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Chinese Dynasties: Zhou Dynasty, the Longest Dynastic Rule in China

Photo courtesy of China Edu Center

Did you know that the Zhou Dynasty lasted 790 years? That’s the longest dynastic rule in China. According to Chinese myth, the Zhou lineage began when a consort of the legendary Emperor Ku conceived a child, Qi, after she stepped in the footprint of Shangdi.

Qi was said to have survived three abandonments and greatly improved Xia agriculture. He even received sacrifices as a harvest god. Around 1046 BCE, Wu, a descendant of Qi, along with his ally Jian Ziyad, defeated King Zhou of Shang at the Battle of Muye, and this was the start of the Zhou Dynasty.

The Zhou dynasty was divided into two: the Western and the Eastern Zhou Dynasties.

The Western Zhou Dynasty was the first half of this dynastic era. They were successful for about 75 years then they slowly lost power. Very few records can be found about this early period so we only know of certain kings during uncertain dates. What we do know is that a feudal system was enforced in an effort to maintain Zhou authority. Many of the fiefdoms became major states when the dynasty weakened.

The familial relationship between the Zhou Kings and the regional rulers thinned over generations, making the fiefdom rulers third or fourth cousins instead of royal brothers. At some point, the Duke of Qi was said to have been boiled in a cauldron, implying the vassals were no longer obedient.

King Xuan of Zhou (who ruled between 287 – 782 BCE) tried to restore royal authority, but that didn’t hold for long as regional lords began to rebel. The last king of the Wester Zho period was King You of Zhou (781 – 771 BCE).

When he replaced his wife with a concubine, the former queen’s father joined forces with the Quanrong barbarians to sack Haojing and kill King You in 77 BCE. The Zhou nobles fled the Wei Valley and reestablished downriver at Chengzhou, which marked the start of the Eastern Zhou Period.

Scholars have surmised that the Zhou kings got their income from royal lands in Wei valley and that would explain the loss of power when the Zhou fled to the east. A significant number of treasure hoards have been uncovered in recent decades, implying that the Zhou nobles were  driven from their homes and hoped to return, but were never able to.

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