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Early Dynasties of China - Xia Shang and Zhou Dynasties

Brief Introduction

China is a country with about 5000 years of history. The early Chinese dynasties traceable are the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, which is also called pre-Qin period.

As Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang from the prehistoric period are widely considered as the humanistic ancestor of the Chinese nation, the Chinese history is often counted from this time. About 2070 B.C, the earliest state Xia appeared, following which were the Shang and Zhou Dynasty. These three dynasties were slavery societies. In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, with the development of production, social reform and diversification of ideology, the slavery society ended.

Legendary Time

Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor was a primitive tribe leader in Yellow River area about 4000 years ago. He promoted the grain cultivation and animal domestication, and gradually made his tribe strong. He also led his tribe to defeat the Emperor Yan's tribe in the upper reaches of the Yellow River and the northern tribe of Chiyou. Later, Yellow Emperor's tribe formed alliance with the Yan Emperor's and they lived in the Yellow River area, forming the backbone of the Huaxia nationality. During the reign of Yellow Emperor, he attached great importance in production development, and began to make clothes, build boat, make music and founded medicine. Thus, Yellow Emperor is revered as the common ancestor of the Huaxia nationality. This is why Chinese people call themselves the descendants of Yellow and Yan Emperors.

After the ruling of Yan Emperor and Huang Emperor, there were a lot of outstanding leaders in th tribes of Yellow River areas, three of them were Yao, Shun and Yu. Leaders at that time were all elected. When Yao, the previous leader grew old, a tribe meeting was held and Shun was elected as the successor of Yao. With Shun getting old, the same meeting and election were arranged and Yu was elected. Such method was called Abdication System.

Xia Dynasty (2100 B.C-1600 B.C) - the First Chinese Dynasty

Xia Dynasty is the first dynasty in Chinese history. It marked the end of the primitive society and the beginning of the thousands of years of the class society.

Yu's great contributions in regulating the flood of Yellow River won him the tribe leader of the Yellow River areas, During his reign, Yu established the Xia Dynasty and made Zhaiyang the capital city. He also met the lords from other small tribes to divide the whole ruling area into nine districts and form the tribute system.

After Yu's death, his son Qi broke the tradition of Abdication System and crowned himself as the King, restoring the ancient tradition of throne being passed from father to son in early Yellow Emperor's reign. Since then, the hereditary succession system was established. After Qi ascended the throne, he continue his father's unfinished work and ruled well.

However, with Qi's death, his son Tai Kang was incapable of governing. A tribe leader called Hou Yi, the legendary Chang'e's husband expelled Tai Kang and enthroned Zhong Kang (Tai Kang's little brother) after Tai Kang died. The true ruling power was in Hou Yi's hands. After Kong Kang died, his son Xiang ascended the throne. Han Zhuo, a minister of Hou Yi's, revolted Xiang's reign and murdered Xiang and Houyi, claiming the throne. When Xiang was killed, his wife Min was pregnant and successfully fled to Youreng area and had a boy named Shao Kang.

When Shao Kang grew up, he established a powerful army, completely eradicated the remaining supporters of Han Zhuo, and conquered the eastern tribes, creating a prosperous Xia Dynasty. In the following five generations and six kings' reigns, the society was relatively stable and the economy was growing gradually. The territory of Xia reached East Sea to the east, West River to the West, Yanshan Mountain to the north and Jianghuai area to the south. People at that time were able to smelt better bronze and produced a lot of bronze tools and utensils. The commodity exchange developed and the Chinese calender emerged.

Time fast forward to ruling of the fifteenth Xia Dynasty king Kong Jia. The King Kong Jia was licentious and obsessed with arts of necromancy. The supporting lords were unsatisfied with Kong Jia's rule and launched a series of revolts. Xia Dynasty began to decline.

When Kong Jia died, the Xia Dynasty teetered until Jie ascended the throne. He was a notorious tyrant. He was extravagant, unethical, murderous, and loved to battle everywhere, imposing great oppression to people. Finally, his rule was overthrown by Tang, who established the Shang Dynasty.

Xia Dynasty Kings in Order

1.Yu (禹) : the founder of Xia Dynasty, ruled 45 years;

2.Qi (启): son of Yu, built the first slavery country, ruled 29 years;

3.Tai Kang (太康): Qi’s son, lost the throne, ruled 29 years;

4.Zhong Kang (仲康): Tai Kang’s brother, unable to restore Xia Dynasty, killed by Han Che, ruled 13 years;

5.Xiang (湘): Zhong Kang’s son, killed by Han Che, ruled 28 years;

6.Shao Kang (少康): Xiang’s posthumous son, restored Xia Dynasty, ruled 21 years;

7.Zhu (杼): Shao Kang’s son, ruled 17 years;

8.Huai (槐): Zhu’s son, ruled 44 years;

9.Mang (芒): Huai’s son, ruled 18 years;

10.Xie (泄): Mang’s son, ruled 21 years;

11.Bu Xiang (不降): Xie’s son, ruled 59 years;

12.Jiong (扃): Bu Xiang’s brother, ruled 21 years;

13.Qin (廑): Jiong’s son, ruled 21 years;

14.Kong Jia (孔甲): Bu Xiang’s son, ruled 31 years;

15.Gao (皋): Kong Jia’s son, ruled 11 years;

16.Fa (发): Gao’s son, ruled 11 years;

17.Jie (桀): Fa’s son, the last king of Xia Dynasty.

Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C-1046 B.C)

Legend has it that the Shang people was the descendant of Ziqi, the Emperor Ku's son. Ziqi contributed a lot in helping Yu to control the flood of Yellow River and was granted with the fief of Shang. After five hundred years’ development, Shang tribe grew quite strong in Cheng Tang's ruling as leader. Cheng Tang made Bo (current Shangqiu, Henan province) his capital city and relied on Yin Yi's counseling to acquire support from other vassals. To the vassals who refused to support him, Cheng Tang fought for their support. Finally, Cheng Tang had enough supporting vassals and launched war against Xia Dynasty. King Jie of Xia was defeated and died in Nanchao. Shang Dynasty was established.

When Cheng Tang's grandson, Tai Jia, ascended the throne, he was unable to fulfill his grandfather's wishes. Yin Yi, Cheng Tang's minister had Tai Jia exiled and ruled as a regent. Three years later, with Tai Jia's repent, Yin Yi welcomed Tai Jia back and helped him to rule. Tai Jia became diligent, kind to his subjects, and unified the fifes, creating a rather stable time. Shang dynasty was consolidated and developed in the following nine king's reigns.

Since the tenth king Zhong Ding, Shang court became chaotic. During the following five generations and nine kings' reigns, multiple times of power struggles took place and brothers fought each other for the thrones. The long time interior struggles greatly roiled the society and damaged the economy. The country began to decline and the affiliating lords refused to pay visit and tribute to the king, creating a lot of social contradictions.

To save the country from further decay, Pan Geng, the 19th king of Shang Dynasty, moved the capital to Yin (current Anyang) and stabilized the situation. The politics, economy and culture began to revive and develop.

When the twenty-second king Wu Ding, who grew up in the countryside, ascended the throne, he promoted a slave Fu as his prime minister to help him rule. During his reign, Wu Ding used a lot of talents, vigorously advocated the political reform to better control the aristocracies and civilians, and sent multiple times of troops to conquer the nomads. So far, Shang Dynasty reached its prime times.

Starting from the twenty-fourth king Zu Jia's reign, the social conflicts of Shang Dynasty intensified and Shang court began to decline again. When the 30th King Zhou ascended the throne, the struggle between the monarchy and aristocracy reached a peak. King Zhou was opinionated, self-contented, extravagant, and befuddled. He loved to kill. He even set up firearm to torture nobles, let alone subjects, turning almost everyone against himself. Even when the crisis got worsened, the King still launched war against the surrounding tribes, wasting a lot of manpower and resources and accelerating the demise of the Shang Dynasty. The Western Zhou people took the advantage to develop and destroyed Shang Dynasty.

Shang Dynasty Kings in Order

1.Cheng Tang (成汤): founder of Shang Dynasty, ruled 30 years;

2.Wai Bing (外丙): Cheng Tang’s son, ruled 3 years;

3.Zhong Ren (仲壬): Wai Bing’s brother, ruled 4 years;

4.Tai Jia (太甲): eldest grandson of Cheng Tang, ruled 33 years;

5.Wo Ding (沃丁): Tai Jia’s son, ruled 29 years;

6.Tai Geng (太庚): Wo Ding’s brother, ruled 25 years;

7.Xia Jia (小甲): Tai Geng’s son, ruled 36 years;

8.Yong Ji (雍己): Xia Jia’s brother, ruled 12 years, Shang Dynasty began to decline;

9.Tai Wu (太戊): Yong Ji’s brother, ruled 75 years;

10.Zhong Ding (仲丁): Tai Wu’s son, ruled 11 years;

11.Wai Ren (外壬): Zhong Ding’s brother, Tai Wu’s son, ruled 15 years;

12.He Danjia (河亶甲): Tai Wu’s son, Wai Ren’s brother, ruled 9 years;

13.Zu Yi (祖乙): He Danzi’s son, ruled 19 years;

14.Zu Xin (祖辛): Zu Yi’s son, ruled 16 years;

15.Wo Jia (沃甲): Zu Yi’s son, Zu Xin’s brother, ruled 20 years;

16.Zu Ding (祖丁): Zu Xin’s son, ruled 32 years;

17.Nan Geng (南庚): Wo Jia’s son, ruled 29 years;

18.Yang Jia (阳甲): Zu Ding’s son, ruled 7 years;

19.Pan Geng (盘庚): Zu Ding’s son, Yang Jia’s brother, ruled 28 years, moved the capital to Yin;

20.Xiao Xin (小辛): Zu Ding’s son, Pan Geng’s brother, ruled 21 years;

21.Xiao Yi (小乙): Zu Ding’s son, Xiao Xin’s brother, ruled 21 years;

22.Wu Ding (武丁): Xiao Yi’s son, ruled 59 years;

23.Zu Geng (祖庚): Wu Ding’s son, ruled 7 years;

24.Zu Jia (祖甲): Wu Ding’s son, Zu Geng’s brother, ruled 33 years;

25.Lin Xin (廪辛): Zu Jia’s son, ruled 6 years;

26.Geng Ding (庚丁): Zu Jia’s son, Lin Xin’s brother, ruled 6 years;

27.Wu Yi (武乙): Geng Ding’s son, ruled 4 years;

28.Tai Ding (太丁): Wu Yi’s son, ruled 3 years;

29.Di Yi (帝乙): Tai Ding’s son, ruled 37 years;

30.Shang Zhou (商纣): Di Yi’s son, ruled 33 years, the last king of Shang Dynasty.

Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C - 221 B.C)

Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C-771 B.C)

The Western Zhou Dynasty, spanning from King Wu establishing Zhou Dynasty to the King You perishing the country, lasted over 300 years and represented the palmy days of Chinese classical civilization. Both the material development and the cultural and ideological progress of that time made profound impact in later generations.

Zhou people have a long history, they lived in Wei River area for a long time before moving to Zhouyuan, south of Qishan. In the early 11th century, Zhou tribe grew strong and conquered the small tribes nearby, further strengthening its power. Its strength threatened King Zhou of Shang Dynasty, who house arrested Ji Chang (king of Zhou tribe). Zhou people traded their king with many treasures and beauties. After Ji Chang was redeemed, he resolved to rule well and develop economy, attracting more lords to allege allegiance. He claimed himself the King Wen and moved the capital to Fengdu (current Huxian, Shaanxi province).

After Ji Chang died, his son Ji Fa ascended the throne and became the King Wu of Zhou Dynasty. King Wu continued his father's course and expanded the capital to Haojing. He unified other vassals and launched war against Shang army in Muye area, resulting King Zhou's death. Thus, Zhou Dynasty, the longest dynasty, began.

After King Wu established Zhou Dynasty, it's said that he subinfeudated 71 vassal states to strengthen the rule of distant areas and make them protect Zhou court if anything happens. With King Wu died, Zi Song (King Wu's son) ascended the throne and became the King Cheng. As King Cheng was quite young and the Zhou Dynasty was just founded, Dan (King Cheng's uncle) acted as a regent to rule. Guan Shu and Cai Shu (two important ministers) refused to accept the arrangement and colluded with Wu Geng, son of the late King Zhou of Shang Dynasty and launched a revolt. Dan led his troops and squashed the revolt. To strengthen the rule of the east area, King Cheng ordered his uncle Dan to construct Luoyi and change it to Chengzhou. After the construction of Luoyi, King Cheng personally came here and hosted all the lords and leaders of the surrounding tribes. He also moved the remaining Shang subjects to Chengzhou for better control. Rite and music were also created to help establishing various rules and regulations of Zhou Dynasty. So far, the political system centering with the patriarchal system was founded. After King Cheng died, King Kang inherited his father's course and continued to rule wisely. He was diligent in state affairs, approachable and compassionate. There was no penalty applied for decades and the society was more stable. The reigns of King Wu, King Cheng and King Kang were the golden ages of Zhou Dynasty.

When King Zhao ascended the throne, there was a crisis. When King Zhao visited the Han River, he was assassinated by a boatman and died in the belly of a fish. After King Mu ascended the throne, to restore the prestige of the Zhou Dynasty, he set a new post Taipu as the head of the ministers to strengthen the central management. He also created the criminal law, but reduced the penalties to better control subjects. To protect territory, King Mu ordered armies to defend the frontier and stopped the rebellions. His efforts proved to be ineffective.

In later generations of King Gong, King Yi, King Xiao and King Yi, the country fell into a long-term war with the surrounding countries. The wars were very consuming and the subjects were exploited too much that the domestic conflicts intensified. Some aristocrats began to go bankrupt and grew anger against the King.

The succeeding King Li failed to console subjects and take measures to develop the economy. Instead, he used the courtiers and launched wars against other countries, which caused a lot of complaint and debate. He even sent scorers to spy and kill anyone who dared to discuss, further intensifying the conflicts. The angry Haojing subjects couldn’t take it any more, they launched a riot and exiled King Li to Zhi. The country was co-ruled by the Lord Zhou and Lord Zhao.

After King Li died, his son King Xuan rectified the administration and revived the country a little. However, during King You's reign, the Zhou Dynasty had more serious crisis. Natural disasters like earthquake, landslide, river depletion further worsened the situation, King Zhou ignored the problems and became extravagantly corrupted and greedy. To win his favorite concubine Baosi’s smile, King You played with the lords and tricking them to come for nothing. Most importantly, he decided to abolish his Queen Shen and kill the prince Yi Jiu and make Bao Si the new queen and her son Bo Fu the prince. Queen Shen’s father heard the idea and unified the western tribes to attack King You, resulting King You’s death. When Yi Jiu ascended the throne and became the King Ping, the central plain areas underwent a series of war. King Ping had no choice but to move the capital to Luoyi. The Western Zhou Dynasty ended and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty began.

Kings of Western Zhou Dynasty in Order

1.King Wu: Ji Fa, founder of Zhou Dynasty, ruled 3 years;

2.King Cheng: Ji Song, King Wu’s son, ruled 22 years;

3.King Kang: Ji Zhao, King Cheng’s son. Ruled 25 years;

4.King Zhao: Ji Xia, King Kang’s son, ruled 19 years;

5.King Mu: Ji Man, King Zhao’s son, ruled 55 years;

6.King Gong: Ji Yihu, King Mu’s son, ruled 23 years;

7.King Yi: Ji Jian, King Gong’s son, ruled 8 years;

8.King Xiao: Ji Fang, King Gong’s brother, King Yi’s uncle, ruled 6 years;

9.King Yi: Ji Xie, King Yi’s son, ruled 8 years;

10.King Li: Ji Hu, King Yi’s son, ruled 37 years;

11.King Xuan: Ji Jing, King Li’s son, ruled 46 years;

12.King You, Ji Gongnie, King Xuan’s son, ruled 11 years, the last king of Western Zhou Dynasty.

Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period

Spring and Autum Period (770 B.C - 476 B.C) belongs to Eastern Zhou Dynasty. During this time, the power of the Zhou King weakened and the power of the lords strengthened. The vassal lords fought each other for more power and five famous overlords appeared successively, namely, Lord Huan of Qi State, Lord Wen of Jin State, Lord Xiang of Song State, Lord Mu of Qin State and Lord Zhuang of Chu State. They were referred as the five overlords in Spring and Autumn Period.

The name Spring and Autumn Period came from a book Spring and Autumn revised by Confucius  that recorded the history from the first year (722 B.C) of Lord Yin of Lu State's reign to the fourteenth year (481 B.C) of Lord Ai of Lu State. For the sake of convenience, modern scholars generally referred the time from the first year of King Ping's reign to the 43rd year of King Jing 's reign in Eastern Zhou Dynasty as the Spring and Autumn Period.

According to the history records, during this 242 years, there were 43 lords killed by their ministers or the enemy states, 52 vassal states destroyed, over 480 battles fought and 450 times of alliance meetings and tributes.

The time from 475 B.C to 221 B.C was referred as the Warring States Period. After the long period of fierce hegemony seeking in Spring and Autumn period, the major vassals still existed were Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin. With the development of water conservancy and the promotion of iron wares and cow plough, the economy of the vassals states was developed and the political powers changed accordingly. The powers of ministers grew gradually. The most famous example is the six ministers of original Jin State. After years of struggle, there were only Han, Wei and Zhao families survived. In 403 B.C, the Zhou King officially recognized them as vassals. In 391 B.C, Tian Min in Qi State abolished the Lord Kang in Qi State and raised himself as the lord. Zhou King also approved him as the Qi Lord. Those victories announced the political rules of survival of the strong.

Therefore, all the vassal states began to carry out reform to enrich their country and strengthen their military powers. The reform core was to fix labors to their lands so as to increase the state revenue. With the deepening of social civilization, the ruling class became more greedy about the material enjoyment. They fiercely plundered lands and launched wars. Statistically, during the 255 years spanning from the first year (475 B.C) of King Ping’s reign to Qin Shi Huang unifying all vassal states in 221 B.C, there were about 230 battles and wars. The amount of soldiers engaged varied from ten thousand to hundred thousand. Liu Xiang from the late Western Han Dynasty complied the relative materials at this time and edited the book Strategies of the Warring States. Thus, this period of time is called the Warring States Period.

In ancient Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese culture and national spirit began to take shape. The political forms at that time paved the way for the political system of the feudal society. The Chinese society began to step into feudal society at the end of Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

For More Chinese History:

1. Timeline of Chinese Dynasties

2. Ming Dynasty History

3. Qing Dynasty - The Last Dynasty in China