A Feudal State Is Established

The Zhou rewarded their supporters by granting them control over different regions. Thus, under the Zhou, China developed into a feudal state. Feudalism (FYOOD ul iz um)was a system of government in which local lords governed their own lands but owed military service and other forms of support to the ruler.

Zhou kings ruled China for some 850 years—in name at least. For the first two centuries, they did enjoy great power and prestige. After about 771 B.C., though, feudal lords exercised the real power and profited from the lands worked by peasants within their domains.

Economic Growth

During the Zhou period, China's economy grew. Knowledge of iron working had reached China by about 600 B.C. As iron axes and ox-drawn iron plows replaced stone, wood, and bronze tools, farmers produced more food. Peasants also began to grow new crops, such as soybeans. Some feudal lords organized large-scale irrigation works, making farming even more productive.

Commerce expanded too. The Chinese began to use money for the first time. Chinese copper coins were made with holes in the center so that they could be strung on cords.

Photo of several ancient artifacts, with figures and holes carved into each. Caption reads:

The holes punched at the top of these bronze coins from the Zhou dynasty allowed the coins to be strung on cords, making it easier to carry money securely.

This early form of a cash, or money, economy made trade easier. Merchants also benefited from new roads and canals organized by feudal lords.

Economic expansion led to an increase in China's population. People from the Huang River heartland moved into central China and soon began to farm the immense Chang River basin. Feudal nobles also expanded their territories and encouraged peasants to settle in the conquered territories.

Zhou Rule Ends

By 256 B.C. China was a large, wealthy, and highly developed center of civilization. Yet the Zhou rulers were too weak to control feudal lords who ignored the emperor and battled one another in savage wars. Out of these wars rose a ruthless leader who toppled the Zhou and set out to impose political unity on China. His triumphs ushered in a new dynasty called the Qin (chin) dynasty.

Religious Beliefs in Early China

By Shang times, the Chinese had developed complex religious beliefs, many of which would influence later practices. They prayed to many gods and nature spirits. Chief among them was the supreme being, Shang Di (shahng dee). The king was seen as the link between the people and Shang Di.

By making the correct prayers to Shang Di, the king ensured the god's favor, which was essential for good harvests. The Shang king—and later Chinese emperors—were called the Son of Heaven. In this way, Chinese rulers served as both priests and kings.

Veneration of Ancestors

Gods as great as Shang Di, the Chinese believed, would not respond to the pleas of mere mortals. Only the spirits of the greatest people, such as the ancestors of the king, could possibly get the ear of the gods. Thus, the prayers of rulers and nobles to their ancestors were thought to serve the community as a whole, ensuring such benefits as good harvests or victory in war.

The ruler's power came in part from this veneration of ancestors. At first, only the royal family and other nobles had ancestors important enough to influence the gods. Gradually, other classes shared in these rituals.

The Chinese called on the spirits of their ancestors to bring good fortune to the family. To honor their ancestors' spirits, they offered them sacrifices of food and other necessities. When westerners reached China, they mistakenly called this practice “ancestor worship.”

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments