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Western Zhou shows 'Cultural Grandeur'

When it comes to rituals, whether religious or secular, most people simply do what they've seen and learned from others. You might be surprised to know, however, that a lot of what you see and hear in contemporary Taiwan and China is actually related to the way people in the Western Zhou period (1046 - 771 B.C.) lived.

“The Cultural Grandeur of the Western Zhou Dynasty” (赫赫宗周—西周文化特展), which is running at The National Palace Museum (NPM, 國立故宮博物院) until Jan. 7, successfully highlights the unique contributions made by the Western Zhou to Chinese history and culture.

Mandate from Heaven

The story begins in today's Central China, where the Zhou people established themselves by the twelfth century B.C. Building up their strength, these farmers brought together a coalition of tribes to launch an expeditionary force that overthrew the Shang Dynasty (商朝) around 1046 B.C.

After moving their capital from today's Xian (西安) in Shaanxi (陝西) to nearby Haojing (鎬京), also called Zongzhou (宗周), they gradually expanded to the lower reaches of the Yellow River (黃河) and the mid-regions of the Yangtze River (長江), laying the foundation for an 800-year dynasty through a moral code of ethics that served to check and balance the power of rulers.

“For the first time in Chinese history, the Zhou proposed the 'Mandate of Heaven' as a basis to effectively govern their vast territories,” Tsai Ching Liang (蔡慶良) of the NPM's Department of Antiquities told The China Post. “They adopted the feudal system, granting fiefdoms and establishing systems for defense and administration.”

The Western Zhou's moral codes further included a patriarchal system which featured a “clear hierarchy and complex rites for the granting of titles and the bestowing of gifts.” To regulate the smooth execution of rights and duties dictated by the payment of tribute, Tsai explained that they also set up a system for the seeking of audiences, the exchange of presents and the arranging of inter-marriages.

By the middle to late Western Zhou, he noted that “various sets of bronze, jade ritual artifacts designated for specific hierarchical ranks and bronze vessels featured long engraved texts extolling the virtues of particular clans and families, all bearing witness to the maturity and stability of the Zhou ritual system.”

Among other highlights on display in the exhibition, Tsai cited the “Qiang Plate” (牆盤) and “Lai Plate” (逨盤) from the Baoji Zhouyuan Museum in China. These two unique pieces can be observed in the perspective of the NPM's “San Plate” (散盤) on display on the third floor of the museum. But, why are they so important?

“Western Zhou's bronzes were usually engraved with the history of the family glory,” he said, adding that the last sentence was always the same: “Descendants should be blessed forever.”

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Three pieces of the Bronze “Zhong” bells of Xing from the Middle Eastern Zhou dynasty (西周中期) are displayed in the National Palace Museum. (Wang Chien-yu, The China Post)

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