The Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC)
The Zhou Dynasty era is the period of time between 1045 and 221 BC. This long era of about 800 years is divided into three periods of time called the Western Zhou Period (1045-770), the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476), and the Warring States Period (475-221). In the year 770, the Zhou Dynasty clan moved eastward from the city of Haojing to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province, and they lost most of their political power. This marks the beginning of the Spring and Autumn Period. During this time, the dynastic clan held a small territory of their own, but they were dependent on nearby fiefdoms for their support and protection. They became figureheads and performed religious ceremonies. The dozens of small regions slowly coalesced through conquest and merger until there were eight in 475 when three regions of the powerful state of Jin emerged as states. The Zhou dynastic clan lost even more of their authority in 475. Ancient sources allow historians to piece together the history of the period. During the approximately 300 years of the Spring and Autumn Period, as the many small fiefdoms merged into bigger states, the philosophical and religious ideas of these states emerged as major schools of thought.
Most of the discovered historical relics from the Zhou Dynasty are displayed at Shannxi History Museum in Xian. China Highlights' tours to Xian, almost without exception, include a visit to the museum.
Evidence about the history of the Spring and Autumn Period is contained mainly in several ancient records. After the Qin Empire between about 109 BC and 91 BC, Sima Qian wrote Records of the Grand Historian (史記) that contains information about this time. It is said that the Bamboo Annals (竹書紀年) predate the Qin destruction of literature. It is said that the text of the Bamboo Annals was buried with the King of Wei who died in 296 BC and was rediscovered in 281 AD during the Jin Dynasty era. The text was written on flat pieces of bamboo, and this is why it is called the Bamboo Annals.
The Spring and Autumn Annals was traditionally one of the Five Confucian Classics and was ascribed to Confucius. Modern scholars doubt that he wrote it. It is a tersely worded and detailed text mainly about the history of Lu. More material about the Spring and Autumn Period was published in the Han era in three texts. These texts are called the Three Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals. It is said that they date from the Warring States era so that they would also predate the Qin book burning.
The Spring and Autumn Period was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou Period. The ruling clan of the Zhou Dynasty was named Ji. In 771, the ruler of a region called Shen together with a nomadic tribe called the Quanrong attacked the capital at Haojing. Some of the regional rulers set up a son of the emperor to be the new emperor named Emperor Ping. He moved to Luoyang, and he is said to have reigned from 771 to 720. The Zhou emperors ruled as figure heads though they did have a small territory of their own at Luoyang. But their territory was too small to raise an army of their own that was big enough for their defense. They depended on the surrounding regions, and they performed religious ceremonies. The whole Zhou Empire was basically centered on the eastern part of the Yellow River.
Division of the territory into many fiefdoms allowed many schools to exist simultaneously. The Spring and Autumn Period was the beginning of the time called the "One Hundred Schools of Thought." Various teachers and philosophers could travel around and find patrons in the small states. They taught their philosophies, and philosophers and teachers debated and discussed somewhat freely. As the small fiefdoms coelesed into powerful political states, the philosophical and religious ideas that were favored by the rulers coalesced. Finally in the Warring States Era and the Qin Empire Legalism, Confucianism and Daoism emerged as the dominant philosophies.
The political structure of the dozens of states at the beginning of the era was sort of loose. Representatives of the most powerful states and the weaker states had a council to discuss common treats or other problems. Sometimes, the leader of a powerful state would be recognized as the hegemon during a time of crisis or war. The states on the frontier such as Qin grew stronger since they had more room for expansion. There was a lot of rivalry and wars.
About the year 550 BC, there were four major powers called Qin in the west, Jin in the center, Chu in the south, and Qi in the east. In 497, the nobles in Jin began a civil war. In 453, there were only four major regions in Jin, and in that year the three weaker clans destroyed the stronger, leaving only Han, Wei and Zhao. In 403, they divided the Jin state between themselves. This left eight states in the former Zhou empire region: Han, Wei, Zhao, Qin, Chu, Qi and Yan near modern Beijing. The partition of Jin marks the beginning of the Warring States Period (476-221).
Early Philosophy and Religion
During the Spring and Autumn Period and afterwards, as the biggest states emerged, their philosophers and teachers could more widely propagate their teachings since they had a bigger audience and had the support of rulers who controlled larger territories. So dominant regional philosophies emerged. Confucianism was probably first, and then Daoist-type philosophy and Legalism developed and was propagated in the region. Legalism was propagated in the Qin state by Shang Yang and then by others. It also became a dominant regional philosophy. During the Qin Empire it was the dominant philosophy in their court. Confucius was the first major philosopher whose teachings survived and became widely accepted in this era.
The Chinese call this simultaneous emergence of religions and philosophies at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period and in the Warring States Period the era of the "One Hundred Schools of Thought." There were hundreds of philosophers and writers who wrote conflicting documents, and there was discussion and communication. Perhaps so many philosophers could write and propagate their ideas simultaneously because they lived in small kingdoms that supported them. In Chinese history, the dominant rulers generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression that contradict their own, so when there were several small powers, different schools of thought could survive in the land at the same time.
It isn’t exactly clear when Confucius was born, but it was sometime around the end of the Spring and Autumn Period. His name was Kong Qiu, and he is said to have been born in 551. Scholars do not agree on the dating of his birth however. In the Analects, a book of his pithy sayings, it is recorded that he said that he didn’t invent any of his philosophy. He was only transmitting the ancient teachings to his disciples. He wanted them to read the ancient texts. He said he wanted to restore and teach about the Mandate of Heaven. This important belief of his political philosophy was that Heaven would choose a person and his clan to rule. He mixed his theology with his ideas of politics. So he encouraged everybody to behave as they should in whatever role they had in their society. He said that if they did so, there would be harmony and prosperity and happiness. He taught what is called the Silver Rule of behavior that is less expansive than the Golden Rule:
Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?"
The Master replied: "How about‘shu?’ Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."
Confucius's teachings were later turned into written rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers who organized his teachings into the Analects. Mencius (孟子) and Xun Zi (荀子) were other important Confucian philosophers.
His ideas were not accepted everywhere. A major antithetical philosophy was developed by court rulers in Qin that justified subservience to the emperor and total war. They emphasized a centralized bureaucracy and using the people for large construction projects to strengthen their empire. Read more on Confucius
- Chinese Dynasties
- The Xia Dynasty
- The Shang Dynasty
- The Zhou Dynasty
- Spring and Autumn Period
- Warring States Period
- The Qin Dynasty
- The Han Dynasty
- Three Kingdoms
- The Jin Dynasty
- The Sui Dynasty
- The Tang Dynasty
- The Western Xia Dynasty
- The Song Dynasty
- The Yuan Dynasty
- The Ming Dynasty
- The Qing Dynasty
- The Kingdom of Dali