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Western Zhou Ji states (black squares) and archaeological sites[1]

The Western Zhou (Chinese: 西周; pinyin: Xīzhōu; c. 1046 BC[2] – 771 BC) was a period of Chinese history, corresponding to approximately the first half of the Zhou dynasty, preceding the Eastern Zhou. It began when King Wu of Zhou overthrew the Shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye and ended when Quanrong pastoralists sacked its capital Haojing and killed King You of Zhou in 771 BC.

The Western Zhou early state[a] was ascendant for about 75 years and then slowly lost power. The former Shang lands were divided into hereditary fiefs which became increasingly independent of the king. In 771 BC, the Zhou court was driven out of the Wei River valley; afterwards real power was in the hands of the king's nominal vassals. "Western" describes the geographical situation of the Zhou royal capitals, clustered near present-day Xi'an.


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The Lai pan, from the reign of King Xuan, bears an inscription listing all the kings from King Wen to King Li.[3]

The Han historian Sima Qian felt unable to extend his chronological table beyond 841 BC, the first year of the Gonghe Regency, and there is still no accepted chronology of Chinese history before that point.[4][5] The Cambridge History of Ancient China used dates determined by Edward L. Shaughnessy from the "current text" Bamboo Annals and bronze inscriptions.[6] The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project produced a schedule of dates based on received texts, bronze inscriptions, radiocarbon dating and astronomical events.[7]

Western Zhou kings
Period Ruler name Reign (all dates BC)
Posthumous Personal Shaughnessy[8] XSZ Project[9]
Pre-conquest King Wen Chang () 1099–1050[b]
King Wu Fa () 1049–1043[b] 1046–1043
King Cheng Song () 1042–1006 1042–1021
King Kang Zhao () 1005–978 1020–996
King Zhao Xia () 977–957 995–977
Middle King Mu Man (滿) 956–918 976–922
King Gong Yihu (繄扈) 917–900 922–900
King Yih Jian () 899–873 899–892
King Xiao Pifang (辟方) 872–866 891–886
King Yi Xie () 865–858 885–878
Late King Li Hu () 857–842 877–841
Gonghe Regency 841–828 841–828
King Xuan Jing () 827–782 827–782
King You Gongnie (宮涅) 782–771 781–771

Civil war

Bronze pot, 3rd Year of King Yih

Few records survive from this early period and accounts from the Western Zhou period cover little beyond a list of kings with uncertain dates. King Wu died two or three years after the conquest. Because his son, King Cheng of Zhou was young, his brother, the Duke of Zhou Ji Dan assisted the young and inexperienced king as regent. Wu's other brothers (Shu Du of Cai, Guan Shu, and Huo Shu), concerned about the Duke of Zhou's growing power, formed an alliance with Wu Geng and other regional rulers and Shang remnants in the rebellion of the Three Guards. The Duke of Zhou stamped out this rebellion and conquered more territory to bring other people under Zhou rule.[11][12]

The Duke formulated the Mandate of Heaven doctrine to counter Shang claims to a divine right of rule and founded Luoyang as an eastern capital.[13] With a feudal fengjian system, royal relatives and generals were given fiefs in the east,[11] including Luoyang, Jin, Ying, Lu, Qi and Yan. While this was designed to maintain Zhou authority as it expanded its rule over a larger amount of territory, many of these became major states when the dynasty weakened. When the Duke of Zhou stepped down as regent, the remainder of Cheng's reign and that of his son King Kang of Zhou seem to have been peaceful and prosperous.

Further kings

The fourth king, King Zhao of Zhou led an army south against Chu and was killed along with a large part of the Zhou army. The fifth king, King Mu of Zhou is remembered for his legendary visit to the Queen Mother of the West. Territory was lost to the Xu Rong in the southeast. The kingdom seems to have weakened during Mu's long reign, possibly because the familial relationship between Zhou Kings and regional rulers thinned over generations so that fiefs that were originally held by royal brothers were now held by third and fourth cousins; peripheral territories also developed local power and prestige on par with that of the Zhou royal family.[14]

The reigns of the next four kings (King Gong of Zhou, King Yi of Zhou (Ji Jian), King Xiao of Zhou, and King Yi of Zhou (Ji Xie)) are poorly documented. The ninth king is said to have boiled the Duke of Qi in a cauldron, implying that the vassals were no longer obedient. The tenth king, King Li of Zhou (877–841 BC) was forced into exile and power was held for fourteen years by the Gonghe Regency. Li's overthrow may have been accompanied by China's first recorded peasant rebellion. When Li died in exile, Gonghe retired and power passed to Li's son King Xuan of Zhou (827–782 BC). King Xuan worked to restore royal authority, though regional lords became less obedient later in his reign.

Fall of the Western Zhou

The conflicts with nomadic tribes from the north and the northwest, variously known as the Xianyun, Guifang, or various "Rong" tribes, such as the Xirong, Shanrong or Quanrong, intensified towards the end of the Western Zhou period.[15] These tribes are recorded as harassing Zhou territory, but at the time the Zhou were expanding northwards, encroaching on their traditional lands, especially into the Wei River valley. Archaeologically, the Zhou expanded to the north and the northwest at the expense of the Siwa culture.[15]

The twelfth and last king of the Western Zhou period was King You of Zhou (781–771 BC). When You replaced his wife with a concubine, the former queen's powerful father, the Marquess of Shen, joined forces with Quanrong barbarians. The Quanrong put an end to the Western Zhou in 771 BC, sacking the Zhou capital of Haojing and killing the last Western Zhou king You.[15] Thereafter the task of dealing with the northern tribes was left to their vassal, the Qin state.[15]

His killing resulted to beginning wars between local states which continued until Qin unification of China 500 years later.[c] Some scholars have surmised that the sack of Haojing might have been connected to a Scythian raid from the Altai before their westward expansion.[16] Most of the Zhou nobles withdrew from the Wei River valley and the capital was reestablished downriver at the old eastern capital of Chengzhou near modern-day Luoyang. This was the start of the Eastern Zhou period, which is customarily divided into the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period.


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2024)


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2024)


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2024)


  1. ^ "...these early states are best known from archaeology and history to have been ruled by the dynastic houses such as that of Shang (1554–1046 BC) and of Western Zhou (1045–771 BC). Therefore, they can be called the early 'royal states'."[2]
  2. ^ a b Shaughnessy dates the Zhou conquest of the Shang to 1045 BC. Earlier dates represent the pre-dynastic Zhou.[10]
  3. ^ "...The collapse of the Western Zhou state in 771 BC and the lack of a true central authority thereafter opened ways to fierce inter-state warfare that continued over the next five hundred years until the Qin unification of China in 221 BC"[2]



  1. ^ Li (2006), pp. 42, 59, 302, 320, 333.
  2. ^ a b c Li (2013), p. 6.
  3. ^ Li (2018), p. 94.
  4. ^ Shaughnessy (1999a), p. 21.
  5. ^ Lee (2002), pp. 16–17.
  6. ^ Shaughnessy (1999a), pp. 22–23.
  7. ^ Lee (2002), pp. 17–18.
  8. ^ Shaughnessy (1999a), p. 25.
  9. ^ Lee (2002), p. 18.
  10. ^ Shaughnessy (1999a), p. 23.
  11. ^ a b Chinn (2007), p. 43.
  12. ^ Hucker (1978), p. 32.
  13. ^ Hucker (1978), p. 33.
  14. ^ Hucker (1978), p. 37.
  15. ^ a b c d Tse, Wicky W. K. (27 June 2018). The Collapse of China's Later Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE: The Northwest Borderlands and the Edge of Empire. Routledge. p. 45-46, 63 note 40. ISBN 978-1-315-53231-8.
  16. ^ "The Steppe: Scythian successes". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 31 December 2014.

Works cited

Further reading