An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Period Society

Sep 25, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The nobility of the Zhou empire 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) was structured according to the rules of the ancestral lineages (zongfa 宗法) of the royal house of the Zhou. While the kings of Zhou and their heirs, usually the oldest sons of the primary consorts, constituted the main royal line (dazong 大宗), the branch lineages (xiaozong 小宗) were governing the regional states. Members of the sidelines of the branch lines usually served as "ministers" (qing 卿) or grand masters (dafu 大夫) in the regional states. This is an ideal picture, as there were also local functionaries not relative to the royal house or only related to the royal house by marriage. Commoners lived as farmers on the royal domain or the domains of the regional rulers and their functionaries, or as craftsmen in the residences.

All members of the nobility were bound to certain rules of etiquette or ritual (lizhi 禮制) that pertained to all aspects of life, from professional service to marriage and military order. This system of rules was according to legend defined by the Duke of Zhou 周公旦, but based on the putative principles of Heaven which required that rule may be exerted by means of "respecting virtue" (jing de 敬德) and in order to "preserve the people" (bao min 保民).

Quotation . The political and social meaning of rites and propriety
夫禮者所以定親疏,決嫌疑,別同異,明是非也。 They are the rules of propriety, that furnish the means of determining [the observances towards] relatives, as near and remote; of settling points which may cause suspicion or doubt; of distinguishing where there should be agreement, and where difference; and of making clear what is right and what is wrong. [...]
道德仁義,非禮不成。 The course [of duty], virtue, benevolence, and righteousness cannot be fully carried out without the rules of propriety;
教訓正俗,非禮不備。 nor are training and oral lessons for the rectification of manners complete;
分爭辨訟,非禮不決。 nor can the clearing up of quarrels and discriminating in disputes be accomplished;
君臣上下,父子兄弟,非禮不定。 nor can [the duties between] ruler and minister, high and low, father and son, elder brother and younger, be determined;
宦、學事師,非禮不親。 nor can students for office and [other] learners, in serving their masters, have an attachment for them;
班朝、治軍,涖官、行法,非禮威嚴不行。 nor can majesty and dignity be shown in assigning the different places at court, in the government of the armies, and in discharging the duties of office so as to secure the operation of the laws;
禱祠、祭祀,供給鬼神,非禮不誠不莊。 nor can there be the [proper] sincerity and gravity in presenting the offerings to spiritual beings on occasions of supplication, thanksgiving, and the various sacrifices.
是以君子恭、敬、撙、節、退、讓以明禮。 Therefore the superior man is respectful and reverent, assiduous in his duties and not going beyond them, retiring and yielding - thus illustrating [the principle of] propriety.
夫禮者,自卑而尊人。雖負販者,必有尊也,而況富貴乎?富貴而知好禮,則不驕不淫;貧賤而知好禮,則志不懾。 Propriety is seen in humbling one's self and giving honour to others. Even porters and pedlers are sure to display this giving honour; how much more should the rich and noble do so! When the rich and noble know to love propriety, they do not become proud nor dissolute. When the poor and mean know to love propriety, their minds do not become cowardly.
Liji 禮記, chap. Quli 曲禮 A. Translation: Legge 1885.

The most important principle of rituals was to respect those who stood in the higher position, i.e. the king as seen from the regional rulers, the regional rulers as seen from their ministers, or a father as seen from his son, an older brother as seen from a younger one, or a husband as seen from the part of his wife. These principles of rituals were part of the education of the nobility.

Education of the elite

The most important sources concerning the education of the elite during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) are the ritual classic Liji 禮記 (chap. Wangzhi 王制, Xueji 學記, Wenwang shizi 文王世子), the semi-classic Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記 (chap. Baofu 保傅), and the ritual classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Chunguan 春官, chap. Da zongbo 大宗伯). Yet schooling is also mentioned in several bronze inscriptions (e.g. Da Yu ding 大盂鼎 or Jing gui 靜簋).

The educational system can be divided into royal schools (guoxue 國學) and district schools (xiangxue 鄉學), both intended to instruct male children of the ruling elite.

The royal primary school (xiaoxue 小學) was attended by royal princes and the sons of high dignitiaries in the central government. It was located "left" (i.e. east) of the Southern Ducal Palace (Gonggong nan zhi zuo 公宮南之左). Its directors were the palace master (shishi 師氏) and the palace protector (baoshi 保氏), subordinates to the "Minister of Education" (da situ 大司徒). Similar primary schools existed in the regional states. There might have been another primary school called Yuxiang 庠虞 which was located in the western suburbs.

Quite surprising is the age for enrolment: fifteen sui for primary schools, and eighteen for advanced schools (Guo, Qiao 1994: 72). Yet some sources speak of eight sui as the age of beginning to learn. It might be that fifteen was the age when boys began attending official schools, after having been educated at home for some time. Home education is described in the Liji chapter Neize 內則, according to which schooling began with the age of ten sui:

Quotation . Schooling during the Zhou period
子能食食,教以右手。能言,男唯女俞。男鞶革,女鞶絲。 When the child was able to take its own food, it was taught to use the right hand. When it was able to speak, a boy [was taught to] respond boldly and clearly; a girl, submissively and low. The former was fitted with a girdle of leather; the latter, with one of silk.
六年,教之數與方名。七年,男女不同席,不共食。八年,出入門戶及即席飲食,必後長者,始教之讓。九年,教之數日。 At six years, they were taught the numbers and the names of the cardinal points; at the age of seven, boys and girls did not occupy the same mat nor eat together; at eight, when going out or coming in at a gate or door, and going to their mats to eat and drink, they were required to follow their elders: the teaching of yielding to others was now begun; at nine, they were taught how to number the days.
十年,出就外傅,居宿於外,學書計,[…]朝夕學幼儀,請肄簡諒。 At ten, [the boy] went to a master outside, and stayed with him [even] over the night. He learned the [different classes of] characters and calculation; [...] morning and evening he learned the behaviour of a youth; he would ask to be exercised in [reading] the tablets, and in the forms of polite conversation.
十有三年,學樂,誦《詩》,舞《勺》,成童舞《象》,學射御。 At thirteen, he learned music, and to repeat the "Book of Songs", and to dance the Shao/Gou? [of the Duke of Zhou]. When a full-grown lad, he danced the Xiang [of King Wu 周武王]. He learned archery and chariot-driving.
二十而冠,始學禮,可以衣裘帛,舞《大夏》,惇行孝弟。 At twenty, he was capped, and first learned the [different classes of] ceremonies, and might wear furs and silk. He danced the Daxia [of Yu the Great 大禹] and attended sedulously to filial and fraternal duties.
Translation: Legge 1885.

The separation between the male and the female world began at the age of 7 sui. With 13 sui, girls were restricted to the inner quarters and learned not just to behave in a humble, subservient, docile, and obedient way towards males, but also to work like it was expected from a woman, namely to handle hempen fibres, deal with cocoons, weave silks and form fillets, furnish garments, watch the sacrifices, supply the liquors and sauces, fill the various stands and dishes with pickles and brine, and assist in setting forth the appurtenances for the ceremonies. While young men were capped (guan 冠) with 20 sui, girls received their hairpin (ji 笄) at the age of 15 and were expected to marry at 20. Men were taking a wife with the relatively late age of 30.

There were many designations for the advanced royal school (daxue 大學), namely 太學, dongjiao 東膠, dongxu 東序, biyong 辟雍, pangong 泮宮, chengjun 成均, guzong 瞽宗, shangxiang 上庠, xuegong 學宮, dachi 大池 or shelu 射廬. The students learned about rites, sacrifices, archery, dances and music (see Zhou music), and used the school building even for practicing sacrifices, meetings, banquets or entertainments (Guo, Qiao 1994: 73). Biyong (also called Lingzhao 靈沼) was originally the name of a lake close to the royal residences in Feng 酆 and Hao 鎬 (close to present-day Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), and the school might have been located on an island in the centre of it. This building is also occasionally identified with the Bright Hall (mingtang 明堂). The Zhou might have had several advanced schools, and some of the names mentioned above were used for the advanced schools of the regional lords, for instance, the name pangong.

Some of the buildings consisted of four wings. The eastern wing (dongxue 東學, dongjiao, dongxu) was used to train dancing, the western one (xixue 西學, xiyong 西雍, guzong) to learn the rites, the northern one (beixue 北學, shangxiang) to learn writing, and the southern wing (nanxue 南學, chengjun) to learn music.

On which administrative level the various types of district schools were implemented, depends on the source. The correct order might have been village schools (shu 塾) for villages ( 閭, 25 households), warden schools (xiang 庠) for wardens (dang 黨, 2,500 households), township schools (xu 序) for townships (zhou 州, 2,500 households), and district schools (xiao 校) for districts (xiang 鄉, 12,500 households, figures according to Zhouli, chap. Dasitu).

An annual royal inspection of the school was combined with the ceremonial "nourishing of the aged" (yang lao 養老), namely aged persons with "virtuous conduct" and a dignified position (guolao 國老) and such without dignified position (shulao 庶老). Aged persons were venerated by a drinking entertainment (yanli 燕禮), reverent sacrifices (xiangli 饗禮), and feasting (shili 食禮). The respect of age was in the end part of the lineage system and pertained rather to members of the nobility, and not so much to old women and men among the commoners. Persons aged 50 sui were feasted in the district schools, those aged 60 in the primary schools of the royal residence and the regional states, and those aged 70 in the advanced schools. The veneration of the elderly people was an expression of filial piety (xiao 孝), and the latter was the core of "accomplished education" (chengjiao 成教).

At the occasion of the ceremonies for "nourishing the aged", the king attended and inspected the schools (shi xue 視學), four times a year. The Liji chapter Wenwang shizi describes the complete ceremony. The Liji (ch. Wangzhi) holds that in summer, the curriculum consisted of rituals and music, and of studing the Classics Shijing and Shangshu 尚書 in winter.

The book Zhouli explains that the Musician-in-chief (dasiyue 大司樂) instructed the students, and first of all, the heir apparent, in the "virtues of music" (yuede 樂德, which are the observation of the mean, zhong 中, of harmony, he 和, respect, zhi 祗, diligence, yong 庸, filial piety, xiao 孝, and friendship, you 友), the "conversation by music" (yueyu 樂語, which means animation, xing 興, direction, dao 道, recitation, feng 諷, chant, song 誦, diction, yan 言, and conversation, yu 語), and the musical dances ( 樂舞, namely the "Cloudy Gate" Yunmen 雲門, the "Grand Reunion" Dajuan 大卷, the "Grand Concord" Daxian 大咸, the "Grand Union" Dashao 大㲈, the "Grand Exaltation" Daxia 大夏, the "Grand Diffusion or Humidification" Dahuo 大濩, and the "Grand Warrior" Dawu 大武).

The palace master (shishi) tought them the three virtues (sande 三德) and the three comportments (sanxing 三行). The "three virtues" were the virtue of perfection (zhide 至德) - the fundament of the way, the virtue of vigilance (minde 敏德) - the fundament of action, and the virtue of filial piety (xiaode 孝德), by which the disobedient and evil and can be recognized. The three comportments were filial comportment (xiaoxing 孝行) - loving father and mother, friendly comportment (youxing 友行) - respecting the worthy and sage ones, and obedient comportment (shunxing 順行) - serving masters and older ones.

The palace protector (baoshi) finally was the instructor in the six arts or skills (liuyi 六藝), namely the five rituals, six types of music, five skills of archery, five skills in steering the chariot, six methods of writing, and the nine methods of arithmetics. A similar statement like this from the Zhouli is found in the Liji (ch. Neize). The Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) explains these skills in the following way:

The Five Rites were auspicious rites (jili 吉禮), funeral rites (xiongli 兇禮), hosting rites (binli 賓禮), military rites (junli 軍禮), and congratulatory rites (jiali 嘉禮).

The Five Kinds of Music were the dances mentioned above.

The Five Skills of Archery were the "white arrow" (baishi 白矢), the "three joined arrows" (sanlian 參連), the "falling tip" (yanzhu 剡注), the "ceding step" (xiangchi 襄尺), and the "well" or square figure (jingyi 井儀).

The Five Methods to Steer the Chariot were "concordance of the pattern of the hooves and the bells on the holm" (ming he luan 鳴和鸞), "following the movements of the waves" (zhu shui qu 逐水曲), "passing the signal of the lord" (guo jun biao 過君表), to perform the "criss-cross dance on the road" ( 舞交衢), and to follow "to the left of the game" (zhu qin zuo 逐禽左).

The Six Types of Characters were figurative characters (xiangxing 象形), characters as united ideas of two others (huiyi 會意), mutual explanation (zhuanzhu 轉注), describing an affair (chushi 處事), loan characters (jiajie 假借), and combinations of meaning and sound (xiesheng 諧聲).

The nine rules of arithmetics are field measurement (fangtian 方田, planar geometry), millet and rice (sumi 粟米, three-dimensional geometry), distribution by proportion (chafen 差分), short width (shaoguang 少廣, i.e. roots and radicals), construction consultations (shanggong 商功, e.g. volumes of earthworks or capacities of barns), fair levies (junshu 均輸, further ratio and proportion theory), excess and deficit (fangcheng 方程, solution of linear equations by using the Rule of Double False Position), rectangular arrays (ying buzu 贏不足, linear equations), and right-angled triangles (bangyao 旁要, translation of these terms according to Shen, Crossley, Lun 1999).

Rituals (li) and music (yue) were not an end in itself, but just instruments to regulate and stabilize state and society. The five spheres of ritual included concrete prescriptions how to behave in certain social context. The king could expect that the regional rulers, as members of one "family", would participate in all aspects of the ritual world. The palace protector (baoshi) therefore instructed his disciples in the six rules of countenance (liuyi 六儀), namely the countenance (rong 容) during sacrifices, during the receptions of guests, during audiences, during funeral ceremonies, in the army, and when riding a horse or chariot.

The district schools (see Zhouli, chap. Dasitu) instructed their students in the six virtues (liude 六德), namely wisdom (zhi 知), kindheartedness (ren 仁), sagacity (sheng 聖), righteousness (yi 義), loyalty (zhong 忠), and harmony (he 和), the six comportments (liuxing 六行), namely filial piety (xiao 孝), friendship (you 友), respect towards paternal relatives (mu 睦), respect towards the relatives of the mother and the spouse (yuan 婣), fidelity (ren 任), and charity (xu 恤), as well as in the six skills (liuyi).

Han-period scholars like Jia Yi 賈誼 interpreted the titles taishi 太師 and taifu 太傅, used for members of the throne council (see political system of the Zhou), as the designations for educators. The Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Shao 召公 were according to this interpretation obliged to instruct the heir apparent in moral matters (Guo, Qiao 1994: 100-101).

The Heir Apparent was also instructed by three female teachers (bei san mu 備三母), as the Liji chapter Neize says, namely a direct teacher (zishi 子師), an "indulgent mother" (cimu 慈母), and a "guardian mother" (baomu 保母).

The lowest social group able to receive any means of education were "petty officials" (li 吏). There was, at least in theory, the duty to attend school, as the "Royal regulations" (Wangzhi) in the book Liji say. Failure in attending school or in learning progress was punished. Culprits were reported to the king, who then, along with the highest dignitaries "entered the school" (ru xue 入學). If this did not produce the necessary change, the king in person inspected the school (shi xue 視學, i.e. was present during class), and if this also failed, for three days he took no full meal nor had music, after which the culprits were exiled to the remote regions. All their lives they were excluded from distinction.

Good students ones might be promoted, as the chapter Wangzhi explains: The names of promising youths in the districts were passed up to the "Minister of Education" (situ 司徒), when they were called "select scholars" (xuanshi 選士). He then decided which of them gave still greater promise, and promoted them to the advanced school (taixue), where they were called "eminent scholars" (junshi 俊士), and [by and by] were called "complete scholars" (zaoshi 造士).

The Grand Director of Music (da yuezheng 大樂正), having fully considered who were the most promising (xiuzhe 秀者) of the "completed scholars", reported them to the king, after which they were advanced to be under the "Minister of War" (sima 司馬), and called "scholars ready for employment" (jinshi 進士). The Minister of War reported his decisions concerning the best and ablest (xianzhe 賢者) of them to the king, to have that judgment fixed. When it was, they were put into offices (guan zhi 官之). After they had discharged the duties of these, rank was given them (jue zhi 爵之); and, their positions being thus fixed, they received salary (lu zhi 禄之).

The assessment of functionaries was carried out according to three performances, namely in administrative matters, in fiscal matters, and in judicial matters (zhai nai shi, zhai nai mu, zhai nai zhun 宅乃事,宅乃牧,宅乃準; Shangshu, ch. Lizheng 立政). In case of good performance, the functionaries might be promoted (jun 俊) (Guo, Qiao 1994: 118). Annual contests were made in archery by which the feudal princes annually presented the officers (gongshi 貢士) who had charge of their tribute to the Son of Heaven, who made trial of them in the archery hall. (Liji, ch. Sheyi 射義; Guo, Qiao: xxx ne 379-380).

Even if this looks like the origin of a recruitment system based on ability, it must borne in mind that the Liji was compiled during the Former Han period and only gives an idealized picture of the Western Zhou period. There is no evidence so far that students were tested their knowledge in any way.


It seems that the in the battle of Muye, the superior Shang had utterly destroyed the greater part of the Shang army, and therefore booty, captives and territory fell into the hands of the victor. The book Yizhoushu (ch. Shifu) lists 99 inimical states (duiguo 憝國), 1,107,449 killed enemies (guomo 馘磨), 3,010,230 captives (furen 俘人), and 652 subservient states (fuguo 服國). After the rebellion of Wu Geng and the final destruction of the Shang, a further number of 17 states (ch. Zuoluo) were integrated into the Zhou empire.

Granting territory along with the persons living on it was commonplace during the Western Zhou period, as can be seen in bronze inscriptions like Da Yu ding 大盂鼎 (2837), Mai fangzun 麥方尊 (6015), Ling ding 令鼎 (2803), or Bu X gui 不𡢁𣪕 (4328). The ritual classic Zhouli (part Diguan 地官, ch. Zhiren 質人) directly enumerates persons (renmin 人民) as merchandize on the markets, just next to cattle, weapons, and jewellery. The inscription of the Hu ding 曶鼎 (2838) reports the price of five persons as five horses and a bale of silk (shusi 束絲).

Land including the peasants living on it was one form of present made by superiors to the subordinates. In the very early Western Zhou it was not allowed to sell this land. This attitude changed over time, and the exchange of land became common, as can be seen in the long inscription of the Sanshi pan 散氏盤 plate which demonstrated that ownership of land was minutely recorded. The inscription of the Wei he 衛盉 can reveils that land might be sold, in this case at a price of 80 cowry sets (peng 朋), or rented out for use to others, as seen in the text of the Wusi Wei ding 五祀衛鼎.

The social ladder is explained in the Classic Zuozhuan (Zhaogong 7): the king is served by the dukes (wang chen gong 王臣公), the dukes by grand masters, the grand masters by servicemen, the servicemen by black-robed guardsmen (zao 皂), guardsmen 皂 by infantrymen 輿, infantrymen by convicts (li 隸), convicts by (penal) labourers (liao 僚), labourers 僚 by slaves by birth (pu 僕), and slaves by birth captures fugitive slaves (tai 臺) (Wang, Yang: 303).

The upper ranks of this hierarchy observed their duties as officials of the Zhou empire. Their salary (fulu) was given in the shape of fields. A duke lived of “tributes” (gong) which means that he was directly paid from the state treasury, as tributes were a form of tax. Grand masters were given a settlement (yi 邑) whose attached fields would feed them, servicemen were given fields (tian) of a certain size, commoners lived from the physical work (li) on their fields, tradesmen and merchants from their profession (guan), and guardsmen and convicts (zao, li) from their duties (zhi 職) (Guoyu, Jinyu xxx).

The philosopher Meng Ke’s description of the well-field sytem (jingtian zhi, Mengzi, ch. Teng Wengong A) alleged that all land belonged to the king and was directly worked by the farming people. While eight parts of a “well-field” (actually just one graphical description of a field separated by paths and ditches) were used to nourish the people, one nineth served to feed the king and his court. In practice, the simple paradigm that “all land belonged to the king”, proved a much more complex landscape of ownership. Even if the royal court owned land to live off, most tracts of land were given to functionaries as a form of salary. The peasants thus did not feed the king, but the grand masters and servicemen (Wang, Yang 305).

Society and social changes of the Western Zhou period

Once in power over the east, the Zhou people adopted most features of Shang culture, like the types of pottery and ritual bronze vessels (for instance, ding 鼎, li 鬲, gui 簋, and guan 罐), or the shape of tombs, with deep shafts, ramps leading down, a waist pit (yaokeng 腰坑), and a platform around the tomb chamber (ercengtai 二層臺) on which tomb furnishings were placed, or humans accompanying their master into the netherworld (renxun 人殉). The missing of artifacts in the Zhouyuan area, the home land of the Zhou, before the conquest of the Shang is contrasted by rich and homogeneous finds after that event. Within a very short time, the Zhou rose from obscurity to political dominance.

With the conquest of the Shang, the Zhou adopted not only their material culture, but also material resources or booty (Zhou 2000: xxx), and labour force (Rawson 1999: 385).

Another difference to the Shang is that the Zhou widely used the bronze vessels as bearers of inscriptions documenting the history of a family, with a great weight put on the achievements of the ancestors. Many inscriptions can be dated quite exactly from the text, and from the writing style. Some inscriptions mention the Zhou warfare against the Shang dynasty, later ones campaigns against the southeastern "barbarians". The conquest is shortly mentioned in the Li gui 利 簋 vessel, and the foundation of the eastern capital Chengzhou 成周 is a theme in the inscription of the Ming shi qing zun 鳴士卿尊 vessel.

In general, inscriptions have a narrative character and mention dates and places where the king instructed his officials and nobles, often using political tenets and appeals to moral matters (see de 德 "virtue"). The inscriptions demonstrate the policy was carried out in a strict ritual context and represented a "visual and verbal record" (Rawson 1999: 375) of a family's honours and relations. The aspect of legitimization was a very strong aspect of political and social relations of the early Zhou, and the functionalization of the generations of the past much resembled the way of communication with the ancestors as it had been used by the Shang (Rawson 1999: 397).

In many instances, vessels served to express the bestowment of legal powers (along with precious objects) by the king to a dignitary. Such vessels might have been cast (Rawson 1999: 365) in a central foundry. The uniformity of the style throughout the Western Zhou period shows that there was indeed a prerogative by the royal court to cast certain vessels with political meaning for the regional lords. If casting was not centralized, there must have at least been some sort of strict communication about types, styles, and wording (Rawson 1999: 366).

The most interesting finds of the early Western Zhou period are not the capitals in Feng and Hao close to Xi’an which reveal only modest living standards, but in the Zhouyuan, for instance, the hoards found in Zhuangbai 莊白 and Dongjiacun 董家村, or the building complexes of Fengchu 鳳雛 and Zhaochen 召陳. The latter are constructed around a courtyard, and timber pillars were stabilized and protected against decay by stone bases, like in Shang sites. Yet the Zhou seem to have invented a novelty, namely clay tiles (Rawson 1999: 391-392). Tombs of Feng 酆 and Hao 鎬, for instance in Zhangjiapo 張家坡, include complete chariots.

Baoji 寶雞 was the home of the regional state of Yu 𢐗, which is not mentioned in transmitted sources, but was quite rich and powerful, as the archaeological excavations demonstrate. The lords were powerful enough to have their ritual vessels cast in a way different from the pattern common in the Central Plain: Each single ding and gui vessel had its own shape and decoration, and did not match the others. Some of the details of the ornaments might have been introduced from the south, or even with Central Asia, as can be seen in the presence of faience beads (Rawson 1999: 397-400).

Tianma-Qucun 天馬曲村 bronzes show heavy influence of the Zhou style, and the Jin elites must have had close contact with the Zhou plain in Guanzhong. The same is true for the statelet of Ying 應 and the state of Wei 衛, and for Yan 燕. Bronzes can be assumed to have been produced centrally and being distributed to the regional rulers as signs of their authority being derived from that of the Zhou king. Inscriptions are testimonies of these appointments (ceming 冊命). The tombs of the lords of Wei are impressive. High-fired ceramics. Jin and Yan beads of agate and jade.

Few tombs have been found in Chengzhou/Luoyang, settled by a Zhou elite in the early phase, but the centre become more important after the middle Western Zhou period, with finds like Ling fangyi 令方yi (Ze) and pottery fired at high temperatures.

Seen from the sites which produced Western Zhou period objects, it seems plausible to say that unlike during the Shang, the early Zhou did not control regions south of the Yellow River Plain (Rawson 1999: 404).

In the middle Western Zhou period, bronze vessels were more standardized in shape and designs and given round shapes and elaborate patterns covering the whole surface. Also changes in burial patterns concerning the sets of vessels, and the burying of chariots. This points at a change in society and military conflicts which the state sought to easy by imposing a novel and stricter ritual system. The impact of political troubles was also reflected in some bronze vessels of that phase which were produced small-style and with only simple decorations.

Burial patterns changed insofar as family members were clustered together, and chariot parts, in the early Western Zhou placed in separate pits and in complete appearance, were placed as dismantled parts inside the tomb of mid-Western Zhou lords.

At the same time, new objecs appeared, like larger sets of bells whose style is believed to have come from the south, objects like cans in the shape of birds and beasts (Rawson 1999: 419), and fancy decorations of chariot fittings. The interest in jades increased, and tombs in Jin and Guo are extremely rich in jades used as grave goods. Nephrite stones were formed into pendants, figurines of animals, "scepters" (gui) and other ritual forms (x), and also made to special pieces particularly used to cover the orifices of a corpse. While some early Western Zhou jades might have been robbed from the Shang, the mid-Western Zhou period saw a fresh interest in the material and brought to flourish a whole industry.

Large numbers of bells were found in Hunan, and production of bronze bells seem to have been the only prevalent metal industry in the south at that time. Design and functionality of the bells were optimized, so that the bells, perhaps also casting moulds, were exported to the most important regional states of the north.

In southeast China, burial modes appeared different from that of the Central Plain, namely the mound (tudun 土墩). Such graves are found in Yandunshan 煙墩山, Dantu 丹徒, Jiangsu; Tunxi 屯溪; and Muzidun 母子墩 near Dagang 大港, Dantu. Tombs were not dug into the earth, but arranged on the flat ground, and then covered by an artificial hill. The bronzes in these graves show the style of the Central Plain and might perhaps have been robbed from there (Rawson 1999: 425), as most tombs of that period of the the Jiangnan region just contained pottery and hard pottery, but no bronzeware.

The standardization of bronze vessels and the combination of types in sets increased during the late Western Zhou period. This phenomenon has been called "ritual revolution". In one set, vessels of one type (like ding or li) had exactly the same appearance and bear an identical inscription. Sometimes the vessel set consisted of identical objects with decreasing size, the largest pieces being much heavier than their early Zhou predecessors. A novelty was the appearance of pairs, like for instance, hu flasks. The earliest tomb in which such a drift to standardization can be seen is Qiangjia 強家 in Fufeng.

Such standardized sets were able to clearly express not only the rank of their owner, but also his wealth. Increasingly, standard pottery vessels like li and dou were transformed into bronze objects, and bells became a standard piece in the belongings of a regional ruler. Lords impressed their subjects – and also their ancestors – by new modes of visualized and audible power. This power was in the end given by the kings of Zhou who determined shapes and styles.

Quite interesting is the wish to go back to antiquity not only by writing the inscriptions in an archaic style of calligraphy and wording or by reviving ancient patterns and styles, but also by collecting old vessels, be them belongings of the own family, or taken from elsewhere. The tomb of the lords of Guo, for instance, contained replica bronzes and ancient jades dating from an earlier time.

Bronze vessels belonged to the asset of a noble family, first because of the material value of the bronze, and second because the inscriptions were a kind of family chronicle. When the Zhou elite fled the Wei River valley in 770, many families left behind these heavy testimonies in hoards (yaocang 窯藏), sometimes in several layers. The hoards were quite probably close to ancestral temples (Rawson 1999: 373).

The late Western Zhou period witnessed another phenomenon in burial practice, namely increasing austerity. While barely no finds were made in many of the regional states, the sole exception, the state of Jin, proves that functional objects were replaced by dummies. Bronze vessels or jade ornaments, useable in daily life, were not any more laid into graves. Instead, the tombs of Qucun-Tianma contain simple replica bronzes (mingqi 明器 or 冥器) not carried out with diligence and practically unuseable. Useable jades were left for the living, and the death were given antiques. This trend intensified in many regional states during the Eastern Zhou period, along with a general liberation from the uniform tradition of the Western Zhou. This is also true for the inscriptions in vessels, which disappeared after the 8th century.

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