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Beginning in the 8th century B.C. the authority of the emperors degenerated and hundreds of warlords fought among themselves until seven major kingdoms prevailed. This led to the formulation of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.). The Spring and Autumn period (771-482 B.C.), the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.) and the Age of Philosophers and the China’s Classical Age (6th century to 3rd century B.C.) occurred within the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.

The Spring and Autumn (722 to 476 B.C.) and Warring States (476 to 221 B.C.) periods though marked by disunity and civil strife, witnessed an unprecedented era of cultural prosperity--the "golden age" of China. The atmosphere of reform and new ideas was attributed to the struggle for survival among warring regional lords who competed in building strong and loyal armies and in increasing economic production to ensure a broader base for tax collection. To effect these economic, military, and cultural developments, the regional lords needed ever-increasing numbers of skilled, literate officials and teachers, the recruitment of whom was based on merit. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coinage and technological improvements. Iron came into general use, making possible not only the forging of weapons of war but also the manufacture of farm implements. Public works on a grand scale--such as flood control, irrigation projects, and canal digging--were executed. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad stretches of the northern frontier. *

Historian Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins wrote: “As a result of the 500 years of intensive warfare that occurred during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (the eastern Zhou dynasty, 711-211 B.C.), Chinese states formed and began to consolidate into a smaller number of larger polities. As a result of the desperate need to mobilize resources for war, they developed bureaucratic administrations that relied increasingly on impersonal administration rather than patrimonial recruitment that as typical of earlier periods of Chinese history."

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “China’s Classical age was a tumultuous era, filled with the dangers of constant civil war, political disruptions, and unpredictable social change. The intellectual elite of that period, who are the authors of all the textual records of that time, were anxious to search the past looking for political and ethical models that could help them extricate society from this era of crisis and chaos. The human past was for them as promising a field of study as the world of the natural sciences much later became for the West. At the same time, there was an urgent desire to make out a glimpse of the future, an almost millennial urge to see a new age of order emerge. These interests in history and the millennium were connected because the literate elite looked to the past as the key to their future. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ;
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)

States in the Summer and Autumn Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In these disturbed times China also made changes in her outer frontiers. When we speak of frontiers in this connection, we must take little account of the European conception of a frontier. No frontier in that sense existed in China until her conflict with the European powers. In the dogma of the Chinese religion of Heaven, all the countries of the world were subject to the Chinese emperor, the Son of Heaven. Thus there could be no such thing as other independent states. In practice the dependence of various regions on the ruler naturally varied: near the centre, that is to say near the ruler's place of residence, it was most pronounced; then it gradually diminished in the direction of the periphery. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“ The feudal lords of the inner territories were already rather less subordinated than at the centre, and those at a greater distance scarcely at all; at a still greater distance were territories whose chieftains regarded themselves as independent, subject only in certain respects to Chinese overlordship. In such a system it is difficult to speak of frontiers. In practice there was, of course, a sort of frontier, where the influence of the outer feudal lords ceased to exist. The development of the original feudal towns into feudal states with actual dominion over their territories proceeded, of course, not only in the interior of China but also on its borders, where the feudal territories had the advantage of more unrestricted opportunities of expansion; thus they became more and more powerful.

“In the south (that is to say, in the south of the Zhou empire, in the present central China) the garrisons that founded feudal states were relatively small and widely separated; consequently their cultural system was largely absorbed into that of the aboriginal population, so that they developed into feudal states with a character of their own. Three of these attained special importance—(1) Chu, in the neighborhood of the present Chungking and Hankow; (2) Wu, near the present Nanking; and (3) Yue, near the present Hangchow. In 704 B.C. the feudal prince of Wu proclaimed himself "Wang". "Wang", however was the title of the ruler of the Zhou dynasty. This meant that Wu broke away from the old Zhou religion of Heaven, according to which there could be only one ruler (wang) in the world.

Rulers in the Summer and Autumn Period

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Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “At the beginning of the seventh century it became customary for the ruler to unite with the feudal lord who was most powerful at the time. This feudal lord became a dictator, and had the military power in his hands, like the shoguns in nineteenth-century Japan. If there was a disturbance of the peace, he settled the matter by military means. The first of these dictators was the feudal lord of the state of Qi (Ch'i), in the present province of Shandong. This feudal state had grown considerably through the conquest of the outer end of the peninsula of Shandong, which until then had been independent. Moreover, and this was of the utmost importance, the state of Qi was a trade centre. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Much of the bronze, and later all the iron, for use in northern China came from the south by road and in ships that went up the rivers to Qi, where it was distributed among the various regions of the north, north-east, and north-west. In addition to this, through its command of portions of the coast, Qi had the means of producing salt, with which it met the needs of great areas of eastern China. It was also in Qi that money was first used. Thus Qi soon became a place of great luxury, far surpassing the court of the Zhou, and Qi also became the centre of the most developed civilization.

“After the feudal lord of Qi, supported by the wealth and power of his feudal state, became dictator, he had to struggle not only against other feudal lords, but also many times against risings among the most various parts of the population, and especially against the nomad tribes in the southern part of the pre Shanxi. In the seventh century not only Qi but the other feudal states had expanded. The regions in which the nomad tribes were able to move had grown steadily smaller, and the feudal lords now set to work to bring the nomads of their country under their direct rule. The greatest conflict of this period was the attack in 660 B.C. against the feudal state of Wei, in northern Henan. The nomad tribes seem this time to have been proto-Mongols; they made a direct attack on the garrison town and actually conquered it. The remnant of the urban population, no more than 730 in number, had to flee southward. It is clear from this incident that nomads were still living in the middle of China, within the territory of the feudal states, and that they were still decidedly strong, though no longer in a position to get rid entirely of the feudal lords of the Zhou.

“The period of the dictators came to an end after about a century, because it was found that none of the feudal states was any longer strong enough to exercise control over all the others. These others formed alliances against which the dictator was powerless. Thus this period passed into the next, which the Chinese call the period of the Contending States.

Spring and Autumn China as a Narrative Story

Dr. Eno wrote: “The history of the Spring and Autumn period was traditionally pictured as a narrative in which the major actors were states, their rulers, and certain high ministers and colorful figures. The narrative generally was shaped by writers to convey ethical points. It was, on the largest scale, a “true” story, but its drama was guided by a moral rationale.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

There are four main stories, with each focusing “on a single individual (although the last and longest has a larger cast of characters). The first two stories, those of Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin, highlight certain central features of Spring and Autumn political structures. The third tale, concerning King Ling of Chu, illustrates the nature of many early historical accounts as cautionary tales. The last, the story of Wu Zixu, is one of the great “historical romances” of the traditional annals. /+/

“It is important to bear in mind that the tales recounted here are parts of a “master narrative” of early China, crafted by literary historians. The flow of the account makes overall sense as a story, and the moral drama of each episode is easy to detect. This is not the way life is lived, and in a time before newspapers and other information media, it took intellectual imagination and effort to represent events over such vast stretches of time and space coherently. We may be certain that at many points “facts” have been distorted to accomplish narrative and moral coherence, sometimes dramatically – the more closely academic historians examine historical evidence, the more problems emerge with this traditional narrative. But constructing the “story line” of early China was a project of the era itself, and regardless of the “accuracy” of the story, the voices who are telling it are voices from that time, recreating itself in narrative as it progressed. /+/

“This narration of events breaks the Spring and Autumn into six smaller periods, with some gaps between them (some dates in this list are approximate): I) Beginning of the Spring and Autumn (The Zhou schism and the dominance of Zheng, 770-700 B.C.); II) The hegemony of Duke Huan of Qi, 680-643 B.C.;III) The ascendance of Jin, 636-620 B.C.; IV. The period of the Jin-Wu alliance, 584-520 B.C.;V) The rise and fall of the state of Wu, 515-473 B.C.; VI)The dissolution of Jin, 497-4532 B.C.

“This reading reflects a traditional, rather than an academic approach to history, representing the narrative of an extended era in terms of well known anecdotal accounts focused on political protagonists whose actions convey the literary and moral values we look for in stories. Our major sources for the period adopt this approach and it is employed here because such master narratives are effective in helping us form an initial conceptual framework.”

States, Hegemons and Rulers in the Spring and Autumn Period

Dr. Eno wrote: “During the Spring and Autumn Period, which constitutes the early years of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-221 B.C.), the region of the Chinese cultural sphere, which had been under the relatively strong control of the royal Zhou house during the Western Zhou period (1045-771 B.C.), was in the process of separating into distinct political units, joined by ties of language, history, and culture, but ruled independently by local patrician clans. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“These politically independent states continued to acknowledge the Zhou as the legitimate royal house, but in fact the Zhou rulers were merely the powerless princes of a small homeland, and the rulers of the largest of the patrician states competed to succeed to the actual power that had slipped from the hands of the Zhou. Later in the Eastern Zhou, these local patrician houses styled their leaders as “ kings,” and openly aimed to succeed to the throne occupied by the Zhou and, in theory, bestowed by Heaven. But in the era from which this text is drawn, the great goal was for the ruler of a state to be acknowledged as “ hegemon” of all the patrician states, an informal designation which signified an overlord whose force of personality, political organization, and military alliances made him the most powerful man among the states, and whose powers were nominally exercised on behalf of the figurehead ruler of the Zhou royal house. /+/

“The patrician states were the descendants of what are sometimes called “fiefs”: grants of land and people provided by the Zhou ruling house to its junior lineage branches and the clans of its loyal lieutenants. These grants were sometimes small, but in some cases they constituted huge regions with large numbers of indigenous peoples living on them. They were intended both as rewards and honors, and also as military outposts by means of which the central government could, through the loyalty of the families settled as rulers on these estates, maintain control over the vast area of China. This system is sometimes referred to as “Zhou feudalism,” but because the term feudalism is in many ways very misleading we will avoid it whenever possible, speaking of these lands not as “fiefs,” but as “ estates” or, as they became increasingly independent, “ states.” /+/

In late the Spring and Autumn Period, Jin and Chu were the most powerful states. Jin, a large state located in the north-central region of the Chinese cultural sphere as it then extended, was a powerful political force. From 632-628 B.C., the ruler of Jin had acted as the hegemon of the patrician lords. The power of Jin had continued to dominate China through the early sixth century B.C., but fell after that. In the middle of sixth century B.C., the massive state of Chu to the south, only partially “sinicized” (assimilated to Chinese culture), was the leading power.

Beginning of the Spring and Autumn Period: Zhou Schism and the Dominance of Zheng (770-700 B.C.)

Dr. Eno wrote: In 771 B.C., “the homeland of the Zhou was invaded by nomads from the West. The capital was sacked, the king was killed, and the Zhou royal clan driven away. The last king of the Western Zhou was, according to traditional accounts, a typical “evil last ruler,” depraved and controlled by beautiful women. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The heir to the throne was taken eastward and installed in new capital precincts by a group of patrician lords. The new capital was located in Cheng-Zhou (later renamed Luoyang), which had been established on the banks of the Luo River, a tributary of the Yellow River, by the Duke of Zhou as a military garrison centuries earlier. The lords who had protected the new king either possessed patrimonial estates in the regions near the Luo River valley, or were given new estates there. These states in the middle reaches of the Yellow River valley, along with the area surrounding the capital (which was called the state of Zhou and was ruled directly by the king), may be called collectively the Central States. During these first years of the Eastern Zhou, the rulers of the major Central States also served as the chief ministers of the Zhou king, who was greatly in their debt, and they thereby possessed great power and prestige. The most prominent among them was the ruler of the state of Zheng; the rulers of Zheng were granted hereditary rights to the office of Chief Minister. /+/

“At the time of the fall of the Western capital, another son of the murdered king fled under the protection of great lords. This other son was installed as the new Zhou king in a city called Hui, west of the bend of the Yellow River. During the period 770-750 B.C., these two brothers competed for the allegiance of the patrician lords, each along with his backers hoping to become the sole legitimate ruler of China. The hopes of the pretender in Hui were much diminished by the actions of the rulers of the state of Qin. The Qin were a semi-nomadic people in the far west. After the old capital was sacked, it was the troops of Qin that drove the nomadic invaders away, restored order, and occupied the old clan territories of Zhou. The Qin were anxious to be recognized by the rulers of Zhou culture, and although they were located to the west of Hui, they gave their loyalty and lent their armies to the royal claimant in Luoyang. The behavior of Qin ultimately won it the recognition it sought, as a member of the Chinese cultural sphere.” /+/

In 750 B.C., “the ruler of the northernmost central state of Jin led an army against the pretender in Hui and succeeded in conquering him. China once again had only one king, but during these decades, his position had been reduced to that of a pawn of the Central States, and the Zhou ruling house never again achieved more than nominal suzerainty over the patrician lords. From this time to the close of the Eastern Zhou, China should be thought of not as a single state, but as a cultural sphere comprised of a great variety of politically independent states, much like Europe in the millennium after the fall of Rome.” /+/

Ascendance of Zheng

Dr. Eno wrote: “The rulers of the state of Zheng possessed both the greatest political prestige and the strongest armies of the newly organized Eastern Zhou state. At this time, the numerous states of Central China were, with the exception of Jin, relatively small and powerless, and Jin was, as we shall see, divided by painful civil war. Zheng took advantage of this situation to begin a program of state expansion, seizing from its neighbors lands that bordered upon its own and openly attacking those states that resisted. In 707 an allied force of armies from among the Central States launched a campaign to suppress Zheng, and the Zhou king himself led the attack, giving it great legitimacy. However, the king’s conglomerate army was no match for the well coordinated forces of Zheng, which defeated the allies decisively, ending for good any possibility of the Zhou throne regaining its lost powers. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Over the next decade, a type of balance was achieved among the Central States. Zheng gobbled up many of its neighbors until its borders reached those of two quite different states, Wey* and Song. These were states of the old Shang homelands with moderately large territories. Their rulers had not been involved in the patrician cabal at the capital and they had not worn themselves out in the infighting of the previous decades. They were better able to resist Zheng. Towards the end of the eighth century, a balance of power emerged among the Central States, with Zheng, Song, and Wey evenly matched. [* There were two states named Wei in ancient China. We distinguish this earlier state from a later, more powerful one, by using the variant spelling “Wey.”]

Four Great Powers

Dr. Eno wrote: “In later times, Zheng, Wey, and especially Song would occasionally play major political and military roles in the contests for supremacy of China. However, generally speaking, after 700 B.C. the area of the smaller Central States becomes less and less important except as a region of contested influence among several much larger “Regional States.” Of these, the most important both initially and in the long run were the following four: Jin, Qin, Chu, and Qi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

From 700 B.C. until the end of the Spring and Autumn period in 464 B.C., China may be geographically pictured as a central region of many states, surrounded by four great powers, one in each of the cardinal directions:1) Jin, 2) Qin (Central States), 3) Qi and 4) Chu. In the sixth and fifth centuries, we will need to add to this picture two short-lived states in the southeast, Wu and Yue. In addition, an old Zhou state of great size, Yan, existed in the northeast throughout this period, but remained passive and peripheral until Warring States times. /+/

“The four great powers were, in fact, regional cultures quite distinct from one another in background and culture. Before proceeding with this narrative account, we will characterize each one briefly, beginning with the eastern state of Qi. /+/


Dr. Eno wrote: “The state of Qi occupied a broad spit of land extending to the Pacific Ocean, known today as the Shandong Peninsula (Shandong, “East of the Mountains,” is an ancient name for this peninsula). The land is a mix of broad and fertile plains upon which appear in places low but precipitous mountains. The capital city of Qi lay in the northern portion of the peninsula, not far east from the lower reaches of the Yellow River. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Qi was the only one of the four great powers that was originally a patrimonial estate bestowed on a Zhou founder. It was awarded to the Grand Duke Wang, who was not a member of the Zhou royal lineage but who was the chief military advisor to King Wu. His descendants ruled as Dukes of Qi until the throne was usurped by another clan in the fourth century. /+/

“The estate of Qi was founded to help the Zhou “pacify” lands far to the east of its original homeland. The original occupants of these Shandong lands appear to have been a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese groups. After initially establishing the power of his presence through military means, the Grand Duke is said to have adopted a policy of accommodation with his non-Chinese neighbors. Perhaps as a result, the state of Qi ultimately yielded a rich and many-faceted cultural tradition. Throughout the late Warring States period it was home to the intellectual vanguard of China. During the Spring and Autumn period, Qi is principally distinguished by the enormous influence of the hegemony of its duke, Huan, over China during the years 680-643 B.C. /+/


Dr. Eno wrote: “Chu appears abruptly in the historical record as a rapidly expanding political force along the middle reaches of the Yangzi River, a region to which its people had migrated from an earlier base northwest, in the valley of the Han River. By conquering or coercing smaller states and tribes in the south of China, Chu came to dominate over an enormous area, characterized by an abundance of rivers, lakes, and marshes, fertile soil, and a temperate climate. The capital stood near the banks of the Yangzi, and was remote from the other states and well insulated against attack (ironically, it became the only great-power capital to be sacked during the Spring and Autumn years). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The origins of the Chu people is a mystery. They appear to have emerged during the late ninth century as a distinctly non-Chinese people who represented a major threat to the Central States and the Zhou order. The earliest of the powerful Chu rulers, who reigned 740-690 B.C., adopted the title of “King,” rather than “Duke,” thus clearly indicating that he did not recognize himself as a subject of the Zhou. However, later in his rule, he adopted a conciliatory policy and sued for peace, submitting to Zhou suzerainty while nevertheless retaining the title of King for himself and his descendants. Nevertheless, the culture of Chu was sharply distinct from that of other Chinese states. It is clear that the Chu people did not initially speak Chinese and Chinese was probably only gradually adopted in Chu, from the top down, over the centuries. The religion, art, and eventually the Chinese-language literature of Chu were flamboyant and very different from more restrained “metropolitan” culture to the north. (The study of Chu culture is a very popular topic in modern scholarship.)” /+/

Further Reading: For issues concerning the state of Chu and its culture, a useful resource is Constance Cook and John Major, ed., Defining Chu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), especially Cook’s full translation (together with a leading Chinese scholar, Li Ling) of the “Chu Silk Manuscript” (pp. 173-76).


Dr. Eno wrote: “The state of Qin occupied the old Zhou homelands in the Wei River valley, west of the bend in the Yellow River. This region is relatively dry, but rivers and the rich loess soil deposited by winds coming from the western deserts make it a fertile area. The Qin territories formed a basin surrounded by mountain ranges of middling height, making the entire state a virtual fortress. Access to the North China Plain in the east was provided by the Hangu pass, just south of the bend in the Yellow River, and the region of Qin was called The Land Within the Pass. Qin’s geographical situation was of enormous military value. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Qin people were initially a non-Chinese tribe at the western edge of the original Zhou polity. We have already seen how the eighth century rulers of Qin provided great service to the kings and lords who founded the Eastern Zhou in Luoyang. These actions earned the Qin rulers an official designation within the Chinese patrician system, and they were “adopted” as Chinese, although the patricians of the Central States actually viewed them as little more Chinese than the people of Chu or the various nomad tribes which harried the external and internal borders of the Zhou states. /+/

“The internal politics of Qin during the Spring and Autumn period are not known in great detail. However, it appears that the Qin engaged less in the division of their domestic territories into patrimonial estates than did most of the purely Chinese states and so developed a relatively centralized pattern of government. This political tradition may underlie the dramatic centralization of Qin that dates from the fourth century and led to its conquest of all China in 221 B.C.” /+/


Dr. Eno wrote: “Jin extended east and north from the bend of the Yellow River, covering the plateaus and gullies of the loess deposits in its western half onto the broad and fertile reaches of the North China Plain at its eastern edge. Its land was fertile, but crops were dependent on the weather as normal rainfall was low. The eroded topography of sharp hills and abrupt valleys cut the region of Jin into relatively isolated settlement pockets. Transportation and communications were consequently slow, which hindered political organization. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Jin was the only one of the great powers with a ruling family from the Zhou royal clan of the Ji. The histories tell us that about 1040 B.C. the original estate of Jin was playfully bestowed by the boy King Cheng to his younger brother as part of a make-believe game. The game was overheard by a scribe who insisted that such a royal act could not be taken as a jest; consequently, the grant was recorded in earnest. Jin relocated northward when the Zhou house fled east in order to cede its original territories, which were adjacent to Luoyang, to the Zhou ruler.The culture of Jin was the most “Zhou-like” of all the great powers. It exemplified the mainstream, or “metropolitan” culture of Zhou China. Its relatively insular sub-regions were ruled by powerful warlord clans, each in service to the duke of Jin, but also in good position to resist or threaten the duke’s power. /+/

“During the Spring and Autumn period, Jin was more often than not preeminent among the patrician states. Nevertheless, it was also most subject to internal strife. In the end, it was the only one of the four great powers to suffer dismemberment – not by “foreign” armies, but through civil war. /+/ The splitting of Jin into the three states of Zhao, Wei, and Han in 453 B.C. signals the close of the Spring and Autumn period.

Spring and Autumn Annals and Other Sources on the Spring and Autumn Period

Zuo zhuan

The main sources of information about the Spring and Autumn Period here are the Zuo zhuan (“Zuo Tradition” or “Commentary of Zuo,” an ancient Chinese narrative history that is traditionally regarded as a commentary on the ancient Chinese chronicle “Spring and Autumn Annals”) and the “Shiji” (a monumental history of ancient China finished around 94 B.C. by Sima Qian).

Dr. Eno wrote: “The “Spring and Autumn Annals” is, basically, the court chronicle of the Zhou Dynasty state of Lu, from 722 B.C. to 481 B.C. It is brief, not very informative, and inconsistent in its choice of events to note. A typical entry might read, “Autumn; eighth month; locusts.” The chronicles recount happenings in the state of Lu, and in other states as reported to Lu. Years are arranged according to the reigns of the various dukes of Lu. The chronicle begins in the first year of the reign of Duke Yin, and ends abruptly in the fourteenth year of the reign of Duke Ai. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The “Annals” is one of the foremost classics of the Confucian tradition, and the most fundamental split in Confucian ideology, occurring during the second century A.D., focused on differing interpretations of the “Annals”. “Why? At a very early date, prior to the composition of the “Mencius”, c. 300 B.C., the tradition arose that the “Annals” had at some time fallen into the hands of Confucius who modestly edited them to bring out their “meaning.” An understanding of the editorial process, it was claimed, could reveal to readers the most profound wisdom pertaining to government and history. Mencius said that when Confucius edited the “Annals”, “corrupt ministers and lawless sons were in terror”: their iniquity had been revealed. /+/

“The likelihood of this being true is infinitesimally small. But an oral commentary tradition arose which made every effort to reveal the subtle editorial process which Confucius had used and extract from the chronicles the Sage’s message. Two major branches of the tradition had developed by the early Han: the commentary tradition of “Mr. Guliang” and that of “Mr. Gongyang.” The two are very much alike. /+/

“A third commentary, the commentary of Mr. Zuo, did not try to tease ethical meanings out of the text of the chronicle, but simply expanded, at great length, upon the history behind the “Annals”. This is the “Zuo zhuan”, a text we frequently encountered during our survey of Spring and Autumn China. Because the Zuo commentary did not become important as a classical tradition until the mid-Han, we will not discuss it here. The Guliang, while already a significant tradition in the early Han, did not receive state sponsorship until much later, and we know much less about it. In our discussion of Han Dynasty “Annals” classicism, we will consider only the Gongyang tradition. Dong Zhongshu was one of the principal masters of the Gongyang school. /+/

“The “Annals” is an “empty text”; there are not subtle meanings in the chronicle. But in the conviction that meaning did exist, Gongyang commentators during the Han developed arcane interpretive techniques which allowed them to read into the text a revolutionary doctrine. The essence of that doctrine was that kings and emperors ruled by no divine right of inheritance, but solely on the basis of their virtue. If their virtue were insufficient, they had no right of rule, regardless of whether or not they managed to hold onto power. This message is in sharp contrast to the notion that Han Confucians all celebrated unqualifiedly the rule of the Han kings. The New Text tradition was, in fact, anti-Imperial, endorsing only Sage Kings: it is no wonder it went underground. /+/

“The Gongyang commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” has come down to us in an edition dating from the mid-second century A.D. It includes three levels of text: the annals, the commentary of Mr.Gongyang (supposedly dating from the third century B.C. and certainly not later than the early second century B.C.), and the sub-commentary of one He Xiu, a disciple of the Gongyang tradition who died c. A.D. 175. /+/

“He Xiu wrote his subcommentary, or notes, at a time when the Gongyang tradition was still alive in its original form, and his notes pass on the lessons taught him by his teachers—the Gongyang was still an oral tradition. Thus all three levels tell us about the doctrine read into this “empty text” in its heyday. Although He Xiu includes a number of passages praising the wisdom of the Han kings in the highest terms – and even says that Confucius edited the text expressly for their use, foreknowing, as Sages do, precisely what was going to happen for centuries after his death – the imperial message of the text comes through quite clearly. /+/

“In order to align the vacuity of the text with their belief that coded within it there lay the greatest wisdom, Han scholars developed hermeneutic strategies for interpreting this text that are more fascinating in their bizarre features than is the case with any other textual tradition. Because of their complexity, however, we cannot delve into them here. Instead, we will focus solely on the issue of the anti-imperial nature of the text, and the passages selected below reflect this single focus (although some of the flavor of this esoteric tradition should come through). What we see here serves to reinforce the Sui Meng story that we discussed earlier, and is another reflection of the tension that existed between Han Confucianism and the hereditary autocracy that it served. /+/

Example of the Spring and Autumn Annals and Its Interpretations

1) The Spring and Autumn Annals reads:“AUTUMN, SEVENTH MONTH. THE KING UNDER HEAVEN DISPATCHED HIS MINISTER XUAN TO COME RETURN TO THE LATE DUKE HUI AND HIS DUCHESS ZHONGZI GRAVE GIFTS. [ passage from the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722)] [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

He Xui wrote: “The use of the word “return” indicates approval that it should be so. That which heaven and earth give birth to cannot be the property of a single family: those who have and who have not should be interchangeable.

2) The Spring and Autumn Annals reads: SUMMER, FOURTH MONTH. ON THE DAY XIN-MAO MR. YIN DIED. [From Duke Yin, Third Year (720)]

Gongyang wrote: A) “Who is meant by “Mr. Yin?” — A grandee under the direct command of the Son of Heaven. B) “Why is he called “Mr.” Yin? — To disparage him. C) “Why disparage him? — To deprecate his passing of the office of High Minister to his son. Hereditary accession to the office of High Minister is a violation of ritual li. /+/

3) The Spring and Autumn Annals reads: WINTER. TENTH MONTH. THE STATE OF LU ASSASSINATED ITS RULER SHUQI. [From Duke Wen, Eighteenth Year (609)]

Gongyang wrote: “What is meant by “the state of Lu assassinated?” — By saying “the state” killed him, it indicates that the people killed him.

He Xiu wrote: “One person killed the ruler, but all in the state were happy. Thus the Annals speaks of the state as the assassin to reveal that the ruler had lost his people and should properly have been cut off.”

4) The Spring and Autumn Annals reads: WINTER. LOCUSTS AROSE. [From Duke Xuan, Fifteenth Year (594)]

Gongyang wrote: A) “The text has never before noted the advent of locusts, why does it do so here? — The advent of locusts is not a thing recorded in the Annals. B) “Then why does it record it here?” — To indicate it was a lucky thing. C) “Wherein was it lucky? — The ruler altered what was old and changed what was constant; in response to this there was a disaster of nature.

He Xiu wrote: “The ruler refers to Duke Xuan, who altered the ancient and established system of the public field, and assessed taxes on the basis of acreage. This means that after the famine brought on by this disaster, Xuan awoke to his error and realized that he should return to the old system in time for the next year’s harvest. In that winter there was a great harvest. “

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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 August 2021

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