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The Spring and Autumn Period ( ; Jyutping: ceon1 cau1 si4 doi6) was a period in Chinese history, which roughly corresponds to the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (from the second half of the 8th century BC to the first half of the 5th century BC). Its name comes from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 BC and 481 BC, which tradition associates with Confucius.

During the Spring and Autumn period, China was ruled by a feudal system. The Zhou Dynasty kings held nominal power, but only directly ruled over a small Royal Demesne, revolving around their capital (modern-day Luoyangmarker). They granted fiefdoms over the rest of China to several hundred hereditary nobles (Zhuhou 諸侯). These were descendants of members of the Zhou clan, close associates of the founders of the dynasty, or local potentates. The most important feudal princes (known later as the twelve princes, 十二諸侯) met during regular conferences, where important matters, such as military expeditions against foreign groups or offending nobles were decided. During these conferences, one prince was sometimes declared hegemon (伯, later 霸), and given leadership over the armies of all the feudal states.

As the era unfolded, larger more powerful states annexed or claimed suzerainty over smaller ones. By the 6th century BC, most small states had disappeared, and a few large and powerful principalities dominated China. Some southern states, such as Chu and Wu, claimed independence from the Zhou. Wars were undertaken to oppose some of these states (Wu and Yue). In the state of Jin, six powerful families fought for supremacy, and a series of civil wars resulted in the splitting of Jin into three smaller states by the beginning of the fifth century.

At the same time, the control Zhou kings exerted over feudal princes slowly but inexorably faded. Eventually the nominal Zhou kings lost all real influence, the feudal system crumbled, and the Warring States Period began.

Beginning of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty

After the Zhou capital was sacked by western barbarian tribes, crown prince Ji Yijiu (姬宜臼) fled to the east. During the flight from the western capital to the east, the king relied on the nearby lords of Qi (齊), Zheng (鄭) and Jin (晉) for protection from barbarians and rebellious lords. He moved the Zhou capital from Zongzhou (Hao) to Chengzhoumarker (Luoyangmarker) in the Yellow Rivermarker valley.

The fleeing Zhou elite did not have strong footholds in the eastern territories; even the crown prince's coronation had to be supported by those states to be successful. With the Zhou domain greatly reduced, i.e. to Luoyang and nearby areas, the court could no longer support six groups of standing troops (六軍, liù jūn). Subsequent Zhou kings had to request help from neighbouring powerful states for protection from raids and for resolution of internal power struggles. The Zhou court would never regain its original authority; instead, it was relegated to being merely a figurehead of the feudal states. Though the king de jure retained the Mandate of Heaven, de facto the title held no real power.

Rise of the hegemonies

The first nobility to help the Zhou kings was the Duke Zhuang of Zheng (鄭庄公) (r. 743 BC-701 BC). He was the first to establish the hegemonical system (bà 霸), which was intended to retain the old proto-feudal system. Traditional historians justified the new system as a means of protecting weaker civilized states and the Zhou royalty from the intruding "barbarian" tribes. Located in the south, north, east and west, the barbarian tribes were, respectively, the Man, Yi, Rong and Di.

Urbanisation during the Spring and Autumn period.

The newly powerful states were more eager to maintain aristocratic privileges over the traditional ideology of supporting the weak ruling entity during times of unrest (匡扶社稷 kuāng fú shè jì), which was to be widely propagated during imperial China to consolidate power into the ruling family.

Dukes Huan of Qi (r. 685 BC-643 BC) and Wen of Jin (r. 636 BC-628 BC) made further steps in installing the overlordship system, which brought relative stability, but in shorter time periods than before. Annexations increased, favoring the several most powerful states, including Qin, Jin, Qi and Chu. The overlord role gradually drifted from its stated intention of protecting weaker states; the overlordship eventually became a system of hegemony of major states over weaker satellites of Chinese and "barbarian" origin.

The great states used the pretext of aid and protection to intervene and gain advantages over the smaller states during their internal quarrels. Later overlords were mostly derived from these great states. They proclaimed themselves master of their territories, without even recognizing the petty figurehead of Zhou. Establishment of the local administration system (Jun and Xian), with its officials appointed by the government, gave states better control over the dominion. Taxation facilitated commerce and agriculture more than proto-feudalism.

The three states of Qin, Jin and Qi not only optimized their own strength, but also repelled the southern state of Chu, whose rulers had proclaimed themselves kings. The Chu armies gradually intruded into the Yellow River Basin. Framing Chu as the "southern barbarian", Chu Man, was merely a pretext to warn Chu not to intervene into their respective spheres of influence. Chu intrusion was checked several times in three major battles with increasing violence - the Battle of Chengpu, the Battle of Bi and the Battle of Yanling; this resulted in the restorations of the states of Chen and Cai.

Interstate relations

See main article: Interstate relations during the Spring and Autumn period.

During the period a complex system of interstate relations developed. It was partially structured upon the Western Zhou system of feudalism, but elements of realpolitik were emerging. A collection of interstate customary norms and values, which can perhaps be loosely termed international law, was also evident. As the operational and cultural areas of states expanded and intersected, diplomatic encounters increased.

Changing tempo of war

After a period of increasingly exhaustive warfare, Qi, Qin, Jin and Chu finally met for a disarmament conference in 579 BC, where the other states essentially became satellites. In 546 BC, Jin and Chu agreed to yet another truce.

During the relatively peaceful 6th century BC, the two coastal states, Wu in today's Jiangsumarker, and Yue in today's Zhejiangmarker, gradually grew in power. After defeating and forcing the suicide King Fuchai of Wu, King Goujian of Yue (r. 496 BC-465 BC) became the last recognized overlord.

This era of peace was only a prelude to the maelstrom of the Warring States Period. The four powerful states were all in the midst of power struggles. Six elite landholding families waged war on each other in Jin. The Chen family was eliminating political enemies in Qi. Legitimacy of the rulers was often challenged in civil wars by various royal family members in Qin and Chu. Once all these power strugglers firmly established themselves in their dominions, the bloodshed among states would continue in the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period officially started in 403 BC when the three remaining elite families in Jin - Zhao, Wei and Han - partitioned the state; the impotent Zhou court was forced to recognize their authority.

List of overlords (Ba)

See main article: Five Hegemons

Traditionally, the Five Overlords of Spring and Autumn Period (春秋五霸 Chūn Qiū Wǔ Bà) include:

While some other historians suggest that the Five Overlords include:

List of prominent states

The name following the name of the state is the capital (English, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese).

Cai 蔡 - Shangcai 上蔡 上蔡
Chen 陳; - Wanqiu 宛丘; 宛丘
Chu 楚 - Ying 郢 郢
Lu 鲁 - Qufumarker 曲阜 曲阜
Qi 齊 - Linzi 臨淄 临淄
Qin 秦 - Xianyangmarker 咸陽 咸阳
Song 宋 - Shangqiu 商丘 商丘
Wu 吳 - Gusumarker 姑蘇 姑苏
Xu 徐 - Jiangsumarker, Anhuimarker, Jiangximarker
Yue 越 - Kuaiji 會稽 会稽
Zheng 鄭 - Xinzheng 新鄭

List of important figures

Bureaucrats or Officers
Guan Zhong (管仲), statesman and advisor of Duke Huan of Qi and regarded by some modern scholars as the first Legalist.
Baili Xi (百里奚), famous prime minister of Qin.
Bo Pi, (伯噽)the corrupted bureaucrat under King Helü and played important diplomatic role of Wu-Yue relations.
Wen Zhong 文種 and Fan Li 范蠡, the two advisors and partisans of King Goujian of his rally against Wu.
Zi Chan, (子產)leader of self-strengthening movements in Zheng

Influential scholars

Confucius(孔子), leading figure in Confucianism
Laozi (老子)or Lao tse, teacher of Daoism
Mozi, known as Motse (墨子 Mò Zǐ) or "Mocius" (also "Micius") to Western scholars, founder of Mohism

Confucius(孔子), the editor of Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋)

Lu Ban(鲁班)

Ou Ye Zi(歐冶子), literally means Ou the welder and mentor of the couple Gan Jiang and Mo Ye

Entrepreneurs and Commercial personnel
Fan Li(范蠡)

Generals, military leaders and authors
Rang Ju, (穰苴)elder contemporary and possibly mentor of
Sun Tzu, (孫子)the author of The Art of War

Yao Li, (要离)sent by King Helü to kill Qing Ji(庆忌).
Zhuan Zhu,(专渚) sent by He Lu to kill his cousin King Liao
Mo Xie

List of important events

770 B.C. - the nobility of the Zhou realm supported King Píng of Zhou (周平王) as the new king of the Zhou Dynasty. King Píng moved the capital to Luòyì (雒邑). The era of Eastern Zhou, or Spring Autumn, began. King Píng appointed the son of the nobility Yíng Qí (贏其) to the northwestern part of the Zhou realm. He was named Duke Xiāng of Qin (秦襄公). The kingdom of Qin (秦) was born.

763 B.C. - Duke Zhuang of Zheng (郑庄公) attacked and destroyed the barbarian kingdom of hú (胡國). Duke Zhuang relied on his famous officer Zhài Zhòng (祭仲).

750 B.C. - Duke Wén of Jin (晉文侯), Jī Chóu (姬仇), attacked and destroyed the kingdom of Yú Chén Zhou (余臣周)

704 B.C. - Duke of Chǔ (楚), Mǐ Xióng Tōng (羋熊通), saw the weakened power of the King of Zhou as an opportunity to break free from being a tributary state of the Zhou Dynasty and claimed the title of king himself. He announced the kingdom of Chǔ (楚國) and called himself King Wu of Chu (楚武王).

701 B.C. - Duke Zhuang of Zheng (鄭莊公) died. His son Jī Hū (姬忽) succeeded the title of Duke and was known as Duke Zhāo of Zheng (鄭昭公). Because Lady Yōng (雍氏) of Song (宋國) was married to Duke Zhuang of Zheng and had a son named Ji Tū (姬突), the King of Song thought that he could extend influence in Zheng by helping to support a new ruler who had relations with Song. Zhài Zhòng (祭仲), who had the respect and influence in the state of Zheng, was lured and captured by Song and was forced to support Jī Tū as the successor to the throne



  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66991-X (paperback).

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