Zhou Dynasty: Achievements & Inventions

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  • 0:03 What Was the Zhou Dynasty?
  • 0:38 Zhou Dynasty Society
  • 2:14 Zhou Dynasty Philosophy
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Zhou Dynasty was one of the most influential eras in China's long history. In this lesson, we'll check out Zhou achievements and inventions and see how they impacted China's development.

What Was the Zhou Dynasty?

It is true that every human society contributes something to the world and to the cultures that come after. However, some societies have more obvious impacts than others. Spanning roughly from 1046 to 256 BCE, th Dynasty was not only one of the first but also the longest-reigning political dynasty in Chinese history. As a result, the Zhou were major players in establishing the foundations of all Eastern civilization, which is a pretty big deal. Just how big a deal were they? That's what we'll be looking at in this lesson.

Zhou Dynasty Society

The Zhou Dynasty is the second accepted dynasty in Chinese history, and it is seen as being responsible for taking a relatively small state and increasing its size, wealth, and sophistication. The long Zhou period was full of invention and innovation, as more and more Neolithic tribes were brought within its uniform system of social, cultural, and political administration. With more minds working towards solving shared problems, some great ideas came out of the Zhou era.

Many new ideas had to do with agriculture, which increased the available food in China and allowed for the rapid growth of their society. Among the Zhou agricultural innovations were techniques for large-scale irrigation, natural water management, and ox-drawn plows.

As their agriculture became more efficient, Zhou society quickly grew larger. This resulted in innovations aimed at creating a more functional society, such as unified systems of writing and coinage. While the previous dynasty had a writing system, it was the Zhou who expanded it across the various Chinese tribes and started creating a standardized written language for everyone.

Finally, the Zhou Dynasty saw the introduction of a new, and very important material to China: iron. Iron tools helped make their agricultural systems more efficient, and iron weapons helped their armies unite more tribes under their influence. The Zhou were also the first Chinese society to ride horses into battle and were the inventors of the crossbow, firing arrows with iron tips. As a result, warfare was widespread, and the Zhou world was frequently consumed by it.

Zhou Dynasty Philosophy

Out of the growth, change, unity, and constant warfare of the Zhou Dynasty came what is possibly the greatest single contribution of the era: philosophy. Chinese thinkers started systematically debating ethics and looked for new ways to promote a moral, ordered, and stable society.

One of the first philosophical concepts to arise during this era came from the Zhou emperors themselves. The Zhou entered Chinese society alongside the Shang Dynasty, but by the 11th century BCE, the Shang had become corrupt. The Shang were the first true Chinese dynasty, so there wasn't a lot of precedent for legitimately overthrowing a divine emperor.

After defeating the Shang, the Zhou emperors introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which is essentially the divine authority to rule. They argued that their victory proved that the Mandate had passed from the Shang rulers to the Zhou, and that the Zhou would hold it until they became corrupt or immoral themselves. The Mandate of Heaven, and the concept that rulers must maintain authority through moral leadership, became a foundational element of Chinese political philosophy.

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