Where Was the Western Zhou Capital?

Maria Khayutina, Bochum and Munich
WSWG 17, Leiden University, 17 September 2003

Maria Khayutina


A capital city has a special status in every country. Normally, this is a political, economical, and social center. Often it is a cultural and religious center as well. It is the seat of government, and the residence of the power-holding elite and professional administrators. In societies where transportation is not much developed, this is also the place where producers of high quality goods for elite consumption live and work. A country is often identified with its capital city, both by its inhabitants and by foreigners. Thus it is hardly possible to talk about the history of a certain state without making clear where its capital was located.

Chinese history contains many examples where a ruling dynasty moved its capital for defensive or other political reasons. Often this shift caused not only geographical reorganization of the territory, but also significant changes in power relations within the state, as well as between it and its neighbors. One of the first such shifts happened in 771 BC, when the heir apparent of the murdered You-wang could not push back the invading Quanrong hordes from what is now western Shaanxi province, but fled to the city of Chengzhou near modern Luoyang, where the royal court stayed until the fall of Zhou in the late 3rd century BC. This event is usually perceived as a benchmark between the two epochs - the "Western" and "Eastern" Zhou respectively, distinctly different from each other.

Before this move, the Zhou kings ruled their land from the Clan city of Zhou, Zongzhou. It was traditionally believed that this toponym was a second placename of the city of Hao, situated near the place where the later Qin capital Xianyang and the Han capital Chang'an were built. Most historical works accept this as an established fact, and the name of Hao is marked with bold type in every historical map of Zhou. However, it is suspicious that this view is very weakly supported, both from archaeological evidence and from pre-Han textual data. Of course, moving such a touchstone is not an easy task, and requires serious investigation. In this communication, I would like to share some of my doubts and thoughts about where the Western Zhou capital was located, before King Ping's escape to the East.


The city of Hao, which already existed before the arrival of Zhou, probably served as a military base for King Wu of Zhou when he was preparing to attack the Shang. However, like King Wen's base in Cheng/Bi, it was a temporary camp, and not a true capital. After the conquest, the Zhou kings did not use Hao as a capital until the very end of Western Zhou. The site was inhabited throughout the Western Zhou period, but probably differed not too much from some other sites in the densely populated Wei River basin.

The neighboring city of Feng/Fang hosted Zhou kings from time to time, whether on the way between the Western and Eastern capitals, or when they visited it for recreational purposes. It was not an administrative center of Zhou.

The old city of Qi, from the reign of King Cheng, was usually referred to as Zongzhou, or simply Zhou. Here, as before, the political, administrative, religious, social, and cultural center was located.

This adjustment of the Western Zhou map will help us to restore a logical balance in our understanding of the role of a capital city in the Zhou state organization. Similarly, it will allow us to better understand the roles of the Zhouyuan inhabitants - the authors of bronze inscriptions the the highest members of the elite - in the Zhou government and in the development of Zhou culture.

[The full text of the paper is available at the author's web site]


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