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READ: Zhou and Qin Dynasty — China

From religion and philosophy to trading and gender roles, the Zhou and Qin dynasties were vastly different. But each left their mark on Chinese history.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was the Mandate of Heaven?
  2. Who was more powerful, the Zhou or the Qin?
  3. What was legalism? Who was responsible for spreading this concept?
  4. Why did merchants do worse under the Qin?
  5. How did Chinese philosophy and moral codes restrict women?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Zhou and Qin Dynasties? Did these empires use any methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
  2. You’ve read some definitions and characteristics of empires. What about these empires seems characteristic of all empires? What seems unique?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Zhou and Qin Dynasty: China

By Dennis RM Campbell
From religion and philosophy to trading and gender roles, the Zhou and Qin dynasties were vastly different. But each left their mark on Chinese history.

Background – From dynasty to empire

Our tale of two dynasties begins after the fall of another dynasty, the Shang. Ruling from about 1600 to 1050 BCE, the Shang Dynasty only loosely controlled their territory. Local regions were ruled by their own elite. In 1050, taking advantage of a weak Shang ruler, the Zhou rose up and overthrew the Shang. The Zhou controlled eastern China, from north of the Yellow River down to the Yangtze River. But like the Shang, they left regional control to local leaders. History would, as they say, repeat itself. The Zhou weakened and the Qin Dynasty took over, conquering most of what is now China and creating the first Chinese empire.

Formation – Heaven said we could

In 1046 BCE, the Zhou King Wu fought and defeated the Shang at the Battle of Muye. But "fought" may be stretching it, since the Shang troops abandoned their king and went over to Wu willingly. The Zhou claimed the right to overthrow the Shang through the Mandate of Heaven (tian). While this may seem like the Chinese ruler had the divine right to rule or rule from heaven, tian in Chinese is more aligned with virtue and benevolence. So, if a ruler lost the Mandate of Heaven then it was thought that he had become immoral or tyrannical. As a result, he should lose his right to rule. Unfortunately, this mandate also applied to the Zhou, who would themselves be overthrown later.
Impressively, the Zhou Dynasty ruled for over 700 years (1046-226 BCE), though that depends on your definition of "rule". Zhou kings did not tightly govern their states, and over time found it harder to control them. By 771, the Zhou kings were really just religious figureheads presiding over a group of mostly independent states. These kings could only sit and watch as the states warred against each other, with larger states consuming smaller ones. Around 334 BCE some of the stronger states began to break away from the Zhou. By then, Zhou rulers had lost all power in China.
Map of the Qin Empire. By SY, CC BY-SA 4.0.
So when all those states were warring each other, the Qin Dynasty moved in and by 221 BCE managed to conquer them all. The Qin only ruled for 15 years, but it was significant. King Zheng of Qin wasn't very happy with the title of wang, meaning "king". To fully capture his greatness, he developed the title huang-di (making his full name Qin Shihuangdi) meaning "August Emperor". He ruled over his empire with an iron fist. This didn't really inspire much love, as three assassination attempts suggested. Fear of death drove him to look for an elixir (potion) of immortality. Ironically, he died in 210 BCE on one of his elixir-seeking trips. He was succeeded by his younger son Qin Ershi, who ruled harshly and cruelly until 206, when he was forced to commit suicide. The Qin Dynasty had officially ended.
Stone rubbing of Qin era depiction of one of the three assassination attempts against Qin Shihuangdi. The would-be assassin Jin Ke is on the left, being restrained by a physician. Qin Shihuangdi is center right fleeing the scene while holding a jade disc. The assassin’s blade is stuck in the pillar in the center. Public domain.


Zhou kings ruled over a largely decentralized kingdom. It was made up of as many as 200 states. These states were largely self-run, with only military and financial obligations to the Zhou. In the beginning, these rulers were family members of the Zhou king. This created a network of states united by kinship (family ties). It became easier to share ideas and technology, as well as develop a common language for China, now known as Archaic Chinese. This system of rule was similar in many ways to the feudalism of Medieval Europe.
Drawing of Qin Shihuangdi by unknown artist (c. 1850 CE). Public domain.
As kinship connections weakened, the leaders of the various states felt less attached to the Zhou king. After all, it wasn't like he was family. By 771, the Zhou had about 170 states of various size, but by the third century BCE, only seven large states remained. The Zhou ruler had less and less control over these states as they fought each other and became larger and more powerful. China became increasingly chaotic as it descended into lawlessness. Eventually one of these states, controlled by the Qin Dynasty, overthrew the Zhou and conquered all of China.
Qin rule over China was very different from that of the Zhou. The Qin followed the doctrine of legalism. This was a harsh practice that required strict adherence to the laws, and even minor infractions could result in execution. Qin Shihuangdi brought his empire under direct control by limiting the power and wealth of the traditional nobles. He also sponsored book burnings, destroying any scholarly works that might inspire people to challenge his rule. The emperor began a number of large-scale state-sponsored building projects, most notably the Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. By Severin.Stadler, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Religion and philosophy

Religion in China was polytheistic, recognizing and worshipping a variety of gods. Before the Zhou, the Shang rulers had worshipped ti, a god who controlled destinies. The chief deity of the Zhou kings was tian, meaning "Heaven." The Zhou claimed that Heaven granted them kingship. But by the end of the Zhou period, various states had taken up renewed worship of ti, challenging Zhou rule. We see this in the title Qin Shihuangdi, where the -di at the end represents the god ti.
During the later Zhou, several major thinkers inspired Chinese religion and philosophy. Confucius (551-479 BCE) believed that the violence of his day could be cured if everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy and respected one another. Laozi developed Daoism, which stressed freedom and nature. Sun Tzu, a military man, wrote The Art of War, which has influenced military thinking across the world.
In 361 BCE, Lord Shang arrived in Qin and began to spread the concept of legalism. According to Shang, the law (fa) was the basis of power and it was to be applied equally to all. Peasants and noblemen should suffer the same severe punishments. For Shang, the ruler was the absolute power. He was eventually killed. Nobles found his willingness to punish them like peasants to be a little too harsh! But legalism lived on, becoming the defining principal of the Qin empire.
Portrait of Confucius by the Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (685-758 CE). Public domain.

Trade – No merchants, please

Market economies in China, including the use of bronze coins began to appear during the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou system of roads made it easier for merchants to distribute goods, resources, and even ideas between states. As trade made them wealthier, merchants began to exploit peasants for labor. However, the ideas of both Confucianism and legalism clashed with business. For Confucians, the wealth and power of the merchants could disrupt society, and so the merchant profession was the lowest possible status. Qin legalists believed that society should be divided between only farmers and soldiers—merchants need not apply! Anti-merchant feelings during the Qin eventually led to many of them being deported. Understandably, there wasn't much commercial growth under Qin rule.
Example of a spade coin (as in money) dating to the Eastern Zhou period (650-200 BCE). By Davidhartill, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Women and society

The Zhou and Qin followed the traditional separation between men and women that stretched back to at least Chalcolithic times. The basis of this separation appears to have been work—men and women were assigned specific tasks based on their gender. During the last centuries of the Zhou, women's roles became increasingly formalized and idealized. Men farmed, and women spun cloth. These jobs came to symbolize proper order in society. By the end of the Zhou period and the early Qin dynasty, men and women were increasingly separated. This separation became tied into Confucian moral values. In works such as Liu Xiang's Lienüzhuan, we read of women such as Boji. When the palace was on fire, Boji's only option for escape would have put her in view of men. Rather than violate that taboo, she remained behind and burned to death.

Decline and fall – A sinking (kin)ship

The Zhou system was destined to collapse. The kings had only a loose control over their states. These states were originally tied to the king through kinship—trusted family members. But over time, kinship ties ended, and state rulers lost any important connection to the king. They became more interested in their own power than in loyally supporting the Zhou king. By the later Zhou period, powerful states competed for dominance while the Zhou rulers were increasingly pushed to the side.
Photograph close up of the head of a terracotta archer from Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb complex. By Charlie, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Causes for the Qin collapse are difficult to determine. Traditional Chinese historians—including those from the centuries immediately following the Qin—blame the collapse on one of three factors. They are, 1) moral decline, usually due to an abusive ruler, 2) intellectual failings when a ruler fails to learn from past mistakes, or, 3) people turning their backs on traditional values of kinship. Western historians tend to look to social factors as causes for the collapse. These include numerous peasant revolts, which weakened the emperor's hold over his empire, causing it to collapse. Regardless of the cause, the Qin left a major mark on China for millennia to come—in fact the actual name "China", which came later than all of these events, likely comes from "Qin"!
Photograph of one (small) section of the terracotta army (pit 1) buried along with Qin Shihuangdi at his tomb complex (Xi’an, China). By Maros M r a z (Maros), CC BY-SA 3.0.
Author bio
Dennis RM Campbell is an associate professor of History at San Francisco State University. He primarily conducts research on esoteric topics in ancient history and writes about ancient language, religions, and societies.

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