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2.2: The Feudal State

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    Immediately after the victory at Muye, King Wu established an eastern capital at Luoyi as well as maintaining his homeland capital in the Wei valley, to better control that area. He established a temporary occupation regime by putting two of his brothers in charge near the Shang capital. Leaving some Shang descendants alive, he assigned them to a domain to the east to continue offerings to their ancestors. When King Wu died, his son Cheng was 16, and his uncle, the Duke of Zhou, served as “regent,” ruling until King Cheng could take command. The remnant Shang and two other Zhou uncles rebelled almost immediately, and it may be that the process of chasing down the rebels took Zhou forces further than planned, offering a new conception of what was possible. For Zhou designed a system to control more territory more closely than Shang had dreamed of. We know a good deal about it, because in addition to the transmitted sources in the Classics, museums hold 12,000 excavated Zhou bronze ritual vessels, many with inscriptions saying who made them, why, and when. (Clans of scribes that had served Shang still served the Zhou in composing and calligraphing documents and inscriptions.)

    We call the Zhou monarchical state, or overarching government structure, “feudal” in English, translating fengjian 封建, even though it differed greatly from the much later European feudal system. In Chinese Communist discourse, “feudal” refers to the whole period from Zhou through the end of Qing in 1911. That is not useful for historians: to call everything “feudal” ignores the dramatic difference between the Zhou system and the imperial, bureaucratic system imposed by Qin in 221 BC (next chapter). The basic structure of the feudal system was that that Zhou king assigned relatives and allies to lands (domains or feoffs/fiefs) both inside and outside the area of his capital in the Wei River valley. Inner enfeoffment was called feng and distant enfeoffment was called jian.

    First, inner grants of feng lands and serfs rewarded noblemen serving at court. An inscription on a bronze vessel cast in 981 BC records, for instance, that a royal officer named Yu, grandson of a man who had served the Zhou founders, had just been appointed to an important military office. The inscription quotes from the king’s order to Yu, which would have been recorded more fully with ink on bamboo strips. King Kang said to Yu:

    "I award you a vessel of sacrificial wine, a hat, a cloak, a pair of knee pads, slippers, and a horse and chariot. I award you the flag of your late grandfather, the Lord of the Nan clan, to use in hunting. I award you four Elders (local clan heads) from the Zhou domains along with 659 serfs ranging from charioteers to common men. I award you thirteen Elders of foreign origin who are royal servants, along with 1,050 serfs."

    The king paid Yu (like others) with prestige objects and real wealth in land and labor, which Yu could pass down to his descendants and share with his own followers. Yu served the King well: another, later vessel commemorates how he defeated a non-Zhou leader and brought to the king captured chiefs, men, horses, oxen, and chariots, and the severed ears of enemies. The trouble with this system of rewards was that by giving away lands, the king diminished his own holdings. Sometimes he took away feng from one family to give it to another, causing conflict in the royal domain.

    Figure 2.1. An inscription cast into a bronze vessel. Source: Metropolitan Museum. Public Domain.

    Second, grants of outer jian domains expanded the Zhou sphere of control as a whole, but over long centuries they, too, reduced the Zhou king’s power, as we will see below. The Zhou leadership set up jian domains centered on armed and manned settlements all over North China, far beyond the former reach of Shang control. They carefully planned out the garrisons in threes, so that Zhou lords could support one another as they conquered and held territory extending control eastward from the Wei valley homeland. Garrisons were placed along routes that were easy for military marches and the transport of goods, but also in the best places for long-term agricultural settlement: close enough to rivers for a water supply, but not so close that flooding would be a problem. The settlements with their warriors were nodes in a network supporting one another; they relied on the conquered villagers in the countryside around them for work and food, but these hinterlands stretched out only a little way from the garrisons at first, with lots of unfarmed land and people not yet under Zhou control around them, and certainly no clear borders between them. The garrisons did not even have walls.

    Feudalism meant that although there was just one king, he shared his authority. Li Feng calls the Zhou system a “settlement-based state with delegation” to kin and allies. The Duke of Zhou, regent for King Cheng, enfeoffed sixteen of his brothers descended from King Wen, four of his nephews descended from King Wu, six of his own sons (one son represented him in his own fief of Lu, so that he could stay by King Cheng’s side), and a number of men related to the royal clan by marriage, especially from the Jiang clan. (In any aristocratic system, even if descent is calculated through the father’s family (patrilineally), the mother’s family matters for rank, prestige, and power.) Authority was really shared, for the lord of a domain could run it as he liked, unless the king specifically forbade him to do something. He owed the King some tribute, and military support in far-ranging campaigns, but he received military support from others in return, as well as prestige objects like bronze vessels. And he passed his domain on to his son or sons, although theoretically the king could take it back. Fiefs were hereditary and largely independent in day-to-day matters. (Remember that: bureaucracy will change it.)

    By 1030 BC, 15 years after the conquest, the major domains were in place. Their borders were not as clear as lines on a map: they overlapped, and there were spaces amongst them not in Zhou control, but there were no more major challenges. Another generation later, by about 1000 BC, the peripheral boundary around all 60-70 Zhou domains was secure, and further expansion took place, carried out by both the domains themselves and by their armies at the command of the Zhou king back in his capital. Zhou expanded westwards into the lower Ordos region (the bump under the Yellow River) – there are Zhou tombs as far west as Ningxia – and eastwards to include the whole Shandong peninsula. Zhou tombs include many beads of carnelian and faience from India and Central Asia, but those came from trade, not conquest: the Zhou successfully fought their way down to the Middle Yangzi area, but King Zhao was defeated and killed there by the southern state of Chu, losing nearly half of the Zhou’s military force.

    That defeat came in 950 BC. It allowed non-Zhou people in the west to increase attacks on the western capital, and moreover led various branches of the royal family to contend for the throne. The challenge to Zhou unity came not only from King Zhao’s failure, but also as a natural result of success. For the first few generations, a century or so, the feudal lords had been few and closely related. The small size of early Zhou bronze vessels, and the large number used to heat wine (as well as others for food) suggest that the royal family was still relatively small and close, practicing emotionally intense rituals in which the king and his family communicated with the ancestors with the help of wine and sacrifice. But after four or five generations, there were too many sons and cousins for close rituals, and competition for resources heated up.

    Figure 2.2. Short sword and sheath with crouching feline at the top of the handle, 10th – 8th century BC, northeast China. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Lots more to see there!) Public Domain.

    This page titled 2.2: The Feudal State is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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