The Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC)

The 800-year period of the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221) 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). The Spring and Autumn Period was a fertile time for the emergence of key philosophies, schools of thought and religious ideas as small states expanded, peacefully coexisted, and fought wars.

The key event that divides the Western Zhou Period and the Spring and Autumn Period in the year 770 BC is that the the Zhou Dynasty clan that formerly ruled the small empire was forced to move eastward from the city of Haojing to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. They lost most of their political power.

Major Events of the Spring and Autumn Period

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 and this attack marked the end of their direct rule.

the museum of imperial carriages of the emperor of zhou dynastyThe museum of imperial carriages of the emperor of Zhou Dynasty

Some of the regional rulers set up a son of the emperor to be the new emperor named Emperor Ping. He moved to his new capital at Luoyang, and he is said to have reigned from 771 to 720.

The Zhou emperors were ceremonial figure heads though they did have a small territory of their own at Luoyang. 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. They were perhaps somewhat like the modern British royalty except that the populace believed they had real powers as representatives of heaven as gods.

During the approximately 300 years of the Spring and Autumn Period, many small fiefdoms and states slowly coalesced through conquest.

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 action 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).

Political Organization During the Spring and Autumn Period

The whole Zhou Empire was basically centered on the eastern part of the Yellow River. The territory was divided into many fiefdoms and kingdoms.

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 held 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. During this time, 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.

The Philosophy and Religion of the Period

Confucius TempleA sculpture of Confucius in front of Confucius Temple

At the same time and partly because of this political change of the emergence of the big kingdoms, major philosophies emerged that were passed to later empires: Legalism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Other major schools of thought such as Mohism, Buddhism, and others we know nothing about were not passed down to later empires. This was the time of the "One Hundred Schools of Thought".

At the beginning and middle part of the era, the existence of many small states and fiefdoms with their own languages and tribal and cultural backgrounds allowed many schools of thought to exist simultaneously. Since there was some level of peace, people could discuss and teach their ideas somewhat freely. The Spring and Autumn Period was a fertile time for the development of philosophy and religion. 

Various teachers and philosophers could travel around and find patrons in the small states. They taught their philosophies and religion, and it is thought that philosophers and teachers debated and discussed somewhat freely.

As the small states coalesced into powerful political states, the philosophical and religious ideas that were favored by the rulers or the people became dominant in their cultures. The literary works of philosophy and religion that was the basis for later religious and social belief stem from the Warring States Period.

Reduction of the Spring and Autumn Period Legacy

However, the first Qin Emperor decreed that every text that he didn't agree with be destroyed. His control over the empire was so tight that not only most texts but also the teachers and philosophers of the various schools were destroyed.

What he allowed were mainly Legalism texts approved by the emperor or the high official Li Si and some scientific texts. For this reason, we know little about the various schools of thought. Perhaps great works of science, literature and philosophy were destroyed. Texts that survived were mainly of the schools of Legalism, Confucianism, and Daoism.

In this way, during the Spring and Autumn Period and afterwards, dominant regional philosophies emerged.

Confucius

Confucianism was probably first major school to emerge of the three remaining dominant schools. Confucius was perhaps the first major philosopher whose teachings survived and became widely accepted in this era.

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 doctrine of 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.

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:

子貢問曰:"有一言而可以終身行之者乎?"
子曰:"其恕乎! 己所不欲、勿施於人。"

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.

Legalism

His ideas were not accepted everywhere. A major antithetical philosophy was later developed by court rulers in Qin after Shang Yang (390-338) came to power. This teaching 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.

They taught that people's primary role in life was to obey the rule of emperors, and so they did away with familial relationships, freedoms, and accepted cultural ethics throughout their domain.

Daoist-type Philosophy

Another major school that became a basis for post-Qin religion is called Daoism. The first teacher was said to be Laozi. People differ about whether he was born during the Spring and Autumn Period or afterwards.

It is said that Laozi wrote the Dao De Jing; but historians debate about whether he wrote the text, when Laozi lived, and whether he was a real historical person.

Most people place him as a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius. They say he lived around 450 or 600 BC. Others say that he lived about 380 BC.

It is thought that another influential Daoist philisopher named Zhuangzi wrote Zhuangzi.

It is said that Daoism wasn't thought of as a systematic school of philosophy and religion until the Han era. In the Han era, the Dao De Jing (道德經) was considered the main Taoist scripture, and the Zhuangzi (莊子) was a secondary scripture.

Historical Records About the Period

Evidence about the history of the Spring and Autumn Period is contained mainly in several ancient records.

After the Qin Empire (221 to 206 BC) 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 and 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.

Another set of texts that has information about the period is the The Spring and Autumn Annals. It 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 a state called 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 if this is true.

However, these documents conflict. Sorting what is true and what is legend and myth is probably impossible.

Tours of Spring and Autumn Period Sites

Many Spring and Autumn Period sites are in Luoyang. An important Zhou Dynasty site is the Museum of the Zhou Imperial Carriages where you can tour the archeological excavations and see the artifacts. Visit Luoyang with our Luoyang Tours.

The Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan has the largest collection of artifacts from the Warring States era. A visit to the museum can be easily combined with a Wuhan tour or a Yangtze cruise.

Most of the discovered historical relics from the Zhou Dynasty are displayed at Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an. China Highlights' tours of Xi'an, almost without exception, include a visit to the museum.

Hi, I'm Gavin Van Hinsbergh
I updated this article on February 28, 2014
See all my travel articles
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