Lasting some eight centuries, the Zhou dynasty established many political and cultural characteristics that were identified with China for the years to come. Although the start of the dynasty has long been debated, it’s traditionally given as 1122 BCE. This date, however, is subject to change as scholars continue to find more archaeological evidence. The most recent date for the start of the Zhou dynasty is 1046 BCE and it ended in 256 BCE.
For many years, the Zhou coexisted with the Shang dynasty. It’s location was to the west of the territory occupied by the Shang which is now known as Shaanxi province. The Zhou alternated between a friendly tributary state and one that warred with the Shang.
It was one of the ruling houses of the Zhou that came up with a plan to conquer the Shang. Although a battle was fought around the mid-11th century BCE, the Zhou couldn’t control the entire Shang territory due to a rebellion that broke out. Zhou’s reign all over China would start three years after.
In order to maintain the emperor’s hold on the land, several feudal states were created within the empire. Present-day Xi’an in Shaanxi on the Wei River functioned as the original Zhou capital. An eastern capital was built at Luoyang to support the empire in the east as well as its loyal feudal rulers.
This kind of arrangement only lasted about 200 years and it slowly began to collapse. The reason for the cracks in the empire was sue to increasing local interests from more than 20 feudal lords. The political system, which consisted of a network of extended family, weakened to such a degree in the 8th century BCE. As a result, the feudal king’s power was in serious decline. As such, de facto power shifted among the different feudal chiefs when they made themselves overlords.
The Zhou dynasty is divided into different periods: the one before 771 BCE is known as the Xi (Western) Zhou dynasty and the one from 770 onwards if known as the Dong (Eastern) Zhou dynasty.
The Dong is further divided into the following: the Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu) period when the country consisted of small, squabbling states; and the Warring States when those small states merged to form larger units. One of those small kingdoms, Qin, was successful in conquering the rest of the states. The result of that was the establishment of the Qin dynasty.
Given the very long history of the Zhou, it’s not a surprise for them to have left behind some innovations and advancements that continued to be used in succeeding periods.
The Zhou dynasty featured several feudal states and the visual arts during this period reflected that diversity. Basically though, the arts from this period are just a continuation from those established during the Shang dynasty. This is particularly true in the bronzework. The Zhou dynasty is considered as the zenith of bronze-making in China. Although the art deteriorated in terms of the variety of shapes, decoration and craftmanship, unique local traditions became apparent during the Dong period (as well as the classical age of Confucius and Laozi). This is the period where decoration included pictorial subjects such as scenes portraying hunting as well as chariots and horsemen.
Arts and culture flourished in the different component states as the empire started breaking up. This development was encouraged by the highly localized interests that drove states to seek independence from the empire. Remains of feudal capitals from the Zhou dynasty reveal great buildings with rammed-earth floors and walls. Also discovered were two-story buildings and observation towers.
Although a few works on silk survive, there are no paintings from the Zhou dynasty. However, there are written descriptions of paintings which reveal their themes which include figures, portraits and historic scenes.
Lacquerware which includes gold and silver inlay were finely developed during this period. Bronzework was also carried over from the Shang dynasty.
Ornaments and objects made from jade were used richly for funerary and ritual purposes and the carvings all revealed superior craftsmanship.
Just like bronzework, pottery continued from the traditions established in the Shang and it expanded greatly during the period of the Warring States especially when it came to the variety of shapes.
Dramatic changes were experienced in China during the Zhou dynasty. This was the period that saw iron, ox-drawn plows, crossbows and horseback riding being introduced. For the first time, large-scale irrigation and water-control projects were implemented which resulted in the increase of the crop yield in the North China plain.
The construction of new roads and canals greatly improved the communication system during the Zhou dynasty.
The origins of Chinese philosophy developed during the Zhou. The schools of Confucianism, Daoism and legalism developed during this period. Apart from those, other philosophers, theorists and schools of thought also found a voice during this era and they included Mozi (founder of Mohism), Mencius (expanded upon the legacy of Confucius), Shang Yang and Han Fei (developed an ancient Chinese Legalism which became the core philosophy of the Qin dynasty) and Xun Zi (the center of ancient Chinese intellectual life during his time).
The Li ritual system was established during the Western period. It constituted an understanding of manners as an expression of ethics, social hierarchy and regulation that concerned material life. The social practices also become idealized within the ideology of Confucianism.
The Book of Rites, Zhouli and Yili compediums of the Han dynasty canonized the Li ritual system. As such, it became the heart of Chinese imperial ideology. But the fragmentation of the Western Zhou era changed the system towards moralization and formalization when it came to the five orders of Chinese nobility, ancestral temples and ceremonial regulations.
Other accomplishments during the Zhou dynasty included the increase of trade, the growth of towns, the development of coinage, the use of chopsticks and the creation of the Chinese writing system (out of the primitive beginnings established during the Shang period).