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11th century - 256 B.C.

Western Zhou 11th century - 771 B.C.

Eastern Zhou 770 - 221 B.C.

Spring and Autumn period 771 - 476 B.C.
Warring States period 475 - 221 B.C.


The Zhou people were an agricultural tribe which had settled in the Wei Valley in modern Shaanxi Province. In the 11th century B.C. King Wu of the Zhou took advantage of the favourable opportunity presented by the absence of the Shang kings main military force, which was in the southeast attacking the Yi people. King Wu united the tribes discontented with the rule of the Shang and invaded the Yin subsidary capital Zhaoge. The hastily formed defensive force - primarily slaves impressed into service - quickly joined the attackers. The defeat of the remaining Shang soldiers put an end to the authority of the Shang royal house and with that, the longest dynasty in Chinese history.

The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other, from 1027 to 221 B.C. The Zhou dynasty had its first capital at Hao, near the city of Xi'an (Chang'an). The early Western Zhou period lasted for close to one hundred years. During this period Zhou culture remained fundamentally the same as Shang. Through conquest and colonization the early Zhou rulers gradually extended Shang culture through much of China Proper north of the Yangtze River.

In 771 B.C. the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invaders allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province.

Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027-771 B.C.) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). After the move the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished; the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated.

Eastern Zhou divides into two sub periods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).

The Zhou's early decentralized rule was a proto-feudal, more sophisticated version of earlier tribal organization where control depended more on familial ties than on legal bonds. The Zhou amalgam of city-states became progressively centralized and established increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which probably occurred in the latter Zhou period, were manifested in greater central control over local governments and a more routinized agricultural taxation.

The Hundred Schools of Thought
The School of Literati (ru) - the Confucian school
Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
Wu Qing - The Five Classics
Shi Shu - The Four Books
Mencius - Tianming - The Mandate of Heaven
Legalism (fa)
Yin-yang and the five elements

The Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, though marked by disunity and civil strife, witnessed an unprecedented era of cultural prosperity - the "golden age" of China. The atmosphere of reform and new ideas was attributed to the struggle for survival among warring regional lords who competed in building strong and loyal armies and in increasing economic production to ensure a broader base for tax collection. To effect these economic, military, and cultural developments, the regional lords needed ever-increasing numbers of skilled, literate officials and teachers, the recruitment of whom was based on merit. Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coinage and technological improvements. Iron came into general use, making possible not only the forging of weapons of war but also the manufacture of farm implements. Public works on a grand scale - such as flood control, irrigation projects, and canal digging - were executed. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad stretches of the northern frontier.

Map of China during the spring and autumn period 770-481 BC

So many different philosophies developed during the late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States periods that the era is often known as that of the Hundred Schools of Thought. From the Hundred Schools of Thought came many of the great classical writings on which Chinese practices were to be based for the next two and one-half millennia. Many of the thinkers were itinerant intellectuals who, besides teaching their disciples, were employed as advisers to one or another of the various state rulers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy.

The School of Literati (ru) - the Confucian school

The body of thought that had the most enduring effect on subsequent Chinese life was that of the School of Literati (ru), often called the Confucian school in the West. The written legacy of the School of Literati is embodied in the Confucian Classics, which were to become the basis for the order of traditional society.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

Confucius, also called Kong Zi or "Master Kong", looked to the early days of Zhou rule for an ideal social and political order. He believed that the only way such a system could be made to work properly was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject," he said, but he added that to rule properly a king must be virtuous. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. His ideal was the junzi (ruler's son), which came to mean gentleman in the sense of a cultivated or superior man.

The principles of Confucianism are contained in the nine ancient Chinese works handed down by Confucius and his followers. These writings can be divided into two groups: the Five Classics and the Four Books.

Wu Qing - The Five Classics

The Wu Qing originated before the time of Confucius. They consists of the I Qing - The (Book of Changes, Shu Qing - The Book of History, Shi Qing The Book of Poetry, Li Chi The Book of Rites and Chun Chiu The Spring and Autumn Annals.

The I Qing is a manual of divination probably compiled before the 11th century BC; its supplementary philosophical portion, contained in a series of appendixes, may have been written later by Confucius and his disciples.

The Shu Qing is a collection of ancient historical documents, and the Shi Qing, an anthology of ancient poems.

The Li Chi deals with the principles of conduct, including those for public and private ceremonies; it was destroyed in the 3d century BC, but presumably much of its material was preserved in a later compilation, the Record of Rites.

The Chun Chiu, the only work reputedly compiled by Confucius himself, is a chronicle of major historical events in feudal China from the 8th century BC to Confucius's death early in the 5th century BC.

Shi Shu - The Four Books

The Shi Shu are compilations of the sayings of Confucius and Mencius and of commentaries by followers on their teachings. They are the Lun Yu - The Analects is a collection of maxims by Confucius that form the basis of his moral and political philosophy. The Ta Hsueh - The Great Learning - and the Chung Yung - The Doctrine of the Mean - contains some of Confucius's philosophical utterances arranged systematically with comments and expositions by his disciples. The Mencius - The Book of Mencius contains the teachings of Mencius.

Mencius (Mengzi)

Mencius (372-289 B.C.), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven".

The Mandate of Heaven, Tianming

The "Mandate of Heaven" - Tianming - was the notion that the ruler - the "son of heaven" - governed by divine right but, that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate.

The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the two earlier dynasties and at the same time supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers.

The effect of the combined work of Confucius - the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior - and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life.

There were to be accretions to the corpus of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, and from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations made to suit or influence contemporary society made Confucianism dynamic while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts.

Legalism (Fa)

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi contended that a person is born with an evil nature and that goodness is attainable only through moral education and conduct befitting one's status. He believed that desires should be guided and restrained by the rules of propriety and that character should be molded by an orderly observance of rites and by the practice of music. This code serves as a powerful influence on character by properly directing emotions and by providing inner harmony. Xun Zi was the main exponent of ritualism in Confucianism. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion.

Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (Fa) or - Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly.

The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century.


Taoism (or Daoism in pinyin), the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.).

The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.

The school of yin-yang and the five elements

Another strain of thought dating to the Warring States Period is the school of yin-yang and the five elements. The theories of this school attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature, the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In later periods these theories came to have importance both in philosophy and in popular belief.


Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (470-391 B.C.?), or Mo Di. Mo Zi believed that "all men are equal before God" and that mankind should follow heaven by practicing universal love. Advocating that all action must be utilitarian, Mo Zi condemned the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacificism.

Mo Zi also believed that unity of thought and action were necessary to achieve social goals. He maintained that the people should obey their leaders and that the leaders should follow the will of heaven. Although Moism failed to establish itself as a major school of thought, its views are said to be "strongly echoed" in Legalist thought. In general, the teachings of Mo Zi left an indelible impression on the Chinese mind.

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The text is based on, CHINA - a Country Study by Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, Edited by Robert L. Worden, Andrea Matles Savada and Ronald E. Dolan. Research Completed July 1987. This version and Webpage © Jan-Erik Nilsson, Gothenburg, Sweden, 2002