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Spring and Autumn Period 771 - 476 BCE

Spring and Autumn Period

The first half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty is called the 'Spring and Autumn' Period; the second is called the Warring States Period. The period started when the Western Zhou was overrun and sacked by Quanrong barbarians who came from the west. The Imperial capital was sacked and a new capital built at Chengzhou (near Luoyang).

In the preceding Western Zhou dynasty a large number of very small fiefdoms existed (more like townships) together with larger kingdoms (including Qin; Lu; Chin; Qi and Qu). This time formed part of the 'Iron Age' , and iron started to be used for plows; axes and other tools; but bronze was still being made, it was not altogether abandoned, it was still used for example for coinage. Court positions began to be made available to the talented scholars who had received an education. Scholarship was appreciated and the leaders of this time were cultured and literate. Land continued to be farmed according to the 'well field ' system instituted by the Western Zhou, it was divided into a 3x3 grid of nine portions and produce from the central plot paid the 'tax' due to the state. This is a type of tithe system as it was later called in Europe. The native forests continued to be cleared with stock rearing replacing hunting as the main source of meat.

Confucius, Qufu
Temple of Confucius, Qufu, Shandong
All about the religions of China

All about the religions of China


Untangling the religions of China is quite a struggle for those unfamiliar with the country. There are three main belief systems Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism that have co-existed in relative harmony for over a thousand years. Islam, Christianity and Ancestor veneration are also described in our comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Private land ownership became more widespread and this weakened central control and the nascent country fragmented into very small 'fiefdoms' at a city/town level, there may have been as many as a thousand of them. Central control by the Zhou ‘emperors’ was therefore mainly honorific; the individual kingdoms were run independently by absolute sovereigns. During this time three large kingdoms arose: Qi (Shandong); Jin (Shanxi) and Chu (Henan; Anhui). The growth of population led to increased competition for the limited area of fertile land. This led to warfare which became widespread but on a modest scale and both sides obeyed chivalric rules of acceptable military conduct. One reason for conflict was that the rulers of fiefdoms and kingdoms married their sons to other ruling families far away leading to frequent argument over succession and inheritance. A drift to more brutal and continuous warfare heralded the start of the following ‘Warring States’ period.

The importance of this period is really down to one man: Confucius. Indeed the name for this period is derived from a book sometimes attributed to Confucius ‘Spring and Autumn Annals ’. It was a book compiled under the patronage of Qin counselor Lǚ Bùwéi. At this early time the year was split into just two seasons: Spring and Autumn and so the term ‘Spring and Autumn’ actually means a year, and the book title should really be better translated as ‘Annual Records’.

604BCE Lao Zi born
551BCE Confucius born; 544BCE Sun Wu born; 531BCE Lao Zi died
496BCE Sun Wu died; 479BCE Confucius died; 476BCE Warring States began
Spring and Autumn period key dates

Confucius was a philosopher who taught the importance of stable and appropriate relations between people. He looked back to the golden days of earlier Zhou rule and wished to guide the various state rulers into emulating more peaceful times. The founder of the Daoist Chinese religion/philosophy Laozi is, by tradition, believed to have also lived during the Spring and Autumn period.


Official session in a Chinese Yamen, Guangzhou, pre-1889. Image available under a Creative Commons license

The kowtow is an ancient Chinese way of showing respect and reverence. ‘Kowtow’ is the Cantonese spelling for pinyin kòutóu which means literally ‘knock head’ it comprises three kneelings and nine knockings of the forehead on the ground. Nine is a ‘yang’ number associated with the Emperor. Some held that a proper kowtow requires the sound of the skull hitting the ground to be heard.

There was a hierarchy of eight grades of salutation. The lowest was the gǒng shǒu the cupping of hands one around the other and bringing to the chest. The fifth is a single kowtow; the sixth sān kòu is three kowtows. The seventh liù kòu is two sets of three kowtows getting up in between, while the full abasement is the sān guì jiǔ kòu of three separate kneelings, nine knocks of the head. Some minor gods received the three kowtows, others six, while nine was reserved for heaven and the Emperor.

The Chinese Emperor as the 'Son of Heaven' performed a kowtow to the heavens from as early as the Zhou dynasty onwards. Rules set out as to when and who should receive the acknowledgment. The Emperor would also kowtow at Confucius's ancestral shrine at Qufu (first documented in 1008CE) confirming the importance of Confucius to the Imperial system. It should be noted that the act of kneeling was not a significant part of the kowtow as Chinese people up until recent times sat down in a kneeling position rather than on a chair. To indicate a willingness by the senior person to forgo the kowtow of the subservient the phrase bù yòng xíng lǐ was uttered.

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The ambassadors of tributary states showed their acceptance of China's preeminence by performing a kowtow to the Emperor. For 250 years (up until 1896) Korean kings performed the kowtow to the Chinese Emperor. In true Confucian manner the Emperor's obeisance to Heaven trickled down the hierarchy of ordinary relationships. People kowtowed at courts of law to the magistrate and to the Emperor, it was a formal recognition of reverence. The Emperor himself would kowtow to his mother or other dowager Empresses, as reverence to the older generations beat any other consideration. At the marriage ceremony couples would kowtow to their parents and schoolchildren would kowtow to Confucius. As late as the early days of the Republic school children would kowtow to a portrait of Sun Yatsen chanting the words of his will every Monday morning. The tradition was mainly abolished under the People's Republic, no-one kowtowed to Chairman Mao, and now the custom is reserved for veneration of the ancestors at the family's burial ground.

Yuan dynasty

Yuan dynasty


The conquest of China by the Mongols took over 50 years. The north was taken in 1215 and the south held out until 1279. The horde of brutal horsemen from Mongolia swept all before them all the way to Egypt. Their relative rule saw the Mongols take to Chinese ways, using existing administration and traditions rather than imposing their own. It was China's most cosmopolitan era.

International troubles

The kowtow became a major issue for the British ambassador to China, the Earl Macartney in 1793. Other European ambassadors to China had up until performed the kowtow without much fuss. The pre-eminence of British military; financial and technological power had been growing, Britain refused to admit that a non-Christian state deserved deference as if England was an inferior. So British protocol insisted that obeisance was restricted to removing a hat and making a respectful bow to the Emperor and not a full kowtow. Heshen the Emperor Qianlong's favorite reported that Macartney had kowtowed when he had only bowed. The embassy continued to ignore protocol despite written instructions and explanations on why it was required. The British position admitted a possible compromise that stated that if the Emperor would kowtow to a portrait of King George; Lord Macartney would kowtow to the emperor. Because the Chinese tradition was that there was, and could only be, one ‘Son of Heaven’, the compromise was rejected and so the ambassador went no further than going down on one knee.

First British contacts with China

First British contacts with China


A survey of all the first British contacts to China up until 1700. These included 'pirates' like John Weddell who sought to force China into trading with England down the barrel of a cannon and John Webb a committed fan of everything about China.Regrettably this honeymoon period of relations did not last.

Lord Amherst led the next British embassy to China and this mission failed completely on the issue of the kowtow. When he arrived on August 29th 1816 he was ordered to immediately go before the Emperor even before his official dress and diplomatic gifts had been unpacked. Lord Amherst refused to obey and it seems the Emperor had planned that to make up for Lord Macartney's lack of kowtow he would insist that Lord Amherst would perform the full abasement before him. To avoid the likely embarrassment of Amherst's refusal to kowtow the officials seemed to have caused the meeting to be made impossible. This did not prevent Amherst from making a long and detailed exploration of China , especially the Yangzi River basin.

These two events proved an obstacle to establishing trading relations with China and prefaced as clearly as any other event the collision of European and Chinese cultures in the Opium Wars. It was during the Opium Wars that Private John Moyse's refusal to kowtow became a cause célèbre. On August 13th 1860 Moyse along with others were captured by the Chinese army and were required to kowtow to a Manchu general. Moyse refused and was beheaded on the spot. Sir Francis Doyle wrote a stirring poem on the incident:

The Private of the Buffs

Yes, honor calls!…with strength like steel
He put the vision by;
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel,
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink,
To his red grave he went.

Vain mightiest fleets of iron framed,
Vain those all-shattering guns,
Unless proud England keep untamed
The strong heart of her sons;
So let his name through Europe ring,…
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s king,
Because his soul was great.
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Citation information for this page : Chinasage, 'Spring and Autumn Period 771 - 476 BCE of the Eastern Zhou dynasty', last updated 28 Nov 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dynastyspring.htm.

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