states in eastern China in the 8th century BC

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The dominating role of Jin through the greater part of the sixth century was not uniform and required frequent maintenance. Chu, in particular, was periodically able to challenge the hegemonic position of the Jin dukes. In 597 B.C. Qi crippled the forces of Jin in one of the greatest battles of the Spring and Autumn period, and for several years thereafter, the king of Chu was acknowledged as hegemon. However, Jin revived, and by 589 B.C. its duke once again occupied pride of place among the assembly of patrician lords. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 584 B.C., a patrician refugee from Chu named Qu Wuchen, who had become a court advisor in Jin, suggested a bold plan to the duke of Jin. Over the preceding century, a new political force had gradually become significant in the area surrounding the delta of the Yangzi River in the southeast. This state was known as Wu. The rulers of Wu traced their lineage to the pre-dynastic clan of the Zhou. They considered themselves the descendants of Taibo, the eldest son of the Old Duke, ruler of the Zhou tribe. Taibo, the legend went, had abdicated in order to ensure that the Zhou throne would pass to his nephew, the future King Wen, and by this act he ensured the greatness of the Zhou and the conquest of the Shang. The rulers of Wu, who by virtue of this claim of descent shared with the state of Jin the surname of Ji, thus pictured themselves as a distant colony of the Zhou people who had been engaged for centuries in civilizing the wild coastal regions of the southeast. /+/

“The people of these regions were, indeed, very different from those of the central plains of China. They were closely related to a group of advanced hunter-gatherers known as the “Yi” tribes, which occupied large regions of the Huai River valley and coastal plains. Their culture was sharply distinct from others in China. Unlike Chinese men, who wore long hair elaborately dressed, the people of Wu cut their hair short. They also tattooed their bodies, a custom unknown to the Chinese. /+/

“Whether Wu was in fact a Chinese state ruling over a non-Chinese population, or instead a non-Chinese people which had laid claim to Chinese descent in order to gain political respect, Wu had become a significant player in the multi-state structure of China during the late seventh century by launching raids on the eastern lands of its neighbor, the state of Chu. Chu itself was considered a newcomer to the Chinese cultural sphere, and it is likely that its military might was more sharply feared and resented by the Central States than was that of Jin, simply because its armies appeared as forces of cultural as well as military invasion. In any event, the actions of Wu were not unwelcome to the states of central China. /+/

“In 584 B.C., Qu Wuchen proposed to the duke of Jin that his state extend the offer of an alliance to Wu and coordinate further efforts to harry Chu and keep it from focusing its strength upon the Central states. The duke adopted the plan and sent Qu himself as emissary to the ruler of Wu. Qu’s mission was successful, and later that same year, Jin and Wu both sent troops against Chu. Chu was now facing a war on two fronts. Battlefields on these fronts were up to four or five hundred miles distant and the forces of Wu turned out to be far better at warfare than might have been expected.Wu did not employ the chariot warfare which still dominated the North China Plain. Chariots were useless in the hilly lands of the southeast, divided by innumerable waterways and wetlands. Instead, Wu combined infantry troops with skilled naval forces, which could move rapidly on the rivers of south China. /+/

“The alliance of Jin and Wu was a great success. After two years, Chu sued for peace, and even agreed to a formal alliance with Jin and Wu. Wu’s territorial domains had now expanded, reaching northward all the way to the lower coast of Shandong, and Qi, seeing that it, like Chu, could be subjected to a war on two fronts, prudently requested to join the alliance. Jin was now clearly supreme once again. In 578 B.C., it defeated armies from Qin, and three years later inflicted a decisive defeat on Chu when the latter disturbed the tranquility of the alliance. The hegemony of Jin appeared stable for generations to come. /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; 5) Ancient China Life ; 6) Ancient China for School Kids ; 7) Oriental Style ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records (Bloomington), v. 1. The best concise narrative history of the Western Zhou is Edward Shaughnessy’s chapter, “Western Zhou History,” in Michael Loewe & Edward Shaughnessy, ed., The Cambridge History of Ancient China (Cambridge: 1999), 292-351.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Decline of the Ducal House in Jin

Dr. Eno wrote: “Paradoxically, however, this rise in the power of the dukes of Jin in interstate relations was paralleled by a decline in their domestic standing. The system of marshaling the centrifugal warlord clans that had been devised by Duke Wen required a skilled man on the throne. The Jin ducal house was itself weak, and the duke needed to co-opt the interests of his hereditary generals and play them off against one another. In 573 B.C., the ruling duke was unable to display the ruthlessness required to be successful in such a delicate game. He spared the lives of the leaders of certain rebellious clans, who predictably responded by assassinating him and seizing effective power. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Over the next century, although the dukes continued to represent Jin effectively at the assemblies of patrician lords, the actual power in the state rested with shifting coalitions of warlord clans, each dominating certain local territories and a portion of the state army of Jin. Within a few years of the warlord insurgency in Jin, the battles among the military clans reached the high pitch of a civil war. It became obvious to all who knew of these events that the hegemony of Jin was likely to deteriorate, which would surely lead to the renewed threat of Chu upon its neighbor to the north. /+/

“(As a courtesy to all the traditional narratives of ancient Chinese history, this account must note here, in its proper sequence, that in 551 B.C., Confucius was born in the state of Lu. Although in terms of ultimate influence on Chinese society, it may be that no event of the Spring and Autumn period was of more importance, in his own day Confucius was known to few outside the northeastern quadrant of the Zhou cultural sphere and was generally perceived as a frustrated political failure.)

Peace of Xiang Xu

Dr. Eno wrote: “In order to forestall an outbreak of renewed fighting between Jin and Chu, which was sure to engulf all the central states in another prolonged war, a minister of the state of Song by the name of Xiang Xu developed a plan. He proposed that an assembly of the patrician lords be called with the goal of arranging a shared hegemony between Jin and Chu. The agreement that Xiang proposed was designed to bind all the states to oaths forswearing offensive warfare in general, and was by far the most idealistic political initiative of the entire Classical period. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The states of Qin and Qi declined to participate in this assembly. But the rulers of Jin and Chu did attend, along with the most powerful lords of the Central States. Wu was not yet eligible to participate in assemblies of the patrician rulers, as it was still considered more barbarian than Chinese. However, by virtue of its alliance with Jin it was effectively represented. /+/

“As it turned out, the peace proposed by Xiang Xu fit the practical plans of both Jin, which was in a weak position, and Chu, which was not yet prepared to undertake a major initiative. As a result, in 546 B.C. Xiang Xu’s plan was adopted, and for the next several years, the usual rhythm of incessant squabbling and border fighting among the states does indeed subside from the record of the historical chronicles. But by 538 B.C., Chu had endured peace long enough. Under a vigorous new king, the armies of Chu prepared to establish a new power balance.” /+/

King Ling of Chu

Zhou-era antlered crane

Dr. Eno wrote: “The disruption of the Peace of Xiang Xu was principally the work of one man, the ambitious King Ling of Chu. His story was generally taken as one of the great cautionary tales of Spring and Autumn history. It revealed for its ancient audience the precariousness of political success dependent upon the character of a ruler without virtue. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The principal wife of King Ling’s father had borne the former king no sons, although he had fathered many sons by various favored concubines. Unable to decide which of these to designate as heir, the king determined to leave the choice to the deities who attended to the fate of the state of Chu. He held lavish ceremonies at the major rivers and mountains of his domain, and to the spirits of these places he mounted great sacrifices, displaying in the course of the rituals a disk of jade. He asked the spirits to ensure that when next he commanded his sons to bow before him, the son whom they wished to see installed as the ruler of Chu would fall upon the disk in making his prostrations. /+/

“Returning to his capital, the king then buried the disk in the throne room and summoned his sons. As they bowed, the eldest straddled the disk, the second son – Prince Yuan, the future King Ling – passed his elbow over it, and all the others performed their bows at other spots. Only the youngest, too little to walk before the throne unaided, pressed his hands directly over the spot where the disk was buried. The troubled king sighed that difficult times lay ahead. The spirits had clearly chosen the son least likely to be accepted by the state and by his jealous brothers, and he dared not abide by their decision. /+/

“Upon the death of the old king, his eldest son was enthroned as the new king. Prince Yuan was distressed that he had been passed over for the throne and he divined by means of turtle shell as to whether the state would come into his hands. When the divination was negative, he exploded in anger, shouting, “If Heaven will not give me this piddling realm, I will take it for myself!” Prince Yuan’s brother ruled for fifteen years, and upon his death his son was installed as his successor. The young new king was in need of senior advisors, and he naively chose his uncle, Prince Yuan, to be his chief minister. The prince quickly established a reputation for brutality which made him much feared throughout the state. /+/

“In the young king’s fourth year, Prince Yuan was en route as an emissary to Zheng when a messenger rode up reporting that the king had fallen ill. The worried prince immediately rushed back to the palace to attend to his royal nephew. He found the king in bed and strangled him to death, in this way terminating his illness, and then ensured that the king’s two little sons would not grieve overmuch by having them murdered. By this subtle stratagem the prince fulfilled his vow and in 640 B.C. was installed as King Ling of Chu. /+/

“King Ling’s ambitious temperament was not changed by has accession to the throne. He determined to gain sole control over the double hegemony established by the Peace of Xiang Xu. King Ling recognized that Jin was in decline, and that for the states of central and eastern China the state of Wu represented the greatest threat. He determined to cast himself as the protector of the east and attract the allegiance of the Chinese states by guaranteeing protection against Wu, a role which Jin, as Wu’s ally, could not offer. /+/

“In 538 B.C., King Ling notified the duke of Jin that he intended to call an assembly of the patrician lords, thereby using a courteous diplomatic form to convey the message that he now intended to act as sole hegemon. Jin did not at that time have the resources to undertake action against Chu, and in the end, Chu managed to persuade or coerce all the states of eastern China into alliance with it. The histories recount various conversations that King Ling is said to have had with his ministers. These share the quality of illustrating the grandeur of the king’s ambitions, which seem to have outstripped those of any other ruler of this period. King Ling appears to have imagined himself as the successor to the throne of the Zhou kings, and according to the tales he was assured by his sycophant ministers that once his campaigns against Wu were complete, no ruler would dare to refuse his wishes.” /+/

King Ling’s Demise

Dr. Eno wrote: “In 529 B.C., the king launched his long-prepared campaign against Wu. He conceived it on a scale matching his ambitions, and expended so much manpower on constructing encampments and military works as he slowly proceeded that the people of Chu grew restless under the enormous strain he was placing upon them. When the king personally went to join his armies in a distant camp near Wu, senior members of the king’s clan – including his youngest brother, who had once knelt on the old king’s jade disk – executed a coup d’état. They seized the capital and put to death King Ling’s son and heir. Then they prepared to resist the return of the king’s massive army. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“But the king’s response to the coup was as weak as his previous conduct had been vicious.When news was brought to him of the insurgency and the death of his son, he began to wail without restraint. “He threw himself upon the ground and shrieked to his attendants, “Could other men love their sons they way I loved mine?”“Why, they love them the more,” his aides replied. “The poor man knows that when he dies his corpse will be tossed in a ditch unless he has a son to bury him and sacrifice to him.”“I have killed the sons of many men,” said the king. “After all, how could I fail to come to this?”When his advisors urged him to lead his troops back towards the capital and see how things stood, the king was unwilling. “The wrath of the people cannot be opposed. All the cities will be against me now.” /+/

“As they watched the king’s majesty dissolve, his followers slipped away one by one and his great mass of troops dispersed. The king’s response to the crisis made no sense to them. At this very time the capital was in turmoil, so accustomed to living in terror of King Ling that a mere rumor of his return had already panicked the people and led the princeling who had been installed as King Ling’s successor to commit suicide. /+/

“But in the meantime, King Ling found himself utterly alone. He wandered aimlessly among remote hills; none of the people who happened upon him dared to take him in. Finally, the king encountered a former attendant. “Find some food for me!” he pleaded. “I haven’t eaten in three days.”“The new king has issued an ordinance,” replied the man. “Anyone who dares to feed or to accompany your majesty will be punished by the extermination of his entire clan. Besides, I wouldn’t know where to get any food for you.” Night having fallen, the king had no alternative. He lay down with his head pillowed on the knee of his former servant. But once he had fallen asleep, the man slipped a clod of dirt under the king’s head and ran off. When the king awoke, he was too weak to climb to his feet, and lay waiting for death. /+/

“In the meantime, the son of a former officer of Chu was searching for the king. Years before, his father had twice violated of the laws of Chu, but being a loyal subject who was acting in good faith, the king had pardoned him. “To pardon twice a man who had broached the king’s own laws, there could be no kindness greater than this!” With these thoughts, the son had entered the hills where the king was said to be wandering, determined to rescue him. /+/

“He found the king on the point of death, and carried him back to his own home. There, the king finally committed suicide. The loyal son buried him, and in order to give the interment the sanctity a king deserved, he killed two of his own daughters and had them buried along with the king, to serve him after death. In the meantime, the youngest brother of King Ling had ascended the throne of Chu, thus fulfilling the wishes that the spirits of the state had expressed so many years before.” /+/


Pair of dragons

Dr. Eno wrote: “After the death of King Ling of Chu, the Jin-Wu alliance was in full control of the balance of power and the dukes of Jin returned to the role of hegemon which they had played so regularly for a century. However, the state of Jin remained internally unstable, and the fact that the dukes were hegemons did not enhance their power. Rather, the duke served as a figurehead for the warlords of Jin, whose combined might exceeded any other state, but whose domestic squabbles brought into question how that military power could be applied in a sustained campaign, if one were called for. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Consequently, Jin’s hegemony, which in appearance lasted from 520-482 B.C., was a weak form of leadership, and the rhythm of scattered warfare gradually regained the steady beat that had prevailed prior to the Peace of Xiang Xu. During the first decade of this period, the state of Chu seemed to be recovering from the disruptions of King Ling’s reign. Its armies grew along the middle reaches of the Yangzi River in the vicinity of Ying, the capital city of Chu. The Jin hegemons were not strong enough to form stable alliances to counter the growing threat of Chu, and under the leadership of its new ruler, King Ping, it appeared that Chu would soon be able to resume its campaign to destroy Jin’s ally in the Yangzi delta, the state of Wu. /+/

“The rise and fall of the state of Wu is one of the most dramatic tales in the Spring and Autumn histories. Its central characters include successive rulers of Wu, who called themselves kings, in the style of the Chu lords. But the most poignant player in this story was a refugee from Chu, named Wu Zixu, who served both kings. (It is an accident of transcription that Wu Zixu’s surname appears in English as identical to the name of the state of Wu. The Chinese characters are different, and Wu Zixu’s ancestors were all from Chu. To avoid confusion, he is generally referred to here as Zixu, rather than by his surname.)” /+/

Wu Zixu and the Rise and Fall of Wu

Dr. Eno wrote: “The story of Wu Zixu begins in Chu, his family homeland, where his father was appointed tutor to the crown prince by King Ping. The young prince received an estate from the king, and when he went to live there, his tutor accompanied him along with his two sons, Zixu and his elder brother. In 527 B.C., King Ping sent his prime minister to the state of Qin to procure from that ducal house a wife for the prince. However, when the prime minister saw the woman whom the Qin were to promise in marriage, he galloped back to Chu. “This woman of Qin,” he told his king, “is the most beautiful in the world. Marry her yourself! You can get another woman for the prince.” King Ping, being a man of the world, saw no purpose in wasting such a woman on his son. He followed his minister’s advice and, finding his new bride as stunning as he had been told, he took his minister even closer into his counsels, which had, of course, been the minister’s goal from the start. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“What the prince thought of all this we do not know, but thereafter the prime minister became watchful of the prince, anticipating that ultimately he would seek revenge against the man who had denied him so beautiful a wife. He came to view the day that King Ping died and the prince succeeded to the throne as his own doom, and began to plant in the king’s mind suspicions about his son, hoping that the king would designate a different successor. “It’s all because of that woman of Qin,” he told the king. “He hates you for it. Your majesty had best defend yourself! The prince is raising troops in his estate and contacting lords outside of Chu. He means to stage a coup d’état.” In time, the king became convinced by these slanders and he summoned to his court the prince’s tutor, Zixu’s father. Zixu’s father maintained the innocence of the prince, which enraged the king. He threw Zixu’s father in prison. When courtiers loyal to the prince rushed to the prince’s estates to warn him what had transpired at court, the prince recognized the hopelessness of his case and fled to the state of Song. /+/

“The prime minister was upset that the prince had escaped, but he was even more concerned that men of ability would follow the prince into exile and plot a future insurgency. He was above all fearful of the two sons of the prince’s tutor. “His sons are both clever men,” he told the king. “If we do not have them executed, it will spell anxious days for us in the future. Hold the father as hostage and summon the sons to come here.”Accordingly, the king sent a messenger to the prison to speak to Zixu’s father. “If you can bring your two sons here the king will let you live; otherwise, you shall die.” “My older boy is obedient,” said the tutor. “If I call him he will come. But Zixu is tough and obstinate. He’s capable of great things. He’ll see that to come is to be captured, and knowing the way things are now he’ll never come.” Nevertheless, the king sent a message to the two sons. “If you come, I will set your father free. Otherwise he will die.”

“The two brothers discussed what to do, and in the end Zixu’s older brother said, “I know that if I go I will not be able to carry on my father’s destiny and extend the family line, nor will I be able to avenge his disgrace. But I cannot bear to ignore his plea to save his life. You escape and carry out vengeance for our father. I will go die for him.”Zixu followed his brother’s wishes, and while his father and brother were being murdered at the capital, Zixu fled to join the prince in Song. When his father learned of the outcome of the king’s manoeuver, he said, “Zixu has escaped. Chu is in peril!”“ /+/

Wu Zixu Arrives in Wu

Dr. Eno wrote: “The prince did not remain long in Song, which was in a state of civil war. He moved on to the state of Zheng, where Zichan was prime minister. In 522 B.C., the prince incautiously let himself become involved in intrigues of state, selling his services to the state of Jin as its agent in a plot to overthrow the government of Zheng.When Zichan learned of the activities of his guest, he executed him, and Zixu decided it would be good to move on. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“He traveled across Chu towards Wu, disguised as a commoner. But he was a wanted man in Chu, and as he neared the Yangzi River crossing to Wu, he was recognized and pursued. Rushing to elude the Chu search party, he came to the river and saw a ferryman waiting by the bank. Although he had no money, he told the ferryman to take him across. The ferryman observed the hurried manner of his passenger and calmly rowed him over to Wu. As he stepped off, Zixu handed his sword to the ferryman. “This sword is worth its weight in gold. It is my payment.” The ferryman replied, “According to the orders of the king of Chu, the man who captures Wu Zixu will receive lands worth 50,000 piculs of grain and a jade insignia of patrician rank. What is your sword compared to that?” And he rowed back without the sword. /+/

“When Zixu finally made his way to the capital of Wu, he sought an audience with the king. At the time, the king’s cousin, Prince Guang, was the general-in-chief of the forces of Wu, and Zixu initially presented himself at the prince’s compound, offering to serve as his retainer and requesting that the prince arrange a royal audience for him. The king received Zixu with honors, and instructed him to remain in the service of Prince Guang.” /+/

Wu Zixu Engineers a Coup in Wu

Dr. Eno wrote: “Some time later, a border dispute arose between Wu and Chu. Zixu again appeared in court. “Chu can be destroyed,” he advised the king. “I request that you appoint Prince Guang to attack.” But Prince Guang spoke in opposition. “This Wu Zixu had both his father and brother murdered by the king of Chu. He only advises attacking Chu in order to achieve his personal vengeance. In fact, it is not yet possible to defeat Chu.” The king followed Prince Guang’s advice. But Zixu had observed Prince Guang closely and now understood that the prince’s real purpose was to seize the throne of Wu for himself. Shortly before, Zixu had encountered a brash and matchless swordsman who was wandering in Wu, picking fights with any man who crossed him. Now, he introduced this man to Prince Guang and recommended that the prince take him into his service. Then Zixu excused himself from the prince’s court and retired to farm in an obscure corner of Wu, awaiting events. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“As Zixu had suspected, it did not take long before the prince made use of his new retainer. In 516 B.C., King Ping of Chu died, and the king of Wu calculated that an attack on Chu while funeral arrangements were proceeding would take the state by surprise. He sent an army under two of his younger brothers to invade Chu, but the attack was unsuccessful. The Chu army flanked the forces from Wu and cut off their route of escape. /+/

“With the king’s two brothers trapped in Wu, Prince Guang saw a chance to realize his secret ambition and seize the throne from his cousin’s branch of the lineage. He called his new retainer to him. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained!” he said. “I am, in fact, the rightful ruler of this state, and I want to take what belongs to me.” “With the king’s brothers stuck in Chu,” replied the swordsman, “there is no one to fear at court. Killing the king would be nothing to a man like me!”

“The two staged an elaborate dinner for the king, and the prince concealed a group of armed men in a chamber near the banquet hall. At the proper moment, the prince limped away from the hall complaining that his foot was sore and needed attention. As he went to the chamber where his troops were hiding, his retainer approached the king’s table carrying the pièce de resistance of the banquet: an enormous steamed fish. As he passed the king’s bodyguard, he pulled a sword from the fish’s mouth and while he was slicing the king into pieces, the prince’s men fell upon the company. Prince Guang was in possession of the state of Wu in time for the dessert course, and took the title of King Helü.” /+/

Invasion of Chu

Dr. Eno wrote: “Having seized the throne, King Helü recalled Zixu to his service and made him his chief advisor. Zixu, along with a second refugee from Chu laid plans with the king for a campaign against Chu. In 506 B.C., the armies of Wu struck. The force of their attack was overwhelming and after overrunning the eastern border regions of Chu, they so routed the Chu forces that the way was clear for them to sweep 250 miles up the Yangzi to the capital city of Ying. The ruler of Chu was King Zhao, the son of King Ping. As the Chu troops approached the capital, he concluded that the only hope for the survival of the state and his clan’s royal office was to abandon the city and flee to another state. Once free of immediate danger to himself, he could go begging for troops from other patrician lords afraid of Wu. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The sack of Ying was the first time during the entire Spring and Autumn period that any great power had seen alien troops in its capital city. Not only did the army of Wu occupy the city and the king set up his personal quarters there, but Wu Zixu finally gained his revenge in the most public way possible. /+/

“The fact that his great enemy, King Ping, had been dead for ten years did not stop him. Zixu ordered the troops of Wu to burst into the burial chambers of the king and drag his coffin into the sun. Then, spilling the king’s embalmed corpse out, he ordered that it be whipped with 300 lashes as payment for the death of Zixu’s father and brother. Only then was his vengeance against Chu complete and his father’s prophecy truly fulfilled.” /+/

Conquest of Yue

jade human figure pendant

Dr. Eno wrote: “With the sack of Ying in 506 B.C., Wu, which only fifty years before had been a half-barbarian minor power, significant only as a regional ally of Jin, now possessed greater power than had any state since the fall of the Western Zhou. King Helü sat in the capital of Chu, luxuriating in the tyrannical powers of a conquering lord over a people not his own, forgetful of his tasks back in Wu. Throughout China, patrician lords were astounded that the ruling house of a major power could be routed from its homeland, that the great state of Chu could, seemingly, have dissolved overnight. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“However, one state saw in this situation only opportunity. The state of Yue on Wu’s southern border took advantage of King Helü’s absence from his state to send a raiding party into Wu. Yue was a coastal state located south of the Yangzi. Its rulers claimed to be the descendants of the legendary Emperor Yu, who was said to have lived well over a thousand years before. In fact, its history prior to this time is virtually unknown. Its people were almost surely ethnically distinct from heartland Chinese, and no Chinese lord had ever acknowledged Yue to be a state in the Chinese sense. /+/

“When King Helü learned of the raiders from Yue, he was not greatly concerned. Unwilling to leave the pleasures of Ying, he sent a detachment of troops back to deal with Yue. The Wu soldiers seem to have had little trouble driving the invaders back south. However, the king’s younger brother, observing that the king did not seem anxious to occupy his throne in Wu, determined to seat himself upon it. He issued orders for the troops under his command to steal away from the areas around Ying and slip back into Wu. Once there, he announced to the people of Wu, who may have been wondering what had become of their absentee king, that he had now been replaced. /+/

“King Helü was aroused at last. He quit Ying and rushed his army back to Wu. His frightened brother fled and order was quickly restored. The exiled king of Chu, seeing that his capital was at last free of Wu troops, marched back in just in time to receive Helü’s brother as a refugee and make him a lord of Chu. But before he could stabilize his restoration, King Helü ordered a new invasion of Chu, this time under the charge of his son Fuchai. Fuchai once again drove the king of Chu from his capital, and confirmed that the entire south of China remained under the suzerainty of Wu. /+/

“For almost ten years, Wu retained its power over the south while its ally, Jin continued to dominate the rest of China and hold the title of hegemon. Then in 496 B.C., King Helü learned that the leader of the Yue people had died, and he decided it would be a good time to repay Yue for its troublesome raid nine years earlier. He and his son Fuchai led an army into the wilds of Yue to teach the barbarians a lesson. /+/

“The new ruler of Yue went by the title King Goujian. He had succeeded peacefully to the chieftainship of his father, and was not yet tested as a general. Nevertheless, he devised a creative tactical approach. When his army had come within range of the forces of Wu, he sent three of his braves off to challenge the enemy. The three men galloped within sight of the assembled troops of Wu, and then began to shout raucously while repeatedly charging the line of troops. Then they grasped their swords and cut their own throats. /+/

“As the soldiers of Wu watched this performance transfixed, Goujian released his main army onto their flank. The Wu forces had no time to redeploy and were routed. In the battle, King Helü was wounded in his hand. Later, infection set in and the king realized that his wound would be mortal. He sent for his son Fuchai. “When you are king,” he said, “will you forget that it was Goujian who killed your father?”“I will never dare forget,” answered his son, and that night the king died. /+/

King Fuchai ignores Zixu’s warning

Dr. Eno wrote: “From the day that he became king, Fuchai began a relentless preparation for war to avenge his father’s death. King Goujian of Yue, hearing of the mobilization in Wu, determined to attack Wu before it was prepared. His minister of war, a master general named Fan Li, warned him to change his plans. “I have heard that weapons are ill-omened devices,” he said. “Strife is the conduct of last resort. He who secretly plots contrary to virtue, delights in the use of ill-omened devices, and tests himself through conduct that should only be used as a last resort will be opposed by the Lord on High. There can be no profit in such conduct.”“I’ve made up my mind,” said the king, and he launched his armies. King Fuchai of Wu turned loose upon them the crack troops he had been drilling day and night, and smashed the invading army. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“King Goujian retreated with 5,000 men, but was surrounded by Fuchai’s forces. He turned to his general Fan Li. “I have come to this pass because I did not heed your advice,” he said. “What can I do now?” Fan Li, who, judging by the histories, had learned to speak by listening to sage platitudes, replied as follows. “One whose cup runs over may follow the path of heaven; one who has set aright that which was toppling over may follow the path of Man; in facing crises that may come upon you, follow the path of Earth. Offer up words of profound humility and ritual courtesies of the highest degree, and if these are not enough, sell your own person for the best price you can get.” Goujian did as his minister had said. He groveled before Fuchai and pleaded to be permitted to administer his state in the service of Wu. “I will be your servant,” he said, “and my wife shall be your concubine.” /+/

“King Fuchai was very pleased, and inclined to grant Goujian his wish. But Wu Zixu was furious. “The king of Yue is a man capable of enduring bitter days. If you do not wipe out the state of Yue now, you will most certainly regret it later.”Fuchai did not have as much confidence in Zixu as his father, and had long since appointed another man to be prime minister. He did not listen to Zixu, and he concluded a treaty with the state of Yue. /+/

Death of Wu Zixu

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Dr. Eno wrote: “In 489 B.C., King Fuchai learned that the duke of Qi, his powerful neighbor to the north, had died and civil war broken out among the patrician families of the state. He ordered his armies to prepare for a northern expedition. Zixu had kept his eye steadily upon the conduct of Yue, and he approached Fuchai at court. “King Goujian of Yue no longer eats sumptuous dishes, but instead travels about offering condolences to those in mourning and comfort to the sick. He is planning something. If we cannot manage his death Wu will face troubled times. Our possession of Yue is like a man with a tumor in his belly. Yet you foolishly make plots about Qi and ignore Yue!” But the campaign against Qi turned out to be a complete military success, and the king began to treat Zixu with increasing coldness, favoring instead his prime minister, whose words were far more congenial to his ear. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 485 B.C., Fuchai renewed his pressure to the north. He wanted to achieve in Qi what his father had in Chu – the sacking of the capital – and he planned a great naval campaign that would send the ships of Wu around the Shandong peninsula to land on its northern shore, near the ducal city. Once again Zixu warned the king to attend to Yue instead. “If you conquer Qi,” he said, “it will yield as many riches for you as a field of rocks.” Again the king ignored him, and sent him instead on a mission to Qi in preparation for war. /+/

“Zixu took his son to Qi with him. “I have remonstrated with the king over and over,” he told his son, “but he will not listen to me. I see now that Wu is to be destroyed. What use is there in you being destroyed along with it?”While in Qi, Zixu visited a patrician who was a personal friend, and entrusted his son to his care. /+/

“In the meantime, King Goujian of Yue had not been idle. While he had become an exemplary ruler at home, in line with the preachings of his minister of war, his diplomatic methods were more traditional. He sent weighty bribes to the Wu prime minister, who looked upon Yue with increasing favor. Now that he was effectively in Yue’s pay, he grew concerned that Zixu’s incessant warnings would finally influence the king. When a member of his entourage informed him that Zixu had left his son in Qi he rushed to the king with the news. “Your majesty has had the sense to ignore Zixu’s prattlings and he has turned against your majesty. He has entrusted his son to Qi; where do his true loyalties lie?”

“What you imply I have long suspected,” replied the king. And he ordered that a runner be sent to Zixu bearing a sword with the message, “Take this and die.” Zixu grasped the sword and turned to his followers. “When I am dead, pull my eyes from my head and hang them from the eastern tower of the capital wall. Then I will be able to see the bandits from Yue pour in and extinguish the state of Wu.” Then he cut his throat and died. /+/

“When King Fuchai was told of Zixu’s last words he flew into a rage. He seized Zixu’s corpse and had it thrown in a bag. Then he ordered that the bag be flung into the Yangzi, where it could float out into the sea. Later, Zixu’s admirers built a shrine on the banks of the river so that his spirit would have a place to receive sustenance. /+/

King Fuchai’s Short Season as Hegemon

Dr. Eno wrote: “The naval campaign against Qi was a fiasco, and Wu’s wars of conquest were coming to an end. Nevertheless, in the summer of B.C. 482, King Fuchai achieved his greatest dream. He assembled the patrician lords of northern China and was acknowledged as hegemon, with the confirmation of the Zhou royal house. The state of Wu had accomplished an astonishing transformation of the Chinese political map, and Fuchai openly reveled in his new role. But even while he was being toasted by the lords in the north, his kingdom was collapsing at home. King Goujian of Yue seized the opportunity of Fuchai’s absence to send a raiding party to ambush and kill the crown prince of Wu. Then he dispatched an invasion force. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When news of these events reached him Fuchai burst into a fury, and when he further found that members of his party had passed word to the other lords of this turn of events, he drew his sword and beheaded seven men right in his tent at the assembly encampment. Four days later, at the formal oath taking ceremony of the assembly, a wrangle developed between Fuchai and the duke of Jin over who would actually be first to smear his lips with the ritual blood of the covenant, the privilege of the hegemon. Though Fuchai appears, in most accounts, to have won out, the recorder of the assembly still listed the duke of Jin’s name first in the list of dignitaries. Fuchai’s triumph had degenerated into ambiguous bickering. As soon as the assembly was closed, King Fuchai rushed back home, but as he approached he learned that the situation was all but hopeless. Before the summer of his hegemony had turned to fall, he was forced to sue for peace with Yue, offering gifts and money. /+/

“In the end, Wu Zixu’s last prophecy came true. In 476 B.C., King Goujian of Yue decided to extend his influence into central China, and to do so, he needed to remove Wu and extend his borders north. He dispatched a final campaign to Wu and easily defeated the soldiers that Fuchai was able to assemble. Having taken Fuchai captive, and perhaps recollecting the mercy that he had been shown twenty years earlier, he brought Fuchai before him and offered him a comfortable retirement estate near the sea, with 100 families of attendants to serve him. /+/

““I am an old man,” said Fuchai. “I do not have the strength to serve your majesty. How I regret that I did not listen to the words of Wu Zixu. It is I who have brought myself so low.” Then he slit his throat, and as he bled to death, he covered his face with his hands and whispered, “I cannot face Zixu!”King Goujian gave Fuchai a state burial, but he executed his prime minister without ceremony: he had been disloyal to his lord and accepted the bribes of Yue. /+/

“King Goujian did indeed go on to effect for Yue a transformation even greater than that which Helü and Fuchai had managed for Wu. He marched his troops north across the Huai River, and the rulers of Jin and Qi sued for peace. The Zhou king sent to him sacrificial meats from his ancestral temples, and Goujian, who just a short time before had been viewed as chief of a distant tribe of tattooed barbarians, was ennobled as a patrician lord. In acts of diplomatic skill, he returned to various states lands that had been seized from them by Wu, and with his troops free to roam anywhere in south, east, or central China, he was ultimately acknowledged as hegemon, the last ruler to truly deserve that title. But after Goujian’s death about 465 B.C., little more is heard of Yue. It fades from the histories as suddenly as it appeared, and with it disappear the delicate balances that supported the hegemon system. /+/


Dr. Eno wrote: “There is no consensus among historians concerning the date at which the Spring and Autumn period ends. The actual chronicle after which the period is named, The Spring and Autumn Annals, which was a court record of the state of Lu, closes with the year 481 B.C. That date is sometimes taken to mark the end of the period; others are Confucius’s death (479 B.C.) and the end of the Zuo zhuan commentary to the “Annals” (464 B.C.). The date that makes the most historical sense, however, is 453 B.C., the year that the state of Jin finally fell apart. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The state of Jin had long represented both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Zhou system of clan rule. Since Duke Wen of Jin had reorganized Jin into a type of corporate militarism, with the great warlord clans sharing control of the state armies, the warrior traditions of those clans had ensured that Jin would be fierce in war and a terror to its neighbors, but their internal wrangles also meant that civil disruptions frequently weakened the state’s ability to act with resolve in multi-state affairs. /+/

“Throughout the sixth century, the more powerful warlord families gradually extinguished the weaker clans. The dukes, increasingly figurehead rulers, lost power every time a consolidation reduced the opportunities to play the clans off of one another. By the beginning of the fifth century, only six major clans remained. Four of these united against the remaining two in a civil war that stretched from 497 to 490 B.C., at which time the smaller group perished, leaving only the four allied clans in the field. /+/

“The four clans bore the surnames Zhao, Han, Wei, and Zhi. By 458 B.C., the leader of the Zhi clan had emerged as the most powerful man in Jin, and he set out to seize the throne for himself, and move the ducal line of succession from the founding Ji clan to his own. /+/

“The most powerful of the remaining three clans was the Zhao, which controlled the northeast section of Jin, relatively far removed from the capital area. Seeing the imminent rise of the leader of the Zhi, he fortified Zhao into a stronghold, fearing attack. The leader of the Zhi did indeed organize an army against the Zhao. He coerced the other two great families, Han and Wei, into alliance with him, and the combined forces stormed the clan city of Zhao in 455 B.C.. /+/

“But the defenses of Zhao had been well planned and the city well provisioned. The attack degenerated into a prolonged siege. As they waited for over a year before the Zhao city walls, the leaders of the Han and Wei clan armies became increasingly restive. Their exhausting efforts were, after all, being made on behalf of a man who planned to usurp the throne, and whose gratitude towards their families could not be relied on. In time they initiated contact with the defenders inside the walls and concluded a secret compact. /+/

“In 453 B.C., the armies of Han and Wei turned on the Zhi clan. In one stroke, they eliminated the clan entirely. Once the leaders of the Zhao emerged, the three clans put into effect the pact they had agreed on during the siege. They divided the state of Jin into three separate states. The Zhao family lands in the northeast became the state of Zhao. The lands of the Han family in the south, in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, became the state of Han. The Fen River valley north of the bend of the Yellow River belonged to the new state of Wei, and its lands stretched awkwardly across the midsection of the region of Jin, flanking Han on the east. /+/

“The state of Jin, the most powerful state of the Spring and Autumn period, was no more. It had long been a conglomerate polity rather than a unified ruling house, and now its dukes and the name of Jin itself disappeared. In its place were three very well balanced states of considerable stature. All three would become major actors in the succeeding centuries of the Warring States period. /+/

“With the dissolution of Jin, the only remaining powerful branch of the Zhou ruling clan was gone. Throughout the chaos of the Spring and Autumn centuries, Jin had, at least, provided a psychological anchor of semi-legitimacy. No other state had better claim to be protector of the Zhou. Furthermore, its patrician warrior nature had represented better than any other state the cultural character of the Zhou. Its extinction did indeed signal the end of an era. The Warring States years which followed represent a period of transition to an entirely new political culture.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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