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The Emergence of Kingship in China: With a Discussion of the Relationship between Kingship and Composite State Structure in the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties

Social Sciences in China, 2018

Vol. 39, No. 2, 2018

 

The Emergence of Kingship in China: With a Discussion of the Relationship between Kingship and Composite State Structure in the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties

(Abstract)

 

Wang Zhenzhong

 

In ancient China, true kingship was supreme rule over all under Heaven by the royal houses of the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (the Three Dynasties). It was associated with the Three Dynasties’ plural but unified composite state structure, and its birth was signaled by the emergence of the Xia dynasty. At the time, kingship was related to the appellation “king” (wang), but was not absolutely equated to it. On the one hand, whenever oracle bone and bronze inscriptions and textual records refer directly to “king(s),” the word refers to the Shang and Zhou kings; but on the other, some bronze inscriptions preserve the use of “king” to refer to the chieftains of smaller tribal states in remote areas. When a supreme dynastic ruler bore the appellation “king,” this indicated the kingly power of the royal house; but when the ruler of a small remote state called himself “king,” the word expressed rule over his state. The appellation “king” was used for these two different levels because the Chinese character “” and the corresponding royal title originated in the shape of the battle axe that symbolized command of armies. The Xia dynasty was not China’s first state, for in the age of Yao, Shun and Yu numerous local states had organized themselves into tribal federations. Xia dynasty kingship, where the king was “common ruler of all under Heaven” (天下共主tianxia gongzhu) developed out of the power wielded by the hegemonic chieftains in the age of very large tribal states.

 

Keywords: kingship, dynastic state, composite state structure, huaxia system of rites