The Continued Creation of Communities of Practice – Finding Variation in the Western Zhou Expansion (1046-771 BCE)

PhD defended at: 

Harvard University


Yitzchak Jaffe



This work explores the question of when and how China became Chinese by studying state sponsored colonial expansion and intercultural interactions during the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE). Because Confucius and his followers considered this period the golden age of civilization, scholars have traditionally paid little attention to existing ethnic and cultural diversity and created the illusion that Chinese culture, in Han style, already existed at this early date. However, my investigation of everyday activities, food preparation and ritual events surrounding mortuary customs, highlights the complex relationship between the Zhou and the people they encountered.
Following their conquest of the Shang polity in the middle of the 11th century BCE, the Zhou began a swift campaign of colonization during which members of the royal family were sent to defend and expand strategic zones around the new realm. The traditional narrative – one that focuses on the formation of the later unified Chinese Empire and civilization – sees the Zhou as those who, through military expansion and conquest, successfully Sinicized and acculturated the peoples that would make up the Chinese world. In fact the Qin state would draw heavily on this notion of a unified Zhou culture to unite all under heaven and create the first Chinese empire in 221 BCE. Yet this narrative, the product of later political discourse, overemphasizes the homogeneity of Zhou identity and fails to account for the multifaceted nature of Chinese culture and origins.

These interpretations have relied heavily on later historical texts and information gleaned from inscriptions of bronze ritual vessels, themselves biased towards the Zhou elite world view, while archaeology has mainly played a second fiddle to historical reconstructions. My dissertation compared separate regions of the Zhou expansion: Gansu in the west, Shandong peninsula in the East and the Shanxi plains to the north of the Central Plains, which each represent different types of interactions between the local populations and the Zhou newcomers. Cemeteries are examined to investigate the mortuary customs of local people and ceramic vessels to study culinary traditions, in an effort to show how everyday practices and ritual culture were influenced by the Zhou. Culinary research involved the detailed study and usewear analysis of freshly excavated ceramic assemblages to understand community specific cooking and serving practices. Ceramic assemblages from four pre-Zhou and Zhou sites in Shandong province were compared to sites in the core zone of the Zhou polity to assess the impact of the Zhou arrival. My analysis shows that each of the four sites observed its own community specific culinary traditions: An increase in cooking vessel size at some ‒ indicating a shift to larger eating parties ‒ while others the way food was cooked: from a mix of roasting and braising cooking modes to a focus on boiling and stewing. In Gansu the Zhou had little impact on the multitude of existing community-specific mortuary practices and remained separate from the local population, while in the Beijing area the Zhou invaders played down their military identity and allowed local groups to participate in their mortuary practices.
Consequently my study finds that the Zhou expansion did not result in the homogenization of the ancient cultural landscape, but instead that the Zhou influence had unequal results: from acceptance to rejection and mostly to its reorganization to suit local needs and agendas. In effect these interactions created various new forms of localized social identities across North China that differ profoundly from the homogeneous Zhou elite culture depicted in the canonical histories, which have traditionally been used to understand the period. The Zhou influence was regional in scope but local in outcome. Social identities were constantly in flux, and intensified interaction created new forms of localized social identities.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies