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Eastern Zhou-Spring and Autumn period

Updated on January 17, 2015

Spring and Autumn Period

The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period:Duke Huan of Qi (齐桓公),Duke Wen of Jin (晋文公),King Zhuang of Chu (楚莊王),Duke Mu of Qin (秦穆公),Duke Xiang of Song (宋襄公)
The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period:Duke Huan of Qi (齐桓公),Duke Wen of Jin (晋文公),King Zhuang of Chu (楚莊王),Duke Mu of Qin (秦穆公),Duke Xiang of Song (宋襄公)
Late Spring and Autumn Period
Late Spring and Autumn Period

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 BCE)

The Zhou kings never recovered from the loss of their capital city.For nearly five and half centuries,the descendants of King Wen reigned in the Eastern Zhou capital of Luoyang,fading into weakness and irrelevance.As the wealth and power of the kings ebbed away,the feudal lords,aristocrats,statesmen,philosophers,and strategists of the Eastern Zhou held center stage.The result was an untidy multistate system.The Eastern Zhou (770-221 BCE) is conventionally divided into two sub-periods:

  • The Springs and Autumns Annals: a record of major events in the state of Lu from 722 to 481 BCE
  • The Warring States period begins in 476 and ends when the state of Qin unifies the Chinese world in 221 BCE


Political pluralism and warfare proved an ideal environment for development of many contending schools of philosophy,strategy,and government:what the Chinese referred to as "a hundred flowers blooming,a hundred schools of thought contending".Schools of philosophy such as Confucianism and Daoism,the strategic thought of Sunzi,the arts of government as thought by the Legalist thinkers,and the many philosophical,historical,and literary texts ascribed to the Eastern Zhou period:collectivelly these came to play a key role in the formation of a Chinese cultural identity.

"A hundred Schools of Tought"

A Hundred Schools of Tought

Not surprisingly,the very complexity,variety,and wealth of the many texts describing the world and thought of the Eastern Zhou also inspired Chinese over the millennia to take different positions about issues of philosophy,culture,government,and life.Ironically,while Chinese thought flourished in the context of a warlike multistate system,the educated men of the time generally regarded the political fragmentation of the Eastern Zhou as an unhappy aberration.Thus,much of their thinking was directed toward solving the problem,or at least surviving in troubled times.

Confucianism is often characterized as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism built on an ancient religious foundation to establish the social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional Chinese society.

The Chinese word dao means a way or a path. Confucians used the term dao to speak of the way human beings ought to behave in society. In other words, dao, for them, was an ethical or moral way. From the point of view of Daoism, however, the Confucian concept of dao was too limited. Daoists preferred to understand the dao as the Way of Nature as a whole. They believed that Confucians, by insisting on a purely human Way, exaggerated the importance of man and failed to pay attention to the lessons which Nature has to offer about time and change, gain and loss, the useful and the useless.

Sunzi, a military strategist and general who served the state of Wu near the end of the Springand Autumn Period (770–476 bc), is traditionally considered the author of The Art of War, but the work is more likely to have been written early in the Warring States period (475–221 bc), at a time when China was divided into six or seven states that often resorted to war with each other in their struggles for supremacy.

In contrast to Taoism’s intuitive anarchy, and Confucianism’s benevolence, Legalism is a Classical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes the need for order above all other human concerns. The political doctrine developed during the brutal years of the Fourth Century BCE . The Legalists believed that government could only become a science if rulers were not deceived by pious, impossible ideals such as “tradition” and “humanity.” In the view of the Legalists, attempts to improve the human situation by noble example, education, and ethical precepts were useless. Instead, the people needed a strong government and a carefully devised code of law, along with a policing force that would stringently and impartially enforce these rules and punish harshly even the most minor infractions. The Ch’in founder based his rule on these totalitarian principles, and had strong hopes that his government would endure forever.

Disciples of Confucius
Disciples of Confucius
Laozi,Founder of Daoism
Laozi,Founder of Daoism
The former residence of Sunzi used to be the Sun Wu Ancestral Temple built in the first year of Chongning Emperor's reign in the Yuan Dynasty.
The former residence of Sunzi used to be the Sun Wu Ancestral Temple built in the first year of Chongning Emperor's reign in the Yuan Dynasty.
Li Kui , Founder of Legalism during Warring States
Li Kui , Founder of Legalism during Warring States

The Eastern Zhou Multistate System

At the beginning of the Springs and Autumns period there were over 120 feudal states in the Eastern Zhou kingdom.Some had territories the size of modern France or Britain,others were little more than walled towns and the immediately surrouding fields and villages.Boundaries were not clearly delined or firmly fixed.

It was impossible for the Zhou kings to maintain the peace among the many feudal states.The kings themselves had only a small feudal territory with few resources.The larger states were free to prey upon the smaller ones and to fight among themselves.The smaller states sought to survive by making strategic alliances with their neighbors and/or the enemies of their neighbors.

Eastern Zhou Dynasty Artifacts

Eastern Zhou Dynasty Bronze Bells
Eastern Zhou Dynasty Bronze Bells

The patterns of such alliances shifted constantly.In the early Springs and Autumn period,most of the states of the Central Plains agreed that the major threat to their existence was Chu,the powerful Yangzi Valley state whose "arrogant" ruler already called himself "king",a clear insult to the Zhou ruling house.In 671 BC the Zhou king tried to preserve peace and order in the world by appointing the powerful Duke Huan of the state of Qi as hegemon to coordinate and lead defensive actions against Chu and other aggressors.Duke Huan acted as hegemon for twenty-four years,fending of Chu expansionism,defending northern states against non-Chinese enemies,and intervening in succession struggles in the Zhou ruling family and in some of the other feudal states.Later,the post of hegemon was passed to the Dukes of Jin,Wu,and finally,in 475 BC,to the Duke of Yue,who immediately attacked and thoroughly defeated his neihbor,the previous hegemon,Wu.No longer was any one state willing or able to even make a pretense of preserving peace,maintaining a balance of power,and acting as the agent and defender of the Zhou ruling house.All that was left was the powerless Zhou royal house and seven major states competing ruthlessly with each other.This Warring States period continued until the state of Qin conquered all the other states of the Central Plains in 221 BC.

The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period

The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period
The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period

Dramatic power struggles and wars of consolidation were two aspects of the Springs and Autumns and the Warring States periods.Another side of the story was social and political change within the states.Each state had:

  • its hereditary ruling family,its hereditary aristocracy,a hereditary elite warrior class (the shi)
  • commoners:artisans,merchants,farmers,slaves
  • the social structure was patriarchal,but elite women could play powerful roles as advisors to sons and husbands on matter of state and could ,like men,be granted huge tracts of land to provide them with an income
  • merchants (though low in social status) played the leading role in the strong growth of private trade-increases in production,regular markets,the introduction of money in the form of bronze,copper,gold,silver,coins issued by the various states

The last Zhou king is traditionally taken to be Nan, who was killed when Qin captured the capital Chengzhou in 256 BC. A "King Hui" was declared, but his splinter state was fully removed by 249 BC. Qin's unification of China concluded in 221 BC with Qin Shihuang's annexation of Qi.

Eastern Zhou Map

he Art of War is one of the most powerful strategy texts ever written. Its principles are universal and timeless. Understanding the 2500 year old poetry can be very difficult. We have done the hard work of interpreting it for you. This video breaks down the key points from chapter one of the Art of War. For the rest of the chapters; go to www.learntheartofwar.com Enjoy

The Life of Confucius Animation

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