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Historical Periods of Spring and Autumn

Spring and Autumn - A Period of Disintegration

One of the oldest traditional texts of China is the chronical of the state of Lu 魯, beginning in 722 BC and stretching down to 481 BC. It covers political events not only of the mere small state of Lu itself but also of the major states of Qi 齊, Jin 晉, Qin 秦 and Chu 楚 that dominated the politics of these three centuries. The entries in the Lu chronicle are regulary noted down per year and per season, thus giving the whole historical period the name of "Spring and Autumn" (Chunqiu 春秋時代). Historically seen, the period started when the Zhou 周 rulers had to flee from their western territories in 770 BC and moved their base from Zongzhou 宗周 to Chengzhou 成周 (or Luoyi 雒邑/modern Luoyang) in the Yellow River Basin, furthermore not being able to expand their domains. The end of the period came, when the few states taking over the de facto rule of old China, disintegrated by intern quarrels and gave up their decade-long politics of (almost) peaceful coexistence during the middle of the 5th century BC.

The second great historical writing of the Spring and Autumn period is the collection Guoyu 國語 "Discourses of the States", which accounts anecdotes of the states Zhou, Lu, Qi, Jin, Zheng 鄭, Chu, Wu 吳 and Yue 越. Said to be a composition of Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 (because much of the material is similar to the Annals of Zuo 春秋左傳, a kind of complement to the Spring and Autumn Annals), its oldest parts must have been compiled at the end of the 5th century BC. See a table of the feudal lords (zhuhou 諸侯) of the whole Zhou period.

The ba 霸 Hegemonial System: From Lord Protector to Overlord

The fleeing Zhou elite had no strong foothold in the eastern territories. The Zhou kings had to rely on the help of their neighbour states not even to protect themselves from raids by other powers but also to solve intern power struggles. The first lord to help the Zhou kings was Duke Zhuang of the state of Zheng 鄭莊公 (r. 743-701). He was the first to establish the system of hegemonial rulers (ba 霸), which was intended to keep up the old feudal system once founded by King Wu of Zhou 周武王 in the 11th century BC. Later historians said it was intended to protect the original Chinese states from the intruding barbarian tribes Man 蠻, Rong 戎 and Yi 夷. But in fact, all states of old China had a multi-ethnic population, which could not really be divided into Chinese and Non-Chinese. Tribes that were ethnically and culturally different from the ruling elite were scattered all over the country.

After Duke Zhuang's death, the two dukes Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (r. 685-643) and Wen of Jin 晉文公 (r. 636-628) made a step further in institutionalizing the system of the hegemon. The protecting task of the overlord gradually lost its original intention to become 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 changed to regular intervention into political affairs to the advantage of the great states. The two states not only perfected their own strength but repelled the southern State Chu whose ruler had proclaimed himself king and whose armies step by step intruded into the Yellow River Basin. The contending states Qi, Qin, Jin and Chu finally met for a disarmament conference.

During the relatively peaceful 6th century, the two southern coastal states Wu 吳 and Yue 越 emerged as new powers. After defeiting king Fuchai 吳王夫差 of Wu, king Goujian 越王句踐 of Yue (r. 496-465; actually a "barbarian") became the last overlord. The hegemons are also called Wu Bo 五伯 ("Five Counts"), identified as Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公, Duke Wen of Jin 晉文公, Duke Mu of Qi 秦穆公, Duke Xiang of Song 宋襄公, and King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王.

During the Spring and Autumn period, more and more land was made arable by implementing the system of rotating crops, thereby enhancing the general nourriture. Additionally, iron ploughshares became widespread during the 5th century. The peasants who had to render a slavelike civil and military service to their lords, worked the so-called well-fields (after the character for well jing 井) with nine compartiments. The fruits of the central field had to be rendered to the lord. Theoretically, all fields belonged to the king, but even in the several independent states, a crop tax of a nominal tenth was gradually introduced.

Iron was thought to be an inferior metal and thus only used for ploughshares, not for weapons. Industrial production of ceramics and bronze tools became widespread during the Spring and Autumn period. Interstate relationship was not only conferred to war and peace conferences, but there was also an intensive trade between the different regions. As commerce slowly emerged, it was also necessary to produce and to standardize coins.

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