The term zhuhou 諸侯 (literally, "all the archers", 矦, compare the radical 矢 "arrow") was and is usually translated as "feudal lords", and their estates ("fiefs") or states as "feudal states". In this sense, the word zhuhou referred to the highest members of the nobility of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) - see overview of regional states of the Zhou period. After the foundation of the Zhou dynasty, King Wu 周武王 "enfeoffed" (feng 封) some of his relatives (tongxing zongzu 同姓宗族) as well as non-cognate meritorious generals and leaders (yixing gongchen 異姓功臣) by granting them land with the instruction to represent the suzerainty of the Zhou king. The use of such a "feudal system" can be attested for the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE).
The word fengjian 封建 "grand or secure establishment" was already used in contemporary writings (like the ode Yinwu 殷武 of the Confucian Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs"), but was only interpreted as a counterpart to the European (and Japanese) "feudal" system in the late 19th century. Marxist historians describe the whole imperial period (221 BCE-1912 CE) as one of a "feudal system" (fengjian zhidu 封建制度).
According to this Western concept of "feudal system", it was believed that conferring a title of nobility was accompanied by the endowment with a territory, the seat of which was called guo 國 (actually a word for a walled city) or yi 邑. From the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) on the word guo designated the territories of the "fiefs". Another word for the territory was bang 邦 (bangguo 邦國). This word became obsolete during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) as a taboo word, because it was part of the personal name of the dynastic founder, Liu Bang 劉邦 (Han Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE). An interpretation in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 says that bang were larger states, and guo smaller ones.
The Western term "feudalism" is already obsolete (Brown 1974, Reynolds 1994) among modern Mediaevalists because it is a theoretical construct of a relationship between a landowning king and a "leaseholding" vassal fixed by a personal oath of allegiance between these natural persons de jure which included political loyalty and military support. Vassalage and fief must be regarded separately.
The word "feudalism" is tradionally applied to the political system of the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), even if it does not fully correspond to the concept of feudalism as it prevailed in most European states in the Middle Ages. The most important difference is the importance of the lineage system (zongfa 宗法) in Zhou-period China, which required that a substantial number of "feudal states" were given into the hands of close relatives to the royal house (family name Ji 姬), and inside the "feudal states", administrative posts of ministers, grand masters and servicemen (see qing shi dafu 卿士大夫, which were again given "fiefs" or estates) were also often in the hands of relatives of the reigning local dynasty. The Zhou kingdom was thus "governed through kinship" (Li 1996:67).
Feudalism also referred to a special mode of economic organization (hence the economic stage of feudalism in the narrative of historical materialism), and not just to political features (Li 1996: 74), while in Western Zhou China, modes of economic organization prevailed that differed from those in European feudalism, like for instance, mass mobilization of labour force (see corvée).
Instead of falling back on the feudalism concept, Edward L. Shaugnessy uses the expression "colonization of the east" (Shaugnessy 1999: 311) for the decision to appoint brothers, cousins or nephews of the king to rule critical points east of the royal residence. One exemption is the army commander Taigong Wang 太公望, who was ordered to colonize the Shandong Peninsula (state of Qi 齊): He was not a relative of the royal house, but had the family name Jiang 姜 (yet the Jiang intermarried with the Ji), or the state of Song 宋 that was ruled by descendants of the Shang dynasty. Some generations later, these personal ties were replaced by a kind of proto-bureaucracy (Shaugnessy 1999: 323).
The dissolution of the extended kinship system of the early Zhou period by strengthening the main lines of the dynasty (or "sons of rulers") during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) is by Cho-yun Hsu called "second feudalization" (Hsu 1999: 570-572).
Li Feng (2003: 294) proposes the use of the lengthy expression "delegatory kin-ordered settlement state" to describe the fengjian system of the Western Zhou period. He argues that the relation between the Zhou king and the regional rulers was a public one between ruler and subject, and not a private contract between two equals, as in the European system. In the Western Zhou period, the rights over territory were seen as a takeover of administrative, judicial, and military - and thus bureaucratic – functions in the framework of a geopolitical "grand strategy". The "establishing" (jian 建) of colonial settlement states (yi 邑) perfectly fits with the Chinese term for "feudalism", fengjian.
An ancient form of the character feng 封 (actually "measured tract of land", compare the character part 寸 "inch") was written 𡉚. Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815), author of the critical character dictionary Shuowen jiezi zhu 說文解字注 (see Shuowen jiezi 說文解字) remarks that the word bang 邦 (ancient variant 𤰫) is seen as a synonym (and homophone) to the word feng. Both words mean "to entrust land" [to a relative].
The Zhou kings did not also exclusively rely on the "feudal lords" for military support, as the lords did in Mediaeval Europe, but they had an army of their own (see Zhou-period military). Moreover, the translation of "feudal" titles like gong 公 and hou 侯 as "duke" and "marquis" are likewise just makeshift translations (see five titles of nobility).
These findings urge to give up the traditional translation "feudal lords" for zhuhou and "feudal state" for guo. Instead, we will use the expressions suggested by Li Feng, namely "regional rulers" (as agents of the Zhou sovereign), and "regional states" (i.e. polities working like independent states, but nominally acting on behalf of the Zhou king). The translation of the word hou as "governor", "viceroy" or "proconsul" might be alternatives, but excludes the aspect of inheritance.
The number of regional rulers during the early phase of the Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) was about 71 (this is the number of states whose names are known). This number shrank in the Spring and Autumn period. Some lines of regional rulers of smaller statelets died out, while other states were swallowed by larger ones. The conflicts of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) reduced the number of states to seven (qiguo 七國): Chu 楚, Han 韓, Qi 齊, Qin 秦, Wei 魏, Yan 燕, and Zhao 趙. Because Qin conquered the others and founded the Qin empire in 221, the others are known as the "six regional states" (liu guo 六國).
The title conferred upon the early Western Zhou regional rulers was hou 侯, which is usually translated as "marquis". Hou was the highest title of nobility, while lower ones were conferred upon persons of lesser merit. These "earls" (bo 伯), "viscounts" (zi 子) and "barons" (nan 男) were appointed administrators of territories, too.
The word gong 公, usually translated as "duke", was originally not a rank of a noble, but referred to state offices with defined functions at the central royal court (see Three Dukes). Various written sources, including bronze vessel inscriptions, do not make a clear difference between gong, hou and bo. The Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 commentary on the "Spring and Autumn Annals" Chunqiu 春秋 explains the use of bo instead of hou as an expression of critique. It seems that from some point of time, the "earls" and "marquesses" appropriated the title of "duke".
The regional rulers had the obligation to bring the Zhou king tributes, to supply him with personnel for state offices, to participate in military expeditions, and to supervise labour activities like the construction of canals (see Grand Canal). In return they possessed hereditary rights over their territory, but the king of Zhou had the right to be informed about the transferral of power.
After the downfall of the Western Zhou in 770 and with the decreasing strength of the royal house, the regional states won independence. These states were connected to each other by an intricate system of ritual and ceremonial relationships (for instance, the archery contests which gave the hou their name), and forged ties by alliances (meng 盟) or "diplomatic missions" or carried out intrigues against each other. In the second half of the Warring States period, the more powerful among the regional rulers adopted the title of king (wang 王), and thus created a factual multi-state world out of an ancient semi-bureaucratic system of "governors" or "viceroys".
After the disintegration of the Zhou kingdom, the term zhuhou continued to refer, as a generic term, to persons bearing a title of nobility. While the Han dynasty only used the title hou (apart from wang for princes), the full range of the five titles of nobility (including gong) was applied again during late imperial times.