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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

6 - The inscribed history: the Western Zhou state and its bronze vessels

Summary

The Zhou Dynasty occupies a special position in the cultural and political history of China, being held in high esteem as the paradigm of political perfection and social harmony in the long Confucian tradition. In some way the reputation was well earned because there was no another civilization (such as that of the Shang) that separated the Zhou Dynasty from the well-documented early imperial times; on the contrary, the Zhou Dynasty created a social and cultural context in which, particularly because of the decline of the Zhou royal order, the embryo of the imperial system grew, and in which all the founding figures of Chinese philosophy lived. On the other hand, the Zhou Dynasty can be seen as a period in which the value of literary culture had been fully explored and appreciated, thus allowing us the opportunity to analyze its political and social institutions in a more coherent way than is possible for the Shang Dynasty on the basis of the contemporary written evidence. It was also a period during which the key to bureaucratic administration was discovered and the concept of the state had become differentiated from that of the royalty.

The Search for Pre-Dynastic Zhou

The question of whether there were a people called by the name “Zhou” before the Zhou conquest of Shang would seem quite superfluous if not contradictory. However, in the 1970s–1980s studies of the various “pre-” or “proto-” dynastic cultures of the regimes that once ruled a large part of China, e.g. Shang, Zhou, and Qin, formed an important stream in Chinese archaeology. Underlying these studies was the methodological assumption that the prehistory of a dynasty can be sought in the archaeological records and, by virtue of its identification with a material culture, the origin of that prehistory can be traced farther back to a time that was beyond what the often ambiguous textual records purport to tell.

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Selected Reading
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