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2.6: The “Hegemon” System of the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC)

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    Big changes set in after the Rong attack forced the Zhou king to move to his eastern capital in 771 BC, but not because of that attack. Rather, the basic dynamic was that domains along the outer Zhou periphery had more resources. As they grew, their independence from the King increased, and they began to attack and take over other Zhou domains, now states. Those who were stuck in amongst their brethren were vulnerable to attacks from all sides, and could not expand as easily into new territory. New territory meant a domain could exploit new natural resources and the labor of populations not already under Zhou control.

    The first powerful state was Qi, located in northwestern Shandong. From Bohai Bay it drew fish, and produced large amounts of salt (archaeologists have discovered salt-production sites there going back to Shang times). Salt is a valuable commodity because everyone needs it to live, especially if they do not eat much meat. Qi also produced a purple dye made from shells that was used for prestige garments. Qi annexed two smaller states and controlled the whole peninsula, so that the groups who had been known as “Eastern Barbarians” (dong yi) were now their subjects. Qi could feed large armies, large enough to rescue its neighbor to the north, Yan, from a Di attack in 664; and large groups of workmen, large enough to build a line of fortresses along the south bank of the Yellow River all the way from its debouchment into Bohai to the royal capital at Luoyang, in order to defend the “Central States” from future northern attacks.

    Because of these contributions, Duke Huan of Qi won a declaration from all the other Zhou domains that he was “hegemon” (ba): not the king, but the legitimate protector of the king, whom others should follow. The other major states, whose battles with one another hurt the small states as well, were also along the periphery of Zhou: Jin to the north of the Zhou royal domain, Chu to the south, and eventually Qin to the west.

    Later ideologues suggested that kingship was legitimate, and the hegemon was not. The status of the hegemon was, indeed, not the same as that of the king; it was based on military power rather than descent, and changed hands accordingly. Nevertheless, the hegemon’s status was institutionalized, and the covenants and ritual involved conferred legitimacy on the hegemon. The system represents a creative attempt to shore up the Zhou order and prevent all-out warfare.

    The conferences that designated hegemons included broader principles of managing ruling-class interactions. The five ranks of duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron were systematized to regulate how much tribute the hegemon could claim from states of different sizes. The conferences also established family rules – which made sense since Zhou power was justified by kinship, and peace was made through personal alliances. For instance, the first conference agreed that a concubine, or secondary wife, could not be elevated to the status of primary wife, in order to diminish factional conflicts at their courts.12 After all, if a wife sent to solidify an alliance between two states was displaced by a woman from a different state, the alliance would fall apart. The hegemon system, with both organization and ideology, recognized the need for new institutions that would continue the feudal states, with the Zhou king as figurehead. It proved a failure, but it is still part of history.

    In fact, if iron technology had not been imported from Central Asia, the hegemon system might well have succeeded. The Central States (zhong guo, now used to mean “China”) might have wound up looking more like medieval Europe: a large number of states with inter-related monarchies, and some shared high culture, but with different local languages and lifeways. The next chapter will talk about why iron mattered, but let’s look one more time at bronze.

    This page titled 2.6: The “Hegemon” System of the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.