The mythical ancestor of the house of Zhou was Hou Ji 后稷, the "Lord of Millet", who was later deified as a patron of harvest. His personal name was Qi 弃 and he lived in the plain of Zhouyuan 周原, a place that gave the dynasty its name. The mother of Qi came from the family Tai 邰 (or You Tai 有邰, also written 斄) and was called Jiang Yuan 姜原. She was the main consort of Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳, yet the father of Qi (Hou Ji) is unknown because his mother was impregnated when the stepped on the footprints of a giant (which might symbolize a kind of totem, like a bear; Chen 1995). As the fruit of inauspicious origin the baby was "discarded" (qi 弃, i.e. 棄), but it survived miraculously and was thereupon accepted and raised by his mother.
As a child Qi loved to do the work of the peasant population and later became a patron of agriculture. Emperor Yao 堯 made him his Minister of Agriculture (nongshi 農師), invested him as ruler over the territory of Tai and entrusted to him the task of supervising the cultivation of millet (Hou Ji, usually translated as "Lord of Millet", means "supervisor of millet [cultivation]"). He was also granted the family name Ji 姬. His descendants continued the work of Hou Ji and cultivated the western region.
His descendant Qing Jie 慶節 lived in the small country of Bin 豳 (also written 邠). One of Qing Jie's descendants was Gu Gong Dan Fu 古公亶父 "Father Dan, Duke of Gu", who revived the remembrance of Hou Ji and his efforts in promoting agriculture. Under his reign the western nomad tribes of the Rong 戎 and Di 狄 continuously attacked the territory of Bin. Dan Fu was of the opinion that it was better to move the whole people than to send the male population into the war, risking their death, and therefore migrated from Bin across the Rivers Qi 漆 and Ju 沮 and the Liangshan Range 梁山 to Qixia 岐下 (or Qishan 岐山), where he and his people settled down.
In the new living place he had first constructed a fortified town to shelter the people in case of war. He also created a government with five ministers, namely that of education (situ 司徒), war (sima 司馬), works (sikong 司空), personnel (sishi 司士) and justice (sikou 司寇). Dan Fu is posthumously also called Zhou Taiwang 周太王 "Great Ancestral King of Zhou".
King Taiwang had several sons, namely Tai Bo 太伯, the "Great Earl", Yu Zhong 虞仲 (or Zhong Yong 仲雍) and Ji Li 季歷. When Ji Li's wife Tai Ren 太任 gave birth to Chang 昌, there were auspicious omina, so that King Tai decided to make Ji Li his heir apparent, in the hope that his grandson Chang would become the ruler of Zhou. His older brothers Tai Bo and Yu Zhong were kind enough to accept their father's decision and went into exile among the southern barbarians. Tai Bo's descendants became kings of the state of Wu 吳.
Ji Li was a benevolent and kindhearted ruler, reigning in the "way" (dao 道) of his fathers, venerating the old and supporting the young. He was therefore not only respected by his own people, but also by the other regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯), vassals of the reigning Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE).
Myths of the transfer of the capital from Bin to Qishan and then on to Hao 鎬 are proved archaeologically. Around 1150 BCE, the Zhou moved from the Fen River 汾水 valley in modern Shanxi to the Wei River 渭水 valley in Shaanxi where they settled among the Rong and Di 狄 "barbarians". Although the Zhou people had to carry out permanent fights with their western neighbours, their power gradually grew and finally endangered the existence of the old royal line of the Shang dynasty at Yin 殷 (modern Anyang 安陽, Henan).
Ji Chang 姬昌 inherited the governing style of his father. He attracted numerous followers like Bo Yi 伯夷, Shu Qi 叔齊, Tai Dian 太顛, Hong Yao 閎夭, Sanyi Sheng 散宜生, Master Yu 鬻子 or Xin Jia 辛甲 who came from far away and served Ji Chang as his ministers. Ji Chang is known as the Earl of the West (Xibo 西伯) or as King Wen 周文王 "the Cultivated", the actual founder of the Zhou dynasty.
The ruler of the Shang dynasty, King Zhou 紂, suspected the Earl of the West of rebellion and had him incarcerated at Youli 羑里. Hong Yao thereupon presented the king of Shang beautiful women, excellent horses and precious jewels to have his master released. Zhou-period historiography praises the Earl of the West for his kindhearted style of rule, which made all allies of the Shang believe that the Zhou would be the future dynasty that was given the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命).
After he was set free, Ji Chang began waging war against the nomad tribes of the Rong and also conquered several smaller vassal states of the Shang in his neighbourhood, like Mixu 密須, Qi 耆, Yu 邘 or Chong 崇. He adopted the title of king (wang 王) and founded a new capital seat, Fengyi 豐邑.
Ji Chang was succeeded by his son Ji Fa 姬發, who is known as King Wu 周武王 "the Martial". During his imprisonment in Youli, King Wen had created a method of divination by the sixty-four hexagrams (gua 卦), which is the base of the oracle book Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes".
Shang period oracle bones and a careful examination of the historical texts show that the conquest of the Shang area was mere a result of the general eastern expansion of the Zhou people towards the east and not a the result of a campaign of a "virtuous ruler" against an "evil tyrant".
Before the Zhou took over the empire of the Shang around 1050 BCE, they lived in the Wei River valley in southern Shaanxi, far away from the centres of Shang culture. This region was later called Guanzhong 關中 "Within the Pass" because it was protected from the east by the xxx Pass. The Qin and Han dynasties used this region too because of its strategic advantage.
Excavations in the Guanzhong region brought to light a few traces of Shang settlements from the Erligang phase until the Anyang phase. Other cultures found in southern Shaanxi are called like the most important sites: Zhengjiapo 鄭家坡, Doujitai 鬬雞臺, Liujia 劉家, Heidouzui 黑豆嘴, Longkou 龍口.
The remains of Shang culture, seen in the shapes and decorations of pottery, and bronze vessel, or in burial practice, are nearly identical to that of Erligang or Anyang, and definitely influenced the culture of the Zhou people. Nonetheless, the Zhou culture was not just an imitation of the Shang, as can be seen in the different composition of burial goods. The Shang only penetrated into the lower reaches of the Wei River, and not farther westwards to Baoji 寶鷄, the centre of predynastic Zhou culture (Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2004: 24-25). The pottery culture of the Zhou, as seen in the shape of li 鬲-type tripods, was at least in some aspects, a heir of the Doujitai Culture.
There are three theories about the origin of the Zhou culture. Hu Qianying 胡謙盈 identifies it as a mixture of the Siwa Culture 寺洼文化 and the Xindian Culture 辛店文化. Zou Heng 鄒衡 interpreted the Zhou culture as a mixture of Shang, Siwa, and the Guangshe Culture 光社文化, and Xu Xitai 徐錫臺 sees the Zhou as one stage of the Kexingzhuang Culture 客省莊(Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2004: 26).
Modern archaeologists divide the predynastic area of the Zhou into five eras. The first phase left traces in the site of Zhumazui 朱馬嘴 near Liquan 禮泉 (corresponding to upper Erligang), the second one in Zhumazui, Yijiabao 壹家堡 near Fufeng 扶風, and in Andi 岸底 near Wugong 武功 (corresponding to Anyang I). The third phase corresponded to Anyang II and is attested in Zhumazui, Yijiabao, Andi, Zhengjiapo (Wugong) and Hejia 賀家 near Qishan 岐山. Remains of the fourth phase came to light in Doujitai (Baoji), Yijiabao, Hejia, Andi, Zhengjiapo, Nianzipo 碾子坡 (Changwu 長武), Xicun 西村 (Fengxiang 鳳翔), and Duanjing 斷涇 (Binxian 彬縣). In addition to these sites, Fengxi 灃西 (Chang’an 長安) and Nanzhihui-Xicun 南指揮西村 (Fengxiang) brought to light pottery objects attributed to a fifth period with a lower, wider style (Anyang IV).
The site of Nianyipo included the foundations of 21 buildings, with three different types of construction, from subterranean (yaodongshi 窯洞式) to semi-subterranean (bandixueshi 半地穴式) and surfacial (dimianshi 地面式). The largest building has a dimension of 11×7m (Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2004: 34). The same place revealed the remains of no less than 177 ash-pits (huikeng 灰坑) and furnaces for the production of pottery (taoyao 陶窯), yet some of the pits might have been dwellings, graves, or granaries. Furnaces were also found in Zhengjiapo and Andi. The largest cemeteries were found in Nianzipo and Nanzhihui-Xicun, with an area of 120×96m and 127×129m, respectively. The use of human sacrifice in small dimensions was known.
The separation of dwellings and tombs was similar to Shang sites. The settlements were small, houses narrow, and tomb furnishings scarce, with pottery far surpassing the number of bronze tools. The archaeological sites brought to light a number of agricultural tools like spades, hows, sickles, or axes. The number of bone or bronze arrowheads found in the ruins was considerable, showing that hunting was quite widespread. The practice of divination was widespread. Pits in nearly all sites contained oracle bones (no tortoise shells, and not inscribed).
Remains of the Shang culture become scarce in the late Anyang phase.
It can be concluded that the prehistory of the Zhou remains obscure. Finds in their homeland did not reveal that they were a politically powerful people mastering the politically important skill to cast precious bronze vessels. Bronze vessels were simple, and many pottery seemed to have been imported from elsewhere. Most finds can be interpreted as the belongings of Shang administrators, for instance, in Laoniupo 老牛坡, village of Liaoyuancun 燎原村 close to Xi'an 西安. All other sites present the complex picture of many cultural groups with great varieties. Chinese archaeologists tried, with various arguments, to identify the Zhou by the use of a particular type of li tripod with joined lobes (liandang li 聯襠鬲) in contrast with a type with separated lobes (fengdang li 分襠鬲) (Rawson 1999: 379-380). Some tombs in the area did not use the shaft-and-ramps pattern of the Shang, but a shaft with a cave or niche at the side (bikanmu 壁龕墓) (Rawson 1999: 381).
The people which overthrew the Shang did not represent a powerful state that developed parallel to the Shang state, but that the Zhou rather unified with a variety of groups to attack the Shang in the east. It might even be that the people representing the Shang state or culture in Shaanxi joined the Zhou campaign (Rawson 1999: 382). Transmitted sources speak indeed of a series of tribes who joined the Zhou in their war against the Shang.