Chou – China’s Second Dynasty


The Chou Dynasty (1123-221 BCE) succeeded the Shang Dynasty as the Age of Reason succeeded the Age of Magic. Chou Emperors were characterised by their efforts to establish a logical and rational relationship between humanity and the universe. Hence, the previously respected Supreme Being Shang-Ti was relegated to becoming one of an increasing number of accepted deities who were being recognised as taking a role in regulating the rational universe. It was, of course, important for a new Dynasty to establish a new and appealing form of legitimacy for its rule so as to ensure people accepted that the attack and overthrow of the Shang Dynasty was permissible under Heaven.

The Duke of Chou, who established the Chou Dynasty, was initially ruler of a semi-steppe area bordering Central Asia which had been established as a buffer between the sedentary Chinese farmers and townspeople and the fierce and feared horsemen of the Steppes. However, partly through experience gained in fighting the Steppe nomads, the Duke became powerful enough to begin to swallow up its neighbours. After decades of warfare, the Duke was able to proclaim himself Emperor under Heaven, whose rule was mandated by Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven was subsequently used by Chinese Emperors until the twentieth-century to legitimise their rule: it worked this way, Heaven provided legitimacy for the Emperor otherwise he (in one case she) would not be occupying the imperial throne. However, Heaven could withdraw its Mandate if the emperor’s performance was deficient and this would be apparent because of revolution, famine or natural disaster in the Empire. The arrival of ominous portents such as comets or earthquakes or prodigies such as two-headed animals could represent Heaven making up its mind whether or not to withdraw the Mandate.

The Chou regime was distinguished by its increasing adherence to the rule of law: all members of the realm were not only encouraged to obey the law by fierce punishments but were expected to report any of their neighbours or even family members to the authorities if they broke any of the numerous laws. While this did tend to dampen innovation and artistic vision, it did not destroy them completely and was compensated for by great improvements in prose and in the recording of history and of all kids of record-keeping. The Spring and Autumn Annals, for example, is the first chronological account of Chinese history and covered the period from 72-481 BCE.