Feudalism in China

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Feudalistic Zhou dynasty Regions

Although Feudalism is often referred to as a European concept occurring in the medieval period, similar systems have been found to exist in many non-European parts of the world. The Chinese history for instance, from the Zhou or Chou dynasty (1046 BC—256 BC) to the Qin dynasty [1] has been termed a true feudal period by many Chinese marxist historians, due to the custom of enfeoffment of land similar to that in Europe. The first kings of the Zhou dynasty enfeoffed their fellow warriors and relatives, creating large domains of land. These eventually rebelled against the Zhou Kings[2] and developed into their own kingdoms, thus ending the centralized rule of the Zhou dynasty.[3]

There is some debate among historians as to whether "Feudalism" is the appropriate term for China's political system as it derives from the Chinese language itself: the Feudal System or the 'Fengjian System'[4] which in Chinese, means to allocate a region or piece of land to an individual, establishing him as the ruler of that region.[5] The term also describes a decentralized political system in which the ruler shares power with local lords. The lords fought for power for over 250 years, this was called the Warring States period.

In the Chinese Marxists histories, the Zhou dynasty symbolizes the beginning of the feudal stage in Chinese history which continues until the fall of the Qin dynasty. Marxist historians in China have described Chinese ancient society as largely feudal.[6][7] The first to propose the use of this term for the Chinese society was Marxist historian and one of the leading writers of 20th century China, Guo Moruo[8] in 1930’s. Guo Moruo's views dominated the official interpretation of historical records,[9] according to which the political system during Zhou dynasty can be seen as feudal in many respects and comparable to the Feudalistic system in Europe. Guo Moruo based his application of this term on two assumptions:

The first assumption was based on feudalism being a form of social organization which arises under certain circumstances, mainly the detoriation of a centralized form of government which is replaced by independent feudal states owing only minimal duties and loyalty to a central ruler. This situation is supposed to have prevailed in China after the decline of the Shang dynasty and the conquering of Shang territories by the Zhou clan. One of the reasons for the shift to feudal states is claimed to be the introduction of iron technology.

The second assumption for classifying the Zhou as feudal by Guo Moruo was the similarity of the essential elements of feudalism that included granting of land in form of ‘fiefs’ to the knighted gentry, as in case of European feudalism. There land fiefs were granted by lords or the ruler to knights, who were considered the ‘vassals’, who in return promised loyalty to the lord and provided military support during periods of war. In China, instead of a salary each noble was given land by the Zhou ruler along with the people living on it who worked on the land and gave part of the produce to the nobles as tax. These ‘fiefs’ were granted through elaborate ceremonies in Western Zhou, where the plots of land, title and rank were granted in formal symbolic ceremonies which were incredibly lavish and which are comparable to the homage ceremonies in Europe where the vassal took the oath of loyalty and fidelity when being granted land also called ‘fief’. These ceremonies in ancient Zhou period were commemorated in inscriptions on bronze vessels, many of which date back to the early Zhou dynasty. Some bronze vessel inscriptions also confirm involvement of military activity in these feudal relationships.

Each feudal state was independent and had its own tax and legal systems along with unique currency. The nobles were required to pay regular homage to the king and to provide him with soldiers at the time of war. This form of feudal structure played an important part in the political structure of Western Zhou which was expanding its territories in the east. In due course this resulted in the rising power of the nobles, who fought among themselves for power, leading to the dwindling authority of the Zhou kings which eventually brought about their downfall. It was due to this likeness in structure that the term ‘feudal’ was applied to the Western Zhou society. Easmond Quaye[10]


Under the Zhou feudal society, the relationship was based on kinship and the contractual nature was not precise whereas in the European model, the lord and vassal had specific mutual obligations and duties. Medieval European feudalism realized the classic case of the 'noble lord' while, in the middle and latter phases of the Chinese Feudal society, the classic case of the landlord system was to be found.[11] In Europe, the feudal lordships were hereditary and irrevocable and were passed on from generation to generation, whereas the Zhou lordships were not hereditary, required reappointment, and could be revoked. The medieval serf was bound to the land and could not leave or dispose of it, whereas the Zhou peasant was free to leave or, if he had the means, to purchase the land in small parcels. Moreover in Europe, feudalism was also considered to be a part of an economic system in which the lords who were at the top of the structure, followed by the vassals, and then the peasants who were tied to the land and were responsible for the production. In Zhou rule, the feudal system was not responsible for the economy. Furthermore, according to China-A New history by John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, dissimilarities existed between the merchant class of the two systems as well.[12] In feudal Europe, the merchant class saw a marked development in towns away from the manors and villages. The European towns could grow outside of the feudal system instead of being integrated in them since the landed aristocrats were settled in the manors. Thus, the towns were independent from the influence of the feudal lords and were solely under the authority the Kings of the kingdoms. In China, these conditions were non existent and the King and his officials depended greatly on the landed gentry. Thus no political power was available to encourage the growth of the merchant class in an independent manner. Towns and villages were an integrated system and merchants remained under the control of the gentry class instead of setting up an independent trade and economy.[13]

Regardless of the similarities of the agrarian society being dominated by the feudal lords in both societies, the application of the term ‘feudal’ to the Western Zhou society has been a subject of considerable debate due to the differences between the two systems. The Zhou feudal system was termed as being ‘protobureaucratic’ (The Prehistory and Early History of China – by J.A.G. Roberts) and bureaucracy existed alongside feudalism, while in Europe, bureaucracy emerged as a counter system to feudal order. Therefore, according to some historians the term feudalism, is not supposed to be an exact fit to the Western Zhou political structure but it can be considered a system analogous to the one that existed in medieval Europe. According to Terence J. Byres in Feudalism and Non European Societies, "feudalism in China no longer represents a deviation from the norm based on European feudalism, but is a classic case of feudalism in its own right."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://totallyhistory.com/zhou-dynasty-1045-256-bc/
  2. ^ "thinkquest.org". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  3. ^ "China Knowledge". Retrieved 28 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Levenson, Schurmann, Joseph, Franz (1969). China-An Interpretive History: From the Beginnings to the Fall of Han. London, England: Regents of the University of California. p. 35. ISBN 0-520-01440-5. 
  5. ^ Levenson, Schurmann, Joseph, Franz (1969). China-An Interpretive History: From the Beginnings to the Fall of Han. London, England: Regents of the University of California. pp. 34–36. ISBN 0-520-01440-5. 
  6. ^ Dirlik, Arif (1985). Feudalism and Non European Societies. London: Frank Cass and Co. limited. pp. 198, 199. ISBN 0-7146-3245-7. 
  7. ^ http://www.hceis.com/chinabasic/history/zhou%20dynasty%20history.htm
  8. ^ The Prehistory and early history of china – by J.A.G. Roberts
  9. ^ Byres, Terence; Mukhia, Harbans (1985). Feudalism and non European societies. London: Frank Cass and Co. limited. p. 213. ISBN 0-7146-3245-7. 
  10. ^ Roberts, John A.G (1999). A Concise History of China. First United Kingdom. pp. 9–12. ISBN 0-674-00074-9. 
  11. ^ Byres, Terence; Mukhia, Harbans (1985). Feudalism and Non European Societies. London: Frank Cass and Co. pp. 213, 214. ISBN 0-7146-3245-7. 
  12. ^ Fairbank, John; Goldman, Merle (1992). China-A new history. United states of America: President and Fellows of Harvard College. ISBN 0-674-01828-1. 
  13. ^ China-A New history'by John K Fairbank and Merle Goldman
  14. ^ Byres, Mukhia, Terence, Harbans (1985). Feudalism and Non European Societies. London: Frank Cass and Co. p. 218. ISBN 0-7146-3245-7. 

Works Cited

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