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A map of the States in the Spring and Autumn Period. An illustration from Sancai Tuhui (《三才圖會》, Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms) of the Ming dynasty (明代) (Photo credit: Baogaitou/Fotoe)

The Spring and Autumn Period featured several vassals fighting for hegemony. After King Ping of Zhou (周平王) moved the Western Zhou dynasty’s (西周) capital eastward to Luoyi (洛邑, present-day Luoyang [洛陽]), the power of the dynasty gradually weakened, causing vassals to scramble for territories. In the Spring and Autumn Period, more than 140 vassal states emerged, among which Jin (晉國) in the Central Plains, Qi (齊國) in the east, Chu in the south (楚國), Qin (秦國) in the west, and Wu (吳國) and Yue (越國) in the south-east were the most powerful ones.


The dominant powers during the Spring and Autumn Period are often referred to as the “Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period”. Historians, however, have varying ideas of who they were. According to Xunzi (荀子), Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公) was the first hegemon, followed by Duke Wen of Jin (晉文公), King Zhuang of Chu (楚莊王), King Helu of Wu (吳王闔閭), and King Goujian of Yue (越王勾踐). Supported by strong military power, the five hegemons fought to improve their national strengths. They called upon vassals to form alliances and served as leaders to enhance their authority. Later, they commanded the vassals in the name of the Son of Heaven to consolidate their hegemony. However, the Tang (唐代) historian Sima Zhen (司馬貞) dubbed Duke Huan of Qi, Duke Xiang of Song (宋襄公), Duke Wen of Jin, Duke Mu of Qin (秦穆公), and King Zhuang of Chu as the five hegemons. He argued that King Helu of Wu and King Goujian of Yue could not be listed among the five hegemons since they were only influential in their own territories, but not the entire Central Plains despite their strong military power and great authority during certain periods. Other historians have argued that there were more than five hegemons in the Spring and Autumn Period.

Mengshu (盟書, alliance covenants) from the Spring and Autumn Period archived in the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang (安陽), Henan Province (河南). (Photo credit: Zhang Taozhou/Fotoe)

Duke Huan of Qi (? – 643 BCE), personal name Jiang Xiaobai (姜小白), was the first hegemon of the Spring and Autumn Period. He was born as the third son of Duke Xi of Qi (齊僖公, personal name as Lufu [祿甫]). Qi was an important regional state and held an important position among the vassal states during the Spring and Autumn Period. The tyrannical nature of Xiaobai’s brother, Duke Xiang of Qi (齊襄公), forced Xiaobai and one of his other brothers, Prince Jiu (公子糾), to flee their state. After Duke Xiang of Qi was assassinated, Xiaobai and Prince Jiu immediately returned to Qi to fight for the throne. Guan Zhong (管仲), the tutor of Prince Jiu, tried to murder Xiaobai on his way back to Qi, but failed. When Xiaobai eventually returned to Qi, he was crowned as “Duke Huan of Qi”. One year after taking the throne, Duke Huan of Qi dispatched an army to attack Lu (魯國), where he had been mistreated during his exile. In his fifth year of reign (681 BCE), he called upon an alliance in Beixing (北杏, present-day Dong’e County [東阿], Shangdong Province [山東省]), during which he was elected leader. Two years later (679 BCE), he organised another alliance at Juan (鄄, an old town in the north of present-day Juancheng County [鄄城], Shandong Province), where he proposed to “restore the authority of the Son of Heaven and fend off the barbarians”. His real motive behind this was, however, to command the vassals in the name of the Son of Heaven. With this alliance, Duke Huan of Qi eventually rose to become a hegemon. After 43 years on the throne, Duke Huan’s dominance began to gradually decline due to the increased resistance of treacherous officials.


Duke Wen of Jin (672–628 BCE), born Chong’er (重耳), was a prince of Jin. He spent 19 years of exile since Li Ji (驪姬), a concubine of his father Duke Xian of Jin, was determined to hunt him down and kill him. During his exile, Chong’er experienced both up and downs. His exile finally ended when he fled to Qin, as Duke Mu of Qin sent an army to escort him back to Jin. Upon arrival, he ascended the throne and was crowned Duke Wen of Jin at the age of 62. After ascending the throne, Duke Wen of Jin instituted numerous domestic reforms and devoted himself to improving people’s livelihoods, while also striving for hegemony. In the second year of his reign (635 BCE), the Zhou royal court was suffering from internal turmoil, but Duke Wen of Jin successfully suppressed the turmoil, exhibiting his leadership skills. Later, the State of Jin won a decisive victory over the Chu forces in the battle of Chengpu (城濮). After the battle, Duke Wen of Jin convened a large coalition of rulers at Jiantu (踐土, south-west of present-day Yuanyang County [原陽], Henan Province [河南省]), becoming the hegemon over the other states.


King Zhuang of Chu (?–591 BCE) was the son of King Mu of Chu.  He succeeded to the throne before turning 20. Ascending the throne at a very young age, King Zhuang of Chu had to hide his strength to avoid being controlled by the courtiers. He, therefore, pretended to have no interest in state affairs and lead an indulgent life. For this reason, his people considered him an incompetent ruler, when he was in fact secretly recruiting talent to assist him. When the time was ripe, he began to show his talents in state affairs and executed venal officials. This was the start of Chu’s rise and his fight for hegemony. Later, a battle took place at Bi City (邲城, north of present-day Zhengzhou [鄭州], Henan Province) between Chu and Jin. During the battle, Chu‘s forces defeated Jin, the most powerful state at that time. This battle was decisive on King Zhuang of Chu’s rise to hegemony. At last, King Zhuang of Chu, called upon an alliance at Shu (蜀, present-day Sichuan Province [四川省]), making him the hegemon.


King Helu of Wu (?–496 BCE), was the father of Fuchai (夫差) and the King of Wu during late Spring and Autumn Period. Although Wu was located in the south-eastern corner of Western Zhou’s territory, Helu wanted to dominate the Central Plains. Toward this goal, Chu was his biggest rival and obstacle. Wu Zixu (伍子胥), a former Chu official who had fled to Wu to avoid assassination, decided to help Helu attack Chu in order to avenge the death of his father and brother, who had both been killed by King Ping of Chu (楚平王). Helu, with the help of Wu Zixu and Sun Wu (孫武), devoted himself to improving Wu’s military power and the people’s livelihoods. In the ninth year of King Helu of Wu’s reign (506 BCE), King Ping of Chu died and his son King Zhao of Chu (楚昭王) ascended the throne, presenting a golden opportunity for Helu. He decided to seize this opportunity to invade Chu and the two states launched a battle at Boju (柏舉). The battle ended in a defeat for Chu and King Zhao of Chu was forced to escape. Chu managed to seek Qin’s help, while Yue (越國) also sent forces to fight Wu, forcing Helu to retreat his army. In the 11th year of the King Helu of Wu’s reign (504 BCE), Helu dispatched Crown Prince Fuchai to once again invade Chu. This time, the Wu army captured Poyi and forced Chu to relocate its capital to Ruo (鄀, south-east of present-day Yicheng [宜城], Hubei Province [湖北省]). This meant that Wu achieved hegemony over states of the Central Plains.


The son of King Yunchang of Yue (越王允常), King Goujian of Yue (520–465 BCE), surnamed Si (姒), personal name Goujian, succeeded the throne in 496 BCE. The rivalry between Wu and Yue lasted for years before Yue was finally defeated. King Goujian of Yue was captured and forced to serve as Fuchai’s servant for three years. He eventually returned to Yue, where he spent ten years planning his revenge for the previous humiliation. He was also ready to fight for hegemony over other states. King Goujian of Yue endured hardships before he rose. He strove to strengthen the national power and develop agriculture to make Yue a powerful state. In 482 BCE, King Goujian of Yue organised a regional lords’ conference in Huangchi (黃池). He attacked the capital Gusu (姑蘇) of Wu when King Fuchai of Wu was marching northward. Upon hearing the news, King Fuchai of Wu hurried with his forces to return Wu. However, Wu’s forces were too tired to resist Yue after the long march. King Fuchai of Wu was forced to sue for peace. Goujian realised that he was unable to defeat Wu in a single campaign, so he accepted the agreement and returned home to further strengthen his army. After the battle, Fuchai could not get over the failure, while Yue was rapidly developing its national strength. Later, Goujian’s forces attacked Wu again, leading to Fuchai’s suicide at Gusutai (姑蘇台, a tower on the Gusu Hill [姑蘇山]) in 473 BCE. After the fall of Wu, Goujian became the hegemon by establishing an alliance in Shuzhou (舒州).


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