The Eastern Zhou Period

Learning Objective

  • Explain the main political and military developments during the Eastern Zhou period

Key Points

  • During the first part of the Eastern Zhou period, called the Spring and Autumn period, the king became less powerful and the regional feudal became lords more so, until only seven consolidated powerful feudal states were left.
  • During the second part of the period, called the Warring States period, strong states vied for power until the Qin conquered them all and created a unified dynasty.
  • Developments during the period included increasing use of infantry, a trend toward bureaucracy and large-scale projects, the use of iron over bronze, and intellectual and philosophical developments.



Domination, influence, or authority over another, especially by one political group over a society or by one nation over others.


A social system in which nobility hold lands from the King in exchange for military service, and peasants lived on the nobles’ land and provided services.


Moving away from a single point of administration to multiple locations, and usually giving them a degree of autonomy.


Soldiers marching or fighting on foot.

The End of the Western Zhou Period

The first period of Zhou rule, which lasted from 1046-771 BCE and was referred to as the Western Zhou period, was characterized mostly by unified, peaceful rule. The lords under feudalism gained increasing power, and ultimately the Zhou King You was assassinated, and the capital, Haojing, was sacked in 770 BCE. The capital was quickly moved east to Chengzhou, near modern-day Luoyang, and the Zhou abandoned the western regions. Thus, the assassination marked the end of the Western Zhou period and the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period.

The Spring and Autumn Period of Eastern Zhou

The first part of the Eastern Zhou period is known as the Spring and Autumn period, named after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a text that narrated events on a year-by-year basis, and marked the beginning of China’s deliberately recorded history. This period lasted from about 771-476 BCE. During this time, power became increasingly decentralized as regional feudal lords began to absorb smaller powers and vie for hegemony. The monarchy continued to lose power, and the people were nearly always at war.

The period from 685-591 BCE was called The Five Hegemons, and featured, in order, the Hegemony of Qi, Song, Jin, Qin, and Chu. By the end of 5th century BCE, the feudal system was consolidated into seven prominent and powerful states—Han, Wei, Zhao, Yue, Chu, Qi, and Qin—and China entered the Warring States period, when each state vied for complete control.

The Warring States Period

This period, in the second half of the Eastern Zhou, lasted from about 475-221 BCE, when China was united under the Qin Dynasty. The partition of the Jin state created seven major warring states. After a series of wars among these powerful states, King Zhao of Qin defeated King Nan of Zhou and conquered West Zhou in 256 BCE; his grandson, King Zhuangxiang of Qin, conquered East Zhou, bringing the Zhou Dynasty to an end.


A Map of the Warring States of China. This map shows the Warring States late in the period. Qin has expanded southwest, Chu north and Zhao northwest.

Developments During the Eastern Zhou

While the chariot remained in use, there was a shift during the period to infantry, possibly because of the invention of the crossbow. This meant that war became larger scale, as peasants were drafted to take the place of nobility as soldiers and needed complex logistical support. The aristocracy’s importance dwindled as the king’s became stronger, and strong central bureaucracies took hold. The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, was written during this time; it remains a very influential book about strategy.

A sophisticated form of commercial arithmetic was in place during the period, as shown by a bundle of bamboo slips showing two digit decimal multiplication.


Bamboo Slips Showing Arithmetic. These bamboo slips show a sophisticated two digit decimal multiplication table.

A history of the Spring and Autumn Period, called the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, was published during this time.

Developments in iron work replaced bronze as the dominant metal used in warfare. Trade became increasingly important among states within China. Large-scale works, including the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Zhengguo Canal, were completed and increased agricultural production.


Iron Sword from the Warring States Period. This iron sword is an example of the metal work done during this period.