21: Western Chou (1122-771 BCE)

China Page

Chou dynasty (1122-249 BCE): Western & Eastern

Let us now move on to the firmly historical Chou dynasty of China. According to legend, the Shang dynasty degenerated into tyranny, at which point the Chou state overthrew them and established China’s longest dynasty. Not only was it the longest, it was also considered the classic time of Chinese culture.

Shang Review

What was going on in China as we enter into the classic Chou Dynasty? The Shang imperial dynasty probably had roots in the Siberian hunter/fisher culture from the north. They established a military aristocracy that was overlaid upon a peasant agrarian society with roots in the Neolithic fertility cultures. During the period of the Shang dynasty, Chinese culture was influenced by the nomadic bronze military cultures of Central Asia, the craft oriented societies of Southeast Asia, the indigenous agrarian cultures and also the Siberian hunter cultures. The Shang established many features of classic Chinese culture. These included ancestor worship, a reverence for writing, warrior training for the aristocracy, and an emphasis upon ritual as a way of appeasing the gods. During this time, clan and state were differentiated as well the cults of power and fertility. Under the Shang, political power was centralized. This centralization was essential to both organize a collective defense against the aggressive nomadic cultures on their borders as well as controlling the erratic floodwaters of the powerful Yellow River.

Degeneration of the Shang

According to legend, the later Emperors of the Shang became even more cruel and violent. More importantly, they began to neglect the welfare of their subjects. Instead of providing protection, they suppressed the peasantry. Enter Stage Left. Accustomed to battling the nomads from the north, the Chou from a western province overthrew the Shang in 1122 BCE. The righteous save the day. They seize the Mandate of Heaven and the 9 Imperial ting.

Based upon location of capital

From the northern boundaries of China, the state of Chou invaded and overthrew the Shang dynasty. During the last years of the Shang, King Wên of the Chou was in control of over two thirds of the Shang territories.1 It was his son, King Wu, who finished the job. Probably cultural cousins of the Shang, the Chou had grown tougher due to fighting ‘barbarians’ to their north and west. Their capital of Hao in Shensi was located in what is now Western China. For over 300 years the Chou ruled China from their western capital. This period is called the Western Chou.

Chou forced east

In 771 BCE, ‘barbarians’, i.e. non-Chinese, sacked the traditional capital of Chou in the west and the Chou king was killed. The dynasty regrouped and moved their capital east. This period is called the Eastern Chou. Hence the long Chou dynasty is divided into two main parts: the Western Chou and the Eastern Chou based upon the location of their capitals.

Western is Classic Chou

The Western Chou is considered classic because the Chinese empire was strong at that time. During the Eastern Chou, the Emperors were only figureheads, as they only had limited power. The Holy Roman Empire was in a similar position in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Chinese deem the Western Chou Period as the ideal model for Chinese imperial government.

Standard transition from agricultural Neolithic to military Bronze

We’ve seen that China made the standard cultural transition from the egalitarian craft and trade oriented Neolithic culture to the hierarchical military oriented Bronze Age culture, as did the rest of the Eurasian continent. The inevitable transition occurred much earlier on the rest of the Eurasia-African land mass. This was primarily because the Bronze Age military technology based upon the chariot took some time to spread eastward to China. As in the rest of the world, the agrarian Neolithic culture went underground and became a counter culture to the military aristocracy that ruled the country. This was especially true in China.

Chou a continuation of Shang imperial tradition

An ancient war-based Bronze Age culture was overlaid on the agricultural Neolithic culture that preceded it. Then the Chou dynasty replaced this patriarchal culture of the Shang dynasty. However the Chou dynasty was only a continuation of the same culture under a new name. The Imperial Chinese tradition continued uninterrupted by the change of dynasty.2

Western Chou: Classic China: Traditional history

Let us look a little deeper into the transition between the Shang and Chou dynasties.

According to historical legend, Chou Hsin, the last Shang ruler, imprisoned Wên Wang, (literally the ‘Cultured King’), the ruler of the principality of Chou, for protesting against injustice. Wên Wang’s son, Wu Wang, the ‘Martial King’, secured his father’s release. After his father’s death, he overthrew the Shang tyrant Chou Hsin with the aid of a coalition of princes and established himself as the first monarch of the Chou dynasty. Wu Wang then died unexpectedly. His brother, Chou Kung, the Duke of Chou, then assumed leadership ruled as regent. At the appropriate time, he relinquished control to Wu Wang’s son, Ch’eng Wang, the ‘Completing King’. Orthodox Chinese historians consider this period ideal. Let us see why.

The ‘Sage Kings of Old’

The ‘sage kings of old’, referred to frequently in Chinese culture, are Wên Wang, his sons, Wu Wang and Chou Kung, and grandson, Ch’eng Wang. The idealized behavior of these rulers has had tremendous influence upon the expectations of the Chinese towards their rulers and government, and subsequently the political development of China.

Wên Wang, the Cultured King, an inspirational example of imperial leadership

The patriarch, Wên Wang, was the ‘Cultured King’. He was the father of both the Duke of Chou and Wu Wang. Furthermore, he championed the rights of the populace by organizing resistance to the last Shang tyrant. According to legend, the father, King Wên of the state of Chou, was disturbed by the injustice of the Shang tyrant. Because of this, he reluctantly created an alliance of nobles to overthrow the Shang. Because of his efforts he was imprisoned. While in jail, Wên Wang composed the I Ching, ‘the Classic of Changes’. This work dealt with a categorization and interpretation of life’s changes based upon yin-yang theory.3 The effort to create a political alliance was inspired by empathy towards the sufferings of the peasantry. His literary effort, the I Ching, was an effort to assist everyone in the understanding of life’s changes. Because of these efforts, King Wên is portrayed as the champion of the rights of the average citizen. Because of his philosophical concerns, he is considered the ‘Cultured King’, a title bestowed upon him posthumously. This is why he is rightfully considered a Sage King of Old. Wên Wang’s example continues to be an inspiration to Chinese leadership. In some ways, he is the archetypal enlightened leader that everyone hopes for.

Wu Wang, the Warrior King

Wu Wang, Wên’s son, completed his father’s work. He freed his father, sacked Yin, the capital of the Shang dynasty, and became the first king of the Chou dynasty. He left Chou princes in charge of the Shang capital and returned to Chou. Shortly after he died, leaving his infant son in charge of the new dynasty. The Chou hereditary tradition was strictly based in primogeniture, i.e. the eldest son becomes the next king, as with the European monarchy. Because Wu Wang’s eldest son was still a youth, the Duke of Chou, i.e. Chou Kung, assumed control as regent.

Duke of Chou establishes multiple Chinese legacies

The accomplishments of the patriarch, Wên Wang, were definitely significant and the efforts of his son, King Wu, certainly established the Chou dynasty. However, the achievements of Wang's other son, the Duke of Chou, were greater still.

First quells insurrection of Shang

The Duke of Chou had been left a fledgling kingdom. The Chou princes had been left in charge of Yin, the capital of the Shang dynasty. With the support of the remaining Shang aristocracy, they revolted upon King Wu’s death. The Duke of Chou spent the next three years fighting the insurrection. After the fighting ended, the highlands and eastern lowlands of northern China were united for the first time.

Establishes 3 major legacies for China

The Duke of Chou left at least three major legacies for China. First, he established the feudal system, the dominant social form under the Chou dynasty for almost 1000 years. Second, he originated and propounded the concept of Mandate of Heaven. Third, he set the standard of the duties of a good ruler, which included responsibility for the well being of his subjects. Further, Chou Kung provided the fundamental inspiration to the incredibly influential Confucius as to the possibilities of leadership.

China’s Feudal system

Let us begin our discussion of the Duke of Chou’s contributions with the feudal system. He instituted this political structure to establish control over a larger part of China. The high western plains of the Yellow River were quite distant from the eastern lowlands of the coast and needed a more efficient political organization to be governed properly.


The feudal system begins when allies and generals are rewarded with the political control of provinces in exchange for allegiance, especially in military matters. The feudal system continues when loyalty and support to the imperial order are passed down father to son, generation after generation. The cooperation that was required to organize militarily to defend or attack was incorporated into the political system. Rather than allowing it to dissipate, the cooperative energy was institutionalized.

Of course, military cooperation is employed for mutual defense or aggression. A military alliance brings the initial success in defense or attack. This alliance then provides the glue for the following political dynasty. The strength of imperial cooperation is then passed down through multiple generations until it almost becomes genetic. The feudal system has been such a successful political technology that it has been utilized in a multitude of different cultural contexts.

Incredibly successful political technology

According to legend, the Duke of Chou feudalized China about 1100 BCE. This political organization proved so effective that it was the dominant political form in China for almost 1000 years. The ‘First Emperor’ deliberately dismantled the system about 200 BCE.  Some 700 years after China was feudalized, in about 300 BCE, Alexander the Great, in Persia and Greece, awarded his generals with political provinces. This eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire. About 1000 years later in 700 CE Charles Martel, grandfather of Charles the Great, a.k.a. Charlemagne, set up the feudal system in Europe as a network of mutual protection against the expanding Moslem Empire. The feudal system dominated European politics for another 1000 years. It is obvious that the feudal system is an incredibly powerful political technology.

The Military Aristocracy both defends and exploits the Peasantry

Factors behind success

There were multiple factors behind the success of the feudal system. Ironically, it was these same factors that led to its eventual demise. The first and most obvious strength of the system was that it provided an effective method for mutual defense from external attack, for instance the Western Europeans against the Spanish Moors. A second feature of this system was that it encouraged empire expansion. With increased military capabilities, the leader was more tempted to employ the feudal army offensively. Further the expansion provided more territory with which to reward loyal generals and sons. The third, and most insidious, factor behind the success of the feudal system was that it proved to be an incredibly effective arrangement whereby relatively few members of the military aristocracy were able to dominate the multitudes of the agricultural peasantry.

Military aristocracy allied against the peasantry

Throughout history, the aristocracy has regularly left personal differences behind to band together against the peasantry. The power establishment has supported military dictators worldwide regardless of race, color, or creed. Indeed, the collective global force is more frequently applied against peasant uprisings than against military dictators4. The military dictators are only at risk if they threaten the global order.5

Inevitable splintering

Frequently, the initial loyalty that led to military strength and cohesion in the feudal system degrades into internal conflict and disunity after multiple generations. This pattern certainly holds true for China. While military cooperation worked well initially to overthrow the Shang and establish the Chou dynasty under a feudal system, it eventually led to a splintering of the Chou kingdom into separate feudal states. How long can you keep dividing the pie?

Peasantry welcomes the Military Aristocracy

For the price of protection, the peasantry often welcomed the military aristocracy. The threat of Moslem invasion followed by the annual raids of Viking invaders threw, the European peasantry into the arms of the Frankish chieftains. In a hostile environment, the military aristocracy makes a lot of sense, especially if the rulers are able to enforce political stability. Better exploitation than rape and pillage.  This was especially true in China, whose rich agricultural lands were easy prey to nomadic raiders. They built the Great Wall to protect themselves from these hostile neighbors to the north. The military might of the Chou dynasty probably created a great amount of security for the agricultural peasantry.

More chance of justice on the larger political levels

Further there is frequently more corruption on the lower levels of the political organization than on the larger. Many times we appeal for justice to the highest levels to bypass local exploitation. The Chou under Chou Kung were probably more just to their citizenry than many of the smaller states that he brought under control. In summary, the feudal system provided the agricultural peasantry with both protection and exploitation.

Mandate of Heaven

The Duke of Chou’s second legacy, the concept of Mandate of Heaven, was probably in response to the Shang aristocracy.

An Excuse for Legitimacy

Presumably the Shang aristocracy claimed that the Chou were illegally usurping their throne. According to the Shang, they were the hereditary and rightful rulers of China. The Duke of Chou responded with his famous argument that the Chou had the Mandate of Heaven. The Shang had offended Heaven by their degeneration into tyranny. Heaven had then given the mandate to the Chou. Reluctantly responding to the call, the Chou organized a revolt and overthrew the Shang. Because of their success, Heaven approved.

Concept has dominated Chinese politics

The Mandate of Heaven concept has dominated Chinese politics ever since the Duke of Chou first enunciated it. This differs from the European dynastic succession in that a Chinese ruler can and did come from any class of society to establish control of the government. If he is successful in establishing control, then Heaven has granted its approval. Of course the longer the dynasty lasts, the more Heaven approves. The Chinese reason that because the Chou lasted so long, Heaven must have really approved of their political system. Because the following Ch’in dynasty was so short, Heaven must not have approved of their system. Of course, Heaven must have initially approved in that the Ch’in were permitted to gain control of China. Genghis Khan and his heirs used the concept to create their dynasty. The Chinese granted legitimacy to each of their conquerors and included them as legitimate dynasties.6 The Chinese were less impressed with royal blood and more swayed with this Mandate of Heaven. If successful, then Heaven by definition must approve.

We are the way we are because God made us that way

The ruling class in many societies has used a similar justification.

“I am ruler because God wants me to be ruler. If he had wanted you to be ruler then he would have made you the ruler.”

Rulers have responsibility with privilege

The rulers of even the earliest tribes and kingdoms had great responsibility to their people. On the tribal level, a leader who wasn’t successful was deposed for survival reasons. On the feudal level, the leader who was unable to provide protection for his subjects was replaced. The Chinese relationship between ruler and subject went two ways, not just one. The ruler was given special privileges because he had special responsibilities, not solely because he had royal blood.

Ancient concept verbalized by the Duke of Chou

As such, the Mandate of Heaven is actually a very ancient concept. Our tribal leader gets the best parts of the hunt because he is the strongest and protects us from harm. But should he fail in his duties to the tribe then he will be replaced with someone who can offer protection. The Duke of Chou probably didn’t originate the concept of Mandate of Heaven. It is likely however that he was the first to eloquently verbalize this ancient concept for the Chinese.

Confucius a follower of the Duke of Chou

Confucius looked to the Duke of Chou as the ideal ruler, the sage-king of old. He based his own theories on the concepts first proposed by the Duke of Chou. Hence the Duke of Chou had a foundational influence upon Confucius, who himself was one of the most influential of Chinese philosophers. If Confucius is considered the father of Chinese politics, then the Duke of Chou must be considered its grandfather.

Stability, not freedom

A huge difference between the Chinese and the citizens of the Western democracies is based around the polarity of stability and freedom. The Chinese granted great privileges to their rulers, but they demanded political stability from them. Because of the predominantly agricultural nature of Chinese society, social stability is needed to feed the population. The farmers therefore demanded political stability first and foremost to cultivate and sell their crops. Political freedom for the agricultural Chinese is secondary to political stability. Freedom without food is a meaningless concept.

Modern Chinese Communism logical choice

This helps us to understand why the Chinese consolidated under a dictatorial Communist system. Communism has not provided freedom, but it has provided the social stability necessary to provide food for one billion people. Remember that the Chinese also consolidated under the early Xia dynasty to control the flooding of the Yellow River. We will see this Chinese tendency to consolidate under a dictatorship after a period of social chaos repeated frequently during the millennia of Chinese history.

Ruler's Responsibility: Welfare of the Citizenry

Not only did the Duke of Chou ‘talk the talk’ of good government, he also ‘walked the walk’ by being an excellent leader.

Ruler has responsibility for the well-being of his subjects

The Duke of Chou reasoned that because of the Chou success in overthrowing the Shang that obviously Heaven wanted the rulers to govern their subjects justly. Heaven was displeased with the Shang tyranny and pleased with the Chou leadership that had the well being of its subjects in mind. Furthermore he trained the young prince in these precepts. When he came of age, the Duke of Chou relinquished control to him. Evidently the prince did a good job because he is called, Ch’eng Wang, the Completing King.

Spotless in execution of duty.

The Duke of Chou was spotless in executing his duty. First he willingly trained the young prince to replace him. He was not the wicked uncle attempting to seize the control of the growing country by threatening his nephew’s life. He was uncorrupted by power. He willingly relinquished control to someone he had trained. This precedent of willingly relinquishing control was indeed followed by some of the later Emperors. This easy transition of power encourages the essential peace and stability in the agricultural countryside.

Opponents incorporated rather than vanquished

Furthermore, instead of vanquishing and obliterating his opponents, the Shang, he incorporated them in his success. He permitted the Shang to rule the small state of Sung and to continue their sacrifices to their ancestors.

“A powerful regent known to history as the Duke of Chou (Chou Kung) consolidated the Empire, set up feudal states and parceled out the Shang domains among other vassals though he took care to permit the descendants of Shang to rule in the little state of Sung so that they could keep up the hereditary sacrifices to their ancestral spirits. Chou Kung was the chief architect of the Chou dynasty.”7

Contrast this with the Aegean's treatment of their fellow Greeks, the Trojans, whom were obliterated from the earth. Or the treatment of the Protestants versus the Catholics versus the Moslems versus the Jews versus the Palestinians, during the long interconnected Middle Eastern and European history. In treating his opponents with tolerance and respect, the Duke of Chou established national continuity and pride. The former rulers were not inherently bad; they had just strayed from the path, the tao, of proper government.

Respect for the Mandate of Heaven, backbone of Chinese system

Thus the Duke of Chou in gracefully passing leadership onto his nephew and in treating the preceding Shang rulers with respect and tolerance, set precedents that have reverberated throughout Chinese history. His only requirement of his opponents was that they respect his Mandate of Heaven. This is the dominant spine of the tolerant Chinese politico-religious system, setting everything in order. Anyone can believe anything one wants as long as it does not challenge the political authority. If it challenges the political authority, the retribution is severe.


In summary, the Western Chou is considered classic China. Part of the reason for this is that the first Emperors of the Chou dynasty were such excellent rulers. Because of this they are considered “Sage Kings of Old”. The Duke of Chou was the main hero. He instituted the feudal system in China. He articulated the philosophy of the Mandate of Heaven. He also set the example of the ideal ruler, training his successor in good government and then abdicating peacefully.


1 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, p. 41

2 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p. 41

3 Although the I Ching is used frequently in fortune telling, it is actually just a catalog of the different changes we can expect to see in life. The fortune telling only connects the specific changes with specific points of life.

4 The might of the Western world was raised against the peasant uprising in Vietnam. First the French and then the Americans with all of their western allies employed military action against the Vietnamese for 30 years, unsuccessfully. Indeed the United States with its military might extended the war into the entirety of Southeast Asia bombing Laos and Cambodia mercilessly. With the overthrow of the Manchus the western aristocracies banded with their enemies Japan and Russia to attempt to dominate the peasant uprising in China. Further while the Western world still trades with Saddam Hussein, a classic military dictator, one cannot even own a Cuban cigar from the country with the best preschool care for children in the Western Hemisphere.

5 The other major examples of global action were when members of the club challenged the global political order. Of course World War I and II, and the Gulf War are examples of this type of global military action.

6 A good contrast to this is the example of Oliver Cromwell in England. Although he ruled over Britain for over a decade, he is not included in their list of kings. Although his influence was great, he was not of royal blood and so had no legitimacy. He was considered a peasant usurper, not a real king. In China the Mongols and Manchus were both invaders from outside of China who set up ‘legitimate’ Chinese dynasties.

7 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, p. 41


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments