Spring and Autumn period

Alex Rover | February 16, 2023


The Spring and Autumn period or Chunqiu period (pinyin Chūnqiū sin. 春秋) refers, in Chinese history, to the first part of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (Dong Zhou 東周, 771-256 B.C.), i.e., a period from about 771 to 481

During the Western Zhou period (c. 1045-771 B.C.), the numerous small states stretching in and around the Yellow River valley up to the Blue River experienced under the aegis of the Zhou kings a regime that could be described as “feudal”, based on the ties of kinship and allegiance between aristocratic lineages, whose ritual practices were dominated by the cult of the ancestors. But after the capture of their capital in 771 B.C. and its displacement further east, the new “eastern” Zhou kings no longer exercised more than symbolic authority, and they became powerful princes who temporarily exercised the function of “hegemon”, ensuring them the leadership of military coalitions grouping several principalities. But none of the great powers (Qi, Jin, Chu, Qin, Wu, Yue) ever succeeded in exercising a lasting hegemony and in bringing all the Zhou countries under its control, gradually leading China into a phase of increasingly acute conflicts.

This political evolution was accompanied by social and cultural changes, especially evident from the second half of the 7th century BC: initially faithful to the traditions inherited from the Western Zhou period, with a relatively homogeneous culture, the principalities freed from the authority and dominant influence of the former political and cultural center asserted their autonomy. This period thus sees the emergence of regional cultures, visible in particular in art and funeral practices, while a new political order is slowly put in place, substituting to the old order based on personal relationships and lineages, a new political and social organization more abstract and systematic, which is consecrated thereafter under the Warring Kingdoms. The modes of thought also evolve at the end of the period, with in particular the figure of Confucius who, while wanting to restore the ancient Zhou tradition, lays the foundations of a new way of thinking about man and political action.

The main sources on the Spring and Autumn period are the traditional historiographical writings written during ancient China. The Annals of Spring and Autumn of the Land of Lu, which gave its name to the period, is a historical chronicle describing in a dry way events that took place between 722 and 481. This text enjoyed great prestige in the later history of China, the Confucian tradition considering that it had been reworked by Confucius and that one had to look for moralizing interpretations behind the facts described. It was therefore the subject of numerous commentaries (and it is through them that it has been preserved). The Zuo Commentary (Zuo Zhuan) is the best source for reconstructing the political events and practices of the period from 722 to 468. It is a narrative text, which reports the speeches of the protagonists. Compiled around the middle of the fourth century, it has long been presented as a commentary on the Annals of Spring and Autumn, but the commentary covers a slightly longer period and the relationship between the two texts is not as clear as tradition would have it. It is a text with a moralizing purpose, and its late writing poses a problem in terms of how well it captures the intellectual climate of the period. The same is true for other texts of the Chinese historiographical tradition covering the period, the Historical Memoirs of Sima Qian (145-86) or the Adages of the Kingdoms (Guo Yu) which provide some additional information. The Annals of Bamboo (Zhushu Jinian), an essentially factual historical chronicle, also covers the period.

Archaeological excavations have considerably advanced our knowledge of the Spring and Autumn period. Since the discovery of the princely tomb of Lijialou in Henan in 1923 and its magnificent bronze vases, thousands of burials from the 8th – 5th centuries have been unearthed in the different parts of the Chinese territory covered by the states of this period. Among the material unearthed, the numerous bronze ritual vases are the major sources: they are obviously of interest to the history of techniques and the history of art, but also to religious history through their ritual use, and to social history as markers of the rank of their owners, while the inscriptions on several of them provide very useful additional information on these aspects. Alongside the tombs, some urban sites have been excavated. In all cases, it is essentially the material remains left by the elites that are known, not counterbalancing the bias of the written sources that are already the product of this environment.

China at the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period is composed of a number of principalities (perhaps up to 200) spread roughly around the basins of the Yellow and Blue Rivers. The former is strictly speaking the home of Chinese civilization as it was built up under the rule of the Shang and Zhou dynasties since the middle of the 2nd millennium. This “central” part, which exercises a form of cultural primacy, suffers from a political weakness because of its extreme territorial fragmentation, and is increasingly subject to the law of the powers that emerge on its periphery, whose culture mixes the features of that of the Central Plain with specific traditions and an influence of “barbarian” peoples. The latter were less integrated into the political game of the period, without being absent. The main political actors claim to be from a similar community, stemming from the old Zhou-dominated system, with many of the ruling dynasties with founding ancestors (real or imaginary) having been established by the Zhou kings, and retain a form of symbolic allegiance to them despite their political decline. This is the major element of the cohesion of the “Zhou countries”, which form a political and cultural community linked by permanent relations.

The Central Plain States

The Central Plain corresponds to the alluvial plain of the Yellow River east of its “loop” and its confluence with the Wei River. These countries are seen as the guardians of the oldest traditions, where the Zhou royal house settled after being driven out of its home, the Wei basin. There are many principalities, which gradually lose their political power. Among the most important are Zheng, which played a major role in the early period, Song, whose ruling family came from the ancient Shang dynasty, Wei, and the country of Lu, where Confucius originated.

The “peripheral” powers

The great political and military powers of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring Kingdoms asserted themselves in countries located on the periphery of the Central Plain. Some of them (in particular Qin and Chu) are sometimes considered by the people of the latter as semi-barbaric because of certain cultural specificities which are at odds with the traditions inherited from the Western Zhou period, even if they share the main aspects of the Zhou culture, which make their originalities to be interpreted rather as regionalisms.

The main powers in these regions are:

The latter had the particularity of exercising a hegemony over several principalities, constituting a sort of southern counterpart to the hegemons of the Yellow River plain, and of never recognizing the authority of the Zhou king, to whom he was never subjected. It was later challenged by the powers emerging in the Lower Yangtze, Wu and then Yue. Another important state of the outlying regions is Yan in the northeast, which is not very active in the political life of the Zhou countries.

These kingdoms located on the periphery of the Zhou world had several advantages that allowed them to become militarily dominant: they often benefited from the protection of natural barriers (rivers, mountains), and were able to expand towards areas outside the Zhou community, where “barbarian” political entities were often easier prey than the kingdoms of the central plain, and these conquests provided them with additional economic and human means to assert their power.

The “Barbarians” and the expansion of the Zhou culture

The Zhou countries located in the peripheral regions neighbor several peoples considered as “Barbarians”, who live on the margins of their territories. The texts attribute to them traits that are similar to those of the Barbarians of ancient Greek and Latin authors: vice, cowardice, lack of social organization (but which can be moralized). This reflects an evolution in the conception of the “Chinese” identity, a community designated in particular by the expression Hua Xia in the texts of the time, characterized by the common origin and culture of the kingdoms of the Western Zhou period, which strengthened their cohesion by defining themselves through the exclusion of this “other” from their community.

However, these peoples played an important role in the life of the Zhou countries, not only through conflicts (knowing that they could also ally themselves with the Chinese princes), but also through regular diplomatic relations, cultural influences, or simply because people of these peoples (peasants in particular) lived on the territory of certain Zhou states. Texts indicate that these groups could be found in the Central Plain. Four important groups, themselves subdivided into several tribes, are distinguished: the Di in the north, the Rong in the west (sometimes grouped with the previous ones in the eyes of the Zhou, who speak of “Rong-Di”), the Yi in the east and the Man in the south; but Wu and Yue can also be considered as barbarians at times. The archaeological study of the regions occupied by these barbarians, particularly in the north, makes it possible to make these peoples objects of study in their own right, outside the bias of the sources.

These peoples faced the expansion of powers such as Jin, Qin and Chu in the same way as the countries of the Central Plain, and it is undoubtedly through contact with them that these conquering principalities acquired considerable military means, notably by expanding into their domains. These states, in particular Chu, are the passers-by of the Zhou culture through their policy of conquest

The migration of the Zhou house to the east and its decline

In 771, King You of Zhou was defeated and killed by a coalition mounted by the Count of Shen and other lords allied with the Quanrong barbarians from the west, who plundered his capital Hao, located in the Wei Valley. A son of King You, Ping (770-720), finally imposed himself at the head of the dynasty and settled with his court further east, in Chengzhou (now Luoyang): this was the beginning of the “Eastern Zhou” period.

From then on, the sovereign was no longer able to exercise his nominal authority over the great lords of the Central Plain in an effective manner. This incapacity is revealed in the tensions between him and his most powerful vassals, the dukes of Zheng, who were close relatives of the royal dynasty and held the office of prime minister during the reigns of Ping and his successor Huan (719-696). Duke Zhuang of Zheng (743-701) was a formidable warlord, fighting recalcitrant vassals and Barbarians on behalf of the Zhou king. But his power worried Ping and Huan, who raised troops several times to fight him, without ever managing to weaken him. This failure confirmed the decline of the Zhou dynasty, which was no longer able to face its most powerful “vassals”, without them questioning its symbolic domination.

The age of the hegemons

The decline of the royal family offered the most powerful principalities the opportunity to exercise the role of “hegemon” (ba), which was gradually institutionalized. However, there was no power stable enough to exercise a lasting hegemony, and the constant reversal of alliances and the appearance of new military powers created an unstable political situation. After Zheng”s failure, the principalities of the Central Plain were gradually supplanted by the peripheral powers whose domination extended from the first half of the 7th century, and who exercised the role of hegemon (Qi, Jin, Qin and Chu), laying the foundations of the great military powers of the Warring Kingdoms period.

The death of Duke Zhuang in 701 plunged Zheng into a succession crisis which his neighbors (notably Wey and Song) took advantage of to undermine his supremacy. The credit for laying the foundations of the system of hegemons then goes to Duke Huan of Qi (685-643) and his Prime Minister Guan Zhong. The latter is remembered as the precursor of the great reformers who set up an innovative organization that allowed their kingdom to gain in power. Thanks to his military means, Qi intervened in various conflicts at the request of other princes, who were then bound and had to recognize his supremacy. In 667, Huan gathered the counts of Lu, Song, Zheng and Chen, the most powerful of the Central Plain, who proclaimed him the leader of the Zhou countries. King Hui (676-652) then conferred on him the title of hegemon, in exchange for Huan”s support in the succession dispute with his brother, whom the Duke of Wey supported. The “rebels” are punished, and the supremacy of Qi is ratified.

During the years of his hegemony, Qi derived his legitimacy from his ability to fight against external threats to his allies, the Zhou city-states. The first were the barbarian tribes that spread over the northern principalities: he helped Yan against the Rong tribes, then Xing and Wey against the Di. The other great threat to the Zhou world was Chu in the south. His sovereign had adopted the title of “king” (he thus marked his hegemonic ambition, and threatened the southern principalities (Sui, Zheng, Cai). Here the success of Huan is less obvious: Chu is led to negotiate peace in 657 after having succeeded in setting Cai against Qi and his allies, but thereafter he continues to expand on his neighbors. This does not prevent Huan”s prestige from being at its peak, to the point that he would have considered breaking with the Zhou king to take the same status as him.

The death of Guan Zhong and then that of Huan in 643 sounded the death knell of Qi”s hegemony: the kingdom plunged into a succession crisis which was an opportunity for other princes to try to assert their pre-eminence. Duke Xiang of Song (651-637) thus sought to form an alliance for his own benefit and was briefly recognized as hegemon, without success because of Zheng”s opposition and Chu”s influence. The new duke of Qi, Xiao, is not much more successful. The vacuum then benefited Jin, a state on the western bangs of the Central Plain, which had expanded and reorganized since the eighth century under a new dynasty. Duke Xian (676-651) had strengthened his power, and had stayed away from the league led by Qi. Subsequently, Duke Wen of Jin (636-628) emerged as a potential supporter of the duke of Song to thwart the ambitions of his opponents, Zheng and Chu. It was also at this time that King Xiang of the Zhou approached Wen for help after having been forced into exile by his brother: the duke of Jin re-established him and in exchange obtained land close to the Zhou domain, establishing himself directly in the Central Plain. Then he asserted his power against Chu: in 633 he came to the aid of Song besieged by the Southern Kingdom and its allies, then the following year he led a coalition in which his father-in-law Duke Mu of Qin (sometimes recognized as a hegemon) and the dukes of Qi and Song joined, which inflicted its first major defeat on Chu at Chengpu. Many of the vassals of the vanquished then rallied to the duke of Jin, who was granted the title of hegemon at the next conference of the princes of the great Zhou states.

After establishing Jin”s pre-eminence, Duke Wen died in 628. Chu retained his military power and his ambitions to expand over the weak principalities of the southern Central Plain, and his king Zhuang (613-591), assisted by his minister Sunshu Ao, even succeeded for a time in being recognized as hegemon after having defeated Jin at the battle of Bi (597). At the same time, Qi and Qin still had great power and could threaten the other two great states. In spite of this difficult situation, Jin managed to keep his central position in the diplomatic and military game. In order to weaken Chu, who remained his main adversary, Duke Jing of Jin sent a former minister of Chu, Wuzhen, who rallied to him, to the countries of Wu located at the mouth of the Yangtze River, where he organized the barbarian tribes to invade several territories submitted to Chu. The latter is then incited to privilege peaceful relations with his rival for the years which follow.

But conflicts became more acute in the first decades of the 6th century, to the point that the duke of Song, constantly caught between the rivalries of the great powers, convened a conference in 579 in which the four great ones took part, who accepted a principle of limitation of their military power. This did not prevent the resumption of conflicts soon after, and Jin had to raise a new coalition to defeat Chu at Yanling in 575. Shortly afterwards, a coup d”état occurred in Jin, which brought to power Duke Dao (572-558). He succeeded in being recognized as hegemon despite the rivalry of the other great powers, after having subdued the Rong tribes, which were again threatening in the north. But it is also at this time that the chiefs of the noble lineages of Jin strengthen their position in the kingdom, weakening the reigning dynasty. The son and successor of Dao, Duke Ping, still managed to lead a victorious expedition against Qi, whose capital Linzi was taken in 555. But he has to face a revolt of one of his ministers which is about to make him fall, and owes his salvation only to the support of other big families of his kingdom. The power of Jin outside can then only suffer from these internal disorders, and Chu succeeds in forming around him a league rival of that of which Jin was the hegemon, before spreading against several members of this last one. The inability of Jin to react marks the definitive tipping into a period of “balance of power” in which the claim to hold the hegemony loses its meaning.

Balance of power and aristocratic wars

The 6th century saw the consecration of a system without lasting hegemonic power, in which Jin, Chu, Qi, Qin, then the southern principalities Wu and Yue gained even more strength, continuing their expansion in the face of the weakest principalities and barbarian peoples. King Ling of Chu (540-529) made his power known during the last decade of the 6th century, uniting around him several principalities that the expansion of Wu threatened (Lu, Qi, Wey, etc.) and taking over Cai and Chen, two important old principalities of the Central Plain. But the internal political unrest in his kingdom (where the authority of the central power was generally weak) prevented him from succeeding. It is then again Jin who can preside over the inter-state meetings, more especially as his ally king Helü of Wu (who profits in particular from the councils of the famous strategist Sun Tzu) gains several military successes against Chu, whose capital Ying he takes. However, while the latter is on the point of collapsing, Jin is not able to lead the expedition which would carry the blow of grace to him because of its own internal tensions. It even plunges in the civil war during the first years of the 5th century.

In 482, king Fuchai of Wu (495-473), continuing the successes of his predecessor against Chu, Yue (his southern neighbor, whose support Chu had sought against him) and Qi, succeeded in taking over the leadership of the interstate assemblies, becoming hegemon at the expense of his old ally Jin, from whom he broke away to exercise a more autonomous policy. But at the very moment when the king of Wu seeks to be recognized in the Central Plain, the king Goujian of Yue (496-465) succeeds in a first incursion against him, resulting in the capture of his capital. Too weakened by the wars already waged, Wu could not resist a second offensive in 473, which resulted in his outright annexation by Yue. The latter, although recognized as hegemon, cannot then make better than his predecessor and does not manage to impose itself durably.

If the Spring and Autumn period is constantly marked by internal rivalries between states, opposing aristocratic lineages and heads of state, these become more acute in the 6th – 5th centuries. They culminated in violent internal conflicts which upset several major states. Thus, the troubles in Jin were prolonged until the elimination of several of its great families and its partition between the three most powerful, the princes of Wei, Zhao and Han, consecrated by the king Zhou in 453. A little earlier, in 481, the Tian lineage had succeeded in securing its supremacy in Qi by eliminating all its rivals and considerably reducing the authority of the ducal family, which had only a puppet position. This is the last event mentioned in the Annals of Spring and Autumn, and therefore the end of the Spring and Autumn period according to classical historiography. According to the criteria of modern historians, it would rather be a fact reflecting the rise of the aristocracy and the constitution of a new state order, which did not end until the following century.

There is therefore no agreed date for the end of the Spring and Autumn period, as political and social developments do not point to a major break during the fifth century. In any case, the period of the Warring Kingdoms opens with a political landscape dominated by seven or eight great powers that recognize less and less the symbolic authority of the Zhou king, and a few dozen vassal principalities that are for the most part no longer able to play a significant political role and are doomed to be subjugated, or even annexed, by their powerful neighbors, in a context of growing military strength and state centralization marked by the emergence of a new political class and often new dynasties.

The persistence of the Zhou dynasty and its moral authority while it no longer had political authority, as well as the absence of a power capable of substituting itself for the former masters in the long term, meant that the Spring and Autumn period resulted in the constitution of a very lively and relatively homogeneous diplomatic and military space. Principles and practices were put in place to ensure a semblance of stability: meetings between princes were organized on a regular basis, representatives were sent and marriages between dynasties strengthened ties, leagues were formed around the most powerful, military practices were guided by principles aimed at avoiding unnecessary violence. But this did not prevent the growing instability of relations and the escalation of violence and practices with little regard for honor, which are major characteristics of the period of the Warring Kingdoms.

The Zhou king, the hegemons and the other princes

The community of states of the Spring and Autumn period recognized the symbolic supremacy of King Zhou, established in Chengzhou (Luoyang) since 771, despite the fact that he was no longer able to play a significant political role after the last attempts to regain control over Zheng. The primacy in the political game belongs de facto to the great powers, the “hegemons”. This term is the common translation of the word ba, a distinction first attributed to Duke Huan of Qi, who however was unable or unwilling to follow through on his military dominance by assuming for himself the rank of king. The Chinese tradition has recognized at least five hegemonic sovereigns: Huan, then duke Wen of Jin, Xiang of Song, Mu of Qin, Zhuang of Chu, to which can be added Fuchai of Wu and Goujian of Yue.

But these hegemons in fact only ever ruled “leagues” of states covering a more or less vast part of the Zhou countries, and never their totality. In general, the major states (Qi, Jin, Chu, Qin, then Wu and Yue) never recognized the domination of another for long. During the period of the long hegemony of Jin, Chu thus constituted his own zone of influence, to the point that one can consider that there was at that time a hegemon in the North and another in the South. Finally, the Zhou king, although not playing any military role, keeps the first place on the symbolic level, relying on the prestige of his founding ancestors (Lord Millet, the Wen and Wen kings of the Zhou). He is visited regularly by the princes who pay him homage and give him gifts that have the symbolic value of a tribute; in return he offers them a guarantee that reinforces their legitimacy, first and foremost that of the hegemon who receives his assent to occupy this position, often in exchange for help in the many troubles affecting the royal domain (barbarian invasions, food shortages, dynastic conflicts). His role is important in the symbolic unity of the Zhou countries, and significantly no other ruler in this cultural space dares to take on the title of “king” (wang), which is only found among the rulers of peripheral countries such as Chu, Yue, Wu, or the “barbarians” Rong, the former clearly contesting the supremacy of the Zhou king and seeking to establish his own sphere of authority in the image of that of the Zhou, and not only as a hegemon.

The symbolic stability of the royal institution contrasts with the political instability of the hegemonies, which is due to the combination of several factors: great volatility of alliances, which tend to turn against the strongest, thus preventing them from establishing their power in the long term; inability of the great powers to compete militarily, preventing the emergence of an uncontested hegemon; internal weaknesses of the great principalities, where the central power is often weakened and threatened by noble lineages. Thus a very unstable political game was created, marked by eternal reversals of alliances, advantages never durably acquired, and eternal quarrels of precedence based on factors of military power, but also on symbolic considerations never evacuated, such as the seniority of lineages.

Many conflicts

The frequency of wars during the Spring and Autumn period is impressive: the Annals of the Spring and Autumn mention 540 conflicts between states and 130 civil wars over 259 years, and this list is probably incomplete. These incessant wars can be explained by the numerous reversals of alliances and the territorial fragmentation that generated numerous disputes, quickly generalized by the play of diplomatic agreements and political interests. In fact, historiographical accounts evoke conflicts that can break out for very variable reasons, often seemingly insignificant: breaches of good manners in relations between courts, quarrels of precedence during a meeting, or in an extreme case, the escalation to the level of the princes of Wu and Chu of a quarrel between two women from two border villages dependent on each other, over the possession of mulberry trees.

These conflicts remain little violent. The number of troops mobilized in the field was quite limited, even among the greatest powers: during his hegemony, Duke Huan of Qi had approximately 30,000 infantrymen organized in armies of 10,000 soldiers composed of five regiments of 2,000, themselves divided into units of 200, then 50 and 10 soldiers. It is unlikely that these troops were all mobilized at the same time during the same campaign. The most common weapon used by infantrymen was the axe-stabber (ge), consisting of a blade placed on a shaft about one meter long, used for hand-to-hand combat; the sword spread slowly, especially from the principalities of the South which were known to have forged quality swords (Yue, Wu and then Chu). The shock troops of the armies of this period are the battle chariots, which the greatest powers can mobilize by the hundreds, and which are the weapon par excellence of the aristocrats. The fighters mounted on the chariots are armed with bows but also with long halberds with several blades (ji) used to hook their opponents. The noble lineages form the backbone of the troops, since they themselves mobilize the basic units of the army in their fiefdoms. They thus built up personal troops which were often mobilized for their own needs, and not necessarily for those of their suzerain. During the campaign, the prince discussed with the aristocrats who had joined him to decide on the operations to be undertaken, and sometimes an influential minister of war chosen from among the great lineages of the state could take charge of the troops in person.

If we rely on ancient texts (in particular the Commentary of Zuo), the main reason for the low violence of wars is the fact that princes have little appetite for fierce fighting, and often seek to avoid confrontation, contenting themselves with displaying their power, their ability to mobilize allies, with the aim of forcing their rival to make peace, if possible without a fight or following a simple skirmish. When the confrontation actually takes place, it is generally the occasion for the nobles mounted on the fighting chariots to show bravery and chivalrous attitude, refusing immoral behaviors to make their prestige shine. For example, Duke Xiang of Song refused on principle to attack Chu”s troops until they had all crossed the river between them and were in battle order, which cost him victory. These attitudes are emphasized in the texts, presenting the battle as an ordeal during which the gods decide who will win, the best way to gain their favor being to respect morality, not to push the victory too far by massacring one”s opponents, especially since clemency allowed one to avoid future revenge. As in political activities, it was also appropriate to perform rituals at different times of the campaign, and to consult the auspices before making a decision.

In fact, the wars of this period were perhaps less courteous. Several examples (denounced by ancient texts) show that ethical rules were not always respected, and several conflicts ended in the annexation of the defeated countries by the victors, explaining the decrease in the number of political entities during the period. The military organization gradually changed in the 6th century B.C. In connection with the constitution of new administrative districts, reforms concerned the recruitment of combatants, gradually establishing a large-scale conscription system (in Lu in 590, in Chu in 548, in Zheng in 538). In this context, the army relied less and less on the nobles and the carters, and more and more on the peasantry and the foot soldiers. Thus in 540 the prince of Jin asked his warriors riding chariots to fight on foot. After 500, there was an evolution towards more bitter conflicts, announcing the violence and amorality of the battles of the period of the Warring Kingdoms (in the 4th century), when troops of tens of thousands of infantrymen were used as cannon fodder, during fights in which the strategists tried to assert their superiority by all means.

Meetings, alliances and solidarity

Meetings between princes and ministers are common during the Spring and Autumn period, playing a determining role in the diplomatic game. The princes and

On a less regular basis but with more important consequences, real “conferences” often bring together a dozen allied princes (forming a “league”) to discuss major issues. These meetings were formalized from the Huan hegemony of Qi onwards: they had to decide on a hegemon who would lead the discussions, usually concerning the organization of military expeditions and the payment of tribute to the hegemon. The most important meetings bring together the princes, their entourage and their guards, who are arranged in large camps. The order of precedence, very important, is discussed.

Large assemblies are marked by the taking of an oath of covenant (盟, meng), also practiced between lineages of the same principality and in the private sphere. It is usually a bloody ritual that begins with the digging of a hole, in which an animal is sacrificed, often an ox; its blood is used to symbolize the agreement, but it is not known whether it is drunk by the contracting parties or smeared on their mouths. Then the oath is pronounced and written on a text which is buried with the victim or his blood in the hole. Thus, many treaty tablets have been unearthed in Wenxian and in Houma, the ancient Xintian capital of Jin (mostly concerning the aristocratic houses of this state). Gods or ancestors are invoked as guarantors of the agreement, and terrible threats are made to those who violate it. The text of the treaty is thus divided into two parts: stipulations of the agreement, and invocation of divine or ancestral guarantors.

Apart from alliances with a military purpose, solidarity between principalities is affirmed on several occasions, even between non-allied countries. It is thus agreed that one should not overwhelm a country undergoing a natural calamity (flood, drought) or a barbarian threat, but on the contrary to help it. It is also good practice to extradite fugitives from another state.

Movement of people between states: marriages, hostages and escapes

The cohesion of the states of the Spring and Autumn period is also ensured by the movement of various types of people between the principalities, for a wide variety of reasons.

Courts were often linked by inter-dynastic marriages, which involved negotiations, exchanges of gifts, and then the travel of the brides in long processions to the court of their betrothed, where a lavish union was celebrated that was supposed to ensure good relations between the two courts. It is often expected that a princess married to a foreign prince will plead in favor of her home country, although sometimes the situation deteriorates and the unfortunate woman finds herself having to choose between the two states. This practice sometimes overlapped with the practice of sending princes as hostages to a foreign court (often following a defeat) to ensure the good faith of their home country, the hostage princes often being married to a princess from their host country.

Displacement from one state to another also concerned the servants of princes, who could move at the will of their master (musicians to entertain another court, maids accompanying princesses promised to a foreign prince, ministers who came to help an ally), or because they had fled. Many ministers thus found themselves serving countries from which they did not originate, for various reasons: disgrace, lineage rivalries, crime. They often had to take refuge in a distant court to be out of reach of their country of origin and its allies who had to extradite the fugitives. This led to the constitution of a very mobile and ultimately homogeneous ruling class, with ministers often having connections (good or bad) in various courts, contributing to the integration of the political space.

China during the Spring and Autumn period was divided into several political entities of various sizes which can be characterized as states, sometimes city-states, with an administration structured around the ruling lineage. This was generally established during the Western Zhou period around the model offered by the institutions of the royal domain. During the Eastern Zhou period, this organization became more complex, especially in states that experienced significant territorial expansion, often under the impetus of reformers. At the same time, the social structure became more diverse and hierarchical, and also more mobile.

Settlement and administration: the strengthening of state authority

The states of the Spring and Autumn period were organized around a central city (guo, or cheng) which generally gave its name to the political entity (also referred to by the term guo). They could also be characterized as “city-states”. The rest of the territory is designated as “field” (ye). Settlement was generally discontinuous, leaving isolated hamlets and undeveloped areas, especially on the margins of principalities. The few cities of this period that have been uncovered in archaeological excavations are surrounded by rammed earth fortifications, and include an official part housing the ruler”s palace, which often appears to be surrounded by its own wall and raised on a terrace, following a formula that is enshrined in the Warring States period. The last capital of Jin, Xintian (today Houma), is thus organized around four adjoining rectangular enclosures, one of which has a large terrace that must have supported the residence of the ruler, while the others were probably outbuildings of other members of the reigning family, while other spaces surrounded by walls were built further away, whose function is not well determined (residential, administrative, ritual or military). Artisanal spaces (notably foundries) were uncovered on the periphery of the site, as well as ritual, funerary and sacrificial spaces further east (notably the place where the oath texts were found). The popular habitat must also have extended outside the enclosures. The cities thus include residential areas and artisanal spaces revolving around the local power. Some cities cover vast spaces: Yongcheng, the capital of Qin, has a roughly quadrangular enclosure measuring 3,330 meters in the east-west direction and 3,200 meters in the north-south direction.

State rulers are often referred to by the title gong, commonly translated as “duke” or “prince”, or sometimes hou, “marquis”. The title wang, “king,” is normally reserved for the Zhou ruler, but other monarchs bore it in the southern regions (Chu, Wu and Yue) and among the “Barbarians. According to the royal ideology forged under the Western Zhou, the king is the holder of the “Celestial Mandate” (tianming) granted to him by the supreme deity, the Lord above (shangdi), which assured him dominion over the “four parts” of the world (si fang). Following the decline of the power of the Zhou kings, the most powerful princes took up this ideology, as attested by inscriptions found in Qin and Chu. The power of the rulers of the major states is particularly evident in the monuments dedicated to them, notably the Majiazhuang complex in Qin consisting of several units, including site No. 1 which is probably the ancestral temple of the ducal house, while No. 5 appears to be a palace, and the royal burial complexes, which are increasingly monumental, like that of Nanzhihui in Qin. This reflects the fact that the gap between the princes and the great lineages of the aristocratic elites tends to widen, whereas the differences between the tombs of the two groups were not so marked under the Western Zhou.

The rulers are surrounded by high dignitaries occupying the major functions of the administrative apparatus, inspired by those of the Zhou court. A prime minister (lingyin) was often in charge of the day-to-day running of the administration, and could be assisted by other ministers, notably those in charge of war and security, rituals, the treasury, works, the supervision of craftsmen, etc. The power of the central administration was however limited at the beginning of the period, in the face of the autonomy of the fiefs ruled by the great noble lineages, which reproduced on their own scale a local administrative organization, also organized around a city. But the balance of power tends to be reversed. At the beginning of the 7th century, the Chu kings were the first to create districts (xian, a title still used to designate the basic constituency of the People”s Republic of China) from conquered lands, entrusted to governors (yin) chosen by the central power and responsible to it alone, and no longer to one of his relatives who could then pass it on to his heirs. This model, which broke with the tradition of the Zhou institutions, was then taken up by other major states (Jin, Qin), contributing to the establishment of a territorially based administrative system that eventually supplanted the old order of aristocratic “fiefs”, which went with the predominance of personal relationships.

At the same time, the first written penal laws date from the middle of the sixth century, the most famous case being those written on a cauldron at the instigation of Zi Chan, Prime Minister of Zheng. This also prefigures the emergence of a state with centralizing tendencies: with the decline of the political power of lineages dominating apanages on a hereditary basis, the central power comes to exercise justice directly in its provinces, which requires a more abstract and systematic approach to the exercise of justice. It is also this tendency to erase customary justice exercised by the chiefs of lineages that is indicated by the written oaths of alliance found at Houma (the ancient Xintian) around 440-420, a period of conflict between aristocratic lineages in this state. The head of the powerful Zhao lineage receives oaths of allegiance (meng) from several other lineages, thus seeking support based on formalized ties rather than on customary lineage solidarity (especially since these alliances seem to be made against another member of the Zhao).

Social structures and dynamics

Graves and the furniture they contain are the best indicator of the social hierarchies of the Spring and Autumn period, the size of graves and the deposit of certain prestigious objects inside them being in principle a response to sumptuary laws manifesting the status of the deceased; for example, the number of ding and mistletoe vases stored in the grave of an aristocrat is in many cases a revelation of the rank of the deceased in the countries where the Zhou tradition is the most vivid. The study of cemeteries thus allows us to distinguish several social groups that can be linked to those attested in the texts. Thus, the necropolis of Zhaojiahu (Hubei) in ancient Chu presents the lower social strata to the high aristocracy. If we follow the analysis of L. von Falkenhausen, first come the members of the shi group, belonging to the lower noble lineages: first a richer group, the shangshi, corresponding to the lower layer of the landed aristocracy which had secondary administrative functions, then two other groups of these “gentlemen”, the zhongshi and ziashi, who did not have estates or official functions, a sort of middle layer. Then come the common people (shumin), and the poor (pinmin). In a more detailed way, the “commoner” social groups can also be defined according to their activity: craftsmen and merchants of the urban settlements, peasants of the hinterland, themselves divided into several groups (gardeners, pastoralists, foresters, millers, etc.).

The highest offices of the central and local administration are traditionally in the hands of the most powerful aristocratic lineages of the different states, who often have hereditary offices in one or the other administrative level. They bear honorific titles inherited from the Zhou tradition, roughly translated by terms from European feudalism: “marquis” (hou), “count” (bo), “viscount” (zi), or “baron” (nan). They received titles from the sovereigns as well as prestigious objects (ritual vases, musical instruments, musicians, armor) and servants to show their social rank. Their functions are essentially turned towards war and rituals, which guarantee them the most prestige. The ideal of noble activities appears on some bronze vases with copper inlays dated from the last decades of the period and representing several scenes characteristic of aristocratic life: scenes of bow hunting, of a besieged city, war dances performed with spears in the hand, rituals marked by libations and music played with bells and sound stones. The local base of the aristocrats, resting around a real local court, allowed them to have their own wealth, thus to mobilize troops, to organize the ancestral cult of their family at the local level, around vast necropolises which, without rivaling those of the most powerful dynasts, could be impressive. For example, the necropolis of Xiasi (Henan, mid-6th century), belonged to the Yuan lineage, a collateral branch of the Chu royal dynasty which then ruled the Danjiang river valley. This site is dominated by the tomb of Viscount Peng (or Yuan Zi Feng, tomb no. 2), who was the prime minister of the kingdom, surrounded by his wives and several servants.

Over time, the traditional aristocracy dominated by characters belonging to lineages descended from that of the ruler (often his brothers or sons) was supplanted by new lineages that originally had no family ties to the ruler. The coexistence of these powerful lineages with those of the dynasties ruling the states was often chaotic, and civil wars were commonplace. Conflicts between large families are recurrent in Jin, and contribute to weaken it and to make it lose its rank of hegemon, before finally causing the break-up of the kingdom during the first half of the 5th century. The various agreements found at Houma, already mentioned, testify to the alliances that were forged between the different aristocratic lineages of this kingdom in order to acquire greater power. New political entities were thus built, based on the rise in power of the armies in the hands of the most powerful lineages, which were often able to overthrow the reigning dynasties, as did the Tian lineage which ruled Qi from 481 onwards. In Chu, the weakening of the royal lineage following the defeats inflicted by Wu allowed the collateral branches to exercise their tutelage over the sovereigns. In Qin, on the other hand, the aristocracy seems to have been less powerful and turbulent.

The institutional evolution towards a strengthening of the authority of the state and the decline of traditional ties also benefited the group of “gentlemen” (shi). The origins of the shi appear to be diverse: members of downgraded aristocratic lineages, or conversely, people from the middle or lower strata of society who have risen through the ranks and become part of the lower stratum of the elite. Often with an intellectual and military education, they can distinguish themselves in the exercise of official functions and experience a social ascension thanks to their merits, prefiguring the class of literate-functionaries which asserts itself at the end of the pre-imperial period. In fact, the members of the wealthy classes of the cities play an increasingly important role in the internal conflicts of the Spring and Autumn states, and the great lineages are obliged to take them into account in their march towards the conquest of power. Some brilliant ministers came from this middle class, such as Guan Zhong, Prime Minister of Duke Huan of Qi, who came from the merchant community, or Zi Chan, a small nobleman from Zheng who managed to govern this state. The political role of the shi was finally established during the period of the Warring Kingdoms.

The major part of society, the peasantry, is poorly known. Marcel Granet has attempted to reconstruct their life more precisely by carrying out an anthropological analysis of the “Songs of the Country” (Guo feng) of the Book of Odes, which modern critics date for the most part to the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period. These texts refer to peasant festivals or more broadly to their daily life. The image that emerges is of a rural society organized in extended families of a classificatory type (one does not distinguish between fathers and uncles and mothers and aunts), endogamous matrimonial unions (with a preference for marriage between cousins) and patrilocal unions (the wife joins the household of the husband). The period of agricultural work is marked by numerous festivals, which have a pronounced sexual character in spring, the period of return of fertility. The different elements of the rural landscape (rivers, mountains, forests) are invested with a sacred character, sometimes receiving a cult.


The agriculture of Spring and Autumn China is dominated by the cultivation of millet, wheat in the North and rice in the South. Peasants also cultivate various fruits and vegetables in addition. The cultivation of mulberry trees for the breeding of silkworms is developing and is undoubtedly of a speculative nature. For several millennia, agricultural tools have been made primarily of wood and stone, but bronze blades (and perhaps iron at the end of the period) were used to make hoes, scythes and plowshares. Oxen are increasingly used as draft animals for the spiders during the Eastern Zhou period, contributing to the slow improvement of agricultural productivity. However, the growth of agricultural production was mainly based on the extension of cultivation areas through land clearing, and in some cases through irrigation.

The agrarian structures are characterized by the rights of the elites over the land worked by the peasants. If the latter had to perform chores on the direct properties of the former at the beginning of the period, it seems that progressively this work was replaced by the payment of royalties in kind consisting of a portion of the harvest, generally 1

Metallurgical craftsmanship

The craftsmen of the Spring and Autumn period worked with a great variety of materials: the excavations of Houma (Shanxi) have brought to light foundries, workshops for working stone, jade, bone, and ceramics. Metallurgical craftsmanship is best known from archaeological research. Ironwork was in full swing during this period, but bronze was still the most common metal to be forged. The states of Jin and Chu have important copper mines giving them an obvious advantage. Such a mine with facilities for initial smelting of the ore has been excavated at Tonglüshan (Hubei), in a southern region whose guardian principality (Chu?) is unknown. The two large workshops of the Houma smelter, one specialized in the manufacture of ritual vases and other prestige objects, the other in tools, show that the most powerful states were able to develop a complex organization, probably involving a thorough division of labor under the supervision of administrators. This site is remarkable in that large-scale production is not at the expense of the quality of the objects. Many mysteries remain: the organization of production, the status of the craftsmen and the sponsors can only be assumed, even if it seems obvious that in both cases there is a quantitative and qualitative progression. In any case, the technical developments of this period favor the choice of a massive production with a division of labor, because they favor the elaboration of objects of great artistic quality in several stages.


Goods circulated above all through non-market exchanges, notably in the circuits of accumulation and redistribution of wealth directed by official institutions: gifts to deserving servants or friendly lords, tributes, workers” rations. Nevertheless, commercial exchanges became more and more important with the changes in political and social structures, without however being in the majority. The development of urban centers allowed the emergence of more important places of exchange, but it was the periodic political conferences which, by attracting people from far away with their products, including merchants, constituted the privileged moments of long-distance trade. The political authorities ensured the maintenance of the communication routes (land and river) and their security by regularly manning garrisons. In the principality of Lu, there is even a debate on whether to keep the customs posts.

A class of rich merchants gradually emerges. Fan Li (later known as Tao Zhu Gong), who lived at the end of this period and whose biography has been treated by Sima Qian, is one of the most illustrious representatives of the class of businessmen in ancient China. He was a minister of Wu before becoming insolently rich through his business dealings. Posterity has made him one of the archetypes of the person capable of becoming very rich, being attributed long after his death the writing of a book of precepts on the conduct of business.

The development of commercial exchanges during this period can be seen in the forms of money used in the second part of the period. They reflect the regional diversity of the Chinese countries of this period: Jin uses above all bronze coins in the shape of a spade (bu), the northern countries (Qi, Yan) coins in the shape of a knife (dao), even if imitation cowries (in bronze, jade, stone, bone) remain common as they were in the previous periods as means of payment. A foundry in Guanzhuang (present-day Henan, probably in the former state of Zheng) yielded molds for spade-shaped coins, dated approximately between 640 and 550, which constitutes the earliest evidence of standardized coinage in China, and the oldest known monetary workshop in the world.

Ancestor worship and territorial cults

The ancient Chinese venerated a host of gods related to the forces of nature or to various aspects of daily life, as well as family ancestors, spirits to be reckoned with after their death. The official cult of the Zhou takes into account deities linked to royalty: the god of Heaven (Tian), assimilated to another sovereign deity, the Lord of Above (Shangdi), and secondarily the Sovereign of the Earth, god of the Soil, and the dynastic ancestors who have an eminent role, notably the Sovereign Millet (Houji), legendary founder of the dynasty, and the kings Wen and Wu. This official pantheon inspired the princes who adopted its principles. The oaths they pronounced during their political agreements thus invoked various deities of nature (for example, the hills and rivers were deified) and above all the ancestors of the various dynasts involved. But the chancelleries of the principalities give their pantheon its own elements that allow them to gain symbolic autonomy and thus greater political legitimacy. The seniority of the dynastic ancestors of the lineages is moreover determining in the debates on precedence during the meetings between princes, and thus constitutes a not negligible means of prestige. The new powers not descended from the Zhou clan lineage therefore sought to forge a remarkable genealogy.

This accompanies a general trend towards the relativization of ancestor worship by the new dominant dynasties, which do not find in it as much political legitimacy as the older lineages of the Central Plain that can trace their lineage back to the early days of the Zhou dynasty. This led to the development of the habit of considering the ancestors of the lineage as a group, and not individually as in the past. The rise of principalities freed from the tutelage of the Zhou and its religious supremacy also led to the rise of territorial cults, in which the ancestors gradually lost their importance in the face of the deities of nature embodying the mounts, the rivers or the stars. This “territorialization” of official cults aims to establish the emergence of territorial political powers. This can be seen in the greater importance of rituals to the deities of the Soil and the Grain, which also had the function of mobilizing the local population. One tends to think that the sovereign, if he does not know how to attach himself to the people, cannot have the help of the spirits.

Ritual practices and spaces

Ancestor worship is a major element of the religion of the Spring and Autumn period, marked by the traditions established at the Zhou royal court, notably following a ritual “reform” in the 9th century. It takes place in temples, where sacrifices and other political ceremonies take place on various occasions. It is there that the cult furniture is preserved, which has been brought to light in the tombs where it accompanies the great characters. They are above all vases destined for different sacrificial acts, the forms indicating a function. Following the typology inherited from the Song dynasty “archaeologists” who studied these ancient objects, we distinguish between vases intended for cooking the meat of sacrificial animals (tripods ding and li), cereals (cups dui and du, vase gui), for the presentation of food (closed vases fu), for fermented beverages based on cereals (basins jian used to heat them, jars fanghu), and for the ablution of water (sauceboat yi, basins pan). Among the instruments used, the bells are well known by several archaeological finds.

L. von Falkenhausen proposed to distinguish in the tombs from the middle period of Spring and Autumn an assembly of vases called “ordinary”, common to all the social elites and following the principles of the Western Zhou period, and a “special” assembly reserved for the highest characters (sheng, gui, fanghu and li vases, and the more common presence of bells), with more richly decorated objects and more original workmanship, attested especially in Chu (notably Xiasi), which seems to refer to different ritual practices between the upper stratum of the elites and the rest of this group, and thus to the growing gap between these two social categories.

Sacrificial rituals often take the form of a communal meal symbolizing the unity of the lineages that organize them, and are accompanied by dance and music. A trend in the Spring and Autumn period seems to be a desire to make the rituals more entertaining for the ancestors and the spirits who participate in them by taking a greater interest in this aspect of the ceremonies. Of the ancestral temples excavated for this period, the best known is that of the Qin dynasty dukes excavated at Majiazhuang, in their former capital Yongsheng. The main space of this complex is a large courtyard with three buildings and a small aedicula. 188 sacrificial pits have been excavated there, including mostly animals offered during ceremonies that took place there (oxen, sheep), but also in some cases humans and chariots.

Together with the temple of the ancestors, of which it is the complement, the altar (sheji) erected for the sacrifices destined to the deified Soil (or Earth) and Grain is the other striking element of the landscape of the official religion of the Spring and Autumn. This place of worship with a strong territorial anchorage (the rituals that take place there serve to manifest sovereignty over the territory and its population), which becomes increasingly important during the Eastern Zhou period, is taken care of by attendants (fengren), who also take care of the worship at the borders of the principalities. The other known rituals of the period, which do not necessarily have a political aspect and also appeal to the spirits of the ancestors and of nature (without necessarily sacrificing to them), present a great diversity: in addition to the bloody oaths (meng) already mentioned, various agrarian and seasonal rituals, more individualized rituals such as healing rites and exorcisms, or rituals to ensure good journeys, as well as divination rituals and funerary rituals, are attested.


The practice of divination covers a set of practices which allow the human world to communicate with the world of spirits on a whole range of subjects: the opportunity of a ritual, a political decision, a battle, a journey, the revelation of a curse (which must then be fought by an exorcism), etc. The Zuo Commentary mentions 132 cases of recourse to divination, above all in a political and military context. In the most common cases, men are the initiators: they submit a question to the spirits, who answer through a medium. In most cases, the medium is a turtle shell that is put under fire, which causes cracks whose shape is then interpreted to read the answer. The same process is used for divination with yarrow sticks, which are repeatedly thrown on the ground to form hexagrams that must then be explained. In other cases, it is the spirits who have the initiative of the message. They can provoke dreams revealing an omen, or intervene by astral movements (especially eclipses), or even by various events out of the ordinary (natural disasters, various prodigies) to which a supernatural origin is granted. The interpretation of the signs delivered by the spirit world is the responsibility of specialists who may have an important function in the princely courts because of the political importance of divination, including professional diviners, scribes or advisers close to the rulers. This discipline is very technical, and requires recognized skills. The Commentary on Zuo mentions several times debates between advisors and diviners, the former often questioning the validity of divination to direct political action, and seeking to relativize its use in favor of observation of concrete situations in the present and what can be deduced from them for the future.

Funeral practices

Funerary practices are an essential source of information on the Spring and Autumn period, thanks to the thousands of tombs unearthed in different parts of the Chinese territory. They reveal material and symbolic aspects as well as social hierarchies and the cultural diversity that exists between the states of this period, but also the presence of common referents. The tombs are generally grouped in necropolises, belonging to a lineage and its dependents. In the eighth century, tombs remained in line with those of the previous period, and were modest in size, even for the elite: a grave contained an outer wooden coffin (guo), which itself contained the coffin of the deceased and his funerary furniture. The appearance and composition of the tomb furnishings were in principle governed by sumptuary laws established by the Zhou: the number and type of bronze vases present (in particular the tripod ding), the number of nested coffins, the presence or absence of an access ramp were determined according to the rank of the deceased. But quite quickly the elites went beyond these symbolic limits by developing increasingly extravagant funeral complexes with luxurious furniture, and this only became more pronounced with time. This accompanies the social complexification, the rise in political power of certain aristocratic lineages and also the ritual evolutions. For example, at the beginning of the sixth century, the tomb of a lord of the principality of Zheng excavated in Lajialou (Henan) contains 56 vases and 23 bronze bells of remarkable quality, and sacrificial pits with horses and chariots are common in this region. Another lordly tomb, unearthed at Hougudui in Henan (ancient Chu, or perhaps Wu) for the early fifth century, has as its principal deceased a woman accompanied by seventeen sacrificial humans and a plethora of quality objects (bronze vases, lacquer musical instruments, ceramics, jade objects, chairs, chariot parts). The sacrifices reveal the great power of the princes in certain regions: more than 600 horses in the case of the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi at Heyatou (Shandong), and 166 humans for that of Duke Jing of Qin at Nanzhihui (Shaanxi). This last tomb, about 300 meters long and more than 20 meters deep, is the largest known for the pre-imperial period, only supplanted by the mausoleum of the First Emperor. On the other hand, the further down the social hierarchy one goes, the more scarce the ritual furnishings, the poorer being buried in a simple pit, sometimes with ceramics, but often without any furnishings.

Following the characteristic tendencies of the period, several regional traditions can be distinguished which assert themselves in the course of time, in particular in the peripheral countries. Thus, human sacrifices are mainly attested in Qin and in the eastern countries (Qi, Lu, Cao). The best known region is that of Chu and its dependencies. One of the most remarkable necropolises of the period was excavated at Xiasi in Henan, dominated by the tomb of Viscount Feng of the Yuan lineage, surrounded by the graves of his four wives and several servants, as well as sacrificial pits containing the remains of horses and chariots. The furnishings of his tomb are grouped functionally: chariots and weapons on one side, then ritual vessels for ablutions, vessels for meat and fermented beverages, and musical objects (bells and sound stones). Ritual objects remain the best way to affirm the prestige of the deceased, even if with time we find more and more everyday objects in the tombs (weapons, beds, writings). The tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (in Leigudun, Hubei), dated to the very beginning of the Warring Kingdoms (around 433), reflects the culmination of this evolution with the organization of the tombs into compartments forming real rooms, the tombs then being seen as real post-mortem residences. A similar evolution was accomplished at Qin a little earlier. In the latter case, the funerary furnishings are of lesser quality than in Chu, marked by the extensive development of mingqi, objects made solely for storage in the tomb, which may be made of bronze but are often ceramic imitations of bronze ritual vessels, inspired by the forms of the Western Zhou period. The countries of the Lower Yangtze (Wu and Yue) are more original because of their distance from the Central Plain: the tombs of the elites are surmounted by tumuli, and contain mostly vases of a local style, in bronze but also in stoneware.

These developments and differences indicate diverse local traditions, and probably varied beliefs, but these are poorly known for the Spring and Autumn period in the absence of explicit texts. The burial is accompanied by rituals, undoubtedly sumptuous in the case of the elites. In particular, they invoke the infernal deities. Protective objects (especially jade) are placed on the body of the deceased, the coffin sometimes being covered with a layer of cinnabar to protect it from supernatural threats. In Chu tombs, tomb guardian statues (especially deer antlers) are placed for a protective function. The deposition of objects does not seem to have any other purpose than to assert the prestige of the deceased in the majority of cases. But developments towards a tomb conceived as a residence (especially at Chu) probably indicate the appearance of a new mentality making the latter a post-mortem residence for the deceased, destined to go to an afterlife in which he will need his daily objects placed at his side. This is related to the belief attested for the following period that one part of the soul of the deceased (po) remains in the tomb with the corpse, while the other (hun) joins the celestial world.

The literature

The intellectual tradition inherited from the Western Zhou period is preserved in texts which were later considered “classics” and which have had a high prestige since the Spring and Autumn period. These works are the Book of Documents (Shangshu or Shujing) which contains ancient historical documents from the royal archives, the Book of Odes (Shijing) which compiles poems, and the Zhou Mutations (Zhou yi), a manual of divination using yarrow, more commonly known as the Book of Mutations (Yijing). They were compiled progressively and canonized under the Han, but the exact date of the writing of their different passages often remains uncertain: some of them seem to date from the end of the Western Zhou period, others may be earlier, many are obviously later writings or reworkings, sometimes attributable to the Spring and Autumn period (for example the Songs of the Countries of the Book of Odes).

The scribes of the principalities of Spring and Autumn also produced historiographical works reporting the events that had occurred, integrating them into the continuity of a semi-legendary past going back to the first kings and dynasties (the three Augustans and the five Emperors, the Xia, the Shang) for which miraculous accounts have a prominent place. The only complete example known is that of the Annals of the Land of Lu, or Annals of Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu) which gave the name to the period and was also consecrated as a classic later. The Annals of Bamboo is another example of this type of work with a historiographical character which must be based on sources of the period, corresponding to a historical chronicle of the country of Wei, and Jin of which it is the heir. The other princely courts and that of the Zhou probably produced similar works concerning their past, which have disappeared.

As for the writings that later periods attributed to scholars who lived during the Spring and Autumn period, such as Sun Tzu, Guan Zhong and of course Confucius (who is said to have reworked the classics), it seems difficult to affirm that they really originated from these characters, but they were linked to them because of their prestige. Their study often reveals a strong imprint of the period of the Warring Kingdoms. Only the Confucian Talks are commonly linked to the thought of the personality to whom they are attached (see below).

The questioning of tradition

It is thus ritual texts, poetry and history, in addition to folk-mythological narratives known through allusions, which make up the basis of the culture of the scholars and thinkers of the Spring and Autumn period, coming from the category of shi, gentlemen from the lower stratum of the aristocracy who tend to constitute a group of scholars-intellectuals in their own right occupying a more important place in the political apparatus of the late period. They animate the debates of the princely courts as they are reported in the speeches of Zuo”s Commentary, whose late dating (middle of the 4th century) is not without problem as to its reliability in describing the intellectual state of the period it describes. But it remains the main document to approach the state of thought prior to Confucius. We find in it several themes dear to this thinker, which are obviously at the heart of the preoccupations of the time: the emphasis put on social stability and hierarchies, the exercise of rites which form the behaviors of the political elite, the knowledge of and respect for the classical texts. If we follow the proposals of Y. Pines” proposals, the progressive disintegration of the ritual order set up by the Western Zhou, the increasing violence and cynicism of relations between states and of the diplomatic and strategic arts would tend to put forward a more realistic thought, sceptical of traditional beliefs and morals. Questioning and debates about the relationship to the tradition inherited from earlier periods seem to be constant in political affairs. Prime Minister Zi Chan”s desire to have the formerly customary and oral criminal laws drafted in Zheng is thus criticized by a group of “conservatives. Figures such as Zi Chan, or earlier Guan Zhong, could later be seen as forerunners of the reformers of the Warring States period, especially those of the legist school. The changes in political thought can also be seen in the fact that some of the princes” advisors relativized the use of traditional divination (with turtle shells and yarrow sticks) for decision-making, preferring a more pragmatic approach based on the analysis of present situations.


The final period of the Spring and Autumn is thus marked by intellectual evolutions that accompany the definitive disintegration of the old political order, and the establishment of a system in which rivalries between powers are increasingly violent and unstable. It is in this context that the most important thinker of Chinese history, Confucius (Latinized version of Kong zi, “master Kong”, his personal name being Kong Qiu), emerges, whose traditional dates are 551-479. Coming from the shi category, his biography was only written down late (especially by Sima Qian) and is therefore not assured. He would have had a modest childhood and would have taken part in the administration of his country, the State of Lu, having a modest career which he would have finally given up, disillusioned as he was in front of the disintegration of the old order and the incapacity of his masters who did not know how to govern according to the principles of the celestial mandate. He would then have undertaken to go and offer his services in other courts, an undertaking in which he had little success, but succeeded all the same in attracting disciples who continued his thought. His success was thus ensured after his death, notably by the writing down by his disciples of anecdotes concerning him and sayings attributed to him, compiled and then canonized in a major work, the Lunyu (the “Talks” or “Analects” of Confucius) between the period of the Warring Kingdoms and that of the Han dynasty.

Confucius” thought is traditionalist, advocating the restoration of an ancient order against the moral degeneration of his time, but by its resolutely innovative character it participates even more in the collapse of traditional thought. It places man at the center of its reflection, and advocates his improvement by the study, the restoration of the ancient rites, the rectification of the names. Thus will be formed administrators worthy of their office, who will be able to restore the harmony in the kingdom, to obtain the obedience of the people by their virtue, by governing by benevolence, the finality being political. By emphasizing the moral and intellectual qualities of individuals, he seems to challenge the birth-based social status of his time, which ensured the traditional domination of the aristocracy, and refers to the emergence of the group of literate civil servants, whose status depends more on their abilities and who put themselves at the service of the States. The tradition according to Confucius rests above all on the written texts, in this case the future “classics” mentioned above, which he would have reworked himself, and in which there is a set of examples contributing to the formation of better humans. Confucius and his disciples thus contribute to the implementation of decisive changes: a thought turned towards man, based on the teaching of a master and writings, opening the way to the “Hundred Schools” which animate the very rich intellectual debates of the period of the Warring Kingdoms.

The known artistic achievements of the Spring and Autumn period are mostly vases and other bronze objects unearthed in tombs, some jade and lacquer objects, ceramic production, as well as gold ornaments that spread from Qin, probably under the influence of nomads from the western regions. The eighth and seventh centuries saw no major evolution compared to the final period of the Western Zhou. It is only gradually that new trends emerge, following the major trends of the period, which see local traditions develop, to satisfy the growing demand of the princely and aristocratic elites. They wanted to show their power through the possession of prestigious objects, primarily for ritual purposes at the beginning, even if thereafter everyday objects were the object of more and more attention. This weight of local habits does not mean the extinction of the artistic community inherited from the period of Zhou domination, because of the circulation of objects and specialists within the framework of diplomatic relations (gifts, weddings, meetings), the payment of tributes, or even an effect of emulation and influences between the different major creative centers. Technical innovations are also important, especially in bronze metallurgy, particularly around the Houma foundry, which played an important role in the experimentation of successive castings, the use of matrices, and then inlays.

Bronze objects: vases, weapons and bells

Since the beginning of the Bronze Age, the Chinese metallurgists, having a large quantity of ore at their disposal, opted for casting in molds rather than forging. During the first half of the first millennium, they developed the technique of successive castings, which allowed them to elaborate the most complex objects in several stages by making the body of the object and its protruding parts separately. The lost wax technique is known, but little used, only attested by a few objects from Chu. From the beginning of the 6th century, the Houma craftsmen developed an ingenious technique based on the use of matrices, on which are stamped strips of clay placed in molds or sections of molds (which are not decorated), which allows for a more rapid realization of the decorations (which are certainly repetitive), thus further developing productivity. Shortly afterwards, the technique of inlaying copper and gold motifs (later in stone and other materials) appeared in Chu, which were placed in the mold before the bronze was cast.

Bronze vases are among the most prestigious objects of ancient China. From a strictly artistic point of view, the artists of the Spring and Autumn period worked mainly on the most common forms inherited from the Western Zhou: ding tripods, gui vases, hu jars and related forms (including the square-section fanghu), pan dishes and yi pots as well, but preferences varied according to region. From a chronological point of view, the vases of the 8th and early 7th centuries are in the continuity of the previous period, which is characterized by a stylistic homogeneity between regions. After the middle of the 7th century, regional traditions assert themselves, with the dominant influence of the artists of Jin and Chu, alongside other centers such as Qin, Qi and its eastern neighbors, or the Lower Yangtze countries (Wu and Yue).

The vases are generally covered with bas-relief decorations, sometimes covering their entire surface, often in the form of sinuous, even intertwined lines, combined with representations of animals (mostly dragons, but also birds), notably in the round, forming the handles or feet of the vase. One of the most remarkable bronzes of the period, unearthed in the princely tomb of Lajialou, is a fanghu with a heavy decoration of animals in low and high relief covering its entire surface. It is characteristic of the fact that bronzemakers of the period tend to use various processes to obtain complex visual effects. They accentuated the shapes of the vases, overloaded their decorations, developing for example in the seventh century the ornamental bands. In Houma in the land of Jin, the process of sectional dies allowing for standardized decoration led to the creation of complex and repetitive decorations (notably dragons), but also miniaturized ones. The artists of this major center were very creative, using a variety of motifs, especially animal ones. Sometimes the bronze vases of this period have the shape of animals (zoomorphic), following a tradition inherited from more ancient times.

The Chu regional tradition apparently shows some diversity in its different sub-regions, and in general a lower quality than the common Jin bronzes, but some achievements are among the most remarkable of the period. The technical innovation first attested in Chu (although it is not clear whether it originated there) and which has the most posterity is the inlay method, which seems to begin around 550 with bronze vases with inlaid red copper motifs. It is accompanied by the development of narrative scenes on the vases. The lost-wax technique, attested at Chu for a small number of objects from the second half of the 6th century, made it possible to produce exceptional pieces with highly charged decorations: an altar table found in Xiasi surmounted by numerous dragons in high relief; these supernatural animals are found on the set of zun and pan vases unearthed in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng in Leigudun, probably dated to the end of the Spring and Autumn period, although stored in a tomb from the beginning of the Warring States. The objects unearthed in this tomb can be considered as representing the apogee of the Chu style during the period of the affirmation of regional artistic traditions.

Other regions may favor a more sober style than those of Chu and Jin: the late-period bronzes unearthed in the cemetery of Qufu, capital of Lu, thus seem to derive their elegance from their form rather than from their decoration, which is very light. The Lower Yangtze regions were even more unique, with the production of bronze vases with original shapes which often make them difficult to classify in the classical typology even if they are inspired by it. Here, the influence of local sandstone ceramics can be seen in the bronze objects. The Wu and Yue metallurgists are especially renowned for their swords and spears of exceptional quality, sometimes inlaid with gold, such as the remarkable sword of King Goujian of Yue. Among the other types of bronze objects known from the tombs of the period, weapons are indeed very well represented alongside the vases, whether they be daggers, swords, spearheads, and especially the blades of axes and daggers (ge) and halberds (ji), which are often decorated with linear and sometimes animal motifs.

The third type of object characteristic of ancient Chinese tombs is the ritual bell. Since the late Western Zhou, hanging bells have become the norm for rituals. The tomb of Duke Wu of Qin, at the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period, yielded a set of eight bells, including five yongzhong, the most common model, with a concave mouth and a handle and ring for inclined suspension, but also other models called bo, of a more rounded shape and flat mouth, with often exuberant ornaments (the other common type is the niuzhong, close to the yongzhong, but with a straight suspension. The bells, whatever their type, do not have a clapper and are therefore struck from the outside. Their mouth is usually almond-shaped, which allows them to produce two tones depending on whether they are struck in the center or on the sides. Later tombs have yielded more imposing chimes: 26 bells in the aforementioned tomb No. 2 of Xiasi, and 64 in the tomb of Leigudun at the beginning of the Warring Kingdoms, the most impressive ensemble in ancient China where the three most common types of bells are present.

Finally, other types of bronze objects are known in a marginal way, such as rectangular boxes with complex decoration and surmounted by animals in high relief, unearthed in tombs of Shangguo (Shanxi, ancient Jin).

The art of jade

Jade is a very prestigious material in ancient China, having a higher status than precious metals, because it is attributed apotropaic properties. The tombs of the elites have delivered many jade objects, of various colors: pale green, dark green, ivory white, yellow. The working of this material seems to have been perfected and developed from the 6th century onwards. The tomb of Duke Jing of Qin in Nanzhihui contained more than 600 of these objects, notably ritual objects such as pierced discs bi and scepters zhang, but also various pendants and ornaments of angular shape, such as hooks, or others in the shape of fish. They are decorated with engraved linear motifs, sometimes with interlacing, obviously inspired by metallurgy. The Chu jades are finely chiseled and decorated with twists.

General information on ancient China

Related articles


  1. Période des Printemps et Automnes
  2. Spring and Autumn period
  3. a et b (en) Anne Cheng, « Ch”un ch”iu, Kung yang, Ku liang and Tso chuan », dans Loewe (dir.) 1993, dans M. Loewe (dir.), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, Berkeley, 1993 p. 67-76
  4. Sur ce texte d”analyse complexe : (en) A. Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography, Cambridge, 2001 ; (en) Y. Pines, Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 B.C.E., Honolulu, 2002.
  5. Guoyu, Propos sur les principautés, I-Zhouyu, traduit par André d”Hormon et R. Mathieu, Paris, 1985
  6. Von Falkenhausen 1999, p. 453
  7. ^ The Partition of Jin, the watershed between the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods took several decades, thus there is some debate between scholars as to the exact date. 479, 475, and 468 BCE are other common dates selected by historians, some of which involve other significant events such as the usurpation of Qi by Tian and the end of the Spring and Autumn Annals.[1][2]
  8. ^ Loewe, Michael (1999). ”The Spring and Autumn Period” (på engelska). The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC. Cambridge University Press. sid. 545. ISBN 0521470307. https://books.google.se/books?id=cHA7Ey0-pbEC&lpg=PP1&hl=sv&pg=PA545#v=onepage&q&f=false
  9. ^ Hägerdal, Hans, Kinas historia, Historiska Media, Lund, 2009, s. 47.
  10. ^ [a b] Tan, Koon San. ”Zhou Dynasty 周朝 (1122-256 BC)” (på engelska). Dynastic China: An Elementary History. sid. 28. ISBN 9789839541885. https://books.google.se/books?id=bnCMBAAAQBAJ&lpg=PA37&dq=the%20warring%20state%20256%20elementary%20history&hl=sv&pg=PA28#v=onepage&q&f=false
  11. ^ Hägerdal, Hans (2012). ”Den dynamiska epoken Östra Zhou”. Kinas historia. Historiska media. sid. 47. ISBN 978-91-87031-24-3
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