Society Under the Zhou Dynasty

Learning Objective

  • Describe the main accomplishments of the Western Zhou period

Key Points

  • The first period of Zhou rule, during which the Zhou held undisputed power over China, is known as the Western Zhou period.
  • During the Western Zhou period, the focus of religion changed from the supreme god, Shangdi, to “Tian,” or heaven; advances were made in farming technology; and the feudal system was established.
  • Under the feudal system, the monarchy would reward loyal nobles with large pieces of land.
  • Over time, the king grew weaker, and the lords of the feudal system grew stronger, until finally, in 711 BCE, one lord joined forces with an invading group of barbarians and killed the king.


Duke of Zhou

A regent to the king who established the feudal system, and held a lot of power during the Western Zhou period.

Western Zhou period

The first period of Zhou rule, during which the Zhou held undisputed power over China (1046-771 BCE).

feudal system

A social system based on personal ownership of resources and personal fealty between a suzerain (lord) and a vassal (subject). Defining characteristics include direct ownership of resources, personal loyalty, and a hierarchical social structure reinforced by religion.

The first period of Zhou rule, during which the Zhou held undisputed power over China, is known as the Western Zhou period. This period ended when the capital was moved eastward. A number of important innovations took place during this period: the Zhou moved away from worship of Shangdi, the supreme god under the Shang, in favor of Tian (“heaven”); they legitimized rulers, through the Mandate of Heaven (divine right to rule);  they moved to a feudal system; developed Chinese philosophy; and made new advances in irrigation that allowed more intensive farming and made it possible for the lands of China to sustain larger populations.

China created a substantial amount of literature during the Zhou Dynasty. These include The Book of History and The Book of Diviners, which was used by fortune tellers. Books dedicated to songs and ceremonial rites were also created. While many of these writings have been destroyed over time, their lasting impression on history is evidence of the strength of Zhou culture.

Like other river valley civilizations of the time, the people under the Zhou Dynasty followed patriarchal roles. Men chose which children would be educated and whom their daughters were married. The household usually consisted of the head male, his wife, his sons and unmarried daughters.

The feudal system in China was structurally similar to ones that followed, such as pre-imperial Macedon, Europe, and Japan. At the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty’s rule, the Duke of Zhou, a regent to the king, held a lot of power, and the king rewarded the loyalty of nobles and generals with large pieces of land. Delegating regional control in this way allowed the Zhou to maintain control over a massive land area. Under this feudal (fengjian) system, land could be passed down within families, or broken up further and granted to more people.

Most importantly, the peasants who farmed the land were controlled by the feudal system. Slavery had been common during the Shang Dynasty, but this decreased and finally disappeared under the Zhou Dynasty, as social status became more fluid and transitory.


The Duke of Zhou. Portrait of the Duke of Zhou in Sancai Tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609 during the Ming Dynasty.

When the Duke of Zhou stepped down, China was united and at peace, leading to years of prosperity. But this only lasted for about seventy-five years. Over time, the central power of the Zhou Dynasty slowly weakened, and the lords of the fiefs originally bestowed by the Zhou came to equal the kings in wealth and influence. They began to actively compete with them for power, and the fiefs gained independence as individual states.

Finally, in 711 BCE, one rebellious noble, the Marquess of Shen, joined forces with invading barbarians, the Quanrong, to defeat the King You. No one came to the king’s defense, and he was killed. The Zhou capital was sacked by the barbarians, and with this the Western Zhou period ended.