Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Sixty-Two

The Power of Duty and the Art of War

In China, between 551 and 475 BC, a philosopher and a general try to make sense of chaotic times

AS THE EASTERN ZHOU RULE BEGAN, a square of powerful states—Jin, Qi, Chu, Ch’in—surrounded the Zhou land. A fifth state was rising in power to join them: Yueh, on the southeast coast. Later histories call this the time of the Five Hegemonies, but in fact there were four more states that had swept enough smaller territories into their borders to tower as major powers: Lu and Wu, both with borders on the coast; Cheng, bordering the Zhou land; and the Sung on their eastern side.1

The Zhou sat in the middle, clinging onto a power which had become almost entirely ceremonial. The states were ruled by their own dukes, and their armies fought off the enemies at the borders. The Jin in particular were in a constant battle against the northern barbarian tribes known, collectively, as the Ti. The war went on for decades, and gradually extended the Jin border farther and farther to the north.

For some time, this patchwork country held an uneasy internal peace. King Hsiang died, after a long spell on the ceremonial throne, and was succeeded by his son (who ruled for six years) and then by his grandson (who ruled for seven). The grandson, too young for sons of his own, was succeeded by his younger brother, Ting, in 606 BC.

These clipped reigns seem to indicate some sort of trouble in the capital, and the lord to take advantage of it was the Duke of Chu.

The southern state of the Chu was not part of the original “central China,” and it was still regarded as semibarbaric by the states of Jin and Cheng. Barbaric or not, Chu was strong. In the two and half centuries since the Zhou move, Chu soldiers had marched steadily to the north and east, invading and enfolding state after state. “In the ancient generations,” wrote the eighteenth-century historian Gai Shiqi, “there were many enfeoffed states, which were densely distributed like chess pieces or stars.” He lists a few of these, now disappeared forever from the map, which had once lain between the Chu and the Zhou border. “After the fall of Deng,” he explains, “Chu troops made their presence felt by Shen and Xi, and after the fall of Shen and Xi the Chu troops made their presence felt by Jiang and Huang, and after the fall of Jiang and Huang, Chu soldiers made their presence felt by Chen and Cai. When Chen and Cai could no longer hold out, Chu soldiers reached the court directly.”2


62.1 The Five Hegemonies

This Chu invasion of the Zhou land took place as soon as King Ting took the Zhou throne. It was not a direct attack on the palace; Chu’s putative target was a band of the Jung, the northern barbarians who had allied themselves with King Hsiang’s half-brother against the throne, eighty years earlier. They had been ricocheting around in China ever since. The Jin armies had shoved them over into the land of the Ch’in, the Ch’in army had shortly driven them farther south, and now they were on the western border of the Zhou.

The Chu did not attack these barbarians for the sake of protecting the sovereign; when the Duke of Chu marched against them, the Jung were not threatening the Zhou. And there is a hint in Sima Qian’s records that the Duke of Chu did not have the good of the monarch in mind: “In the first year of King Ting,” he writes, “the King of Chu attacked the Jung.”3 Never before had a duke been given the royal title. In fact, it was probably illegal for the Chu lord to call himself “king,” but the Zhou ruler seems to have been in no position to object.

The King of Chu’s campaign against the barbarians was halfhearted at best. As soon as he reached the north, he sent a messenger, not to the Jung with a demand for surrender, but rather to the Zhou palace with a somewhat ominous request: “He sent someone to inquire of Zhou about the Nine Tripods,” writes Sima Qian—the Nine Cauldrons of the Zhou, which had served for half a millennium as the symbol of kingly power.173

We don’t know why the King of Chu was inquiring after the Nine Tripods, but he probably wasn’t motivated by idle curiosity. According to Sima Qian, King Ting sent a court official to talk his way out of actually answering the question; and the King of Chu, after a brief time, moved back to the south. What staved off the growing crisis is unclear. Perhaps the Zhou king agreed not to object to the Duke’s use of “king,” as the King of Chu went right on styling himself by the royal title.

Chu itself continued to grow. The Tso chuan (the additional notes to the Spring and Autumn Annals of Confucius) remarks that when the Chu overran the little state of Ts’ai, the King of Chu had the crown prince burned alive. Ten years after the attack on the Zhou, the King of Chu also invaded Cheng. Probably anxious to avoid being burned as well, the Duke of Cheng offered to become a faithful vassal: “Do not extinguish our altars,” he begs, in the Tso chuan, “but let me change my course so that I may serve your lordship.”4

The King of Chu agreed. Now his domain surrounded the Zhou by a large and threatening presence on two sides.

MEANWHILE, KING TING was succeeded by his son, grandson, and great-grandson. The great-grandson, King Ching, took the throne in 544 and had a more or less uneventful twenty-year reign. But although he intended to appoint his favorite son (a younger prince) as his successor, he died before he made the appointment formal. The year was 521.

Immediately Ching’s oldest son seized the throne. The younger prince, incensed, attacked and killed his older brother and took the throne himself, becoming King Tao. The other brothers fled the capital.

One of them, Prince Kai, made his way up into the Jin state of the north and appealed for help. The Duke of Jin agreed to throw the weight of the large and experienced Jin army behind Kai. He put together a coronation ceremony and proclaimed Kai to be the rightful king in exile; Kai took the name Ching II (as if to insist on his rightful claim to the throne, which seems to have been very shaky indeed). And then, with a Jin army behind him, Ching II marched back towards the walled Zhou city.

King Tao barricaded himself in. For three years, the brothers fought a civil war; in the fourth year, Ching II broke into the capital and reduced King Tao to a vassal, forced to swear allegiance to him.

By the time all this was over, the Eastern Zhou authority had almost completely broken down into anarchy and bloodshed. The Mandate of Heaven had splintered, and an even greater war between the surrounding states seemed likely to follow, as they jostled to take up the dropped Zhou authority.

In answer to the disorderly times, a reformer appeared in the state of Lu. His name was Kong Fuzi, and as a teacher he gained a following that lasted for millennia. Jesuit missionaries, arriving in China two thousand years later, spelled Kong Fuzi as Confucius, a Latinized version of his name by which he became known all over the world.

Like the Indian philosophers who were his contemporaries, Confucius was from a vaguely aristocratic family; he was the indirect descendent of an older half-brother of the last Shang king. Unlike those philosophers, he was raised in respectable poverty.

By the time he was twenty-one, he had married, fathered a son, and landed a job keeping track of state-owned grain shipments.5 It was a job which required precision, attention to detail, and perfect record-keeping, all of which the young Confucius found himself naturally suited for. From his childhood, he had been a precise and orderly boy; as he grew, he was increasingly fascinated by the rituals performed to honor ancestors and divine beings, the rites that surrounded births and deaths and marriages, the ceremonies carried out in the courts of the state rulers and the court of the Zhou king himself.

These rituals were accompanied by poems and songs that described their proper performance; poems which, handed down orally from times before writing, acted as a living handbook of proper ceremony. Confucius, born with a naturally rententive memory, knew hundreds of them by heart.

For ten years or so, Confucius remained a government record-keeper. But he also gained a greater and greater reputation as a sort of walking repository of ritual performance. The Lu court called on him, when necessary, to make sure that visitors to the court were received with the proper rites. And he had begun to acquire pupils who were anxious to learn from the library inside his head.

By the time he was in his early thirties, the Duke of Lu consulted him on a regular basis. He was also hired away from his record-keeping to act as a tutor to the sons of at least one high Lu official.6 Just as he entered into this new phase of his professional life—in which his knowledge of ceremony, ritual, and the proper performance of duties would be central to his entire working life—the civil war flared up in the Zhou lands.

The Zhou lack of clout had been partly masked by the general agreement among the lords of the surrounding states that the king still had some sort of ritual importance; that even if he did not actually rule, he stood at the center of some sort of cosmic order that they would prefer not to disrupt. The Chu demand for the Nine Tripods had, perhaps, been the first visible crack in that agreement. The bloody battles between two crowned kings, each boasting the authority conferred by ritual and ceremony, showed that the crack now reached all the way across the surface of Zhou power.

Confucius was a man who treasured order; and he began to teach his pupils how to find both order and stability in a world where neither was on conspicuous display.

His teachings tried to preserve the best aspects of the past—or at least a past that he believed had once existed. He collected the oldest poems and songs of China into the Shi jing, the Classic of Poetry, an anthology for future use. (“From them,” Confucius remarked, “you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince.”)7 He is also credited with collecting together a shoal of rituals and ceremonies into a text originally called the Li ching, which regulates everything from the proper attitude of mourners (“When one has paid a visit of condolence, he should not on the same day show manifestations of joy”)8 to the orderly succession of monthly tasks (“In the second month of autumn…it is allowable to rear city and suburban walls, to establish cities and towns, to dig underground passages and grain-pits, and to repair granaries.”)9 His sayings were gathered together by his followers into a third collection called Lun yu, or the Analects.

Confucius was not the inventor of the philosophy laid out in the Analects, any more than the Mahavira was the originator of Jainism. His innovation was in turning back to the past in order to find a way forwards. “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge,” he told his followers, “I am one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeing it there.”10 His study of the past told him that, in a fractious China, both tranquillity and virtue lay in the orderly performance of duties. “It is by the rules of propriety that the character is established,” he is reported to have said. “Without the rules of propriety, respectfulness becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, timidity; boldness, insubordination; and straightforwardness, rudeness.”11

In a world where force of arms seemed to be the only glue holding a state together, Confucius offered another way for men to control the society that surrounded them. The man who understood his duties towards others and lived them out became the anchor of a country—in place of the king, or the general, or the aristocrat. “He who exercises government by means of his virtue,” the Analects say, “may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place, and all the stars turn towards it…. If the people be led by virtue…they will become good.”17412

BEFORE CONFUCIUS WAS FORTY, he was forced to flee from Lu when its duke was driven out by a rival aristocratic family. Confucius followed the exiled ruler of Lu up into the neighboring state of Qi, where both had to throw themselves on the mercy of the lord of Qi, who had not always been particularly friendly to his southern colleague.

However, it suited the Duke of Qi, for the moment, to play host; he offered his hospitality to the exiled ruler of Lu. Confucius, on the other hand, found his own welcome to the court ruined by jealous Qi courtiers, who banded together to block his access to the Duke of Qi.13Finding himself with no job, Confucius left Qi and went back to Lu, where he made it quite clear that he intended to stay uninvolved with politics. This was wise, as Lu was divided between three quarrelling families, none of whom had a clear upper hand. (Eventually, Confucius would return to civil service for a time, but he devoted most of his later years to writing out the history of Lu, an account now known as the Spring and Autumn Annals.)

A little farther to the west, Ching II, now nominally in control of the Zhou palace, was about to have troubles of his own. His vassal-brother, the onetime King Tao, remained in simmering submission for twelve years; and then rose up with his followers (who perhaps resented the Jin tampering in their affairs), reattacked the capital, and drove his brother back. Ching II returned to Jin and asked the duke for help. The following year, the Jin army once again “successfully escorted King Ching [II] back to Zhou.”14

It was the last great Jin victory. Before long, the Duke of Jin began to find himself in difficulties. In the constant campaigning against the barbarians, several large families of Jin had grown steadily richer: one family claimed by birth the hereditary right to command the army; another had not only claimed huge amounts of barbarian land, but had also made alliances and treaties with the barbarian tribe. Men from these families and several others began to push against each other for more control of the Jin court. By 505, the divisions were serious enough to hamper the ongoing Jin fight against barbarians; according to the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Jin army, apparently divided by internal bickering, had to retreat from a siege laid against a barbarian town without success.15

In 493, Cheng and Jin waged a brief vicious war with each other; in 492, Qi, Lu, and Wey agreed to join with one of the Jin aristocrats and marched into Jin itself to push another Jin family off the map, in a combination civil war/invasion.

Now Lu was divided, Jin was fractious, and the Zhou were weak. Chu, which had been dominant in the south for a century, was fighting against the invasions of Wu and Yueh on its southeastern flank; Wu, temporarily gaining the upper hand, announced itself the ruling state of the entire south, at which the Yueh turned against its ally and attacked it.16 The Zhou monarch had ceased to be even a blip on the political screen. The years between 481 and 403 were so confused that many historians, who divide the period when the Zhou occupied their eastern capital (the Eastern Zhou Period, 771–221) into two halves (the Spring and Autumn Period, 771–481, and the Warring States Period, 403–221), do not even try to give a name to the roil of years between the halves. It is a kind of interregnum.

During these years, another philosopher (of a sort) made another attempt to lay out principles by which China might find unity (of a kind). Sun-Tzu, the general who fought for the Duke of Wu,175 had no illusions over what constant warfare was doing to his country: “There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare,” he warned.17 The Art of War is about conquering your enemies while avoiding as much actual fighting as possible. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” Sun-Tzu wrote,18 and “When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull, and their ardor will be damped…. Cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.” Sieges, that staple of Middle Eastern warfare, were not recommended: “Do not besiege a town,” Sun-Tzu ordered. “If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.…Other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences.”19

These are the words of a man who knew that enemies from your own state were just as dangerous as enemies in the next state over. In a country where your friends were as likely to be plotting against you as your enemies, deceit became a way of life: “All warfare is based on deception,” wrote Sun-Tzu. “When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”20 The good general not only deceives the enemy himself, but assumes that his enemy is always deceiving him: “Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance,” Sun-Tzu explains. “Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat…Peace proposals accompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot.”21

Both Confucius and Sun-Tzu, roughly contemporary as they are, offer a philosophy of order, a way of dealing with a disunified country; stability through the proper performance of social duties, or stability through intimidation. Sun-Tzu’s method is no less systematic and all encompassing than that of Confucius. And, for a time, it gained the upper hand. The states of the Eastern Zhou were, as the first-century Chinese historian Liu Xiang wrote, “greedy and shameless. They competed without satiety…. There was no Son of Heaven above and there were no local lords down below. Everything was achieved through physical force and the victorious was the noble. Military activities were incessant and deceit and falsehoods came hand in hand.”22

China’s government had become a constellation of military rulers, each holding onto his power by constant warfare. Without war, which acted to push the borders of the states outwards against the borders of the next state, the states would collapse inwards like pricked balloons; they had to stay inflated with the hot air of battle.


You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!