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King Wen and the Beginnings of the Western Zhou Dynasty


The Zhou Dynasty was founded in the 11th century BC and came to an end in 771 BC, spanning a period of over 300 years. During this period, it was called the Western Zhou Dynasty as its capital, Gaojing, was in the west, in order to distinguish from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty which was founded when the capital was moved to Luoyi.

Western Zhou was a strong state with a slavery system. Originally, it was an ancient tribe living in the deltas of Wei and Jing rivers. It grew stronger gradually during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty. During King Wen"s reign, the region under the Zhou Dynasty's rule expanded incessantly. After his death, his son Prince Wu, seizing the opportunity when King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty ruled brutally and corruply, exterminated the Shang Dynasty by joining forces with some tribes and founded the Zhou Dynasty.

During the early part of the Zhou Dynasty, the revolt staged by King Zhou's son was suppressed. After that, to solidify its state power, the Zhou Dynasty implemented the system of enfeoffment, "jingtianzhi" (the "9 squares" system of land ownership) and patriachal clan system. The Western Zhou era was the thriving period in which China's slavery system developed. The riots that broke out in 841 BC shook the ruling foundation of the slavery system, causing it to fall on the path of collapse.

The Western Zhou's patriachal clan society and decree governing rites had a profound influence on the development of China's ancient society.

The Rise of the Zhou Nationality

1. The Zhou nationality was an ancient tribe. Its people carried out their earliest activities in today's Huangtu Highland north of River Wei in Shaanxi. Their ancestor was called Qi. It is said that his mother Jiang Yuan stepped on a giant's footprints in the wilderness one day. As a resultshe conceived and gave birth to Qi. Because she gave birth without a husband, she left the baby on a small narrow road, but strangely enough, all the cattle and horses that passed avoided it and did not trample on it.

2. Jiang Yuan wanted to abandon the infant in a jungle but there were may people moving in and out of it. Thereupon she placed him on a frozen river. When the birds in the sky saw him, they flew down and covered him with their wings to keep him warm. Thinking that the baby was a child prodigy, Jiang Yuan took kim home and brought him up. As she originally intended to abandon him, she named him "Qi" (Abandon).

3. When young, Qi liked planting bean. When he grew up, he became an expert farmer. It is said that Emperor Yao honoured him with the title of "farming teacher", Emperor Shun appointed him "Agriculture Officer" whose duty was to take charge of agricultural matters.

4. Around the time of Gongliu, Qi's 3rd-generation grandson, the whole tribe moved to Bin (now Xungyi, Shaanxi) in the middle reaches of River Jing. The tribesmen, led by Gongliu, surveyed the source of water and planted food crops. As a result, agriculture and economy developed and there was a surplus in production.

5. During Gugondanfu's time, after a lapse of 9 generations, the tribe moved again to Zhouyuan (presently between Mt Qi and Fufeng in Shaanxi). This was how the name "Zhou" originated. Zhouyuan was situated on the plain along River Wei. It had fertile soil suitable for cultivation. Here, the people of Zhou developed agriculture energitically, laying the material foundation for the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty. Later, Gugondanfu was honoured with the title "Taiwang" ("Greatest King").

6. Guogandangfu set up official posts and founded a state. He instructed his descendants. "The State of Zhou will grow strong only if really talented men are employed". To achieve this goal, Gugondanfu searched for men of calibre everywhere. Employment was based on each individual's capabilitiesThe throne was not passed on to his eldest son; instead, it was passed on to the most capable younger son, Jili.

7. King Wending of the Shang Dynasty had appointed Jili "Livestock Officer" whose duty was to take charge of animal husbandry. The gradual growth or the Zhou nationality's strength evoked the Shang Dynasty's fear. Finding an excuse, King Wending had Jili killed later. Jili was succeeded by his son, Juchang, who was none other than the future King Wen. 

8. Juchang remembered well Gugondanfu's instructions. He showed great respect to talented men. At times, he received them without taking lunch due to pressure of time. Numerous capable men, upon hearing the news, went to King Wen to offer their services; among them were may well-known ministers of the Shang Dynasty.

9. King Zhou was infuriated when he learnt that the people of the Zhou state were gathering forces to stage a revolt against the Shang Dynasty. Immediately he had King Wen arrested and locked up at Youli (today's northern part of Tangyin County in Henan).

10. King Wen pretended to be ignorant in prison. His subordinates presented King Zhou with beautiful girls, fine horses and a large quantity of treasures to show the Shang Dynasty's "loyalty" to him. As expected, the avaricious monarch fell into the trap: He released King Wen, his suspicion having been dispelled.

11. After his release, King Wen went everywhere looking for talented men who could help him destroy the Shang Dynasty. One day he saw a white-haired old man fishing on the west bank of River Wei. The man had an extraordinary bearing. Whenever he lifted his fishing-rod, a big fish was hooked. King Wen was entranced.

12. He had a chat with the old man. The more they talked, the more congenial they became. The King admired him greatly for his incisive view of state administration. He asked him to board his carriage; together they went back to the city. This old man was called Jiang Ziya.

13. With Jiang's assistance, King Wen strengthened his military force and strove to form an alliance with the surrounding small states. They conquered 2 opposing tribes, Qianrong and Mixu (now Lintai, Gansu) in the west. Crossing the Yellow River, they exterminated Li and Han. After that, they returned and wiped out Chong, an ally in the western part of the Shang Dynasty, capturing a large number of prisoners-of-war. Henceforth, China was divided into 3 parts, of which 2 were possessed by the Zhou regime whose strength exceeded that of the Shang Dynasty.

14.  King Wen died of illness before fulfiling his wish to exterminate Shang. His 2nd son, Fa succeeded to the throne and was proclaimed King Wu. To carry on his father's will to conquer Shang, King Wu had Minister Wang as his guide and Zhougong Dan as his assistant. The first thing he did was the shift of the capital to Haojing from Feng. 

15. At this time, the Shang Dynasty's politics was corrupted and its people were against the government because King Zhou indulged in licentious activities and excessive drinking, employed incompetent men to fill official posts, abandoned his relatives, ignored ancestral worship and believed in God's will. Around with the armies of the numerous neighbouring minority-nationality states, to attack Shang.

16. The battle took place of Muye. The slave-soldiers of the Shang army, who could not bear oppression, turned back and staged a revolt. Seeing that the game was as good as lost, King Zhou fled to Chaoge, where he burnt himself to death in the raised pavilion.

17. When King Wu came to the sucide spot, he shot 3 arrows into King Zhou's corpse and cut off his head, which was hung above the white flag fo public viewing. He declared: "the Zhou Dynaty has exterminated the Shang Dynasty!" This event had been recorded on the bronze "cup" discovered at Lintong, Shaanxi, in the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

 Zhougong Dan Acted as Regent

1. After wiping out the Shang Dynasty, King Wu conquered its "zhuhou" in various places, basically capturing its original administrative region. To mitigate contradictions, King Wu conferred the title of "Yinhou" to King Zhou' son, Wugeng, who was to remain in the Shang capital to be made use of to control the subjects of the collapsed Shang Dynasty. At the same time, King Wu assigned his 3 brothers - Guanshu, Caishu and Huoshu - to Shang to keep watch on Wugeng. The trio were called "Three Supervisors" his history.

2. King Wu died of sickness 2 years after exterminating Shang. He was succeeded by his son Song who was proclaimed King Cheng. As the new king was very young, he was assisted in state administrationby King Wu's 4th younger brother, Zhougong Dan.

3. Guanshu, Caishu and Huoshu were displeased with Zhougong acting as regent, Caiptalising on the opportunity. Wugeng colluded with the trio and joined Xu, Yan, Pugu and other tribes of the minority-nationality states to launch a large-scale armed revolt.

4. Vowing loyalty to the Zhou regime, Zhougong assisted King Cheng wholeheartedly. He led an army resolutely on the eastern expedition. Before departure, he appealed to the people to carry on with the late King's cause and to punish the rebels.

5. After 3 years of arduous battle, Zhougong killed Wugeng and Guanshu and banished Caishu and others. He had the 5 states in the east exterminated and the rebellion suppressed. As a result of the eastern-expedition victory, the Zhou Dynasty's rule was enhanced and consolidated, paving the way for further development of its society and economy.

6. In order to control the vast newly-conquered region, the Zhou regime continued to use Shang's system of enfeoffment, under which royal kinsmen, meritorious ministers and previous-generation aristocrats were conferred the title of "zhuhou", thus founding the "zhuhou" states. Minister Wang received his fief in Qi, while Zhougong's son, Boqin, received his in Lu. Altogether 71 "zhuhou" states (including Lu, Qi, Yan, Wei, Song, Jin and Guo) were founded under the system of enfeoffment.

7. Zhougong was a well-known politician in the history of China. To deal with the Shang aristocracy's resistance, he flexibly employed a series of methods, such as suppression, disintegration and so on, basically destroying the possibility of organising resistance by the Shang people, Besides, he also formulated a cultured system (which was better that the Shang Dynasty's) for the Zhou-era slave-owners.

From A General History Of China
Pictorial Series In English & Chinese
© 1994 Canfonian Pte Ltd

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