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wu ba 五霸, the Five Hegemonial Lords

Oct 31, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Wu ba 五霸 "five hegemonial lords" is a designation for five rulers of the regional states of the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). The hegemonial lords were able to dominate the other regional states, and provided protection to the weaker states as well as to the royal house of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) against the raids of Non-Chinese tribes. Their motto was thus "support the king and ward off the barbarians" (zun wang rang yi 尊王攘夷).

The term ba 霸 is exchangeable with the word bo 伯 "lord". Who concretely the five hegemonial lords were, differs from source to source. The oldest statement about the Five Hegemons is to be found in the history Zuozhuan 左轉, the chronicle of the state of Lu 魯. According to this source, the hegemonial lords enforced the power of the kings of Zhou that otherwise could not exert their kingship. The Jin-period 晉 (265-420) commentator Du Yu 杜預 (222-284) explains that the Five Hegemons were Kun Wu 昆吾 from the Xia period 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE), Da Peng 大彭 and Shi Wei 豕韋 from the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (r. 685-643) and Duke Wen of Jin 晉文公 (r. 636-628). The books Baihutong 白虎通, Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義, Guoyu 國語 and Lunyu 論語 ascertain this statement. While there is historical certainty about the last two, there are no other sources providing more information about Kun Wu, Da Peng and Shi Wei. It is totally unknown who they were and why they were called hegemonial lords.

The book Mengzi 孟子 names another quintet of hegemonial lords and says that Duke Huan of Qi was the first of them. Meng Ke 孟軻 (372-289) says that the five hegemons were sinners against the will of the kings (sanwang zhi zui ren ye 三王之罪人) of the three dynasties of Xia 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE), Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Zhou. The regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) of his own time, the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), acted contrary to the spirit of the former hegemons of the Spring and Autumn period. According to Master Meng, the five hegemons were Duke Huan of Qi, Duke Wen of Jin, Duke Mu of Qin 秦穆公 (r. 659-621), Duke Xiang of Song 宋襄公 (r. 650-637), and King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王 (r. 613-591). This statement is generally accepted, but neither Duke Mu of Qin nor Duke Xiang of Song were in fact dominating the states of the Central Plain. The book Xunzi 荀子 therefore leaves them out and replaces them with the two rulers King Helü of Wu 吳王闔閭 (r. 514-496) and King Goujian of Yue 越王句踐 (r. 495-465). In comparison to the historical facts, this statement seems to be the most appropriate.

Table 1. The Five Hegemonial Lords (wu ba 五霸)
Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (r. 685-643)
Duke Wen of Jin 晉文公 (r. 636-628)
Duke Xiang of Song 宋襄公 (r. 650-637) or King Goujian of Yue 越王句踐 (r. 495-465)
Duke Mu of Qin 秦穆公 (r. 659-621) or King Helü of Wu 吳王闔閭 (r. 514-496)
King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王 (r. 613-591)

The hegemony of one state over the other came up in a time when the authority of the house of Zhou was only more nominal and the kings of Zhou were unable to militarily discipline the regional states and the barbarian tribes in their neighbourhood. Powerful regional rulers like Duke Huan of Qi therefore supported the house of Zhou and regularly convoked the other regional states to conclude peace (see alliances). Not all of the five hegemonial lords were officially proclaimed as such. It was especially the kings of the southern states of Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越 that were, in spite of their military power, not really accepted as ceremonial equals to the other regional rulers, or were even believed to endanger the royal system of the Zhou. King Zhuang of Chu, for instance, planned to overthrow and replace the house of Zhou.

The term of hegemonial lord was revived by Xiang Yu 項羽 (233-202 BCE) after the downfall of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). He made himself "hegemonial king" (bawang 霸王) over a dozen of other kingdoms (see kingdoms created by Xiang Yu).

Luo Shilie 羅世烈 (1992). "Wu ba 五霸", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1240.