The years between 770 BC and 476 BC were the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history. Towards the last years of the Western Zhou Dynasty, the northwestern nomadic people, like the Quan¤üand the Rong ¦¥, pushed eastward in waves, increasingly threatening the central area of the Zhou rulership. The Zhou territory became smaller and smaller. After King You was killed by the Quan and Rong armies, the Zhou royal house found it difficult to remain in the Guanzhong Ãö ¤¤ area. King Ping, with the help of lords like Jin ®Ê and Zheng ¾G, moved the capital to Luoyi »Ü ¨¶ (to the east of the present Luoyang ¬¥ ¶§ in Henan Province ªe «n) in 770 BC, and founded the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
After the Zhou moved their capital to the east, the Zhou royal house controlled an area much smaller than before, and its influence was limited to several hundreds of li around Luoyi, a small domain always at the mercy of the lords. The declining Zhou royal house was so weak that the lords were no longer obedient to its orders. Consequently, the Son of Heaven lost the status of being the common head of the people in the country.
The decline of the Zhou royal house provided an opening for the lords to contend for political supremacy. In the Spring and Autumn Period, some large states became hegemonous through a policy of annexation. Those who called themselves ¡§Hegemon¡¨ or ¡§Overlord¡¨ were Duke Huan of the Qi »ô ®Ù ¤½, Duke Xiang of the Song §º Á¸ ¤½, Duke Wen of the Jin ®Ê ¤å ¤½, Duke Mu of the Qin ¯³ ¿p ¤½, and Duke Zhuang of the Chu ·¡ ²ø ¤ý. Together they were entitled ¡§The Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period.¡¨ Duke Huan of the Qi and Duke Wen of the Jin, the most famous of the group, united the lords in the Central Plains by invoking the slogan ¡§loyalty to the king of Zhou and repel the barbarian invaders.¡¨ Together, they fought lengthy wars against the Rong and the Di in the north and the state of Chu in the south, which in fact saved the well-developed civilization of the Central Plains. The battle for supremacy between the Jin and the Chu lasted almost the entire Spring and Autumn Period. By the end of the Spring and Autumn Period, King Fuchai of the Wu §d ¤ý ¤Ò ®t and King Goujian of the Yue ¶V ¤ý ¤Ä ½î were dominant for a period. Some histories co-list Duke Huan of the Qi and Duke Wen of the Jin as the hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period.
Politics, State and the Economy
During the Spring and Autumn Period, the royal house declined while the lords became increasingly powerful, constituting a political situation in which ¡§the ritual, music and military campaigns are initiated by the nobles.¡¨ The authority of the Son of Heaven of Zhou was no longer critical to the shaping of the social political process. Although the lords remained subject to the Zhou royal house in name, they enjoyed great political sovereignty. With the territorial expansion of each fiefdom and the increasing alienation from the kinship of the Zhou royal house, their independency became more and more apparent.
Within each fiefdom, the overall political structure was mainly an evolution from the Zhou system. The internal governing and external control systems from the time of the Shang and the Zhou evolved into the town-and-country system. The monarchs of the fiefdoms mainly relied on the principles of the fiefing system to control their nobles and officials. The monarchs bestowed land on their nobles as fiefs, which was taken as emoluments by the nobles, whose descendants enjoyed hereditary privileges. There was a whole set of bureaucratic structure within the fiefdoms. In the fiefs, the nobles employed vassals to control the people. By the late Spring and Autumn Period, in some fiefdoms, the nobles increased their power and gradually took over from the ruling power, with their vassals holding such high status that they could interfere in the state affairs of the fiefdom. The situation might be described as ¡§the ministers usurped the state affairs while the vassals controlled the fate of the state.¡¨
In the time of the Spring and Autumn Period, both society and the economy developed further. With the expansion of the territory came newly developed areas, many of which were privately cultivated land. The cultivation of private land had a great impact on the old square-field system. Increasingly discontent with their toil on the square-fields and with the distribution of the land, the people resented having to cultivate the land for the nobles. As the peasants often concealed their income from private landowners, the national revenue was severely affected. Therefore, from the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period, some states began to change their rent and tax systems. For example, ¡§the tax-by-land system¡¨ adopted by the state of Lu ¾| °ê in 594 BC ruled that the division between the nobles¡¦ land and private land was removed, and taxes were collected in proportion to the size of the land. The reform of the tax system not only increased the country¡¦s revenue but also made the peasants more enthusiastc about their work. It was a sign of social progress. The collapse of the square-field system was a matter of time. The change to the agricultural system also promoted the development of industry and commerce.
The Change of the Social Structure
For many years, nobles, commoners and slaves were the three major classes in ancient societies. The rulers appointed officials mainly on the basis of their births. There were the so-called hereditary minister and emolument systems in the Zhou political and social structure, by which the nobles could enjoy the privilege of becoming officials for generations without making any contribution or having any ability. By contrast, the humble minor nobles and commoners had little chance of pursuing a political career, while the slaves could not even enjoy freedom. In the late Spring and Autumn Period, the situation in which social status was determined by birth began to change. Along with the practice of appointing people according to their birth, there evolved an increasingly common practice in which people were appointed according to their ability. Some average or minor nobles, even some commoners, through talent and ability, won favor with the monarch and were trusted with important posts. The so-called intelligentsia class gradually became the pillar of society, and the nobles began to lose their monopoly over social political power.
With the continuing development of society, the commoner class also disappeared. Social status was no longer unchangeable ¡X commoners could become nobles, and nobles could be reduced to commoner status. People working in agriculture, industry and commerce, together with the intelligentsia, had a respectable social status. Not only did the professional officials enter political circles, but also rich merchants quickly gained social status. Even freeing slaves who had served in the military was no longer a rare event. This new social structure was further entrenched during the time of the Warring States Period.