Chou Dynasty

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Chou Dynasty

Type of Government

The Chou dynasty of ancient China governed its territories through a system of feudalism headed by a hereditary monarchy. In the latter half of the dynasty, political power shifted to the rulers of autonomous regional states, who employed professional civil servants.


The Chou dynasty was the last of three hereditary dynasties—the Hsia, Shang, and Chou—that ruled ancient China. The Chou was the longest-running dynasty in Chinese history, spanning almost a millennium (1122–221 BC). The Chou dynasty is divided into two periods. From 1122 to 771 BC it is known as the Western Chou, and from 770 to 221 BC it is called the Eastern Chou. The latter is further divided into the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) and the Warring States period (475–221 BC). Despite its longevity, the Chou dynasty was marked by political chaos as it followed a path from centralized monarchy to decentralized state authority and, ultimately, to imperial rule.

The Chou was preceded by the Shang dynasty, even though archaeological evidence suggests that the two shared some elements of a common culture and may have coexisted for a time. According to Chinese history, the Chou dynasty was established in the eleventh or twelfth century BC, when King Wu Wang (d. 1115 BC), the ruler of the western frontier state of Chou, overthrew Chou Hsin (c. 1154–c. 1122 BC), the last Shang king. Wu justified his attack by proclaiming that he had a “mandate from heaven” to rescue the suffering Shang. In reality, it is likely that the decentralized political system through which the Shang controlled its territories had weakened, providing an opportunity for the Chou to overtake the faltering dynasty.

The transition from Shang to Chou was marked by the introduction of the concept of heaven, which the Chou thought of as the moral power of the universe. Central to this worldview was the idea that the rule of the Chou king was a gift bestowed by heaven: If the king acted properly, his mandate to rule would be retained and the kingdom would flourish; however, if the king neglected his duties or acted tyrannically, his mandate would be revoked and the kingdom would descend into chaos. Thus, moral values came to be associated with the conduct of government; this idea would be taken up by the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC).

The Shang had ruled through a decentralized system of vassalage based on a strong mutual sense of obligation. The early Chou rulers developed this political form into a more tightly bound system of feudalism held together by kinship ties. All relationships between the king and the nobility were forged by kinship and marriage—every level of the political hierarchy was, in effect, an extension of the royal family. By 800 BC the feudal system comprised some two hundred lords.

As the Chou enlarged its territory, however, kinship ties became more diluted and regional lords gained greater power. As a result, the king’s control began to wane. By the eighth century BC the Chou dynasty was straining under pressure from non-Chinese groups and rebellious states that it was attempting to control, and in 771 BC the Chou capital of Hao was sacked, bringing the Western Chou dynasty—and with it, the central authority of the monarchy—to an end.

The Eastern Chou dynasty was characterized by political disorder and violence. During the Spring and Autumn period (named for a series of historical annals published at the time), Chou lands were split up into fifteen major states and several smaller fiefdoms, each of which had autonomy over its affairs. The king continued to handle ceremonial and religious functions but lacked any real military or political power. This decentralized system bred rivalry and warfare among the states that escalated over time. During the Warring States period the states coalesced once again as a handful of powerful rulers consolidated their authority and struggled for dominance.

Government Structure

Under the Western Chou dynasty, territories were governed through a system of feudalism headed by a hereditary monarchy. All land in the kingdom belonged to the Chou king, who distributed it to his nobles, all of whom were bound to him through kinship ties. The Chinese nobility comprised a fixed hierarchy of nobles who held the titles of gong, hou, bo, zi, and nan (roughly translated as “duke,” “marquis,” “earl,” “viscount,” and “baron”). Each noble was given control of a parcel of land and the title “lord,” in return for which he made appearances at court, recruited workers for public projects, and provided military assistance to the king. This relationship was repeated down the social hierarchy as greater nobles made similar arrangements with lesser nobles. Titles passed through the male line from father to son. Each lord appointed his own administrative and military officials, whose offices were also hereditary.

Under the Eastern Chou dynasty, the king was reduced to performing only ceremonial and religious functions; indeed, he was king in name only. Political power shifted to the state rulers, some of whom went so far as to adopt the title “king.” In this decentralized system the administration of the states became more complex, requiring competent and trained public servants. Rather than delegate their authority, as under the feudal system, these rulers enlisted a new cadre of educated bureaucrats known as shi, whose service was based on merit rather than on family ties. The great Chinese philosophers Confucius and Mencius (c. 371–c. 289 BC) were members of the shi.

Political Parties and Factions

During the Chou dynasty, political thought was divided among three camps that both competed and coexisted with one another: Confucianism, Taoism, and legalism.

Confucianism, which was based on Confucius’s philosophy, argued that domestic order was a product of the moral and religious integrity of the ruler, who acted out of a sense of responsibility to his people. It was also the outcome of a well-structured, hierarchical society in which everyone accepted their place and acted in accordance with their status. Thus, Confucianism emphasized moral virtue and order—chiefly embodied in the king—as the keys to good government. It held up the feudal system of the early Chou as the ideal.

Taoism, which was premised on the teachings of Lao-tzu (sixth century BC), advocated a more hands-off method of governance. For Lao-tzu, ambition and desire were the chief ills of society, and thus the best structure of government was a system of small, autonomous villages, each living by its own means in harmony with one another. According to this theory, government should do little, leaving the people to their individual freedom.

Finally, legalism, so called because of its emphasis on laws, was the most stringent of the ideologies. Legalism maintained that the moral qualities of the ruler were irrelevant to good government—that order depended instead on effective institutional structures and practical political solutions to contemporary problems. The legalists advocated a strict system of laws, applied objectively and equally to everyone. With an effective legal system, they believed, a ruler could let government run itself.

Major Events

The Western and Eastern Chou dynasties were demarcated by 771 BC, when the Chou capital of Hao was sacked by foreign invaders from the north, who were aided by rebel Chinese states. The last Western Chou ruler, King You (d. 771 BC), was killed. Thereafter, the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang, a location that was considered safer. However, the move marked a turning point in the history of the Chou dynasty: from that point on, the Chou kings played a much less central role in governance.


From the chaos of the Warring States period, the Ch’in state emerged as the dominant power by consolidating authority and eliminating its enemies. In 221 BC the last Chou ruler was deposed. The Ch’in eventually formed the first centralized empire in Chinese history under King Cheng (c. 259–210 BC), who became known as the “First Sovereign Emperor.” Regardless, the hierarchical, ritual-based system of government developed by the early Chou rulers remained an ideal for Confucian scholars.

Jun, Li. Chinese Civilization in the Making, 1766–221 BC. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Li, Feng. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou, 1045–771 BC. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.