The Spring and Autumn Period

“Ancient scholars studied for their own improvement. Modern scholars study to impress others.”

— Confucius

Student prayers, Confucian temple, Tainan

Student prayers, Confucian temple, Tainan

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the real tragedy of the Western Zhou wasn’t their decline. It was that when they fell, there was no dynasty waiting in the wings to talk smack about them. The result being that those living in the tumultuous Spring & Autumn Period were forced to wonder what had gone so terribly wrong. Or put another way, without legends of evil Western Zhou leaders building forests of bratwurst and lakes of Tanqueray, they asked Why is our king in Luoyang a virtual marionette? Where is our Leader? Why is everybody fighting each other? How come no one knows how to line up? Why do kids poop on the sidewalk? Who can save us!?!

Confucian Temple grounds, Qufu

Confucian Temple grounds, Qufu

Confucius, who lived at the tail-end of the Spring & Autumn Period, said, “If you want to know the future, learn about the past.” His thinking was to go back to the last Golden Age. Today that might be the early Ming, or the Tang. During the Tang that would’ve been the Han. But back in the Spring & Autumn Period, that meant the Western Zhou.

For guidance, Confucius looked to those works attributed to the Duke of Zhou and his contemporaries. Those with clearly defined rituals and relationships.

The key lay in their behaviors. And not solely their principles, although that was important. No, they had to back up their words and intentions with rituals. Stylized rituals were one of the key elements in the Confucian framework of being a good leader. Or subject.

Stele of Confucius's bloodline

Stele of Confucius’s bloodline

Confucius lived at a time when the formerly-unified nation of the Zhou had splintered into scores of tiny dukedoms and principalities. He was born in 551 BC into a poor, once-noble family. His father died when he was three. According to the philosopher Mencius, Confucius worked as a storekeeper, and also tended to oxen and sheep in the public fields.

By his early fifties, Confucius was in the employ of the Duke of Lu, Ding, as Minister of Public Works and as Minister of Crime. But Confucius left Lu and the court of the Duke at age 52. Whether it was because of a social snub toward Confucius, or the Duke’s moral ambiguity, or animosity from those vying for the Duke’s power, we can’t be sure.

Confucius traveled to the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu—advising dukes and lords. He was like the opposite of Machiavelli. Instead of all that “better to be feared than love” mush, Confucius said the king should lead by setting a good example. He believed that, if governed by virtuous rulers, subjects would inevitably lean toward goodness. And that humans were similar by nature but their habits and practices “carry them far apart.” (Analects)

Confucius's house

Confucius’s ancestral home, Qufu


 Ask Mr. Wiseguy

Q: Why is it called the Spring and Autumn Period?

A: Spring and Autumn Semicolon was taken.


No, the ancient Chinese did not have a fetish for equinoxes. The term Spring and Autumn Period comes from an ancient text: The Spring and Autumn Annals. The Annals were a record of the goings-on of the state of Lu, and for many years they were the main source of information about this period.

Spring and Autumn AnnalsNaming the era after a book is not unheard of. Sort of like when we refer to days of yore as “Biblical” times, with a few caveats:

  1. External texts and artifacts have had far better luck confirming the events of the Annals than the Old Testament
  2. The dates of the Spring and Autumn Period are clearer than ‘Biblical Times.’ It refers to the years the Annals cover (722 – 481 BC). Although others start the clock at 771 BC, the year the Western Zhou fell and moved to Luoyang.
  3. The entries in the Annals are much more cut-and-dry than what you’ll find in the Bible. Compare this entry of 609 BC to Exodus‘s plagues of Egypt:

WINTER. LOCUSTS.

That’s it. End of story. Imagine if Moses had that kind of restraint. You could read the Pentateuch on your lunch break.

Where the Annals get their bulk is the “writing in the margins,” so to speak, of succeeding commentators:

The text has never before noted the advent of locusts, why does it do so here?…
To indicate it was a lucky thing.
Wherein was it lucky?
The ruler altered what was old and changed what was constant; in response to this there was a disaster of nature.

There are multiple commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries…

The ruler refers to Duke Xuan, who altered the ancient and established system of the public field, and assessed taxes on the basis of acreage. This means that after the famine brought on by this disaster, Xuan awoke to his error…

And so on until the debates arising from these sparse records form their own self-contained political philosophy.

Decor at Confucius's ancestral home, Qufu

Decor at Confucius’s ancestral home, Qufu

It was widely believed that the Annals were the work of Confucius. After all, he was a Lu-man himself and lived during this time. This belief only served to augment future generations’ fervor in interpreting the Annal‘s cryptic words.

Confucius returned to Lu in 484 BC where he lived out his remaining years. By the time of his death he had amassed a sizable following of students, who would formalize and carry on his teachings.

Compared to famous kings, the drama of Confucius’s life may seem underwhelming. But by the next century, Mencius would write, “Ever since man came into this world, never has there been one greater than Confucius.” He was the sage who should have been king, in a world too shortsighted to see.

Student prayers, Confucian temple, Tainan

Student prayers, Confucian temple, Tainan

Confucius once said he was not a “maker” of knowledge, but a “transmitter” of it. “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” (Analects)

And he put into words the Golden Rule of reciprocity: Don’t impose upon another what you would not want for yourself.

He was a herald of China’s first renaissance, like Italy some 1700 years later, in which artists and philosophers looked back on their own Ancients with a starstruck aura.

Confucius’s students didn’t just go home after a day of class and see what was on the tube. They passed on his stories, propagated his wisdom. They wrote down the words of the great Sage with a veracity and tenacity that bordered on obsession.

Vending machines at Confucius's ancestral home

Vending machines at Confucius’s ancestral home

Confucius never did get that post of power he was looking for. The kings were not enamored enough to keep him on board. But in creating his own dukedom of thought, and by amassing seventy-two master disciples (and many more students and followers) he ensured himself a legacy that would surpass any of the kings of the day.

Hundreds of years later, when the Confucian writings were all but wiped out by Qin Shi Huang during the Burning of the Books, there remained enough living scholars who could reconstruct his writings from communal memory.

prayers near the resting place of Confucius

prayers near the resting place of Confucius

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About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.

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