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Western Zhou Dynasty
Pottery Jar
陶壶   容器

This pottery jar was used as a container. It dates to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027 - 771 BC). It was found at a dig in Licun Village, Qishan County. Qishan is to the west of Xi'an.

Somewhere around 1027 - 1050 BC King Wu established the Zhou Dynasty, having conquered the Shang Dynasty. King Wu was from the Ji family and what we know comes from examination of remains, inscriptions on bronze vessels, and tradition. The stronghold of the Zhou was to the west of the Shang Dynasty areas. The Shang Dynasty centered around the eastern stretches of the Yellow River. They did not go as far north as Shandong Province, or as far south as the Yangtze. The Shang Dynasty did not extend to the coastal regions. It was quite a small area compared to China today. They were surrounded by lots of other peoples and cultures. China was teeming with Neolithic peoples who had moved into sophisticated social structures and were entering the Bronze Age.

The Liu Jia, Zhengjiapo cultures, in the Wei River Valley, and the Nianzipo culture, to the north in the Jing River Valley, were all close enough to the Shang center to have strong cultural exchange. On the first map below, you can see the relationship between the Xi'an region and the Anyang region. The Anyang region was the center of the Shang culture and the site of their last capital, Yinxu 殷墟 (Yīnxū). The Xi'an region was near the center of the Liu Jia and Zhengjiapo cultures (see previous page).

On the second map, you can see the relationship between Xi'an and the western territories, including Baoji and Lanzhou. Baojin is on the Wei River, as is Xi'an. The Wei River extends west and north, almost but not quite to Lanzhou. Lanzhou remains today a center of iron ore, iron smelting, and mining. If you have been reading the captions under the pictures, you know that a wealth of artifacts have been excavated at sites around Baoji City. The raw materials for metal working were easily accessible throughout the Zhou territory.

King Wu established his center, or capital, at Haojing 镐京 (Hào​jīng - in today's Chang'an County)​. This is to the southwest of today's Xi'an. Later, in 771 AD, the capital was moved to Luoyang in Henan Province (see first map) and that was the start of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, but that is ahead of the story. The traditions introduced by the Zhou changed the religious and cultural foundations of government. The emphasis was placed on the worship of heaven rather than earth, coupled with a belief that earthly organization reflected that of heaven. The ruler was chosen by a Mandate from Heaven and was thus connected to the gods. That mandate passed through the family, assuring succession and adding stability to the government. The job of government was to make sure that all of those other teeming cultures competing for place stayed out of Zhou territory or were subject to it. The Zhou rulers spent much of their time and energy as military commanders. They maintained several armies in various parts of the kingdom, ready to answer any threat to either their territory or their rule. They used their bronze skills to fabricate new weapons, they used chariots extensively in battle, and they built fortified cities. They expanded the territory that had been held by the Shang Dynasty.

To control the land, the king or emperor would grant territory to military commanders, close advisors, and relatives. These "lords" would then divide land among the people and take part of the production in the form of taxation to support the central effort. Parcels were divided into nine fields; the outer eight were assigned to families and the central field was assigned to the lord and government. This is called the well field system or the 9 well system and is symbolized by the Chinese character for well: (jǐng). It is a system that would recur in dynasty after dynasty but was doomed to failure since there was no method to adjust for population explosions or for the greed of the overlord. It worked well enough during the Western Zhou to provide the increased ability to specialize skills, build cities, and have dedicated government projects. The cities and government employment absorbed the excess population and the resulting trade and manufacturing production kept the coffers filled.

The major change that occurred during the Western Zhou Dynasty was the development of a more complete written language based on the ancient characters of the Shang Dynasty. The language added more vocabulary and characters and modernized many of the characters into symbols rather than true pictures in order to go beyond ritual expressions. It became the practice to engrave bronze vessels with political and government pronouncements such as granting title to certain lands, thus giving us a limited contemporary record of the happenings during the era. By the late Western Zhou and into the Eastern Zhou period (Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods) ink was used on bamboo and other light-weight surfaces.

Map showing Xi'an on the left and Anyang on the right. Modern Anyang is near the ancient site of the Shang "capital" Yinxu. Map from Wikipedia.

Map showing Lanzhou in the upper left, Baoji City in the center, and Xi'an on the bottom right. Baoji was the center of Liu Jia culture. Map from Wikipedia.

China Index >> Shaanxi History Museum >> Western Zhou Dynasty

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Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010