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Zhou Dynasty

King Zhou, the last king of Shang dynasty was a despotic tyrant and was overthrown by the Zhou (no relation), a tribe from the west. The Zhou dynasty would become the longest ruling dynasty in Chinese history, lasting over 770 years. Initially the Zhou dynasty made its capital in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, but the capital was later moved east to Luoyang in Henan Province. Historians divide the Zhou dynasty into two, "Western Zhou" and "Eastern Zhou", because of this shift.


The king of the Western Zhou distributed his lands as fiefs to the nobles of his clan. These nobles then established vassal states around the Zhou capital, protecting the ruling authority in the centre. The Zhou rulers created an elaborate system of ceremonial rites with every rite matched to music and dance. The Zhou, as a method of control over their subjects, used these rites by explaining the nature of the Zhou's supremacy and legitimacy to rule. By performing the rituals, the Zhou believed they maintained the "Mandate of Heaven". As long as the ruling elite continued to have this mandate, their authority to rule remained divinely ordained.


During the rule of King Ping, the capital was moved to Luoyang to escape the threat of the Quanrong, a tribe from the west. This marked the beginning of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The Eastern Zhou is further subdivided into two periods, the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period.


The power of the Zhou kings was slowly whittled away as powerful nobles began to contend for power and only paid nominal homage to the king. Eventually the authority of the Zhou kings only extended to the territories immediately surrounding Luoyang. The most influential Zhou dukes became so powerful they were called "The Five Overlords of the Spring and Autumn Period."


Under a state of constant warfare and expansion, the social system of the Eastern Zhou changed radically. New technologies made their impact felt & the development of iron tools over stone tools coupled with the harnessing of animal power significantly increased agricultural production. With the expansion of agriculture, trade also grew and the first merchants and traders appeared.


The social classes also became more clearly defined into four groups; the scholar, peasant farmer, manual laborer and merchant. The social system outgrew the simplistic structure that the Western Zhou rites had established. However the society was in desperate need of a written code.


Enter Confucius, China's most influential teacher and philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 BC, during one of China's most turbulent periods. This was a transitional time, a period between dynasties when local warlords fought for supremacy; a reoccurring theme in Chinese history.


Confucius' theories and teachings would eventually be known simply as Confucianism. His core belief stresses the idea of ren, which can be translated as benevolence, something he felt that society sorely lacked. Confucius travelled extensively, hoping to influence local leaders. On his travels he picked up a large following of students who continued his teachings after his death, thus laying the foundation for the Confucian school of thought, which continues to influence Asia to this day.


Once the Zhou dynasty became nothing but a name, the battle for supremacy intensified. The most powerful of these competing kingdoms are known as the "Seven Overlords." Each competing kingdom sought any advantage they could find over their rivals as this was a dynamic time replete with reforms and stratagems. It was the Qin kingdom that most successfully reformed and adapted itself politically, economically and technologically to the changing times.


Under the Zhou, the ruling elite held a monopoly on power and were able to define what culture was. With the upheavals of the Warring States period, a new scholarly class emerged at the cultural forefront. These scholars formed differing schools of thought, each offering their services as advisors in hopes of gaining influence. Out of this developed the "Hundred Schools of Thought," which promoted the development of systematic learning.