An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Dynasty - The Spring and Autumn Period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE)

Oct 3, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu 春秋, 770-5th cent. BCE) is the first part of the so-called Eastern Zhou period (Dongzhou 東周, 770-221 BCE). It is characterized by a significant decrease of political power of the kings of Zhou which had to flee to the eastern capital Chengzhou 成周 (or Luoyi 雒邑, modern Luoyang 洛陽, Henan) after their western and main capital Zongzhou 宗周 (of Feng 豐, near modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) had been attacked by the nomad tribes of the Quanrong 犬戎.


The name of the historical period is derived from the chronicle of the regional state of Lu 魯 called Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" because the seasons are always mentioned in the entries. The Annals cover the time from 722 to 481 BCE, yet the historical period is traditionally counted from the reign of King Ping of Zhou 周平王 (r. 770-720 BCE), who restored the Zhou dynasty in Luoyang, down to the division of the state of Jin 晉 by the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) of Han 韓, Wei 魏 and Zhao 趙 in 376. Alternatively, the end of the Spring and Autumn period can be seen as 453, when the three viscounts (zi 子) of Han, Wei and Zhao extinguished all other lateral lines to the house of Jin, or 403, when King Weilie of Zhou 周威烈王 (r. 426-402) bestowed upon the viscounts of Han, Wei and Zhao the title of marquis (hou 侯).

The second great historiographical writing of the Spring and Autumn period is the collection Guoyu 國語 "Discourses of the states" that includes anecdotes of the states of Zhou 周, Lu 魯, Qi 齊, Jin 晉, Zheng 鄭, Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越. Said to be a composition of Zuo Qiuming 左丘明, its oldest parts must have been compiled at the end of the 5th century BCE.


The most important intellectual person of this historical period was the philosopher Confucius (Kongzi 孔子; ca. 551-479) who tried to revive the ideal of the human and righteous rulers of old. Although his ideas seemed lost in a time of political realism his thoughts about state and society ("Confucianism") were to become the fundamental doctrine of imperial China.

The Early Decades of the Eastern Zhou and the Duke of Zheng

The eastern capital Chengzhou (Luoyang) did not provide the kings of Zhou with sufficient power. They were therefore dependent on the powerful regional rulers, especially those of Qin 秦, Jin, Qi and Chu. These are called the "local rulers" (fang bo 方伯) because they practically ruled independently from the king of Zhou, and not any more as his vassals. It became common that the regional states acted on their own behalf regarding territory and military feuds, without asking the king of Zhou for formal permission. Duke Zhuang of Zheng 鄭莊公 (r. 743-701) even dared attacking King Huan 周桓王 (r. 720-697 BCE) who had not treated him properly according to the ritual regulations. Heijian 黑肩, the Duke of Zhou 周公, even planned to kill King Huan's successor, King Zhuang 周莊王 (r. 697-682), and to replace him with Prince Ke 克. Yet Xin Bo 辛伯 warned the king and saved his life.

Duke Zhuang of Zheng defeated intruding Rong 戎 tribes and swallowed the neighbouring state of Xu 許. In 707 King Huan of Zhou 周桓王 (r. 719-697) started a punitive expedition against the Duke, but the king was defeated. From then on, the kings of Zhou never again tried to intervene into the politics of their own regional rulers. They stayed in their small royal domain around Luoyang and had to be content with the tributes of the regional rulers that were presented less and less regularly. Besides Zheng, the states of Song 宋 and Lu 魯 demonstrated their military and political power in the Central Plain.

The Rise of Duke Huan of Qi

King Li 周釐王 (r. 682-677) was so helpless against the new threats endangering the empire that he allowed Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (r. 685-643) to adopt the title of hegemonial lord (ba 霸, or bo 伯). In this function the Duke defended the regional states against raids of barbarian tribes and cared for law and order among the states of the Middle Kingdom, with the motto "support the king and ward off the barbarians" (zun wang rang yi 尊王攘夷).

In the east, the state of Qi had rich natural ressources and became one of the mightiest regional states of the Eastern Zhou period.

Duke Huan of Qi employed the legalist statesman Guan Zhong 管仲 as his adviser who reorganized administration and the military and financial systems. Through these reforms Qi was able to subdue Song and Lu and even the hegemonial state of Zheng. At that time, the non-Chinese nomad tribes of the Rong and Di 狄 undertook raids on the soil of Chinese states and devastated the states of Xing 邢 and Wei 衛 (modern Shanxi and Hebei). Duke Huan of Qi rescued the dynastic houses of these states and settled them down more to the south. The system of the hegemon thus developed to a kind of lord protector of a strong state over weaker ones, and Qi promised to protect the states in the Central Plain against further intrusions of the northern nomad warriors.

The Semi-Barbarian Kingdom of Chu

In the south, the state of Chu on the middle Yangtze River had become politically stronger than before. King Cheng of Chu 楚成王 (r. 671-626) started to challenge the hegemony of Qi and swallowed smaller states in his neighbourhood. Nonetheless, subservient states like Jiang 江 and Huang 黃 changed side and declared their alliance with Qi. Chu thereupon attacked Zheng. Duke Huan assembled the regional rulers and created an alliance with Lu, Song, Chen and Wei to punish Chu in 656 by devastating the state of Cai 蔡, an ally of Chu. Chu gave in, and the ambassadors of the two mighty states met at Shaoling 召陵 (modern Yancheng 郾城, Henan) to conclude a peaceful alliance (meng 盟).

The System of Hegemonial Lordship

In 651 Qi organized a meeting at Kuiqiu 葵丘 (modern Lankao 蘭考, Henan) whith the representatives of Lu, Song, Zheng and Wei, and in presence of a royal diplomat from Zhou. The members of the meeting decided that states creating a friendly alliance should never attack each other, and that they had to assist each other in case that one partner was attacked. The Duke of Qi thus became the overlord over the weaker states of Zhou China and replaced the king of Zhou as the highest judicial person.

Succession Crises at the Zhou Court

When King Li died a succession crisis endangered the house of Zhou. His righteous heir was Prince Kan 閬, who is known as King Hui 周惠王 (r. 677-652), but his late grandfather, King Zhuang, had had a favourite son called Prince Tui 穨. King Hui was not a very intelligent ruler. He offended many of his highest ministers and caused a rebellion that forced him to flee to Wen 溫 (modern Wenxian 溫縣, Henan) and then to Li 櫟, a town in the state of Zheng. His uncle Prince Tui was made King of Zhou, but he did not prove a better ruler. He was therefore attacked and killed by the lords of Zheng and Guo 虢. King Hui returned to the throne.

When King Hui died he was succeeded by his son Prince Zheng 鄭, who is known as King Xiang 周襄王 (r. 652-619). King Xiang had a half-brother called Shudai 叔帶 (or Dai 帶), who had been the favourite son of King Hui. Prince Shudai planned to usurp the throne and joined forces with the Rong and Di 翟 tribes. The plot failed and Prince Shudai fled to Qi. It was a high minister of Qi, the reformer Guan Zhong, who mediated the peace treaty between the house of Zhou and the Rong tribes. A decade later the king of Zhou even allowed Prince Shudai to return.

When the state of Zheng attacked in 639 the statelet of Hua 滑, whose lords were relatives to the house of Zhou, King Xiang sent You Sun 游孫 and Bo Fu 伯服 as diplomats to negotiate peace. Yet the Duke of Zheng arrested the diplomats. The King thereupon ordered the Di tribes to attack Zheng, inspite of the remonstances of minister Fu Chen 富辰. Fu Chen was also not content with the King's will to marry a Di princess in order to reward the Di chieftain for his support. His critics were justified because only a few years later King Xiang discarded the "barbarian" queen, which caused an attack of the Di on the royal capital, during which the Earl of Tan 譚 (or the earls of Yuan 原 and Mao 毛) was/were killed. Fu Chen thereupon threw himself into battle against the intruders and died. King Xiang fled to Zheng and was received by the duke of Zheng, in spite of all former discrepancies.

In the meantime Prince Dai was enthroned as King of Zhou, yet he took residence in Wen, not in Luoyang. He invited the Di queen to return to the royal domain. Two years later King Xiang asked the duke of Jin for help, who willingly attacked the usurper and executed him. King Xiang, returning to the throne, rewarded Duke Wen of Jin 晉文公 (r. 636-628) with the title of hegemonial lord and presented him with some territory. Duke Wen was thereafter the most powerful political leader of the Middle Kingdom and assembled the regional rulers, including his formal superior, the King of Zhou, at Heyang 河陽 and Jiantu 踐土. The kings of Zhou were now wholly dependent from support by other political actors. Histories nevertheless concealed this shameful situation with terms like "royal hunt at Heyang".

The Rise of the Regional State of Jin

After the death of Duke Huan of Qi several regional rulers strove for overlordship. Duke Xiang of Song 宋襄公 (r. 650-637) was defeated by Chu, and the state of Song lost its last chance to rise to political and military significance. Instead, the state of Jin rose to supremacy in old China: Duke Xian of Jin 晉獻公 (r. 676-651) had already extended the power of his state by swallowing the statelets of Geng 耿, Huo 霍, Wei 魏 (a state that was later one of the three destructors of Jin), Guo 虢 and Yu 虞. After a decade of inner struggles, the state of Qin supported Duke Wen of Jin in his ascension to the throne of Jin.

Just as Duke Huan of Qi, Duke Wen of Jin employed political advisors, Zhao Shuai 趙衰 (Zhao Chengzi 趙成子) and Hu Yan 狐偃, who strengthened the "national" economy and so the military power of the state. In 635 the King Xiang of Zhou escaped from inner disturbances to the state of Zheng. Duke Wen of Jin saw his chance, rescued the king and accompanied him back to the royal domain, for which support he was highly rewarded by the King.

The next step for the Duke was to challenge the power of the southern, semi-Chinese state of Chu that had dominated the Central Plain since the death of Duke Huan of Qi. In 632 the two states clashed at the battle of Chengpu 城濮 (modern Zhencheng 甄城, Shandong), and Chu was defeated. Duke Wen of Jin established a new friendly alliance during the meeting at Jiantu 踐土 (modern Yingze 滎澤, Henan) with the seven most important states. In the same year, at Wen, the King of Zhou sanctified the hegemony by Jin. Duke Wen's successor Duke Xiang 晉襄公 (r. 627-621) was able to prolong the hegemonial prevalence of the state of Jin.

Conflict Between Qin and Jin

During the reign of Duke Xiang of Jin, Duke Mu of Qin 秦穆公 (r. 659-621) opened a long period of military confrontation between Jin and Qin, but Qin seldomly won any battle. The powerful state of Jin blocked the gate to the Central Plain, and Qin could not but expand its territory to the west into the territory of the Western Rong tribes 西戎 and establish good relations with Chu in the south. Chu meanwhile further expanded its territory by conquering the statelets of Jiang 江, Lu 六 (a special reading!), and Liao 蓼. After the death of Duke Xiang of Jin, the noble Zhao Dun 趙盾 (Zhao Xuanzi 趙宣子) dominated the throne succession of Jin, murdered Duke Ling 晉靈公 (r. 620-607) and enthroned Duke Cheng 晉成公 (r. 606-600). During this period Jin lost its initiative in "foreign" politics. The political advisor Fan Shan 范山 proposed to King Mu of Chu 楚穆王 (r. 625-614) to take the chance and to advance against the north.

The Rise of the State of Chu

King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王 (r. 613-591) had to resolve internal quarrels and uprisings of aboriginal tribes before he was able to reform economic and military administration and to resume this expansion politics. In 606 the southern king sent out an envoy to the court of King Ding of Zhou 周定王 (r. 606-586) to express his will to swallow the royal domain of Zhou. In 598 King Zhuang of Chu crushed the small state of Chen 陳, one year later the state of Zheng. At the battle of Bi 邲 (near modern Zhengzhou 鄭州, Henan) the army of the hegemonial state of Jin was defeated.

A few years later, Chu defeated the state of Song and finally obtained the overlordship over the Central Plain. The protecting task of the overlord had gradually lost its original intention and became a system of hegemony of one major state over weak satellites of Chinese and "barbarian" origin. The attitude to help small states during internal quarrels and against "barbarian" invaders changed to a regular intervention into political affairs to the advantage of the great states.

Internal Quarrels in Jin

The state of Qi observed the growing power of Chu, declared a friendly relationship with the southern king of Chu, who was the only regional ruler who called himself king, except, of course, the King of Zhou. Qi repeatedly attacked the smaller states of Lu and Wei which therefore asked for support the former hegemonial state of Jin. In 589, the army of Jin fought with Qi in the battle of An 鞍 (modern Jinan 濟南, Shandong) and once again demonstrated its superior military power. Chu instantly declared war to Jin, but neither Chu nor Jin dared to initiate a concrete campaign.

After long years of hesitation and negotiations (under the stipulation of Jin's political advisor Song Huayuan 宋華元) Chu attacked Zheng and Wei in 576. One year later the armies of the two hegemonial states fought in the famous battle of Yanling 鄢陵 (modern Yanling, Henan) in which Jin prevailed by a narrow margin. Duke Li of Jin 晉厲公 (r. 580-573) saw his chance to resume hegemony, murdered his mightiest noblemen Xi Zhi 郤至, Xi Qi 郤錡 and Xi Chou 郤犨 (the "Three Xi" 三郤). Yet instead of having strengthened his own position, Duke Li faced serious opposition by the Jin aristocracy like Luan Shu 欒書 and Xun Yan 荀偃 who eventually killed their lord.

Under the next ruler, Duke Dao 晉悼公 (r. 572-558), the internal situation calmed down, and the duke was able to strengthen the position of the state of Jin. His political advisor Wei Jiang 魏絳 proposed to appease the nomad warriors of the Rong with financial tributes instead of fighting them. In 571 Jin erected a fortification wall at Hulao 虎牢 (modern Fanshui 氾水, Henan) against the state of Zheng that was backed by Chu.

After more than two decades of relative peace the political advisor Song Xiangxu 宋向戌 proposed to organize a peace conference to end military conflict. It was held in the capital of Jin in 546 and the participating fourteeen states decided to accept the overlordship of the two states of Jin and Chu. Their adherents had to declare their subjection under the respective overlordship and to present tributes to the two hegemons. Among the participating states, there would be ten years of peace, and for more than fourty years, Jin and Chu would not meet at the battle field again.

Only two of the larger states did not participate in the general peace: Qi, and Qin.

The old kingdom of Zhou had totally lost its political role. The tributes once paid to the kings of Zhou were now offered to the dukes of Jin and the kings of Chu. If a small state did not pay tribute it had to expect military sanctions. Especially precarious was the role of the state of Lu that had to maintain good relationships to the three states of Jin, Chu and Qi, if it did not want to be swallowed by one of them. Very similar was the role of Zheng that was directly in the line of fire between Jin and Chu. But states like Lu also imitated the overlordship of their own masters and demanded tributes from yet smaller states like Teng 滕, Qi 杞 or Zeng 鄫.

The Rise of the Semi-Barbarian States of Wu and Yue

During the relatively peaceful sixth century, the two southern non-Chinese coastal states of Wu 吳 and Yue 越 emerged as new powers. Jin saw its chance to open a second flank against Chu, and in 583 Duke Wuchen of Shen 申公巫臣 was sent to Wu in order to seek a military alliance. The semi-barbarian state of Wu was equipped with military tools and Wu soldiers were trained to attack Chu. But it was only more than half a century later that Wu became a serious threat to Chu after swallowing the statelet of Xu 徐.

Under King Helü 闔閭 (r. 514-496) the political advisor Wu Yuan 伍員 proposed to raise three armies that clockwise were to skirmish at the borders of Chu to weaken this state. In 506 the whole army of Wu finally attacked Chu and defeated this state at Baiju or Boju 柏舉 (modern Macheng 麻城, Hubei). In pursuit of the escaping enemy, the army of Wu advanced to the capital of Chu, Yingdu 郢都 (modern Jiangling 江陵, Hebei). King Zhao of Chu 楚昭王 (r. 516-489) had to take his flight and sought for help in Qin. This western state sent out chariots that expelled the invaders from Wu.

Wu's neighbour Yue took the advantage of the prolonged campaigns against Chu to invade Wu. In 496, Wu set its troops into march to carry out a punitive expedition against Yue, but King Helü died in the battle of Zuili 檇李 (modern Jiaxing 嘉興, Zhejiang). Two years later, King Fucha 夫差 of Wu (r. 495-473) defeated Yue during the revenge battle of Fujiao 夫椒 (modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu). Goujian 句踐, king of Yue (r. 496-465), fled to Mount Guiji 會稽山 (south of modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang).

Although Fucha's advisor Wu Yuan proposed to destroy the state of Yue, the king of Wu was content with his success in battle and the destruction of the capital of Yue. After the defeat of Chu and Yue, King Fucha turned his attention to the north. He had a fortification wall built at Han 邗 (near modern Yangzhou 揚州, Jiangsu) and dug out canals (see Grand Canal) that connected the Yangtze River with the Huai River 淮水 valley, creating a traffic line to the north and the possibility to move troops faster. The small states of Lu and Zhu 邾 declared themselves subjects to Wu. In the years 485 and 484 Wu attacked several times the state of Qi by land and by river and finally defeated Qi in the battle of Ailing 艾陵 (modern Laiwu 萊蕪, Shandong). Wu assembled the states of the Central Plain to a meeting at Huangchi 黃池 (modern Fengqiu 封丘, Henan), with the intention to declare its hegemony. Jin, weakened by internal struggles, did not dare to challenge the new powerful state of Wu, and King Fucha became the new hegemon.

Just during the conference of Huangchi, King Goujian of Yue took the chance and invaded the capital of Wu. The overstretched military power of the state of Wu was unable to withstand the southern opponent who had rebuilt its strength after the defeat of Guiji. In 473, Yue destroyed the state of Wu and replaced it as the dominating power of the southeast. King Goujian of Yue was the last of the so-called Five Hegemons (Wuba 五霸).

The Five Hegemons are also called the "Five Earls" (Wubo 五伯). Different literary sources and commentaries identify them with different persons. The traditional definition by Zhao Qi 趙岐 defines them as Duke Huan of Qi, Duke Wen of Jin, Duke Mu of Qin, Duke Xiang of Song, and King Zhuang of Chu. The book Xunzi 荀子 identifies them with Duke Huan of Qi, Duke Wen of Jin, King Zhuang of Chu, King Helü of Wu and King Goujian of Yue.

The Disintegration of the Old Order of Regional States

In the mid-5th century BCE there were four states that dominated old China: Chu in the south, Yue in the southwest, Jin in the north, and Qi in the east. Yet things were to change soon: Inner conflicts toppled two of the reigning houses (Jin and Qi), new powers emerged (Wei 魏, Zhao 趙 and Han 韓), and reforms in the administration of several states created a new type of "modernized" regional state: the centralized state with a strengthened "national" economy and a professional army. The administration of the state by nobles related to the ruling house was replaced by a bureaucratic officialdom.

The state Lu was the first that felt the power of noble families which challenged the ducal house, in this case the Three Huan (Sanhuan 三桓, descendants of Duke Huan 魯桓公) the Jisun 季孫, Mengsun 孟孫 (Zhongsun 仲孫) and Shusun 叔孫. From the time of Duke Xi 魯僖公 (r. 659-627) on these three noble families dominated the state of Lu. Duke Zhao 魯昭公 (r. 541-510) even had to escape from their intrigues and died abroad. At the beginning of the fifth century minor nobles like Nan Kuai 南蒯, Yang Hu 陽虎 and Hou Fan 侯犯 rebelled against the mighty families and took over the rule of Lu.

Descendants of the dukes of Song fought for the domination within the small state: the families Hua 華, Yue 樂, Lao 老, Huang 皇 (descendants of Duke Dai 宋戴公, r. 799-766), Yu 魚, Dang 蕩, Lin 鱗 and Xiang 向 (descendants of Duke Huan 宋桓公, r. 681-651). In the permanent power struggles only the families Yue and Huang survived the Spring and Autumn period.

The seven descendant lineages of Duke Mu of Zheng 鄭穆公 (r. 627-606) also gradually lost their power in the course of the Spring and Autum period.

In the state of Qi, the government was led by the lineages of Guo 國, Gao 高, Cui 崔 and Qing 慶. In this state it was a family not related to the ducal house that took over power in Qi: the family Tian 田, descendants of a prince from Chen, Tian Jingzhong 田敬仲, who had come to Qi in 672 while escaping internal disturbances in Chen. Under Duke Jing 齊景公 (r. 547-490), Jingzhong's descendant Tian Qi 田乞 was ennobled and from this position collected wealth and power enough to annihilate the families Guo and Gao. His son Tian Chang 田常 was already wealthier than the Duke himself and sent his ambassadors to the neighbouring states. His descendants would eventually replace the reigning house in Qi.

The most tremendous power challenge from within took place in the state of Jin where descendants of the ducal line were not invested as regional governors (dafu 大夫). But this measure did not prevent other noble families from trying to dominate the court of Jin: Hu 狐, Zhao 趙, Xian 先, Xi 郤 and Xu 胥 were the dominating noble clans of the middle Spring and Autumn period, and were later replaced by the families Han 韓, Wei 魏, Luan 欒, Fan 范 and Xun 荀. At the beginning of the 5th century the noble families of Zhao, Wei, Han, Fan, Zhonghang 中行 and Zhi 智 survived the internal struggle. The three first could destroy the last three and dissolved the dukedom of Jin, dividing its territory among themselves.

During the reign of King Ding of Zhou 周定王 (r. 607-586), the southern ruler King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王 (r. 613-591) advanced his armies as far as the valley of River Luo in the pursuit of the Rong tribes of Luhun 陸渾. The king of Chu used this situation pay the king of Zhou a visit, but King Ding only sent Prince Man 滿 ("Royal Grandson Man" 王孫滿) to confer with the semi-barbarian king of Chu. They talked about the so-called "nine tripods" (jiuding 九鼎) erected in the capital that symbolized the nine regions of the kingdom of Zhou.

After the death of King Ling of Zhou 周靈王 (r. 572-545) and during the reign of King Jing 周景王 (r. 545-521) a succession crisis beset the house of Zhou. The heir apparent, Prince Sheng 聖, had died prematurely. King Jing preferred his oldest son Prince Chao 朝, yet when the king died, Prince Gai 丐 was supported by a strong party among the courtiers. The highest ministers enthroned Prince Meng 猛, who was immediately attacked and killed by the adherents of Prince Chao. Prince Meng is posthumously known as King Dao 周悼王 (r. 521-520). Prince Chao proclaimed himself king of Zhou, yet Prince Gai on his side asked for support by the duke of Jin and finally made it to the throne. He is known as King Jing 周敬王 (r. 520-476). Prince Chao, who had reigned for four years, fled to Chu. In 504, when he had assembled a sufficient number of supporters, he attacked King Jing and forced him to flee to Jin. A year later Duke Ding of Jin 晉定公 (r. 512-475) helped King Jing back on the throne.