During the Zhou Dynasty, the origins of native Chinese philosophy developed, its initial stages beginning in the 6th century BC. The greatest Chinese philosophers, those who made the greatest impact on later generations of Chinese, were Kong Fuzi , founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, founder of Daoism. Other philosophers, theorists, and schools of thought in this era were Mozi , founder of Mohism, Mengzi , a famous Confucian who expanded upon Kong Fuzi's legacy, Shang Yang and Han Feizi, responsible for the development of ancient Chinese , and Xunzi, who was arguably the center of ancient Chinese intellectual life during his time, even more so than iconic intellectual figures such as Mencius.
Mandate of Heaven
In the Chinese historical tradition, the Zhou defeated the Shang and oriented the Shang system of ancestor worship toward a universalized worship away from the worship of and to that of Tian or "heaven". They legitimized their rule by invoking the Mandate of Heaven, the notion that the ruler governed by divine right but that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate. Such things that proved the ruling family had lost the Mandate were natural disasters and rebellions. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the and Shang Dynasties and at the same time supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers. The Zhou dynasty was founded by the family and had its capital at Hào . Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, established a large imperial territory where in states as far as Shandong acknowledged Zhou rulership and took part in elite culture. The spread of Zhou bronzes, though, was concurrent with the continued use of Shang style pottery in the distant regions and these states were the last to recede during the late Western Zhou.
The early Western Zhou supported a strong military split into two major units: “The Six Armies of the West” and “The Eight Armies of Chengzhou”. The armies campaigned in the northern Loess Plateau, modern Ningxia and the Huanghe floodplain. The military prowess of Zhou peaked during the 19th year of 's reign, when the Six Armies were wiped out along with King Zhao on a campaign around the Han River. Early Zhou kings were true commanders-in-chief. They were in constant wars with barbarians on behalf of the fiefs called 'guo', namely, statelet or principality. Charles Hucker noted that Zhou had 14 standing royal armies, with 6 stationed in Haojing, near today's Xian, and 8 armies stationed in the east. Zhou Zhaowang was famous for repeated campaigns in the Yangtze areas and died in his last action. Zhou Muwang was a legendary figure famous for fighting in the west and maybe today's Central Asia where he met and rendezvoused on Kunlun Mountain with so-called Xi Wang Mu, namely, Queen Mother of the West, rumored by some western historians, including Charles Hucker, to be Queen of Sheba. Later kings' campaigns were less effective. King Liwang led 14 armies against barbarians in the south but failed to achieve any victory. King Xuanwang fought the Jiangrong nomads in vain. King Youwang was killed by Quanrong, and capital Haojing was sacked. Although chariots had been introduced to China since the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou period saw the use of massed chariots in battle, a technology imported from Central Asia.
In the West, the Zhou period is often described as feudal because the Zhou's early rule invites comparison with . However, historians debate whether or not this description is valid; the more appropriate term for the Zhou Dynasty's political arrangement would be from the Chinese language itself: the ''Fēngjiàn'' system. The Zhou amalgam of city-states became progressively centralized and established increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which probably occurred in the later Zhou period, were manifested in greater central control over local governments and a more routinized agrarian taxation. Zhou officials were not paid a salary but instead were given semi-regular gifts by the King, which often included land in the Wei River valley. Imperial stability was ensured through marriages between the Zhou court and local lords as well as the installment of Zhou lords into command over distant regions.
Western and Eastern Zhou
Initially the Ji family was able to control the country firmly. In 771 BC, after had replaced his queen with a concubine Baosi, the capital was sacked by the joint force of the queen's father, who was the powerful Marquess of Shen, and a nomadic tribe, the Quanrong. The queen's son was proclaimed the new king by the nobles from the states of , , and the Marquess of Shen. The capital was moved eastward in 722 BC to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province.
Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into the Western Zhou , lasting up until 771 BC, and the Eastern Zhou from up to 256 BC. The beginning year of the Western Zhou has been disputed — 1122 BC, 1027 BC and other years within the hundred years from late 12th century BC to late 11th century BC have been proposed. Chinese historians take 841 BC as the first year of consecutive annual dating of the history of China, based on the ''Records of the Grand Historian'' by Sima Qian. The Eastern Zhou corresponds roughly to two subperiods. The first, from to 481 BC, is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period , after another famous chronicle and initiated by the partitioning of . The Warring States Period extends slightly past the 256 BC end date of the Eastern Zhou; this discrepancy is due to the fact that the last Zhou king's reign ended in 256, 35 years before the beginning of the Qin dynasty which ended the Warring States period. The Eastern Zhou period is also designated as a period of a . This is a reference to the different schools of historical Chinese intellectual thought. There were four main distinct schools which were the Ru, Mohist, Daoist, and Legalists. These schools of thought contributed to social, philosophical and political change which played a large part in the decline of the Zhou dynasty.
With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished, and the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. From Ping Wang onwards, the Zhou kings ruled in name only, with true power lying in the hands of powerful nobles. Towards the end of the Zhou Dynasty, the nobles did not even bother to acknowledge the Ji family symbolically, rebelled and declared themselves to be kings. The dynasty was ended in 256 BC, before Qin Shi Huang's unification of China in 221 BC, when the last king of Zhou died and his sons did not proclaim the nominal titles of King of China.
Agriculture in the Zhou Dynasty was very intensive and in many cases directed by the government. All farming lands were owned by nobles, who then gave their land to their serfs, a situation similar to European feudalism. For example, a piece of land was divided into nine squares in the shape of the character for "water well," jing , with the grain from the middle square taken by the government and that of surrounding squares kept by individual farmers. This way, the government was able to store surplus food and distribute it in times of famine or bad harvest. Some important manufacturing sectors during this period included bronze smelting, which was integral to making weapons and farming tools. Again, these industries were dominated by the nobility who directed the production of such materials.
China's first projects of hydraulic engineering were founded during the Zhou Dynasty, ultimately for means to aid agricultural irrigation. The Prime Minister of , Sunshu Ao, who served King Zhuang of Chu dammed a river to create an enormous irrigation reservoir in modern-day northern Anhui province. For this Sunshu is credited as China's first hydraulic engineer. The later Wei statesman Ximen Bao, who served Marquis Wen of Wei , is the first hydraulic engineer of China to have created a large irrigation canal system. As the main focus of his grandiose project, his canal work eventually diverted the waters of the entire Zhang River to a spot further up the Huang He River.