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Zhou Period Economy

Mar 30, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald
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Land ownership

An often-quoted verse is the 'lesser' ode Beishan 北山 from the Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", where the ownership of all land is said to be in the hands of the king of Zhou 周 (pu tian zhi xia, mo fei wang tu 普天之下,莫非王土). Taken literally, this would mean that all arable fields were in the possession of the highest sovereign. Other interpretations therefore see this verse as referring just to the royal domain (neifu 內服). Even then, parts of the royal domain were territories occupied and used by persons invested as dignitaries (houfu 侯服), like the lords of Guo 虢, Yu 虞, Bi 畢, Ji 祭 or Zheng 鄭, and lands inhabited by non-Zhou tribes (yaofu 要服, huangfu 荒服). The history book Guoyu 國語 (ch. Zhouyu 周語) adds the information that the field services brought tributes for the [daily] sacrifices to Heaven, the marquisate services such for the [monthly] sacrifices, the guest services such for the seasonal sacrifices, the restricted services delivered annual tributes, and the barren services presented directly to the king.

The common picture is that of nine concentric rings (or rather squares, fang 方) around the royal capital. The closest of these areas was the state or royal domain (wangji 王畿, guoji 國畿) making a square of 1,000 li (c. 500km) of length around the capital. The next ring was the "marquisate domain" (houji 侯畿) or the "marquisate services" (houfu 侯服) with a distance of between 500 and 1,000 li to the capital, meaning a square with a length of 2,000 li. The six inner rings (nei liu fu 内六服) covered a theoretical area of 9,621,126km2 with a distance of no more than 3,500 li to the capital. The outer rim of the Zhou empire was 5,000 li (c. 2,500km) away from the capital.

Table 1. Types of domains ('concentric squares') in the Western Zhou
distance to the capital Zhouli (jiuji 九畿) Sanlitu jizhu (jiufu 九服) Zhouli yishu
500 li 國畿 guoji 王畿 wangji 王服 wangfu
1,000 li 侯畿 houji 侯服 houfu 侯服 houfu
1,500 li 甸畿 dianji 甸服 dianfu 甸服 dianfu
2,000 li 男畿 nanji 男服 nanfu 男服 nanfu
2,500 li 采畿 caiji 采服 caifu 采服 caifu
3,000 li 衛畿 weiji 蠻服 manfu 衛服 weifu
3,500 li 蠻畿 manji 要服 yaofu 要服 yaofu
4,000 li 夷畿 yiji 夷服 yifu 夷服 yifu
4,500 li 鎮畿 zhenji 鎮服 zhenfu 鎮服 zhenfu
5,000 li 蕃畿 fanji 藩服 fanfu 藩服 fanfu
Sources: Zhouli 周禮, ch. Da sima 大司馬; Nie Chongyi 聶崇義, Sanlitu jizhu 三禮圖集注, 4: 7a-8a; Jia Gongyan 賈公彥, Zhouli yishu 周禮義疏. Note: The distances refer to the distance of the outer border of each area to the royal capital, but the texts do not say if this distance is meant in horizontal/vertical direction or in diagonal direction of the 'concentric squares'.

The king had the right to confer land and/or people (workforce) to functionaries like ministers (qing 卿), grand masters (dafu 大夫), or servicemen (shi 士), and the right to claim tributes (gong 貢) and revenues from the lands (shui 稅, see state finance). The lands, usually with villages where the farming population lived, were called "salary settlements" (caiyi 采邑, caidi 采地, or short cai 采) and their revenues (lu 祿) served as a 'reward' (or salary) for the services the functionaries paid to the sovereign. For this reason, these lands were not allowed to be partitioned, sold (tian li bu yu 田里不鬻; Liji 禮記, ch. Wangzhi 王制), or handed over to subordinates for their services. The king, as the original 'owner' of the land, had also the right to confiscate it and distribute it to other functionaries. Salary fields were not inheritable.

The royal dynasty used of course part of the lands of the royal domain to sustain the royal household. These lands were called "large fields" (datian 大田 or futian 甫田). In the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), the system of salary fields expanded to the various regional states. Grand Masters were given larger lands (caiyi 采邑) than servicemen (caitian 采田, lutian 祿田). The terms for the people living on the salary fields were manifold, and at least part of them might have been war captives during the early Western Zhou period, quite probably being transferred from their original settlements into villages within the royal domain. The

He Xiu 何休 (129-182), commenting on the Gongyang Commentary (Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳), held that in the salary field system, the fields were left fallow every three years, and the peasant moved their houses. A change of the field used to produce the annual 'tributes' is attested in the Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) regulations (Tianfa 田法) found in 1972 in Yinqueshan 銀雀山 close to Linyi 臨沂, Shandong (Zhou 2000: 589).

The most difficult issue is the question of the so-called well-field system (jingtian zhi 井田制) of which the Confucian philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (385-304, Mengzi 孟子) believed it was carried out in the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). Well-fields (called so because the character 井 signified the field distribution) were a special type of salary field perhaps used in fertile lowland. According to Mengzi, well-fields consisted of a compartment of public or common field (gongtian 公田) of 100 mu 畝 (1.6ha; see weights and measures) for "mutual aid" (zhu 助) which had to be worked first, before each peasant started with the work on his private field (sitian 私田). When and in which areas this type of cultivation was carried out, cannot be known.

Quotation 1. Mengzi on the well-field system
請野九一而助,國中什一使自賦。卿以下必有圭田,圭田五十畝;餘夫二十五畝。死徙無出鄉,鄉田同井,出入相友,守望相助,疾病相扶持,則百姓親睦。 I would ask you, in the remoter districts, observing the nine-squares division, to reserve one division to be cultivated on the system of mutual aid (zhu 助), and in the more central parts of the kingdom, to make the people pay for themselves a tenth part of their produce. From the highest officers down to the lowest, each one must have his holy field (guitian 圭田), consisting of fifty mu 畝. Let the supernumerary males (yufu 餘夫) have their twenty-five mu. On occasions of death, or removal from one dwelling to another, there will be no quitting the district. In the fields of a district, those who belong to the same nine squares render all friendly offices to one another in their going out and coming in, aid one another in keeping watch and ward, and sustain one another in sickness. Thus the people are brought to live in affection and harmony.
方里而井,井九百畝,其中為公田。八家皆私百畝,同養公田;公事畢,然後敢治私事,所以別野人也。 A square li 里 covers nine squares of land, which nine squares contain nine hundred mu. The central square is the public field, and eight families, each having its private hundred mu, cultivate in common the public field (gongtian 公田). And not till the public work is finished, may they presume to attend to their private affairs. This is the way by which the country-men are distinguished from those of a superior grade.
Mengzi 孟子, ch. Teng Wengong 滕文公 A. Translation according to Legge 1895.

The yields from the common field are variously called zhu 助 or che 徹—yet these terms might just refer to a tax collected from all fields, and not just the yields of one single plot. The word gongtian 公田 might be identical to the term "large field" (datian), as in the Shijing ode of the same name, where it is said that "May it rain first on our public fields, And then come to our private!" (yu wo gong tian, sui ji wo si 雨我公田、遂及我私). Yet the word wo 我 "we/our" might not refer to the peasants, but to the land owners, namely the grand masters or other functionaries. Also the first passage of the Mengzi text shows that ownership was in the hands of officials (qing 卿 and lower).

The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Diguan 地官, ch. Xiao situ 小司徒) explains that an area of 900 mu of land was worked by nine families—leaving no space for any "communal or public field". This did not necessarily mean that the fields were arranged like the character 井, which is just one form of 'pictogram' for 'field'. Four jing 井 units constituted one settlement (yi 邑). The border between jing units was called chou 疇 (Zhou 2000: 592).

Apart from the well-field system, there were quite a few other regulations, like the "six [interior ]districts" (liu xiang 六鄉) and the "six exterior districts" (liu sui 六遂) in the royal domain, and the "three suburban districts" (san jiao 三郊) and the "three exterior districts" (san jiao 三遂) in the domains of the regional rulers. Fields located in the exterior districts, being under the guidance of the supervisor of exterior districts (suiren 遂人), are interpreted as communal fields owned by a local community and distributed to individual farmers. Yet the status, work, and products of individual farmers might be divergent (Zhou 2000:598-599). Mengzi's ideal of the well-field system might have been based on such a model, yet the owner of the land was still a nobleman, and not a 'free' community, as Marxist historians believe.

In Marxist eyes, the 'privatization' of fields began with the custom of the Zhou kings to present land (ci tian 錫[=賜]田, jia tian 加田) to dignitaries outside of the custom of giving them salary land (ci cai 錫[=賜]采, shang di 賞地). Such transfers of land ownership are attested in mid- and late Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, like those of the Yong Yu 永盂 bowl, the Wu gui 敔簋 pot, or the Da ke ding 大克鼎 tripod. While the size of salary land was a marker for the status of a functionary, the size of presented land was not. Moreover, salary land also included the work force of the farmers living on the soil, while presented land only gave rights over the land, and not the workforce on it (Zhou 2000: 605).

From the mid-Western Zhou period on, owners of land began to sell or exchange plots. The inscription of the Mao gui 卯簋 pot reports how the Earl of Rong 榮伯 presented land to a dignitary called Mao 卯. The inscription on the Wei he 衛盉 can records that Qiu Wei 裘衛 obtained land with a size of "ten fields" (shi tian 十田) from the Earl of Ju 矩伯 at a price of jade plates (jinzhang 瑾璋) worth 80 cowry strings (peng 朋), as well as three fields at a price of jade and leather objects with a value of 20 cowry strings. The inscription of the Wu si wei ding 五祀衛鼎 tripod shows that the sales of land was actually forbidden, and violation was sanctioned.

Quotation 2. The price of illegally sold fields in the Western Zhou
矩白庶人取堇章于裘衛,才(=財)八十朋,厥賈其舍(=捨)田十田。矩或取赤虎兩、麀𠦪兩、𠦪韐一,才廿朋,其舍田三田。 The subordinates of the Elder of Ju 矩白 took possession of royal audience jades from Qiu Wei 裘衛, worth eighty strings of cowries (peng 朋), in appropriately assessed return for which the Elder of Ju relinquished to Qiu Wei ten fields. Ju also received two vermillion tiger-shaped jade pendants, two deerskin aprons, and a decorated apron, in total worth twenty strings of cowries, in return for which Ju Bo relinquished to Qiu Wei three fields.
[君厲]曰:「余舍女(=汝)田五田。」正廼(=乃)訊厲曰:「女賈田不。」厲廼許曰:「余審賈田五田。」井白(=伯)、白邑父、定白、𣄴白、白俗父,廼顜,事厲誓。 [Lord Li 君厲] said, "I relinquish to you five fields." Officials then interrogated Li, asking, "Did you sell the fields or not?" Lord Li then admitted this, saying "I sold all five fields." The Elder of Jing 井白, Elder Yifu 白邑父, the Elder of Ding 定白, the Elder of Liang 𣄴白, and Elder Sufu 白俗父 then reached a verdict, and made Li swear an oath [not to do this once more].
Inscriptions of Wei he 衛盉, and Wu si wei ding 五祀衛鼎. Translation by Cook & Goldin 2016: 89-90.

The price of fields cannot be assessed from such statements, because neither the size of fields, nor their quality is known.

Occasionally, land owners exchanged plots of land. Such cases are recorded in the inscriptions of the Hu ding 曶鼎 tripod and the San shi pan 散氏盤 plate. Not being able to pay a debt of ten zi 秭 (weight measure) of grain, a certain Kuang Ji 匡季 was forced to repay his debt to Hu 曶 by offering him seven fields and five men as labour force (Cook & Goldin 2016: 134). In case of the San family, they were paid out a deed of lands by the Ze 夨 family because the latter had unjustly attacked the estate of the San. Altogether fifteen men demarcated the boundary of the lands that Ze ceded to San, and the first part of the inscription painstakingly notes down the boundaries and location of the fields to be ceded. The cessation was concluded by a contract and an oath (Cook & Goldin 2016: 170).

Quotation 3. Cessation of land according to Western-Zhou period inscriptions
眉自󱨉涉厶南,至于大沽一封,厶陟二封,至于邊柳。 The boundary of these lands, setting out from Mei 眉, crosses the river Xian 󱨉, goes south to the earthen boundary marker (feng 封) at Great Salt March 大沽. Climbing, it follows two markers on the rising ground and then [down] to the Willow Fringe 邊柳...
夨卑鮮、且、󱨑。、誓,曰:「有爽,實余有散氏心賊,則鞭千罰千,傳棄之。」… 厥受圖夨王于豆新宫東廷。 Ze 夨 directed Xian, Ju, 󱨑, and Lü to pledge an oath, swearing, "If we renege on our agreement, we will have robbed the San 散 family of their trust and will be fined one thousand [yuan 鍰], receive a thousand lashes, and be exiled." [...] They made a map for the King of Ze (?) in the east court of the New Palace (Xingong 新宫) at Dou 豆.
Inscription of San shi pan 散氏盤. Translation by Cook & Goldin 2016: 170.

"Large fields" (datian, also called futian, gongtian, or jietian 藉田), where the main source of income of the royal household and those of the regional rulers. Some sources hold that the "large fields" of the king encompassed just 1,000 mu, those of the regional rulers only 100 (Zhou 2000: 622). Some scholars are therefore of the opinion that the term jie 藉 referred to the plot which was ceremonially ploughed by the sovereign at the beginning of each year. Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200), commenting on the office of master of the hinterland (dianshi 甸師; Zhouli, part Tianguan 天官) asserts that the Son of Heaven ceremonially ploughed three furrows, the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) five, the regional rulers and their ministers nine, and commoners the rest of the 1,000 or 100 mu, respectively.

Transmitted sources and bronze inscriptions mentione quite a few locations and fields which were lying outside of the putative area of 1,000 mu. Some commentators, like Zheng Xuan, held that dian fields 甸 were located outside the suburbs (yuanjiao zhi wai 遠郊之外) or in the "wilderness" (ye 野), in the case of the king of Zhou, south of the residence, and in the case of the regional rulers, north of it (Zhou 2000: 628). Yet bronze inscriptions cannot substantiate this assumption, as it must have been possible to reach the "large fields" within one day, which means they were located in the vicinity of the capital (an area called guo 國).

The peasants working as serfs on the domains of the nobility were supervised by officials (maoshi 髦士, tianjun 田畯) who resided in public buildings (jie 介, lu 廬)(Zhou 2000: 632). The farmers were called shuren 庶人, shumin 庶民 "commoners", zhongren 眾人 "the masses", min 民 "the people", nongren 農人, or nongfu 農夫 "peasants", in bronze inscriptions renli 人鬲 or li 鬲, and sometimes also tu 徒, a term used for convict labourers. Peasants working the fields of the royal or ducal domains might quite probably be war captives. In any case, it seems that the workers on the datian fields did not possess private plots. Moreover, not only was the workforce 'part of the field'. Cases like the San shi pan inscription show that the handover of fields also included tools, and probably also draft animals. For this reason, the landowners or officials ordered the peasants each spring to repair and fix the tools.

Chinese scholars discern from the (putative) well-field system a system called "distribution fields" (shoutian zhi 授田制) which was used in the royal and ducal domains as well as the "exterior districts". The word jiao 郊 (usually translated as "suburbs") denotes the surroundings of the royal 'capital' as well as the border between these 'suburbs' (guo 國) and the "wilderness" (ye 野). The area outside the capital was divided into six districts (liu xiang), while the area of the "wilderness" was divided into six external districts (liu sui). The inhabitants of the six districts were called guoren 國人, those living outside were yeren 野人 or mang 甿. There might be the possibility that yeren were war captives or former subjects of the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) (Zhou 2000: 698). The system of the six districts is sometimes related to the six armies (liujun).

The expression baixing 百姓 "hundred family names", today referring to the "common folks", meant during the Zhou period the nobility, namely those who had a family name (Zhou 2000: 734).

Fields were distributed according to the number of adult male persons (zhengfu 正夫) per household, with 100 mu of arable land and 50 mu of fallow land (lai 萊). The amount of fallow land grew with the sinking quality of soil. Some scholars believe that "supernumerary males" (yufu 餘夫) were only given 25 mu of land (Zhou 2000: 712).

The fields given in this way were by no means private, but the size served to determine the yields a family could live off and submit the remainders to the authorities. The way of farming was collective and the work was supervised by state officials under the supervision of grand masters of external districts (sui dafu 遂大夫), namely township rectifiers (xianzheng 縣正), precinct heads (zanzhang 酇長), village heads (lizai 里宰), and other functionaries.

Depending on the quality of the soil, households were given 100, 200, or 300 mu of land. Soil of good quality could be used every year, while middle-quality soil was to rest for one year, and low-quality soil for two years (san nian yi huan 三年一換土; Hanshu, ch. Shihuo zhi A). This system was applied in the region of external districts, when lands were distributed to farming families. Is is similar to, but not identical with the Spring and Autumn practice in the state of Jin 晉 (yuantian 爰田) und Shang Yang 商鞅 (yuantian 轅田), where lands were given to the nobility, not to and private farmer families (Zhou 2000: 696).

The Zhouli discerns between "distribution fields" in the interior (liu xiang) and the exterior districts (liu sui). The former were fields bestowed to high dignitaries at the royal court or the courts of the regional rulers, or to relatives of the sovereigns. The fields were known generally as dubi 都鄙, with individual designations dian 甸, shao 稍, xian 縣, du, and bin.

The supervisor of exterior districts (suiren) was responsible for the fields outside the domains, recruitment of persons for corvée, husbandry, local administration, the maintenance of streets, and caring for the people (zuo ye min 作野民). All these types of field did not have a 'common' or 'public' plot, and can thus not be counted to the well-field area. There were worked by individual farming families who cannot be counted as serfs of the government, functionaries, or the nobility. Accordingly, the functionaries under the suiren had only the right of supervision, not of commanding peasants for labour (Zhou 2000: 753). The size of their fields, allotted by the government, was adjusted to the size of the households, with three categories. Such a system is described in the chapter Xiao situ in the Zhouli, but also approved in the regulations found in Yinqueshan. The chapter Wangzhi in the Liji knows five categories of soil. Because each family was only given 100 mu of land, fertile land could nourish nine persons, but meagre soil only five. State officials (up to the regional rulers) were given "distribution fields" according to their rank.

Quotation 4. Sizes of distribution fields depending from soil quality
農田百畝。百畝之分:上農夫食九人,其次食八人,其次食七人,其次食六人;下農夫食五人。 The fields of the husbandmen were in portions of a hundred mu. According to the different qualities of those acres, when they were of the highest quality, a farmer supported nine individuals; where they were of the next, eight; and so on, seven, six, and five.
諸侯之下士視上農夫。祿足以代其耕也。中士倍下士,上士倍中士,下大夫倍上士;卿,四大夫祿;君,十卿祿。 The servicmen of the lowest grade (xiashi 下士) in the regional states had an emolument equal to that of the husbandmen whose fields were of the highest quality; equal to what they would have made by tilling the fields. Those of the middle grade (zhongshi 中士) had double that of the lowest grade; and those of the highest grade (shangshi 上士) double that of the middle. A grand master of the lowest grade (xia dafu 下大夫) had double that of a serviceman of the highest. A minister (qing 卿) had four times that of a grand master; and the regional ruler (jun 君) had ten times that of a high minister.
Liji 禮記, ch. Wangzhi 王制. Translation according to Legge (1885).

Free peasants could nonetheless be recruited for the army, and for labour services to the public. The grouping of households into regular units shows the basic military character of administration. The chapter Xiao situ says that each family had to provide one soldier in case of need, while the chapter Da sima adds the information that for labour service, up to three people could be drafted. The chapter Xiang dafu 鄉大夫 explains that the minimum body height of recruits was 7 chi 尺 (c. 160cm).

Physical labour for the public might be used to construct city walls or palaces, but some odes of the Shijing (like Hongyan 鴻雁 or Baoyu 鴇羽) narrate situations when peasants were sent far away to do labour.

Zhou agriculture

The high number of offices involved in agriculture shows how important the management of fields was for the Zhou government. Beginning with Hou Ji 后稷, the "supervisor of grain" (who transformed into the figure of the mythological ancestor of the Zhou) to 'ministers' like situ 司土 "supervisor of land" (later called situ 司徒 "supervisor of the masses") or sinong 司農 "supervisor of agriculture", to mid-level officials like nong dafu 農大夫 "grand master of agriculture" or nongzheng 農正 "rectifier of agriculture" to lesser offices like tianjun 田畯, dianren 甸人, dianshi 甸師, nongshi 農師, or baojie 保介.

Concerning the number of peasants working on the fields, scholar usually refer to two odes of the Shijing, namely Zaishan 載芟, and Yixi 噫嘻, where it is said that "In thousands of pairs they remove the roots," (qian ou qi yun 千耦其耘), and "ten thousand men all in pairs" (shi qian wei ou 十千維耦), yet it is not sure whether these verses can be taken literally, or are just expressions of "many people".

There were different types of peasants, namely such having been subject to the Zhou prior to the conquest of the Shang; such having been subjects of the Shang; and such being subject to tributary states (fuguo 服國) of the Zhou (The practice of farming

While some scholars argue that the low technical level of agriculture of the Western Zhou did not allow individual farming, others hold that individual farming was the base of Western Zhou agriculture. Ploughshares were made of stone, shell, wood, or bronze, the latter constituting not a small part of the tools discovered to date. Iron was not used for agricultural tools, as the technique or working iron only appears in the late Western Zhou period.

There were two types of 'ploughs', namely lei 耒, and si 耜. Both characters are often used as a single word, leisi 耒耜, which does not just mean 'plough', but agricultural tools in general. The lei tool was not really a plough in the modern sense, as it did not have a single share, but instead two flat and sharp protrusions at the front, and thus resembled rather a fork or a 'double-spade'. The long handle was at the lower end equipped with a cross-piece which served to tread upon to sink the blade into the soil (an action called ju zhi 舉趾 in ancient texts). The double-head end (ci 庛) was either straight to break open hard soil by pressing, or curved, in order to work softer types of soil by pushing. Finds from the Neolithic period show that the horns of larger lei types were about 20cm long and had a distance of 8cm. The handle of this type of plough was 6-7 chi long (c. 1.5m). The si-type plough did not have 'teeth', but consisted of a single blade of 5 cun of width (10-15cm) and thus resembled a spade. While the two 'teeth' of the lei were pure wood, the single blade of a si were more often reinforced by metal, stone, bone, or shell. The lei and si ploughs were more shovels or spades than ploughs in the modern sense.

Moreover, there were different other farming tools, mainly spades (qian 錢, chan 剗, chan 鏟, qiu 鍬, cha 鍤), hoes (bo 鎛, bo 鑮, chu 鋤, nou 耨), or sickles (zhi 銍, lian 鐮, lian 鎌), as well as knives (dao 刀), cutters (xiao 削), saws (ju 鋸), drills (zao 鑿), drills (chui 錐), tweezers (zhan 鉆), files (cuo 銼, also written 錯) and axes (fu 斧). The word for 'money' (qian) is derived from the spade-shaped coins (by numismatists called bubi 布幣) used in the royal domain and the state of Jin.

The Zhouli chapter Da situ enumerates five types of soil, namely hill forests (shanlin 山林), river (banks) and swamps (chuanze 川澤), hills (qiuling 丘陵), fertile plains (fenyan 墳衍), and moist plains (yuanxi 原隰). The chapter Yugong 禹貢 of the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" discerns the soil types "whitish and mellow" (bairang 白壤), "blackish and rich" (heifen 黑墳), "whitish and rich" (baifen 白墳), "red, clayey, and rich" (chi zhi fen 赤埴墳), "miry" (tuni 塗泥), "mellow, rich, dark and thin" (rang fen lu 壤墳壚), and "greenish and light" (qingli 青黎), and "yellow and mellow" (huangrang 黄壤).

The state of Chu 楚 knew during the Spring and Autumn period nine grades of quality or types of soil (Zuozhuan 左傳, Xianggong 襄公 25), namely

Quotation 3. Types of soil in Chu, according to Zuozhuan
蒍掩書土、田:度山林,鳩藪澤,辨京陵,表淳鹵,數疆潦,規偃豬,町原防,牧隰皋,井衍沃,量入脩賦,賦車、籍馬,賦車兵、徒兵、甲楯之數。 Wei Yan 蒍掩 [supervisor of the military (sima 司馬) in Chu] recorded the conditions of resources and lands: he measured the timber of ① mountain forests, examined ② wetlands and marshes, made distinctions between ③ high altitudes and lesser mounds, marked out ④ saline fields with trees, defined districts with ⑤ dense soil liable to flooding, drew boundaries for ⑥ reservoirs, divided lands up into ⑦ small parcels for cultivation, used ⑧ wetlands for pastures, and established subdivisions for ⑨ flat, fertile lands; he calculated the domain’s revenues and regularized levies, and determined the contribution of chariots, of horses, and of the weapons for chariot drivers and foot soldiers, as well as the number of armour suits and shields.
Zuozhuan, Xianggong 25. Translation according to Durrant, Li, Schaberg 2016: 1155, slightly changed.

With the growth of the population, more wild land was cleared and made cultivable. Yet this does not mean that the agricultural landscape of China consisted of coherent tracts of land. It must rather be imagined as a puzzle of fields, heathland, meadows, marshes, and forest, with many uninhabited and uncultivated regions in-between (Zhou 2000: 779). Mark Elvin interprets the archaic Chinese character for farming as "activity being carried out in the midst of trees" (Elvin 2004: 44).

The most important crops of the Western Zhou period were the "hundred grains" (baigu 百榖), pulses (dou 豆, shu 菽), and hemp (ma 麻). The Shijing is an important source to reconstruct the variety of field crops cultivated and consumed by the Zhou people.

Among the grains, there was glutinous millet (shu 黍 ), foxtail millet (ji 稷, su 粟, zi 粢, general terms he 禾, gu 榖 "grain"), panicled millet (ji 穄, mi 糜, mei 𪎭, mei 穈), sorghum (liang 粱), black millet (ju 秬, pi 秠), white millet (qi 芑), wheat (mai 麥, lai 來, lai 麳), barley (mou 牟, mou 麰), rice (dao 稻), glutinous rice (yu 稌), non-glutinous rice (jing 稉, 粳), water oats (Zizania, gu 苽 or 菰), and pulses (shu 菽) like large beans (renshu 𦬰菽)

The chapter Zhifang shi 職方氏 of the Zhouli explains which types of grain were dominantly cultivated in which regions. This enumeration demonstrated that rice cultivation was not restricted to the Yangtze region, but was carried out practically in all regions of China (Zhou 2000: 782). Beans and other legumes were so important that the term "five grains" (wugu 五榖) usually includes beans—a food in the West not counted among the 'grains'.

Table . Production zones of various grains in Zhou-period China
黍 glutinous millet 稷 millet 麥 wheat 稻 rice 菽 pulses
Yangzhou 揚州 (Jiangsu), Jingzhou 荊州 (Hubei) x
Yuzhou 豫州 (Henan) x x x x x
Qingzhou 青州 (Shandong) x x
Yanzhou 兗州 (Anhui) x x x x
Youzhou 幽州 (Hebei) x x x
Bingzhou 並州 (Shanxi) x x x x x
Source: Zhouli, part Xiaguan 夏官, ch. Zhifang shi 職方氏.

Hemp (ma 麻) was widespread as a material for weaving hempen clothes (mabu 麻布), and because of its oil-rich seeds. The female hemp plant is called ju 苴, juma 苴麻, or zhuma 紵麻 (also written 苎), and the male one xi 枲 or muma 牧麻. While textiles made of the fibres of female hemp are of good quality, fibres of the male ones are dark and cannot be dyed. For this reason, they serve to make sack cloth used for funerals.

The Shijing also mentions several types of vegetables like melons (guadie 瓜瓞), Ixeris spec. or sowthistle (qicai 芑菜), or radish (lufu 蘆菔) grown in gardens (pu 圃).

Transmitted texts present three names for different types of fields, namely zi 菑, xin 新, and she 畬. Scholars commonly believe that the first term refers to newly opened fields, the word "new" to fields in their second year of use, and the last term to fields used in the third year, thus constituting three stages in a three-field crop rotation. Yet it cannot be known whether the first terms was applicable for a space used after first-time clearing of wild land (modern term shenghuang 生荒) or also for lands left fallow for a long time and then cleared again (shuhuang 熟荒).

The working method of ploughing in pairs (ougeng 耦耕) is often mentioned in the Classics and ancient texts. It is important to know that draft animals were still not used in agriculture. How "ploughing in pairs" was carried out, is not known. Through the ages, scholars tried to solve the riddle. Some were of the opinion, that two persons handled two si-type ploughs, perhaps working side by side or one behind the other; others interpreted the method as two persons handling one plough, one walking before, and the other after it (perhaps one drawing, and one steering), or two persons holding the plough, progressing side by side. Another interpretation is that one was treading on the plough to insert in into the earth, while the second person used a rope to lift if up again, together with a furrow slice. Cheng Yaotian 程瑤田 (1725-1814), author of Ougeng yishu 耦耕義述, advocated for the most probable option, namely the cooperation of two person holding two ploughs and working closely one behind the other (Zhou 2000: 792).

Fields were usually located south or east of settlements, in order to yield the most intensive sunlight and warmth. According to the local conditions, ditches drained the water or lead in moisture. Seeds were sown on ridges or into pits, depending on the need for moisture. The word mu, usually designating an area measure, also meant low ridged between fields, keeping the moisture and protecting the crops.

The multitude of works peasants had to do throughout the year is described in the Shijing air Qiyue 七月 (part Binfeng 豳風).

Quotation. Agricultural work througout the year
In the days of [our] third month, they take their ploughs in hand; / In the days of [our] fourth, they take their way to the fields. / Along with my wife and children, / I carry food to them in those south-lying acres. / The surveyor of the fields comes, and is glad.
The young women take their deep baskets, / And go along the small paths, / Looking for the tender [leaves of the] mulberry trees. / As the spring days lengthen out, / They gather in crowds the white southernwood.
In the silkworm month they strip the mulberry branches of their leaves, / And take their axes and hatchets, / To lop off those that are distant and high; / Only stripping the young trees of their leaves. / In the seventh month, the shrike is heard; / In the eighth month, they begin their spinning; / They make dark fabrics and yellow. / Our red manufacture is very brilliant, / It is for the lower robes of our young princes.
In the eighth, they reap. / In the tenth, the leaves fall. / In the days of [our] first month, they go after badgers, / And take foxes and wild cats, / To make furs for our young princes. / In the days of [our] second month, they have a general hunt, / And proceed to keep up the exercises of war. / The boars of one year are for themselves; / Those of three years are for our prince.
In the tenth month, the cricket / Enters under our beds. / Chinks are filled up, and rats are smoked out; / The windows that face [the north] are stopped up; / And the doors are plastered.
In the sixth month they eat the sparrow-plums and grapes; / In the seventh, they cook the Kui and pulse, / In the eighth, they knock down the dates; / In the tenth, they reap the rice; / And make the spirits for the spring, / For the benefit of the bushy eyebrows. / In the seventh month, they eat the melons; / In the eighth, they cut down the bottle-gourds; / In the ninth, they gather the hemp-seed; / They gather the sowthistle and make firewood of the Fetid tree; / To feed our husbandmen.
In the ninth month, they prepare the vegetable gardens for their stacks, / And in the tenth they convey the sheaves to them; / The millets, both the early sown and the late, / With other grain, the hemp, the pulse, and the wheat. / ' O my husbandmen, Our harvest is all collected. / Let us go to the town, and be at work on our houses. / In the day time collect the grass, / And at night twist it into ropes; / Then get up quickly on our roofs; / We shall have to recommence our sowing.
In the days of [our] second month, they hew out the ice with harmonious blows; / And in those of [our] third month, they convey it to the ice-houses, / [Which they open] in those of the fourth, early in the morning, / Having offered in sacrifice a lamb with scallions. / In the ninth month, it is cold, with frost; / In the tenth month, they sweep clean their stack-sites. / The two bottles of spirits are enjoyed, / And they say, ' Let us kill our lambs and sheep, / And go to the hall of our prince, / There raise the cup of rhinoceros horn, / And wish him long life, - that he may live for ever.
Translation: Legge 1871.

The work encompassed the preparation of tools, ploughing and sowing, constructing buildings, harvesting and bringing in the grain, collecting mulberry leaves and raising silkworm, spinning, reeling, dyeing and weaving, hunting, brewing, scarifying, woodcutting, collecting fruits, etc. Weeding (biao 麃, biao 穮, yun 耘, nou 耨, zishan 芟) and removing tree trunks and roots (zuo 柞) was not just an activity to clear space for the cultivation of plants, but also to receive biomass useable as fertilizer for the coming seasons.

The fight against pests "eating the hearts, leaves, roots, and joints" (ming, teng, mao, zei 螟螣蟊賊) of the plants was arduous and difficult, as the ode Datian 大田 says. The building of reservoirs particularly for rice cultivation is attested in the air Zebei 澤陂, as well as the chapter on the paddy supervisor (Daoren 稻人) in the Zhouli, the chapter on monthly ordinances (Yueling 月令) in the Liji, and bronze inscriptions. Reservoirs were also discovered in Zhangjiapo 張家坡, Shaanxi, and Cixian 磁縣, Hebei.

The royal household employed supervisors of forestry and hunting (shanyu 山虞), forest measurers (linheng 林衡), guardians of the waterways (chuanheng 川衡), supervisors of marshes (zeyu 澤虞), animal keepers (yuren 囿人), gardeners (changren 場人), granary masters (linren 廩人), and granary managers (cangren 倉人), breeders of sacrificial animals (muren 牧人), cowherds (niuren 牛人), "fatteners" of sacrificial animals (chongren 充人), horse breeders (zouma 走馬, quma 趣馬), horse trainers (souren 廋人) and chief grooms (yushi 圉師). This enumeration shows that the royal household and that of the regional rulers depended on a large staff of persons resonsible for the supervision and exploitation of natural ressources, and the breeding of animals, be it for sacrifices, for hunting, or for the army.

Fishing and hunting also played a certain role in everyday life, as can be learnt from several songs in the Shijing.


The last chapter of the ritual Classic Zhouli, Kaogongji, is an account of offices concerned with the production of objects needed by the imperial household. The work encompasses woodcarving, metalwork, processing of animal skins, the production and application of colours, engraving and polishing, and pottery. Even if the chapter found its transmitted shape as late as during the Warring States period, it gives insight into the manifold crafts used by the royal court and those of the regional rulers. Archaeology added to our knowledge about Western Zhou handicrafts. Functionaries of the Zhou court supervised the "hundred workers" (baigong 百工), among which also women were found (Zhou 2000: 821).

In the early Western Zhou, war captives were entrusted with manufactural work. Craftsmen of the Shang were resettled to the Zhou capitals and took over work for their new masters. Tombs found in Luoyang show that Shang craftsmen were not only highly regarded for their expertise, but also retained their own customs and habits over generations. Inheritance of positions were common among craftsmen as it was among the nobility. Instruction was only carried out orally.

The relatively peaceful age of the Western Zhou period as well as the specific patronage of arts and crafts contributed to progress in techniques. The spread of crafted products throughout the country is related to a specialization of some groups of Shang people in commerce (see Shang economy).

Bronze objects

The most famous crafted products of the Western Zhou period are the bronze vessels used for ancestral sacrifices, during banquets, and as carriers of documents like investitures of regional rulers and other members of the nobility. Finally, the so-called "ritual revolution" in the mid-Western Zhou period utilized sets of bronze vessels (lieding 列鼎) to express the rank of a dignitary. The production of bronze vessels required higher skills than other products like weapons or metal components of chariots.

ding gui weapon Bronze parts of chariot
Figure . Metal of a chariot, and weapons
Metal parts of a chariot unearthed in Beiyao 北窯 near Luoyang, Henan. First row: axle-cap (wei 軎) with linchpin (xia 轄), "shoe" (zhong 踵), browband decoration (danglu 當盧), snaffle bit (xian 銜); second row: yoke end (e 軛), yoke fastener (egu 軛箍), cross-shaped linking part (jieyue 節約), bosses in the shape of animal heads (shoumian tongpao 獸面銅泡): third row: arrowhead-shaped decoration, dragon-shaped decoration of the bridles, round boss: last row: two dagger-axes (ge 戈), bow fitting, and spearhead. From Liu et al. 2011.
Figure . Bronze yoke and parts
xxx. From the tomb of the Elder of Xing (Xing Shu 井叔) unearthed in Zhangjiapo 張家坡 near Xi'an, Shaanxi. From Zheng 1990.

In the early Western Zhou, the royal court had still a monopoly over the possession and processing of bronze. When presenting a dignitary with bronze, the royal workshop was responsible for the transformation of the metal into a precious vessel. Yet in the course of time, most of the regional states founded their own workshops which mastered the creation of ritual vessels. In Luoyang and the Western twin capitals Feng-Hao, archaeologists discovered workshops with furnaces, models, and scrap metal. Luoyang Beiyao 北窯, even in smaller states in the west like Yu (bogen fisch) or Ying 應, Deng 鄧, or Shen 申 in Henan.

Most cooking vessels (ding, li, yan, gui ), drinking vessels (jue, gu, jiao), and serving vessels (hu, you, zun, zhi, lei, he, fangyi) were inherited from the Shang, but the Zhou reduced the number of wine vessels and introduced some new forms. The traditional decorations of taotie masks, birds, dragons (kui), snakes, cicadas, and geometrical patterns were likewise adopted from earlier forms, but the number of taotie shrank, and gave prevalence to more geometrical patterns (clouds, waves, whirls, leaves, rhombuses, nipples). Inscriptions became much longer, making bronze vessels important carriers of documents.

Not thoroughly new was the use of bells, but the amount of musical instruments drastically increased, not only in absolute numbers, but also in the size of sets of ‘carillons’ enjoyed during ceremonies and banquets. In the late Western Zhou period, decorations became more decent, vessels more crude, but cast with higher skills and in a more standardized way. At the same time, the custom of funerary vessels (mingqi 明器) appeared which were specifically produced for use as burial objects, and therefore of minor quality. The forming and casting techniques were used as invented and developed by the Shang craftsmen.

The alloy of the bronze or brass objects (usually just called 'bronze') was not standardized. Analysis shows that there were high-tin (more than 10%), high-lead (more than 10%), and tin-lead (both metals at least 10%) products among the 'bronze' vessels (Zhou 2000: 841). The alloy seems to have depended on the availability of the secondary metals. Inscriptions prove that bronze was quite a precious item and served as present by the king. It was also hoarded, as can be seen in a tomb find from Gouyuan 溝原 near Fufeng 扶風, Shaanxi (Zhou 2000: 842). Bronze tools usually had high tin and lead contents, which corresponds to a statement in the Zhouli where the six levellings of copper and tin (liuqi 六齊) are described.

Table . Metal alloys according to the Zhouli
six alloys (liuqi 六齊) copper, bronze 金(=銅), or whole amount of metal tin 錫
鍾(=鐘)鼎之齊 bells and tripods 6 parts 1 part (14.3%)
斧斤之齊 axes 5 1 (16.7%)
戈戟之齊 dagger-axes and 'halberds' 4 1 (20%)
大刃之齊 swords 3 1 (25%)
削殺矢之齊 arrowheads 5 2 (28.6%)
鑒燧之齊 mirrors 1 ½-1 (33.3-50%)
Source: Zhouli 周禮, part Kaogongji 考工記, ch. Zhouren 輈人.

Apart from the basic problem of interpreting the word jin 金 (as bronze, or as pure copper), there is a semantic problem, leading to question whether the sentence X分其金而錫居其一 means "tin makes out one part out of X parts of the metal (as a whole)", or "add one part of tin to X parts of copper/bronze" (interpretation in the table) (Zhao & Zhou 1998: 131).

The workshops of Beiyao in Luoyang included three types of smelters, namely two smaller types and a larger one. The small crucible (ganguo 坩堝) had a round bottom and were made of loam. The inner surface was clad with furnace lining (luchen 爐襯) of fine loam (xini 細泥), and the outside wall consisted of loam mixed with straw (caobanni 草拌泥). The mid-size crucible was less round, and the 'shaft' consisted of several rings fitting together by a mortise-and-tenon system (sunmao 榫卯). The lower part of the large crucible was standing in the earth and was not round, but rather formed with inclined angles. The shaft consisted of four rings with a diameter of 80cm and handles. The wall of this fix crucible consisted of three parts and had four openings for bellows (gufengkou 鼓風口). Bellows (tuo 橐) were made of cowhides or sheepskins. The use of four bellows allowed to raise the temperature inside the crucible up to 1,250°C (Ye 1984: 662).

Figure . Crucibles to smelt copper and adjunct metals
Reconstructions of three types of crucibles found in Beiyao near Luoyang, Henan. The ring construction of the mid-size and the large crucible can be seen. The large crucible has openings for bellows on each side. The crucibles were charged with charcoal and the metals, yet it remains unclear how the molten metals were poured into the moulds. Below the right crucible is a scale of 50cm. From Ye 1984.

Metal objects were cast with the help of moulds. Depending on the complexity of the object, moulds consisted of several parts. The remains of the workshops in Beiyao show not just fragments of moulds, but also various steps in the production of moulds, beginning with the preparation of the main substance, fine loam mixed with ash and shell powder, the forming and decoration of models (nimo 泥模), the production of inner and outer moulds (the inner being more fine than the outer material), and the refinement of the objects (fettling and polishing) when the casting process was done. Even then, ridges remained on the vessels which allow to reconstruct the assembling of the moulds.

Figure . Moulds for bronze vessels
The left image shows a reconstruction of moulds for a jue 爵-type beaker. It can be seen how complex the composition of moulds was even for a small object (c. 18cm height) like a three-footed beaker. The right image shows the fragment of an outer mould for a ding 鼎 tripod. From Ye 1984, and Ye & Zhang 1983, Plate 5.

Mines from the Western Zhou period have not been discovered so far. The chapter Yugong 禹貢 of the Shangshu reports that metals were presented as tributes in the provinces of Jingzhou 荊州 and Yangzhou 揚州 (middle and lower Yangtze regions), which corresponds to Shang-period mining sites in Ruichang 瑞昌, Jiangxi, or Piling 毗陵 near Yangxin 陽新, Hubei. Some of them were opened during the Shang period or even before, and were in operation until the Spring and Autumn period. The mine of Tonglüshan 銅綠山, Hubei, yielded a substantial amount of ores over centuries, and the mines of Dagongshan 大工山 near Nanling 南陵, Anhui, were in operation until the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

Figure . Bronze masks
Bronze masks unearthed in 1968 in Liulihe close to Beijing, regional state of Yan, early Western Zhou. Heigth 17.6 and 22.3cm, respectively. From Zhonggu Qingtongqi 1991, Vol. 2, nos. 26-27.

The control of mines was an important matter, and the Zhou court therefore sent the Duke of Shao 召公 to inspect the sites, and created a series of small states (reigned by kinsmen of the royal house) between the Yellow River Plain and the Yangtze Region which served as garrisons for the control of the copper ore traffic to the north (jindao xixing 金道錫行 "copper routes and tin roads"; Zhou 2000: 855). The same is true for the regional state of Wu which was reigned by a kinsmen of the royal family Ji 姬. The southern campaign of King Zhou might have had the control of the copper routes as a background.

Apart from trade, copper ores were delivered to the royal house in the shape of tributes, as can be seen in the inscription of the cover of the Gong Ao gui 𡱒敖𣪘 (Jicheng 4213) pot, which speaks of a huge copper/bronze tribute to the Zhou king.


Even if shape and technique of objects of daily use did not greatly change in comparison to the Shang period, the Western Zhou period saw the invention of tiles and the advancement of firing techniques for proto-porcelain. A third novelty was the concept of 'objects for the dead' (mingqi 明器) for use in the "dark" world (youming 幽冥), namely bronze and pottery objects particularly produced for burials, made with a symbolic value, and therefore of minor quality by contrast with 'objects for the living'.

There was pottery for cooking—mostly with three legs—, dinnerware, and the omnipresent pottery for storage, some of them huge jars (guan 罐, wengor 瓮, pou 瓿 or bu 䍌), but also jugs (hu 壺), and basins (pen 盆). The royal household and those of the regional rulers employed potters (taoshi 陶氏), but there must likewise have been potters producing objects for the common people. Among such objects, an ocarina was found (Fang 2008).

Figure . Everyday potters from the Western Zhou
Li 鬲 tripods (1-9), dou 豆 beakers (10-11), and pen 盆 jar (12, left); guan 罐 jars (13-,6-8), cover (4), bo 缽 bowls (5, 9-10), gui 簋 vessel (11), zun 尊 pot (12), weng 甕 tripod (13, right). From Zhang et al. 1987.

Tiles were found not only in the royal residences in the west, like in Zhangjiapo 張家坡 near Xi'an, Shaanxi, but also in the workshops of Qufu, Shandong, the capital of the regional state of Lu. In all workshops discovered so far potter's wheels had been used (taojun 陶均, taolun 陶輪), yet there were a number of vessels for which the use of a wheel was not possible, particularly the three-legged li 鬲 pots with their "bag-feet" (daizu 袋足), or the yan 甗 steamer which was a combination of a li and a grid-bottom zeng 甑 pot on the top. While the early bronze vessels of the Shang period had been imitations of pottery, the trend during the Western Zhou was reverse, making the day-to-day dinnerware imitations of the precious bronze objects, like ceramic gui 簋, you 卣, he 盉, or jue 爵. Such 'cheap' ware was particularly used for burials (Zhou 2000: 860).

Figure . Pottery vessels imitating bronzeware
Various types of pottery made as imitations of bronze vessels. Top: zun 尊, you 卣, he 爵; bottom: gui 簋, hu 壺, dou 豆. From Zhongguo Shehui 1980, Plates 9-10; Shaanxi Zhouyuan 1979, fig. 20-21, 23.

Pots were decorated with stripes, curves, bows, scales, clouds, whirls, triangles, S-shapes, etc. before firing. For decorative purposes, potters used decoration markers (taopai 陶拍) and pottery chops (tao yachui 陶壓錘) (Li at al. 1990). In the western region, the pre-dynastic Zhou style continued for long, while Shang-style shapes and decorations dominated in the east, due to the fact that former Shang artisans were employed in Chengzhou (Luoyang) and some eastern garrisons (Zhou 2000: 863).

In the early Western Zhou period, the traditional rising-blaze kiln (zhiyanyao 直焰窯) was still used in which the blaze went through a grid on which the shards (taopi 陶坯, pitai 坯胎) were standing. Later on, a kiln became widespread in which the heat was led from the firing chamber into a "horizontal" (yet inclined) chamber where the shards were fired. This type of horizontal-blaze furnace (hengyanyao 橫焰窯) allowed to make use of different grades of heat, with highly-fired objects standing closer to the fire and objects fired with lower temperatures more distant. Fragments of pottery show that the quality rose in the course of the Western Zhou period, from many "red earthenware" (hongtao 紅陶) with stains to the finer "gray earthenware" (huitao 灰陶) baked with a regular colour.

Figure . Kilns
xxx. From the western metropolitan region of Feng-Hao near Xi'an, Shaanxi. From Dai 1986.

Southeast China had been leading in the invention of hard-fired pottery. This technique became more widespread in the early Zhou empire. It is characterized by shards decorated with geometrical patterns and fired at high temperature (1,100°C). The clay used for this type of pottery was not kaolin, but an iron-rich clay called "purple-gold earth" (zijintu 紫金土) used for the modern pottery from Yixing 宜興, Jiangsu. The combination of this type of earth and firing temperature resulted in a smooth shimmering on the surface of the fired objects which resembles a glaze, and a hard structure giving the object a bell-like sound when knocked—in spite of the relative thickness of the wall. Yet the technique was difficult to standardize, for which reason the colours of high-fired earthenware are not regular, and ranged from dark gray to brown or even "purple" (reddish-brown).

The use of proto-porcelain (yuanshi ci 原始瓷) became widespread though all states, and specimen were found all over Zhou China. Such ware was fired in kilns that can be seen as precursors of the "dragon kilns" (longyao 龍窯) or "dumpling kiln" (mantou yao 饅頭窯) (Li et al. 1990).

In the field of architecture, earthenware tubes were used to dewater buildings. Among the objects found, there were also angled tubes (Zhou 2000: 871). A novelty created during the Western Zhou period were two types of tiles (wadang 瓦當), namely semi-tubular tiles (tongwa 筒瓦), and flat tiles (banwa 板瓦). The former were used to protect the ridges of the roofs—which were usually covered with straw or reed embedded in loam, and the latter were used to protect the roof coverage over larger parts. The flat tiles could be connected in mortise-and-tenon system. The semi-tubular tiles were fastened by nails which in turn were covered by earthenware decorations, the so-called tile nails (wading 瓦釘). The use of tiles was not widespread and only reserved to buildings of high status.

Spinning and weaving

Manufacturing with other materials

Bones were a very important material for the production of everyday tools like needles (zhen 針), awls, drills (zhui 錐), hairpins (ji 笄), arrowheads (chuo 鏃), and even for agrarian tools or instruments like saws, and were therefore found in great numbers all over the Western Zhou world. The remains of the workshop in Yuntang 雲塘 near Fufeng, Shaanxi, for instance, included no less than 20,000 pieces of discarded bone pieces.

Apart from bone, the workshops also processed horn (jiao 角), ivory (ya 牙), stones, and freshwater shells (bang 蚌). Hairpins were of special interest because they served as adornments and were therefore decorated. The 'heads' of some hairpins had the shape of birds, dragons (kui 夔) or of human beings (Yin 1987).

Jades were seen as precious objects, and the processing of nephrite and similar stones was therefore the business of specialized craftsmen who cut, carved, and polished the pieces. Jades not only counted among the "six auspicious jades" (liurui 六瑞), but also served as presents and gifts given by the king to his dignitaries and the regional rulers, or by the latter to their functionaries. The type of jade or the number of pieces might express the status of its owner. During court audiences, jades were visibly displayed for this reason. Bronze inscriptions speak of court jades as presents (jinzhang 瑾璋). Jades might also be used as tributes of lower-ranked persons to the Zhou king. Jades were often produced in symmetrical pairs, for which a particular numeral word existed, namely jue 玨 or 珏 (Sun 2000).

Figure . Stone, bone, and jade carvings from the Western Zhou
xxx. From Zhang et al. 1987.

There were different types of stones known as 'jade', namely soft jade (ruanyu 軟玉, genuine nephrite), Xiu Jade 岫玉 (local name; also called 蛇紋玉 "snake-pattern jade"), "coal jade" (meiyu 煤玉), agate (manao 瑪瑙), "lustre stone" (fluorite? yingshi 瑩石) or turquois (lüsongshi 綠松石). Nephrite or other precious stones were, according to the Classic Zhouli, worked by the yuren "jade man", and the objects and materials were stored either in the jade treasury (yufu 玉府), and their ritual use was supervised by the Manager of Seals (dianrui 典瑞; Tianguan, ch. Yufu; part Chunguan, ch. Dianrui).

Not just nephrite stones, but also other objects, like freshwater shells, ivory, or tortoise shells, originate in places far away from the political and economic centres of the Zhou empire. Apart from ritual objects, jades or similar stones served to produce adornments like beads, necklaces, rings, and the like, and were therefore beautifully adorned by carvings. This also applies to the ritual jades which were decorated with cloud patterns or other geometrical designs. As adornments or art objects, jades were carved into figurines of animals (fishes, birds, tortoises, cicadas) or human beings. Jade was also processed to tools like axes, spaces, adzes (ben 錛), chisels (zao 鑿), or knives (dao 刀, bi 匕), or to ritual objects not belonging to the "six auspicious jades", mainly dagger-axes (ge 戈), of which a large number had survived. The stability of jade weapons for practical use is under discussion. The longest jade dagger is the Taibao yu ge 太保玉戈 with a length of 66.5cm (Fang 2006, Sheng 2014).

Like bronze vessels or pottery, some jade objects were specifically produced as burial objects. In this function, the tombs of Houma, capital of the regional state of Jin, and of the statelet of Guo, included lavish tomb furnishings of jade objects worked to pendants, necklaces, or jades shaped like eyes or a mouth to be put on the face of the dead. In some objects, jade carries inlays of turquois (Zhou 2000: 886).


Lacquer was a universal material to cover wooden objects, both to protect the base material from decay, and to apply colour. The most important colour were powder of cinnabar or soot. Even if the most famous lacquered objects date from the Warring States period, Western-Zhou tombs included some lacquered objects, among them wooden vessels imitating the bronze or pottery ones like hu 壺, dou 豆, wan 碗, bei 杯, pan 盤, gui 簋, etc., small tables or desks (ji 几, zu 俎), objects of storage like cans or pots (lei 罍), round vessels (yi 彜), boxes (he 盒), tubes (tong 筒), or else. Lacquer was also used to decorate and strengthen leather armour or wooden shields.

Lacquering is mentioned in the chapter Zicai 梓材 of the Shangshu (tu dan huo 涂丹雘 "apply [in varnish] colours of red"), in various chapters of the Zhouli, the chapter Yugong, where lacquer is listed as a produce of the provinces of Yan, and Yu, and in some songs of the Shijing.

Wooden objects were first polished and then covered with raw lacquer mixed with ash (qihui 漆灰, nizi 膩子), in order to create a smooth surface on which the coloured finish (xiuqi 髹漆) was applied. Like on bronze and pottery vessels, lacquered vessels were decorated with geometrical patterns like spirals, clouds, or whirls. Two objects found in Liulihe close to Beijing were decorated with gold foil (jinbo 金箔), turquois stones, and disks of clam shell. An object unearthed in Honghong 洪洞, Shanxi, was a combination of bronze, wood, and lacquer (Zhang et al. 1987). The advance of handicraft techniques, and good organization allowed for the production of high-quality lacquerware.


Quotation x. Tallies for the Lord of E exempting his boats from tariffs

In the year when the Grand Minister of War (da sima 大司馬) Shao Yang 邵陽 had defeated the armies of Jin 晉 at Xiangling 襄陵, in the xiayi 夏夷 month, day yihai 乙亥, when the king dwelled in the Pleasure Palace (Yougong 遊宮) in the suburbs of Ying 郢, the Grand Intendant of Works (dagongyin 大工尹) Sui 睢, took a royal order and commanded the Intendant of assembly(?) (jiyin 集尹) Dao Hai(?) ■■, the *Intendant of Weavers (zhiyin 織尹) official Ni 逆, and the *Director of Weavers (zhiling 織令) official Qi 𨸔 to cast metal tallies for the treasury of Qi 啟, Lord of E 鄂君, [valid] for fifty kua 舿 (convoys?), one kua made up of three boats combined, and they are to be returned once a year.
Depart from the market at E, go downstream on the Yu River 油(=淯), go upstream on the Han River 漢, stop at Yun 鄖, stop at Xunyang 芸(=郇)陽; go downstream on the Han River, stop at Xiang 襄(?), go downstream on the Xia River 夏, enter the Yun River 邔(=溳); go downstream on the Yangtze River 江, stop at Pengze 彭射(=澤), stop at Songyang 松陽, enter the Lujiang River 瀘江, stop at Yuanling 爰陵; to upstream on the Yangtze, enter the Xiang River 湘, stop at Shi(?) {見桒}, stop at Taoyang {兆阝}(=洮)陽, enter the Lei River 㵽(=耒), stop at Chen {㐭阝}(=郴), enter the Zi 𪶻, Yuan 沅, Li 澧, and You 繇 Rivers; go upstream on the Yangtze, stop at Muguan 木關, stop at Ying.
When they show their metal tallies, they will not be assessed tariff, [though] they will not be lodged, equipped(?), or fed. When they do not show their metal tallies, they will be assessed tariff. If they transport horses, oxen, and sheep in and out the tariff-collecting stations, they will be assessed tariff at the Great Treasury (dafu 大府), but not at the tariff-collecting stations.
The two metal tallies for boats and carts were part of a set of original five texts written on bronze plates formed as imitations of a bamboo stalk. The text is realized as metal-inlays in golden colour (cuojin 錯金). Ling (2015) identified the names of rivers and places as located north of the Yangtze, and not, as commonly believed, in today's Hunan. Length 26.6-31cm, discovered in 1957 in Shouxian 壽縣, Anhui. Images from Li 1986, no. 136. Translation according to Falkenhausen 2005: 104-105.


Genuine cowry shells (bei 貝), traded through southwest China from the Indian Ocean, or bronze imitates of such shells (tongbei 銅貝), was a kind of currency inherited from the Shang period. Yet even if some graves of the Western Zhou period like a series of tombs of the state of Wei 衛 (Xincun 辛村 near Junxian 濬縣, Henan) included several thousand cowries, the average number of shells of individual tombs was low in comparison with the Shang period.

Inscriptions of bronze vessels show that the presentation of cowries by the king to regional rulers or by the latter to their functionaries was a kind of reward for services, in numbers of a few peng 朋 (perhaps "double-string") per person. How many shells a peng included, is under debate, and the arguments range from 2 shells per peng to 10 or even 200 (Zhou 2000: 954). 5 shells might have constituted a string (xi 系), and two strings a double-string (peng), as the scholar Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) explained. Bronze cowries were measured in the unit lüe 鋝 (usually written 寽 or {貝+寽, in the Shiji 史記 written 率}, also interpreted as yuan 爰 or 鍰, or with the jade radical 瑗), which is also used for a word for 'currency' written like {山/王/貝} (perhaps an early form of 貨, 責, or 賃; Deng 2017).

The unit lüe was already used by the Shang, but was at that time heavier than under the Western Zhou, for which reason inscriptions discern between "old lüe" and present lüe (not further marked). The weight of the Western Zhou lüe might have ranged between 1113/25 zhu 銖 (according to Shuowen jiezi 說文解字; meaning unclear, if 1 liang=24 zhu), 6 liang 兩 (the new, light lüe), and 62/3 liang (the old, heavy lüe). The weight of lüe might have corresponded to 7.5g in the Yellow River plain and in the southern Zhou empire, while it was much heavier in north China, with a relation of 20 liang to 3 lüe, corresponding to 104g (Qiu et al. 2001: 77).

During the Warring States period, a lüe had a weight of about 1,280g, while a yuan had a weight of 16g, corresponding to 1 liang. One lüe thus corresponded to about 5 jin or 80 yuan. This assessment is based on the (reconstructed) inscription of a square bronze can (fanghu 方壺) found in Jincun 金村 close to Luoyang, and hoard of coins found in the ancient state of Wei 魏 (Liang zheng bi bai dang lüe 梁正幣百寽等).

Yet the weight system of the Eastern Zhou period is complex. In the state of Jin and her successors, the lüe corresponded to 1 yin 釿 (jin 斤), or 10 yi 鎰 (c. 349g). In most other states, 24 zhu 銖 (朱) made one liang 兩, 16 liang made one jin 斤, 30 jin made 1 jun 鈞, and 4 jun one shi 石. A jin was 250g-heavy, but in the state of Zhongshan, 320g (Wang 1988: 12). In the state of Chu, there was a weight unit called cheng 爯 which is sometimes equalled with yuan.

Both units, lüe, and yuan, were discarded after the unit reform by the Qin dynasty, for which reason Han-period commentators diverge about their concrete dimension. Han-period writers usually hold that the weight units lüe and yuan were more or less identical (Qiu et al. 2001: 76).

Cowry imitations were made of bronze, stone, bone, or even of clay (He 1991). Apart from cowry imitations, royal presents might also consist of bronze cakes (ban 鈑) of standardized size. These might be used as weights or storage of value, or as material to make ritual bronze vessels from. A 20-cm large cake was found in a tomb in Lintong 臨潼, Shaanxi (Zhou 2000: 958). Moulds for the casting of bronze cowries were found in Feixi 肥西, Fuyang 阜陽, and Fanchang 繁昌, all in Anhui, for sets of 4*16 cowries, inscribes with a character or signum (Chen 1996). These coins were the precursors of ant-nose coins (yibi qian 蟻鼻錢).

Figure . Bronze cowry shells
Rubbing of a mould for casting bronze cowry shells, from the state of Chu. Right: Three types of bronze cowries, with imitation of the natural structure (top - showing obverse and reverse sides - and middle), and with smooth surface (below). Some of the coins were gilded (liujin 鎏金). In the rubbing as well as the specimen to the right, holes can be seen by which the coins were strung up. Lengths of right coins: 35-44mm, weights: 21-31g. From Chen 1996 (rubbing left), and Huang 2011 (coins right).

The custom of superiors presenting cowry shells to subordinates is not only attested in numerous bronze inscriptions, but also in the Classic Shijing (part Xiaoya, ode Jingjing zhe e 菁菁者莪), where it is said that "We see our noble lord, and he gives us a hundred sets of cowries." (ji jian jun zi, ci wo bai peng 既見君子,錫(=賜)我百朋). The inscription of the Ju bo huan gui 𨼫白(=伯)睘𣪕 vessel (age of King Gong; Jicheng 3763) proves that the 'price of production' of a bronze vessel was expressed in cowries, in this case 14 peng. The Qiu Wei he 裘衛盉 can (Jicheng 9456) reports prices of "royal audience jades" (jinzhang 堇章) of 80 and of 20 peng for two vermillion tiger-shaped jade pendants, two deerskin aprons, and a decorated apron (Cook & Goldin 2016: 88-89).

Yet this does not mean that the words bei or peng were in all cases used as an expression of value. Cowry shells or imitations continued being used as adornments. The inscription of the X you 󱦈卣 can (Jicheng 5411) from the age of King Mu includes a statement showing that cowries were not just strung up in peng, but also weighed: ci bei sa lüe 易(=賜)貝卅寽 "I present you with thiry lüe of cowries". The same inscription is also a prove that the words bei "[bronze] cowry" and 金 "bronze (銅)" could be exchanged (Wang 1988: 10). In the first half of the Western Zhou, the word bei might refer to cowries expressing value (huobei 貨貝 "monetary cowries"), to bronze cowries expressing value, or to bronze. Imitations of cowries were made of stone, shell, bone, bronze, and also of gold and silver (rare).

The high value or bronze as a raw material for the precious sacrificial vessels made it an ideal material to measure value, independent of the shape—be it ingots, axes, spades, knives, rings, 'cakes', or cowry imitations. A late Western Zhou-period tomb found in Jintan 金壇, Jiangsu, included bronze cakes of various sizes. They might have been used as weights, or as store of value, each size expressing a different weight or value. There is a known case of theft of cowries from a public granary which occurred in the late Western Zhou period (Wang 2017).

Bronze in various shape, and measures by the weight unit lüe or yuan (c. 1,400g), was used to pay out rewards and salaries, to pay redemption from punishment, and as a mode of payment. The inscription of the Hu ding 曶鼎 tripod (Jicheng 2838) includes a sentence showing that (the use of) persons (as labour forces) could be bought at a price of 100 lüe of bronze(?) (Cook & Goldin 2016: 133).

The production of standarized coins began during the Spring and Autumn period and was common in the 5th century BCE. King Ding of Zhou event sent out Prince Man 王孫滿 and Chuzi 楚子 to inspect the authenticity of weights which were the basis of a currency which was still drafted with the concept of commodity money. Standardized currencies were important because the states of the Spring and Autumn period often purchased large amounts of grain from their neighbours in case of bad harvests, like the state of Lu which sent out Zang Wenzhong 臧文仲 to ask the duke of Qi for grain. With the introduction of the land tax in the xxx century, taxes might also be collected in the shape of bronze.

The exact timeframe in which regular coins were cast for the first time in China is not known. The earliest written testimony of coin production is the book Guoyu which reports of King Jing's plan to cast large coins. The earliest type of coin had the shape of spades (chan 鏟, alternative name qian 錢 - the precursor of the word for "money"), a widespread agrarian tool made of bronze and thus a store of value. The designation bu 布 (bubi 布幣 "bu currency") is derived from the word bo 鎛 (used for a type of bell; with the meaning "money" also written 賻), yet another word for "spade", "hoe" or a similar agrarian tool. At the same time, the much simpler character 布 (with the actual meaning "cloth") means "to spread", signifying the widespread use of this particular currency.

The transformation of spades from tools to weights or currencies can be seen in the shape of the blade of prototype coins (yuanshi bu 原始布) which is thin and brittle (Wang 1988: 14). Apart from that, the shape of prototype coins was the same as that of spades, including the socket (qiong 銎) for the handle. In the early Spring and Autumn period, the size was these coins was drastically reduced (to 43g or 47g), and the shape simplified and flattened. The socket for the handle (kongshou bu 空首布 "hollow-head spade") was transformed into a flat protrusion with a hole in it, used to string up the coins.

The next step of development were "flat shoulders and curved base" (pingjian huzu kongshou bu 平肩弧足空首布). These coins had typically three ridges running vertically through the surface, and most coins bore inscriptions. There were inscriptions with one, two, and four characters, indicating the place of origin or the range of use (individual markets). Some coins had inscriptions on the back, constituting a kind of 'serial number'. A coin preserved in Japan bears the inscription Shi nan shao huo 市南少化(=貨), indicating the place of use ("market of the south"), and the value ("small"). Pingjian spades were often found in horded around Luoyang and had quite wide spectrum of weight in a single hoard, ranging from 12.7g to 33.8g. It must therefore be assumed that weight indicated value, even if the weight was not declared by a legend. A few specimen were found bearing the inscription "Handan" 邯鄲, which shows that also in the state of Jin, this type of coin was used.

After the division of the royal domain of Zhou into East Zhou and West Zhou in 367, the flat-shoulder spades were altered and used as currency of the eastern domain. They are smaller than their precursors and have only two ridges instead of three. The inscriptions were Dongzhou 東周, Anzhou 安周, Ancangy 安臧, and else.

Another type of spade coins had "raised shoulders" (songjian jianzu kongshou bu 聳肩尖足空首布). All four tips of the 'space surface', and the 'legs' in particular, were pointed sharply. These coins circulated in the state of Jin or what is today the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei. The coins had a weight of 36g and 42g, yet there were also lighter specimen of only 25.3g or 14.7g (Wang 1988: 15). Most songjian spades did not have legends, apart from short inscriptions like Handan 邯鄲 or Lü 呂, marking the place of origin and use. One specimen had an inscription of five characters, indicating the weight/value unit yin 釿. This word is actually a special character for the weight unit jin 斤, which is relatively large (200g or more). Yet 斤 might be an abbreviation of fu 斧, the word for an axe. Axes were—like spades—stores of metal value, and could be used as standard weights. Moreover, the pronunciation fu (/pĭu/) is similar to the weight units bu (/pu/) 布 or bo (/puɑk/) 鎛, which designated weights, and then coins.

A third type of spade coins had "dropping shoulders" (xiejian huzu kongshou bu 斜肩弧足空首布). This type of coin had weight of between 13g and 37g and was produced in various places of the Yellow River region. It was also used in the royal domain. Practically all coins have inscriptions indicating the place of origin.

The Warring States period saw the emergence of a new type of spade coin, the flat-head spade (pignshoubu 平首布) with a wider, trapezoid shaft which is flat on the top. The shoulders might be angled as before, or round. The 'feet' were square or round. They were circulating in the states of Wei, Zhao, Zhongshan, and Yan.

Flat-had spades of the state of Wei had the denomination yin 釿, with the subunits two, one, and half a yin. All coins were marked with the place of origin, and the value (with few exceptions). Only the mark an 安 was written on the reverse side, which was otherwise blank. Even if the weight of the coins were not fully standardized, they took to certain range, with 7-8g for .5 yin-spades, 15-18g for 1-yin spades, and 22-30g for 2-yin spades. According to one legend, the weight of fifty 2-yin spades corresponded to one lüe (Wang 1988: 19). There was also a heavy coin cast in 339, with the inscription Liang qi (xin?) yin 梁奇(=新?)釿. The Wei spades were mainly circulating during in the fourth century BCE.

The state of Zhao used spades with round corners. The inscription shows two unidentified place names, namely X {門火}, and Lishi 離石. The coins were produced in different sizes and shapes, with smaller (5-9g) and larger versions (14-16g), roughly corresponding to 0.5 and 1 yin. They were in use during the late 4th century.

The short-lived state of Zhongshan used spade coins with three holes (sankongbu 三孔布), one in the upper shaft, and one in each foot. The three-hole spades were inscribed with place (1-3 characters) and value (zhu and liang). The two units of value were only used in the state of Qin, for which reason it must be assumed that the coins were produced in a part of the territory of Zhao (former Zhongshan) occupied by Qin. The weight of 12-zhu (half a liang) coins was between 8 and 10g. The coins were produced in a narrow frame of standard, but only a small number survived, which underlines the suggestion that they might have been the currency of the small state of Zhongshan.

Another type of Zhao coin had pointed feet (jianzubu 尖足布), which emerged later than the square-foot spade. It circulated in northern Shanxi around present-day Taiyuan, and had only a mark for the place of origin, and not the weight. Yet from the latter, 11-12g, it can be seen that it was a reduced yin-weight. This is true for the larger version of the pointed-feet spade. The smaller version, with a weight of 5.5-6.5g, consisted of two modes, one without any inscription, and the other with the mark ban 半 "half [a yin]".

The square-foot spade (fangzubu 方足布) developed over a long period of time. It can be divided into an older type issued in the state of Han, in a large and a small version and a weight of between 11 and 26g, and a younger type produced during the late Warring States period and used in Han, Wei, Zhao, Yan, and the Zhou domain. The value of the small coin was half a yin, with a weight of 7g on average, that of the larger coin one yin, with an average weight of 13-14g. The square-foot spades were also highly standardized, bearing the place name on the obverse, and no legend on the reverse side. The place name (whether consisting of one or of two characters) was divided by a vertical line in the centre of the coin.

The use of spade coins in the state of Yan—which otherwise used knife coins—might be a result of the intensive trade relations between Yan and the states of the Yellow River plain. A common currency might have made easier market transactions.

The state of Chu in the south which predominantly issued cowry-style coins (known as ant-nose coins) and the famous Ying yuan gold bars, produced a small number of spade coins in two denominations (more than 30g for the large denomination, being one yin; 17 or 7? g for the small denomination). They were used in the eastern parts of Chu, what is today Anhui and Jiangsu, yet as numbers are small, the system of Chu spades is not yet understood.

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