Kings Wen (the Literary or Cultivated) and his son Wu (the Martial) are the founders of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty, c. 1122–256 b.c.e. The Zhou people lived to the west of the Shang in the Wei River valley on the plain of Zhou (hence the dynastic name) in present-day Sha’anxi (Shensi) Province, west of the Shang heartland.
Both were descended from the Neolithic Longshan (Lungshan) culture, but the Zhou people were less cultivated. The Shang oracle bones described them as sometimes enemies and also as allies against the Jiang (Chiang) barbarian tribes further west. A Zhou leader was also referred to as “Chief of the West,” to whom a Shang noblewoman was given in marriage. A son was born of the union, King Wen.
King Wen was described as a paragon of virtue. Wen paved the way for overthrowing the Shang dynasty by forming coalitions with other states but died in the 50th year of his reign, about 1133 b.c.e., before he could accomplish his goal. Since Zhou rulers practiced primogeniture, his oldest son, Wu, succeeded him. Around 1122 b.c.e. King Wu led a second campaign against the Shang, a coalition army purportedly 45,000 strong that consisted of forces from eight anti-Shang states, including men from a faraway Yangtze River valley state called Ba (Pa) in present-day Sichuan (Szechwan).
At a place called Muye (Mu-yeh), meaning “Shepherd’s Field,” not far from Yin, Wu gave a speech that detailed the crimes of Shang king Shou. In a decisive battle against a larger but disaffected Shang army Wu’s forces won decisively. King Shou retreated to his palace in Yin, set it afire, and died.
Wu restored order quickly, even placing a Shang prince in Yin as his vassal ruler, to continue conducting sacrifices to his powerful ancestral spirits, but under the supervision of three of Wu’s brothers. Wu then returned to his capital in Hao, located just southwest of the modern city Xi’an (Sian), but died soon after, in 1116 b.c.e. while still young and before consolidating his conquest. The throne passed to Wu’s oldest son, King Cheng (Ch’eng), but under the supervision of one of Wu’s younger brothers, Dan (Tan), the Duke of Zhou. As regent, the duke consolidated the new state and laid down the foundations that made the dynasty a great and lasting one. Kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Zhou are remembered as great men and ideal rulers in Chinese history.
Early Zhou proclamations justified the transfer of power as the wish of their high god, Tian (T’ien), or heaven, who was equated with Shangdi (Shang-ti), the Shang high god. From this came the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which heaven oversaw the affairs of humans and appointed a virtuous human to rule on its behalf. The mandate could be passed down the generations in the ruling family, provided they ruled justly. If they did not rule justly, as was the case with the last Shang king, he forfeited the mandate. A righteous man would be appointed to replace him, in this case the Zhou king. This concept became central to Chinese political thinking.
- Chang, Kwang-chih. The Archaeology of Ancient China. 4th ed., rev. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986;
- Creel, Herrlee G. The Birth of China, a Study of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization. New York: Frederich Ungar Pub., 1937;
- Hsu, Cho-yun, and Kathryn Linduff. Western Chou Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.
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