Western Zhou Dynasty

The Western Zhou Dynasty period (1046–771 BCE) was the first half of the zhou dynasty of ancient China. It began when King Wu of Zhou overthrew the shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye. C. H. Wang refers to the account of King Wu's victory over the shang dynasty in the Chinese Book of Songs as the "Weniad" (a name that parallels The Iliad), seeing it as part of a greater narrative discourse in China that extols the virtues of wén over more military interests.

The dynasty was successful for about seventy-five years and then slowly lost power. The former Shang lands were divided into hereditary fiefs which became increasingly independent of the king. In 771, barbarians drove the Zhou out of the Wèi River Valley; afterwards that real power was in the hands of the king's nominal vassals.

Civil war

Few records survive from this early period and accounts from the Western Zhou Dynasty period cover little beyond a list of kings with uncertain dates.

King Wu died two or three years after the conquest. Because his son, King Cheng of Zhou was young, his brother, the Duke of Zhou assisted the young and inexperienced king as regent. Wǔ's other brothers (Shu Du of Cai, Guan Shu, and Huo Shu), concerned about the Duke of Zhou's growing power, formed an alliance with other regional rulers and Shāng remnants in a rebellion. The Duke of Zhou stamped out this rebellion and conquered more territory to bring other peoples under Zhōu rule. The Duke of Zhou also formulated the Mandate of Heaven doctrine to counter Shang claims to a divine right of rule and founded Luoyang as an eastern capital.

With a feudal fengjian system, royal relatives and generals were given fiefs in the east, including Luoyang, Jin, Ying, Lu, Qi and Yan. While this was designed to maintain Zhou authority as it expanded its rule over a larger amount of territory, many of these became major states when the dynasty weakened. When the Duke of Zhou stepped down as regent, the remainder of Cheng's reign (1042–1021 BCE) and that of his son King Kang of Zhou (1021–996 BCE) seem to have been peaceful and prosperous.

Further kings

The fourth king, King Zhao of Zhou (996–977 BCE) led an army south against Chǔ and was killed along with a large part of the Zhōu army. The fifth king, King Mu of Zhou (977–922 BCE) is remembered for his legendary visit to the Queen Mother of the West. Territory was lost to the Xu Rong in the southeast. The kingdom seems to have weakened during Mù's long reign, possibly because the familial relationship between Zhou Kings and regional rulers thinned over generations so that fiefs that were originally held by royal brothers were now held by third and fourth cousins; peripheral territories also developed local power and prestige on par with that of the Zhōu royal family.

The reigns of the next four kings (King Gong of Zhou, King Yi of Zhou (Ji Jian), King Xiao of Zhou, and King Yi of Zhou (Ji Xie)) (922-878 BCE) are poorly documented. The ninth king is said to have boiled the Duke of Qi in a cauldron, implying that the vassals were no longer obedient. The tenth king, King Li of Zhou (877–841 BCE) was forced into exile and power was held for fourteen years by the Gonghe Regency. Li's overthrow may have been accompanied by China's first recorded peasant rebellion. When Lì died in exile, Gonghe retired and power passed to Li's son King Xuan of Zhou (827–782 BCE). King Xuan worked to restore royal authority, though regional lords became less obedient later in his reign.

The twelfth and last king of the Western Zhou Dynasty period was King You of Zhou (781–771 BCE). When You replaced his wife with a concubine, the former queen's powerful father, the Marquess of Shen, joined forces with Quanrong barbarians to sack the western capital of Haojing and kill King You in 770 BCE. Most of the Zhōu nobles withdrew from the Wei River valley and the capital was reestablished downriver at the old eastern capital of Chengzhou near modern-day Luoyang. This was the start of the eastern zhou dynasty period.

It is possible that the Zhou kings derived most of their income from royal lands in the Wei valley. This would explain the sudden loss of royal power when the Zhou were driven east, but the matter is hard to prove. In recent decades, archaeologists have found a significant number of treasure hoards that were buried in the Wei valley about the time the Zhou were expelled. This implies that the Zhou nobles were suddenly driven from their homes and hoped to return, but never did.

Western Zhou Dynasty Kings

Personal name

Posthumous name

Reign period



King Wu of Zhou

1046 BC–1043 BC



King Cheng of Zhou

1042 BC–1021 BC



King Kang of Zhou

1020 BC–996 BC



King Zhao of Zhou

995 BC–977 BC




King Mu of Zhou

976 BC–922 BC




King Gong of Zhou

922 BC–900 BC



King Yi of Zhou

899 BC–892 BC




King Xiao of Zhou

891 BC–886 BC



King Yi of Zhou

885 BC–878 BC



King Li of Zhou

877 BC–841 BC


Gonghe Regency

841 BC–828 BC



King Xuan of Zhou

827 BC–782 BC




King You of Zhou

781 BC–771 BC

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