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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

2 - The Formative Era


The Age of the Classics

Zhou Dynasty China (1045–256 BCE)

The Zhou people who conquered the Shang Dynasty around the year 1045 BCE were originally separate and distinct from the Shang. The Zhou homeland (in what is today Shaanxi) lay to the west of the core Shang territory, and they were politically independent. For a while before their conquest, however, Zhou leaders did acknowledge themselves to be subordinate vassals of the Shang king, and much of Zhou high culture, including oracle bone divination and the production and style of bronze vessels (inscribed with a shared written Chinese language), was derived from Shang. The outcome of their conquest was a new synthesis or fusion.

After the 1045 BCE conquest, the newly established Zhou Dynasty absorbed the preexisting Shang population and even allowed the former Shang royal family to maintain its identity, under the reduced title of dukes (of Song) rather than as sovereign kings, to continue their essential ancestral sacrifices. This illustrates once again the extent to which Chinese civilization was, from the beginning, a hybrid mixture, blending together multiple local cultural traditions. The late Shang had been a relatively small state existing within a field of roughly similar other cultures, and in contact with places that were much more remote, as is demonstrated by the large number of cowry sea shells that were imported from as far away as the Indian Ocean, and the introduction of the horse-drawn chariot (which had first appeared centuries earlier in what is now Kazakhstan) from the northern steppe around 1250 BCE, possibly coming via the northeast. Chinese civilization may have developed largely indigenously, but it was never entirely a closed and isolated system.

As Christopher Beckwith has shown, the Zhou origin myth is strikingly similar to those of a surprising number of other Eurasian peoples, ranging from the ancient Scythians and Romans in the west to the Koguryŏ in Korea, and including the later Turks and Mongols, suggesting an unexpected degree of shared Eurasian culture. According to the Zhou legend, the first ancestor of the Zhou people was conceived when a woman named Jiang Yuan stepped into the footprint of the supreme god Shangdi (the “Lord on High”) and thereby became pregnant.