Chinese and Western historians call the type of government of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) a kind of "feudal system" (modern term fengjian zhidu 封建制度) because the political system resembled somewhat the custom of enfeoffment of the Middle Age in Europe (see regional rulers, zhuhou 諸侯).
The rule over the outstretched area of Zhou China made it necessary to give large parts of the territory as feuds (guo 國; the rest was the royal domain ji 畿) into the hands of trustworthy people (called regional rulers, zhuhou 諸侯). The royal family Ji 姬 bestowed some territories to members of the family itself, like Lu 魯 (whose lords were concurrently Dukes of Zhou 周公 who were senior ministers), Yan 燕 (whose lords were concurrently Dukes of Shao 召公), Jin 晉, Cai 蔡, Cao 曹 and Wei 衛, some other states to meritorious families like Jiang 姜, Ren 任, Gui 嬀 or Si 姒, like the states Qi 齊, others were given to descendants of older ruling houses (the state of Ji 薊 near modern Beijing to descendants of the mythical ruler Yao 堯, Chen 陳 to descendants of Shun 舜, Qi 杞 to descendants of Yu the Great 大禹, Song 宋 to the descendants of the defeated royal dynasty of Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). An appointment as regional ruler was not just accompanied by royal gifts, but the "noble" was also allowed to earn the income of the territory we was entrusted with. A regional ruler was obliged to protect the territory (regional state) in the name of the king of Zhou and to send to the royal court tributes (gong 貢) in regular intervals.
There were five different titles of nobility (wujue 五爵: gong 公 "duke", hou 侯 "marquis", bo 伯 "earl", zi 子 "viscount", nan 男 "baron"), yet during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent. - 770 BCE) this system was not yet used in this fixed form. "Duke" (gong, literally: "uncle") was a honorific title only granted to a few regional rulers, like the Duke of Zhou, the Duke of Shao, or the Duke of Mao 毛公. The lords of the larger states owned the title of "Marquis" or "Earl", and their kinship or followers were allowed to bear the title of "Viscount" (literally: "son, child") or shu 叔 "uncle" (a title never adopted as a regular title of nobility; see for example Bao Shu Ya 鮑叔牙). The title of "Baron" (literally: "son") is in fact extremely rare during the Zhou period.
The basic structure of Zhou central government is said to be described in the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou", a book that was only compiled during the 3rd century BC and is therefore to be used with great caution.
The king was assisted by the Three Dukes (sangong 三公: Grand Preceptor taishi 太師, Grand Mentor taifu 太傅, Grand Guardian taibao 太保) and the Three Solitaries (sangu 三孤) that were lieutenants of the three "Grands".
The vast area of the Zhou empire made it necessary to establish a bureaucracy to manage the government. The general administration was in the hands of six ministers (qing 卿) that headed the Six Ministries (liubu 六部): the Ministry of State (tianguan 天官 "Heavenly offices", headed by the Chancellor zhongzai 冢宰), the Ministry of Civil Administration and Social Welfare (diguan 地官 "Terrestrial offices", headed by the Minister of Education situ 司徒), the Ministry of Rites (chunguan 春官 "Spring offices", headed by the Minister of Rites zongbo 宗伯), the Ministry of War (xiaguan 夏官 "Summer offices", headed by the Minister of War sima 司馬), the Ministry of Justice (qiuguan 秋官 "Autumn offices", headed by the Minister of Justice sikou 司寇), and the Ministry of Works (dongguan 冬官 "Winter offices", headed by the Minister of Works sikong 司空).
The state was centered around the walled capital (guo 國), the rest of the state, the countryside, was seen as "wilderness" (ye 野). Settlements around the capital were called suburbs (jiao 郊). The countryside was administered by "grand masters" (dafu 大夫), and the lowest aristocratic group, the shi 士, mostly younger sons of nobles, were appointed grand masters or servicemen over the small territories inside the regional states.
The officialdom was divided into three ranks (ministers qing 卿, grand masters dafu 大夫, and servicemen shi 士) and nine honors (jiuming 九命 or jiupin 九品, each of the ranks divided into upper, ordinary and lower shang zhong xia 上中下). The office of the astrologer scribe (shi 史) became more and more important and later transformed into that of grand historian. From the personal rule of the shaman king of the Shang period, the rule changed to a king that was simply the head of many officers among whom the ministers, intendants and provisioners became more and more important. Even military affairs had to be handed to the authority of generals. With the younger generations, the relatives became more distant and were appointed regional rulers or grand masters of ever smaller territories. These territories would gradually become independent from their king in the course of centuries. Sometimes like during the reign of King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 827-782 BC), succession struggles in the small states had to be solved by the king himself.
The system of regional states established by the first Zhou rulers had disintegrated during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). The lords became rulers themselves. Among the multitude of big and small states, a few gained hegemony over the smaller ones, and also exerted control over the kings of Zhou. The permanent warfare made it necessary to build up standing armies and to create a centralized state. One of the first states to reorganizing its political structure was the state of Qi during the councelorship of Guan Zhong 管仲 (d. 645). "Master Guan" 管子 divided the territory into administration units and likewise organized traders, artisans, soldiers, citizens and peasants in units controlled by officials, that were rewarded or punished according to their effectiveness. This kind of centralized state would be much more capable to cope with all matters that required a strong organisation like war and public work. Guanzi was the first legalist, a school of thought that should later be fundamental for the founding of the Chinese empire. The other states one by one copied this system and gave up the old kinship official system. Instead of ministers (qing) and grand masters (dafu) that had often been related to the lord's family, a class of professional officials called shi took over the state service. They gained specialized knowledge in both military and civil service. Confucius mourned his life long for the old elite and their rites that now suffered social decline. As a crucial person in the new administration, some counsellors (xiang 相) could dominate over the whole state and made the ruler a simple puppet in their hands.
It was the work of political advisors who restructured the state system of the regional states in matters of administration, economy and military. Strengthening the state by concentrating the power within the hands of the sovereign and by codifying (penal) law, increasing the state income by enhancing agricultural productivity and systematizing the tax system, and professionalizing the military were the main strategies of these advisors. The first country that during the so-called Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) undertook such reforms was the state of Wei 魏 under Marquis Wen 魏文侯 (r. 424-387) who was assisted by Confucian scholars like Zixia 子夏, Tian Zifang 田子方, and Duan Ganmu 段干木, and by legalist and military advisors like Li Kui 李悝, Wu Qi 吳起 and Ximen Bao 西門豹. In the state of Chu, Wu Qi had King Dao 楚悼王 (r. 402-381) reformed the official system that was overloaded with useless persons and retainers. In the state of Qi, it was Zou Ji 鄒忌 and Shen Dao 慎倒 and who helped King Wei 齊威王 (r. 379-343) resp. Xuan 齊宣王 (r. 343-324) to eliminate the power of other "clans". The legalist advisor Shen Buhai 申不害 helped Marquis Zhao 韓昭侯 (r. 359-333) of the state of Han 韓 to appoint the most able state officials. But far the most influential advisor was Shang Yang 商鞅 (later Lord Shang 商君, hence his book Shangjunshu 商君書 "The Book of Lord Shang") who assisted Duke Xiao of Qin 秦孝公 (r. 362-338). By means of cruel penalties, awards and promotions the population of Qin was made productive and obedient. Measures and weights were standardized, and the whole territorial administration was reorganized in townships (xiang 鄉) and districts (xian 縣). Furthermore, the old well field system was finally abandoned and replaced by a system that yielded higher tax revenues.
But it was not only the bureaucracy that caused a drastic change in state affairs. Becoming independent from their former lords, the kings of Zhou, the dukes (gong) of the great states appointed their own followers and kinsmen with territories inside their regional domain. Several of these families could gain independence from their lord, like the families Zhao 趙, Wei 魏 and Han in the state of Jin. The political system with the king of Zhou at the top and regional rulers acting as his deputies thereby dissolved gradually, and the former Dukes adopted the title of king.
Penal law was an important issue during the restructuring of the regional states during the Warring States era. Almost every state began to codify penal law, but only few writings and documents have survived, like the fragments of Li Kui's Fajing 法經 "Book of Standards", or the Qin regulations discovered in a tomb near Yunmeng 雲夢, Hubei. It was especially state officials who were the target of exact law observation. Penal law of the Warring States era provided three kinds of punishments: death penalty (sixing 死刑), mutilation (rouxing 肉刑), and slavery (tuxing 徒刑). Of course, there were also lesser punishments like exile, beating, penalty fee, and compulsory labour. A very heavy penalty was the extinction of three generations (sanyi 三夷) of relatives of a guilty person.
Education was restricted to members of the nobility. As can be seen from the ritual classics the main focus of early Zhou education were propriety (li 禮) and music (yue 樂), archery (she 射) and driving a chariot (yu 御), writing (shu 書) and mathematics (shu 數). These six majors (liuyi 六藝 "the six arts or skills") that partially reflect the military activities of the aristocracy were thought to princes and members of the aristocracy at royal schools (daxue 大學) like the Biyong 辟雍 and Xuegong 學宮 schools at the royal court of the Zhou kings. Other regional states also maintained schools (xiang 庠, xu 序), like the Xihe Academy 西河學宮 in Wei 魏 and the Jixia Academy 稷下學宮 in Qi. From the Spring and Autumn period on and the development of a regular state administration by officials (shi 士) literary knowledge and exertise became more important than military training. Classical writings like the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" and Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" became the focus of educational material. This situation again changed when the political events made it necessary to study practical administration and to consider flexible politics in order to survive. It was the time of the "Hundred Schools" (baijia 百家) whose representants tought political and philosophical ideas at the courts of the regional rulers throughout China. Mozi 墨子, Mengzi 孟子, Xunzi 荀子, the legalists (fajia 法家; Shen Dao 慎到) and scholars of various schools like the early Huang-Lao thought 黃老思想 (Song Jian 宋鈃, Jiezi 接子, Tian Pian 田駢) and correlational thinking (yinyang wuxing 陰陽五行: Zou Yan 鄒衍) wandered from court to court and spread their ideas among the officialdom and the educated elite.