ji 姬 (fiefs of Guo 虢, Guan, Cai 蔡, Cheng 郕, Huo 霍, Wei 衛, Mao 毛, Dan 聃, Gao 郜, Yong 雍, Cao 曹, Teng 滕, Bi 畢, Yuan 原, Feng 酆, Xun 郇, Yu 邘, Jin 晉, Ying 應, Han 韓, Lu 魯, Fan 凡, Jiang 蔣, Xing 邢, Mao 茅, Zuo 胙, Ji (Zhai) 祭, Yan 燕) but also of other meritorious families like the Jiang 姜 (Qi 齊) and Zi 子 (Song 宋; descendants of the Shang). Concerning the ethnology of Western Zhou China, it is important to note that the feudal territories were not much more than walled cities. Between these regions many non-Chinese peoples were roaming. The Western Zhou empire was not a territorial empire in the modern sense but was based on the political centres of the feudal states. The main difference between the feudal state of the Zhou empire and the European feudal states was that a large part of the vassals were relatives to the house of Zhou.

Two years after King Wu had conquered the Shang empire, Prince Jizi of Shang decided to leave the Zhou empire because his people had lost credibility under the last ruler. It is said that he left to Korea where he is known as Gija.

When King Wu fell ill, his brother, the Duke of Zhou, offered himself formally to the deities in order to take the disease away from the king. King Wu was succeeded by his young son Prince Song 誦 who is known as King Cheng 周成王 (r. 1116-1079 BCE). Chinese historiography generally assumed that King Cheng was still under age and therefore the Duke of Zhou took over regency for his nephew. The Duke's brothers Guan Shu and Cai Shu suspected him of usurpation and joined with Wu Geng 武庚 (i. e. Lu Fu), a prince of the house of Shang, in rebellion. The Duke of Zhou undertook a campaign of suppression, defeated the rebels and appointed Prince Weizi 微子 head of the house of Shang. The fief of Wei 衛 was given to Wei Kang Shu 衛康叔, a brother of the Duke of Zhou. The Duke of Zhou acted as regent for seven years and then withdrew to hand over regency to the king.

The wish of late King Wu had been to establish a secondary capital in the east, in order to have a better control over the empire, because the main capital of the Zhou dynasty was Feng 豐 (also called Zongzhou 宗周; near modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) in the far west. The Duke of Shao and the Duke of Zhou selected an appropriate place and founded the eastern capital Luoyi 洛邑 (also written 雒邑, also called Chengzhou 成周; modern Luoyang 洛陽, Henan). King Cheng conducted military campaigns against the wild Yi tribes of the Huai region 淮夷 and destroyed their state of Yan 奄 (near modern Yanzhou 兖州, Jiangsu).

King Cheng was succeeded by his son Prince Zhao 釗, who is posthumously known as King Kang 周康王 (r. 1079-1053 BCE). His reign was an age of peace and consolidation for the Zhou dynasty. His son Prince Xia 瑕, known as King Zhao 周昭王, died during a hunting tour (xunshou 巡狩) in the south. Some sources say that it was not a hunting tour but a military campaign against the native state of Chu 楚 whose chieftains at that time still controlled the Han River 漢 valley before they migrated more to the south. It is said that King Zhao drowned when crossing the River Han. His son, Prince Man 滿, mounted the throne. He is known as King Mu 周穆王.

King Mu was aware that the lacking personal integrity of his father and grandfather had weakened the dynasty and therefore tried reviving the virtuous government of the kings Wen and Wu. Most famous is the western campaign of King Mu against the nomad tribes of the Quanrong 犬戎 that had been literally transformed into the story of his travel to Mt. Kunlun 崑崙 where he encountered the fabulous Queen Mother of the West 西王母. The story is told in the book Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳. The rule of King Mu is seen as the apogee of the Western Zhou dynasty. He introduced a penal law codex, the Fuxing 甫刑 or Lüxing 呂刑 "Punishments of Fu/Lü". King Mu also ordered to undertake a campaign against the native tribes of the River Huai area that had founded the state of Xu 徐. The troops were commanded by Zao Fu 造父. Zao Fu defeated King Yan of Xu 徐偃王 and was therefore enfeoffed with the state of Zhao 趙. He is the ancestor of the houses of Zhao and Qin 秦.

King Mu's successor was his son Prince Yihu 繄扈, who is known posthumously as King Gong 周共王. The histories narrate a quarrel with Duke Kang of Mi 密康公 who had married three women without conducting the proper rituals. The result was the destruction of the state of Mi by King Gong.

Under King Yi 周懿王, personal name Prince Jian 囏, the house of Zhou began to decline. King Li 周厲王 (r. 878-841 BCE), for instance, appreciated extravagant objects, albeit his forefathers had always warned against luxurious ease. He elevated Duke Yi of Rong 榮夷公 to a high position in government, a person that also indulged in pleasures. The King was therefore criticized by grand master (dafu 大夫) Rui Liangfu 芮良夫 (Rui Bo 芮伯). Even Duke Mu of Shao 召穆公 dared to admonish the King to keep austerity. In the end all critics were accused of high treason, and no one dared to raise his voice. This oppressive government finally led to a rebellion that forced King Li to flee. He was exiled to Yi 彘, a small place in the dukedom of Jin 晉. In order to appease the mob the Duke of Shao offered his own son to the masses, while he secretly helped the crown prince to escape.

The Duke of Shao and the Duke of Zhou (descendants of the brothers of King Wu) took over regency while there was no ruler on the throne. Their reign was later called Gonghe 共和 "Common peace", but this term is also interpreted as the reign of the usurper He, Earl of Gong 共伯和. A fragment of the book Lulianzi 魯連子 says that Earl He was a benevolent ruler, and not a usurper. After fourteen years of vacancy, King Li died in exile, and his heir apparent Prince Jing 靜 was enthroned. His posthumous title is King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 827-782 BCE).

King Xuan refused to undertake the ceremonial ploughing by the ruler at Qianmou 千畝. This inattentiveness was many decades later punished by a crushing defeat of the royal troops by the Rong tribes of Jiang 姜.The royal troops were also defeted by the southern state of Chu. In order to conscribe more troops the king ordered a census, a measure that was harshly criticized as inappropriate politics for a benevolent ruler. The military threat by the northwestern nomad tribes critically increased during the reign of King Xuan. When he died his son Prince Gongsheng 宮湦 (also called Gongnie 宮湼 or Gonghuang 宮湟) mounted the throne. He is known as King You 周幽王 (r. 781-771) and was the last ruler of the Western Zhou period. The end of the Zhou was announced by a severe earthquake in the region of Sanchuan 三川 that changed the courses of the rivers Luo 洛, Yi 伊 and Jian 澗 and caused a landslide at Mt. Qishan 岐山, the site of the former capital.

The downfall of King You is a very famous story that is peppered with a lot of phantastic and erotic taste. It is said that King You had a queen called Bao Si 褒姒 that was the fruit of a unison between a harem girl and a dragon during the Xia period 夏 (17th to 15th cent. BC). Historical fact is that King You discarded his proper queen, a daughter of the Marquis of Shen 申侯, and elevated Bao Si to his new queen, her son Bo Fu 伯服 replacing the heir apparent. In order to please Bao Si, King You ordered the drums of the watchtowers in the west to be beaten, so that the army assembled in defense of the capital. This joke pleased the queen so much that she had it repeated many times. The commanders therefore decided not to haste to the court again should the drums be beaten again. Another problem at the court was the influence of Guo Shi Fu 虢石父, a corrupt noble to was entrusted with important governmental affairs. When the proper queen and her son were discarded, the father of the queen, the Marquis of Shen, joined with some discontented feudal lords, among them the lord of Zeng 繒, and sought support of the western Rong tribes. They instigated the Quanrong (also called Xuanyuan 玁狁) to attack the royal seat. The generals did not respond to the alarm of the drum towers, so that the king had to lead his contingent alone. He was killed at Mt. Lishan 驪山 and the capital was plundered by the Rong warriors. The feudal lords, unable to help the king, enthroned Prince Yijiu 宜臼, who is known as King Ping 周平王 of Zhou. He was escorted by the lords of Qin and Jin to the eastern capital, where he took his royal seat. This was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period. The fleeing Zhou elite had to dig their precious bronze vessels in hoards, which was a great luck for today's archeologists because the inscriptions of the vessels bear important historical information.