How the Zhou Dynasty Ruled Ancient China for Almost a Millennium

Bronze vessels from Zhou Dynasty at the Baoji Bronze Museum in Baoji of Shaanxi Province, China.
Bronze vessels from Zhou Dynasty at the Baoji Bronze Museum in Baoji of Shaanxi Province, China. (Photo by Andrew Wong/Getty Images)


The Zhou dynasty, also known as Chou, ruled China for nearly 1,000 years, from about 1046 to 256 B.C. No other dynasty ruled China for as long. Accordingly, the traits of the Zhou dynasty continued to characterize China for millennia.

Initially, the Zhou coexisted with their predecessors, the Shang Dynasty, but they later fought with these rulers, gaining dominance after a battle in the middle of the 11th century.

The Shang would rebel in the years following, however, but their efforts to thwart the Zhou proved futile.

The Zhou lived to the west of the Shang in what is now Shensi (Shaanxi) province. The Zhou dynasty capital was originally in Hao (Zongzhou).

In 722 B.C., the Zhou dynasty capital moved east to Luoyang (in modern Henan province).

The Zhou dynasty empire was proto-feudal with at least 20 feudal lords maintained by an extended family network. This helped the emperor have a far-reaching grip on the land under his control. Power had shifted by 771 B.C., which explains why the earlier period is now referred to as the Western Zhou (Hsi Zhou) dynasty and the later period, the Eastern Zhou (Tung Zhou). The Eastern Zhou is divided into a Spring and Autumn period as well as a Warring States period.

By the Spring and Autumn period, the power of the king had waned and was split among the feudal chiefs, with the king as more of a figurehead in charge of ancestor worship than an administrator.

The family networks that had maintained the empire began to crumble. Battles for power characterized the Spring and Autumn period. Named after Confucian book Chunqiu, this period spanned 722 to 479 B.C.

“Survival required coalitions, both political and economic, as well as the accumulation of productive wealth,” according to


As a result, during the Zhou dynasty, ox-drawn ploughs, iron, horseback riding, coinage, chopsticks and the crossbow were introduced. Roads, canals, and major irrigation projects were developed. High walls that offered the local nobles protection from each other and wandering tribes emerged. A focus on intellect also marked this period, as the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism had begun to spread.

The Zhou dynasty met its end when the smaller states that made up the empire merged together and warred with each other for power. Eventually the small kingdom of Qin defeated its rivals and established the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.

Alternate Spellings of Zhou dynasty: Chou dynasty

Examples of Zhou dynasty in a sentence: "Chinese historians have long recognized ... conflict between theory and fact by dividing the Zhou period into early or western Zhou..., during which the dynasty really exerted authority, and later or eastern Zhou, subdivided into the 'Spring and Autumn' period...during which powerful feudal nobles took over de facto control as 'Protectors,' and the 'Warring States' period..., which was what the name implies."

"Periodization of Chinese History," by Meribeth E. Cameron. The Pacific Historical Review, Vol.

15, No. 2 (Jun., 1946), pp. 171-177.

Sources include:

"Ancient China - The Yellow River Culture

"Timetable of Chinese History

More on the Chou

Spring and Autumn Period - Chinese history

Go to Other Ancient / Classical History Glossary pages beginning with the letter

a | b | c | d | e | f | g | h | i | j | k | l | m | n | o | p | q | r | s | t | u | v | wxyz