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4.3: Eastern Zhou (771 BCE – 400 BCE)

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    The Western Zhou dynasty was in a state of chaos towards the end of Emperor Xuan's reign, around the time of 803 BCE. The people were suffering from famine due to the shortage of food, and the king had imposed exorbitant taxes that the commoners found impossible to pay. The lords had rebelled, and natural calamities had caused immense destruction. One entry in the Book of Songs stated, "Heaven showed her rage and sent this disaster to us, which has caused famine. People were forced to leave their hometowns to seek food and water. All the farmland turned into a wasteland."[1] When Emperor Yu took over, he was even more corrupt and oblivious to the nation's needs, hanging out with his favorite concubine. And then, the earthquake changed the rivers and worsened the people's plight. The king's advisors stood aside, and the Grand Historian observed in despair, "The calamity has taken form, and there is nothing we can do about it."[2] The reign of the Western Zhou fell in 771 BCE, and the king moved eastward, and battles for territory began. "The Zhou homeland was now in the hands of lesser lords; from his new capital, leaning on the support of the dukes who would be loyal as long as it was in their best interest, King P'ing ruled over a newly shrunken kingdom. The era of the Western Zhou had ended; the time of the Eastern Zhou began."[3]

    Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period

    Eastern Zhou was split into the Spring and Autumn Period (771 BCE to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BCE). Throughout the Spring and Autumn Period, there were numerous conflicts among the various states. Despite the emperor's presence in the new eastern capital, his control over the region was limited, and he primarily focused on religious ceremonies. The weakening of the king's power led state leaders to form alliances in order to safeguard their borders and gain control over weaker territories. As different rulers vied for control, state boundaries frequently shifted. Ultimately, a significant war paved the way for the reformation of distinct states, ushering in the Warring States period.

    Map of warring states in China
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Warring States map (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    During this era, the seven central states (4.3.1) of Qin, Han, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Chu, and Yan held sway over the territory, while the royal domain was confined to a small area near Han. The leaders of these states vied for the throne, each claiming the Mandate of Heaven as their right, and warfare was characterized by sophisticated tactics and the deployment of infantry and cavalry units. But this period was also notable for a golden age of philosophy, with a flourishing of creativity and innovation. Bronze workers produced exquisite creations, while artists experimented with new materials such as lacquer. Inventors developed new tools that expanded the possibilities of industry and agriculture.

    In a tumultuous time of conflict, the Qin state arose as an influential force, guided by the principles of Legalism. Through their innovative use of mass production, they were able to arm and expand their armies, while simultaneously pursuing a policy of territorial expansion and conquest. By 221 BCE, the subjugation was complete, and Zheng, the king of the Qin state, declared himself Emperor and ended the Zhou dynasty. 


    "The casting technique for making bronze weapons matured during the Spring & Autumn Period. Profiting from the high technology, China's bronze weapons could be considered as among the best in the world from this period onwards."[4]

    War continued throughout the Eastern Zhou period, and improving weaponry and other war paraphernalia was important. At first, chariots became a significant part of the war machine, and they moved to four-horse chariots instead of the two-horse chariots of the Shang. Animal skins protected the horses, and the charioteers wore armor. By the time of the Warring States, they had moved from chariots to the cavalry because they were more mobile and could move faster. Foot soldiers in massed formations with crossbows also became an effective method of war. They protected the horses with lightweight leather, the animal skins proving too heavy to remain quick and mobile. The soldiers of the ruling class wore bronze or leather armor, while the foot soldiers laced together small bronze plates. Bronze weapons were standard early in the period; however, bronze weapons were individually cast and could not be sharpened. With the move to iron, the Warring States discovered iron was stronger, could be forged, and sharpened.  

    "During the Spring & Autumn Period of the Warring States Period, China invented many superior casting processes like the wrought iron technique, crude iron technique, wrought steel technique, cast iron technique… These technical innovations caused China's iron and steel smelt technology to advance rapidly and put it ahead of a long time in this field… During this period, feudal lords strived for hegemony, and their military forces were already 100,000 strong. The frequency and scale of battles spurred the increased production of weapons and tools, and advanced technology."[5]

    bronze helmet
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Bronze helmet  (bronze, Zhou period) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Helmets (4.3.2) cast from bronze were typical for the ordinary soldier. Some helmets had decorative parts thought to define the rank or unit of the soldier. Helmets helped protect the foot soldiers from the opponent's dagger blows. The rectangular shield (4.3.3) was another part of a soldier's equipment on the ground and chariot. This shield was decorated with a dragon and phoenix design. When a lacquer coating was added to the shield and hardened, it gave an extra layer of protection.

    Bronze Shield decorated with dragon and phoenix
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Rectangular shield (Public domain)

    On the battlefield, swords played a crucial role and had to be both sturdy and regularly sharpened. This particular sword (4.3.4) boasts a central ridge that ensures sharp edges on both sides as well as the tip. Its handle is fashioned from a combination of copper and tin alloy, complete with two loops, often wrapped in silk or rope to enhance grip. For nobles and elite warriors, their swords and daggers were often adorned with decorative hilts or handle coverings. The cast gold hilt (4.3.5) features intricate interlaced dragons and wings in an openwork pattern. Although gold is too fragile for combat, this hilt was likely used to showcase wealth and prestige.

    bronze sword
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Sword (CC BY-SA 2.5)


    decorative handle of a sword
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Gold hilt (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Sculpture and Pottery 

    The Zhou civilization employed the piece-mold casting technique, which differed from the prevalent lost-wax method to craft elaborate bronze artifacts. First, they crafted a model of the intended object and fashioned a mold out of clay. The clay mold was then cut into different parts and embellished with designs before being reconstructed. Lastly, the mold was fired to ensure its durability for holding the molten bronze. Making vessels and sculptures was very important for the person buried in the tomb to take to the afterlife and for ancestral worship. The production of vessels and sculptures held significant importance for the individual interred within the tomb, as it served as a means of facilitating safe passage into the afterlife and honoring their forebears through ancestral worship. Such artifacts were considered indispensable, owing to their crucial role in facilitating the journey to the afterlife. The designs of these objects were often intricate and elaborate, reflecting the individual's social standing and cultural significance.

    How ancient Chinese bronzes were created

    Dr. Robert Mowry explains how ancient Chinese bronzes from the Shang and Zhou period were created using the piece mold technique.


    In the bronze sculpture of the man (4.3.6), he appears to be subservient, with his eyes looking outward as though he is waiting for something. He is covered with different patterns, each matching from side to side. On his forearms, circular lines lead to more elaborate designs on his upper arms and shoulders. The design on his shoulders was mirrored on his legs. The bronze creature came from the tomb of Marquis Yi and is quite different from other sculptures. The bronze antlered creature (4.3.7) is 1.5 meters high and was found next to the coffin. The thin, delicate head and neck are attached to a small, blocky body whose wings protrude and help balance the creature. Originally, pieces of turquoise were inlaid along the edges of the wings, and semiprecious stones were embedded in the stand. The sculpture of the bronze antlered creature is almost 3,000 years old and yet has the appearance of modern-day designs. 

    bronze statue of a man sitting on his heels
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Bronze seated man  (CC BY-SA 3.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Bronze antlered creature (bronze, 143 cm high) (Public domain)

    In the historical era of the Warring States, bronze vessels were crafted on a grander scale, emphasizing the status of the owner and their opulence, rather than the traditional practice of ancestral reverence. The extravagant vessel (4.3.8) found in Marquis Yi's tomb is a prime example, featuring intricate openwork adorned with geometric motifs, dragons, and serpent-like creatures on its sides. The center's zun (wine vessel), rests in a matching pan (elevated tray) that complements its ornate design. The production of these vessels involved the piece-mold technique, with some of the decorations requiring soldering for added embellishment.

    bronze vessel with elaborate decoration
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Bronze zun and pan from the tomb of Marquis Yi. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    The bianhu (4.3.9) was an exquisite wine vessel that stood out from the rest due to its unique design. Unlike the rounded hu, the bianhu had a flatter shape and narrow neck, which made it an ideal choice for wine pouring. The vessel's bronze surface was often adorned with an intricate geometric pattern inlaid with silver. This design style was quite popular during that era, as it was believed to convey the owner's affluence and social status. The bianhu was considered a symbol of luxury and elegance, and it was highly sought after by the wealthy and the elite.

    bronze vessel with ornate decoration
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Bronze bianhu (bronze with silver inlay, 31.3 z 30.5 x 11.7 cm) (Public domain)


    Bells played a vital role in bronze production and were considered as musical companions for various ceremonies and events. These bells were hung from wooden racks and struck with mallets to produce sound, rather than featuring internal clappers. To produce accurate tones, the bells were crafted in graduated sizes, which allowed them to produce a range of sounds. The production of these bells was a highly skilled and intricate process that involved casting and tuning each bell to perfection. The bells were exquisitely adorned with symbolic designs, such as dragons, snakes, and geometric shapes, which were deeply rooted in Chinese culture and mythology. The artisans who crafted these bells also carefully inscribed them with multiple inscriptions, including the name of the bell, the name of the maker, and the date of production. These inscriptions served as a record of the bell's creation and were considered as an essential part of the bell's identity.

    The Niuzhong bell (4.3.10) is a remarkable piece of artwork with an elegant rounded base and three rows of serpentine studs on its panels adorned with intricate dragon motifs. The bell features two stunning dragons perched on top of it, creating ample space to affix a hanger and incorporate it into a grander ensemble of bells. The dragons are finely detailed, showcasing their scales and claws with great precision. The Yongzhong bell (4.3.11) showcases a longer, more slender structure with a curved opening and protruding studs. Depending on where it is struck, the Yongzhong bell produces a variety of delightful tones, each one unique in its own way. Its longer and more slender structure allows for a more prolonged and resonant sound that echoes beautifully in the surrounding environment. These bells are truly a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the artisan creators.

    bronze bell with two dragons as handles
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Niuzhong bell (Public domain)
    bronze bell with slim handle
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Yongzhong bell (bronze, 5th-3rd century BCE, 61 x 25.7 cm) (Public domain)

    The discovery of Marquis Yi's tomb has yielded a wealth of treasures, including an exceptional collection of sixty-three bianzhong bells (4.3.12). These unique bells differ in shape from most others, featuring a lens-shaped design with a cutaway profile rather than a circular form. Adorned with bronze script and thirty-six studs arranged in groups of nine, the large bells (4.3.13) were suspended from decorative chains on a frame. The bells produce a harmonious blend of two distinct musical tones when struck. The sixty-four bells are hung on racks at three levels and in collections of eight groups. The biggest bell is 153.4 centimeters (60.4 in) in height and weighs 203.6 kilograms (449 lb). The smallest bell is 20.4 centimeters (8.0 in) in height and weighs 2.4 kilograms (5.3 lb).[6] Archaeologists found the entombed for more than 2,500 years were still playable. The wooden mallets were also found intact inside the tomb. 

    several bronze bells on wooden rocks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Bianzhong bells (bronze, 433 BCE) (ZzjgbcCC BY-SA 3.0)
    close up of bronze bells
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Close-up of the frame (Calton, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    During their excavation of Marquis Yi's tomb, archaeologists came across the bianqing (4.3.14), a highly intricate musical instrument with a rich cultural significance. The bianqing is traditionally played in combination with the bianzhong bells and features a frame adorned with two rows of 16 hanging stones, each one delicately carved into a unique, curved shape of varying thickness. When struck, these stones produce a chime-like sound, each with a distinct tone, creating a harmonious melody that is pleasing to the ear. The bianqing is often used during temple ceremonies and its frame is decorated with two mandarin ducks, which are symbolic of the themes of devotion and undying love in Asian culture. The intricate design, the unique sound it produces, and the rich cultural significance make the bianqing a fascinating and significant discovery from Marquis Yi's tomb.

    bronze rack with hanging stones
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Bianqing (Zhangmoon618, CC BY-SA 3.0)
    Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng

    Bianzhong, or chimes, is an ancient percussion instrument of China with a history of over 3,000 years.



    The art of lacquerware was a highly intricate process that required a great deal of skill and effort on the part of the artist. The medium itself was derived from the sap of a specific tree and was known to be quite toxic. Much like the process of collecting maple syrup, the sap was gathered by cutting slits in the tree, which allowed it to flow into a bucket. Once collected, the sap was boiled down to condense the liquid, and pigments were added to create a range of colors and designs. Several coats were applied to create a rigid and waterproof surface that could be carved and enhanced with inlays made from silver, gold, mother-of-pearl, or other materials.

    A lacquer painting (4.3.15) was recently discovered in a tomb. The black lacquer background serves as a striking contrast to the men dressed in traditional silk clothing and the two-horse chariot portrayed in the image. The use of this dark background enhances the vibrant blue robes of the men, bringing them to the forefront and adding depth to the painting. The horses are depicted in a light brown or sienna color, which serves as a central focal point. The painting appears to tell two different stories; the chariot riders chasing three people in the bottom panel convey a sense of fear, while the men in the upper panel seem to be quietly observing something, creating a serene and peaceful feeling.

    box with a scene of people walking and a chariot
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Lacquer painting (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Written Language

    The Chinese language and its writing system have gone through a significant transformation over time. In its early stages, the characters were inscribed on oracle bones and bronze ware, including weapons and vessels. As time passed, the shapes of the characters became less rounded and more linear, with the earlier Shang forms (4.3.16) being more irregular in shape and simplified by the Western Zhou period. By the Spring and Autumn period, the characters had become completely linearized and less pictorial. During the Eastern Zhou period, bamboo strips were utilized to record information and write manuscripts, which have been discovered in tombs and used to analyze early definitions of shapes. Finally, during the Warring States period, silk manuscripts contained illustrations and text, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of Chinese writing.

    Chinese characters in black and white
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Changes in characters (Public domain)


    Archaeologists located three bundles of bamboo strips in a partition of a coffin. The strips were woven with string and bound with leather thongs. Archaeologists named them the Guodian strips.

    "When the archaeologists took them from the side compartment of the tomb's outer coffin, they were encased in mud. After the surface mud had been removed, the individual strips were separated. At this stage, the strips were completely black from the mud; the writing on them, in black ink, was therefore illegible. After a chemical treatment restored a natural color to the strips, thus rendering the writing visible, the strips were photographed and then conserved in test tubes filled with distilled water. This constituted only the physical zhengli process. Thereafter began the editorial work proper.

    The editorial team encountered difficulty when arranging the bamboo strips that had been bound together, as the straps keeping them in place had deteriorated, causing the strips to become disordered under the pressure of the ground. Nevertheless, they were able to categorize the strips into distinct groups by analyzing their physical characteristics. Fortunately, most of the strips had remained intact. The team utilized various factors such as their length, the manner in which they were cut at the ends (flat or beveled), the number and position of the binding straps (which had left marks on the strips), and the calligraphy of the writing to establish their arrangement. Based on these properties, the editors divided the 730 strips bearing writing into sixteen discrete texts."[7]

    The discovery of various collections of bamboo strips has allowed historians to acquire significant knowledge about the development and alteration of documented language. Bamboo was a favored medium for chronicling events, authoring tales, and crafting verses owing to its portability and user-friendliness. The multitude of characters etched on the bamboo strips possess a unique look and significance that differs from contemporary Chinese, providing historians with the ability to track the language's evolution over time. Strip number 22 (4.3.17) is believed to contain the text of the Shi Jin or Classic of Poetry, written by Laozi, a Daoist philosopher. 

    bamboo strips with characters
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Strip 22 (Public domain)

    Archaeologists unearthed a groundbreaking discovery in 305 BCE: the world's oldest decimal multiplication table. This table was ingeniously assembled using strips that, when arranged in a specific manner, revealed a comprehensive multiplication table for numbers. Although 25,000 strips were uncovered in a moldy and disordered state due to the decay of their original binding strings over time, the discovery attests to the sophisticated mathematical methods employed during this era. Most of the strips contained writings in calligraphy except the twenty-one strips forming the multiplication table. (4.3.18) is a display of the twenty-one strips creating the table.  

    According to Feng, when the strips are correctly arranged, a matrix structure emerges. The table can also help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5. "It's effectively an ancient calculator," says Li. The researchers suspect that officials used the multiplication table to calculate the surface area of land, yields of crops, and the amounts of taxes owed. "We can even use the matrix to do divisions and square roots," says Feng. "But we can't be sure that such complicated tasks were performed at the time." "Such an elaborate multiplication matrix is absolutely unique in Chinese history," stated Feng. The ancient Babylonians possessed multiplication tables some 4,000 years ago, but theirs were in a base-60, rather than base-10 (decimal), system. The earliest-known European multiplication table dates back to the Renaissance. "The discovery is of extraordinary interest," says Joseph Dauben, "It's the earliest artifact of a decimal multiplication table in the world." It "certainly shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes by the Warring States period in ancient China."[8]

    several bamboo strips with written characters
    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): Multiplication table (Public domain)


    "The first-century Chinese historian Liu Xiang wrote that the Eastern Zhou were "greedy and shameless…Everything was achieved through physical force, and the victorious was the noble. Military activities were incessant, and deceit and falsehoods came hand in hand." [9]



    [1] Reflections on History: Drought and Earthquake and the Collapse of the Western Zhou Dynasty 

    [2] Bauer, S. (2007). The history of the ancient world, W.W. Norton. (p. 332).

    [3] Ibid

    [4] A study of Chinese weapons cast during Pre-Qin and Han Periods in the Central Plains of China, Cao Hangang, Macao Museum of Art.

    [5] Ibid

    [6] China Online Museum 

    [7] Shaughnessy, E. (2006). Rewriting early Chinese texts, SUNY Press. (p. 15).

    [8] Qui, J. (2016). Ancient times table hidden in Chinese bamboo strips. Nature International Weekly Journal of Science.

    [9] Bauer, S. (2007). The History of the Ancient World. W. W. Norton, 498.