The Ancient Chinese Chou Dynasty

The Longest Lasting Dynasty of Ancient China

Relics from the Zhou Dynasty

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The Chou or Zhou dynasty ruled China from about 1027 to about 221 B.C. It was the longest dynasty in Chinese history and the time when much of ancient Chinese culture developed.

The Chou Dynasty followed the second Chinese dynasty, the Shang. Originally pastoralists, the Chou set up a (proto-)feudal social organization based on families with administrative bureaucracy. They also developed a middle class. Although a decentralized tribal system at the beginning, the Zhou became centralized over time. Iron was introduced and Confucianism developed. Also during this long era, Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, in about 500 B.C.

Chinese Philosophers and Religion

During the Warring States period within the Chou dynasty, a class of scholars developed, whose members included the great Chinese philosopher Confucius. The Book of Changes was written during the Chou Dynasty. The philosopher Lao Tse was appointed librarian for the historical records of the Chou kings. This period is sometimes referred to as the One Hundred Schools Period.

The Chou banned human sacrifice. They saw their success over the Shang as a mandate from heaven. Ancestor worship developed.

The Start of the Chou Dynasty

Wuwang ("Warrior King") was the son of the leader of the Chou (Zhou), who were located on the western border of the Shang's China in what is now Shaanxi province. Wuwang formed a coalition with the leaders of other states to defeat the last, evil ruler of the Shang. They succeeded and Wuwang became the first king of the Chou dynasty (c.1046 to 43 B.C.).

Division of the Chou Dynasty

Conventionally, the Chou dynasty is divided into the Western or Royal Chou (c.1027 to 771 B.C.) and the Dong or Eastern Chou (c.770 to 221 B.C.) periods. The Dong Zhou itself is subdivided into the Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu) period (c.770 to 476 B.C.), which was named for a book supposedly by Confucius and when iron weapons and farm implements replaced bronze, and the Warring States (Zhanguo) period (c.475 to 221 B.C.).

At the start of the Western Chou, the empire of the Chou extended from Shaanxi to the Shandong peninsula and the Beijing area. The first kings of the Chou dynasty gave land to friends and relatives. Like the two previous dynasties, there was a recognized leader who passed power to his descendants. The vassals' walled cities, also passed down patriarchally, developed into kingdoms. By the end of the Western Chou, the central government had lost all but nominal power, such as was required for rituals.

During the Warring States period, the aristocratic system of warfare changed: peasants fought; there were new weapons, including crossbows, chariots, and iron armor.

Developments During the Chou Dynasty

During the Chou dynasty in China, ox-drawn plows, iron and iron casting, horseback riding, coinage, multiplication tables, chopsticks, and the crossbow were introduced. Roads, canals, and major irrigation projects were developed.


Legalism developed during the Warring States period. Legalism is a school of philosophy that provided the philosophical background for the first imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. Legalism accepted that humans are flawed and asserted that political institutions should recognize this. Therefore the state should be authoritarian, demanding strict obedience to the leader, and meting out known rewards and punishments.

Resources and Further Reading

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Gill, N.S. "The Ancient Chinese Chou Dynasty." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). The Ancient Chinese Chou Dynasty. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Ancient Chinese Chou Dynasty." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).