Spring and Autumn Periods

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 10, 2021

During the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC; although some historians believe until 403 BC), the Zhou world became a scene of incessant conflict within and between regional powers, and of escalating disintegration of political units. This was one of the gravest systemic crises in China's history.

The Spring and Autumn period was marked by a progressive crisis of central authority. The Zhou kings were the first to lose their power, being unable to restore their prestige after the disastrous loss of their western domain. Regional polities, nominally subordinate to the Zhou monarchs, soon became engulfed in a bitter internecine struggle, and the statesmen of the age sought in vain to stabilize the newly emerging multi-state system. The first stabilization attempt was the so-called "system of hegemony." The most powerful regional lord acted as a surrogate of the Zhou king, combining the legitimacy of the royal representative with the awesome power of his armies. This system of unilateral hegemony proved unsustainable in the long term. By the late seventh century BC, it was replaced by a dual system of alliances, led by two competing superpowers: Jin in the north and Chu in the south.

The alliance leaders tried to stabilize their coalitions, acting as arbiters in inter-and intra-state conflicts, and pretending to be protectors of the old socio-political order. They perpetuated ties with allied states through vibrant diplomatic activities, including periodic meetings of the state leaders and swearing solemn alliance covenants. Yet this system also proved unsustainable. Alliance leaders too frequently valued the narrow interests of their state over that of their allies; treaties and solemn oaths were repeatedly violated, and the effectiveness of the system of covenants was undermined. Incessant incursions by Chu and Jin devastated intermediate states, whose leaders lamented: "Everything is ravaged and destroyed ... All are full of sorrow and sadness and do not know how to protect themselves."

Tired of incessant warfare, the leaders of middle-sized states initiated two "disarmament conferences" in 546 and 541 BC. The organizers proposed the creation of a mega-alliance, led simultaneously by Jin and Chu, thereby stabilizing the divided world. This initiative, however, failed miserably due to the lack of mutual trust between the major powers. Internal crises in both Chu and Jin and the rise of new "peripheral" powers further jeopardized the fragile inter-state order. By the end of the sixth century BC, the multi-state system sank into a war of all against all, giving the subsequent period the ominous name of the age of the Warring States.

Domestic Turmoil

The process of fragmentation did not end with the dissolution of the Zhou realm into competing polities. Each polity, in turn, witnessed increasing internal turmoil due to the concentration of power in the hands of a few aristocratic lineages. Heads of those lineages, most of who were related to the regional lord, monopolized high positions at court, turning offices, and the accompanying territorial allotments, into their hereditary possessions.

In their capacity as hereditary servants of their polity, aristocrats tended to consider themselves as co-masters of the state, treating the local lord as a figurehead. They vehemently protected the interests of their lineage against their lords and against competing for ministerial lineages, thus generating endless domestic conflicts.

By the sixth century BC, most polities became engulfed in a complex web of inter-and intra-lineage struggles, in addition to constant conflicts with neighboring powers. The resultant turmoil may be considered the deepest systemic crisis in Chinese history prior to the first half of the twentieth century.

Enduring Cultural Unity

Despite the severe political fragmentation and endless wars, the aristocrats of the Spring and Autumn period maintained a remarkable degree of social cohesiveness and cultural uniformity, as reflected specifically in their adherence to Zhou ritual culture. Elaborate rites, developed in the Western Zhou period, permeated all imaginable spheres of the nobles' activities, buttressing the hereditary hierarchic order, and becoming a source of a trans-regional aristocratic identity. Aristocrats from different polities routinely intermarried but never married the commoners of their own state. They shared a common textual culture, spoke a mutually intelligible language (which differed from the colloquial language of the commoners), and performed common ceremonies during the inter-state meetings and even on the battlefield. Obvious similarities in the shape and size of the nobles' tombs from different parts of the Zhou world and in the mortuary assemblages within those tombs indicate the existence of the uniform rank system that transcended the boundaries of individual polities. Even the elites of the neighboring non-Zhou polities were gradually absorbed into this aristocratic ritual culture, which allowed, in turn, a cultural expansion of the Zhou world despite its political fragmentation. The cultural unity of the elites mitigated the impacts of centrifugal political forces and was arguably instrumental in facilitating future political unification.

The famous scholar Confucius lived between 551 and 479 BC during the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period. He was a great thinker, educator, and statesman as well as one of the most learned people of the time. Later generations honor him as “the sage of sages” and “the teacher of all ages”.

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