Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Fifty-Three

The Decline of the King

In China, from 771 to 628 BC, the Hegemon gains kingly power by driving barbarians away

P’ING, THE SURVIVING ZHOU HEIR, had fled east and settled into Loyang. Here he found himself in a city which was actually twinned towns. The Duke of Zhou, who had established the city three hundred years earlier, had built Loyang’s palaces and temples on the western side; the Shang exiles who had been moved there to get them out of the center of the Zhou kingdom had settled mostly in the city’s eastern suburb.1

Inside the royal complex on the west, P’ing considered the problems he now faced. His western frontier had crumbled, and was continually breached by invaders. Inside, noblemen with ambitions were ready to rule some—or all—of his kingdom for him.

He had coped with the western threat by handing his old royal territory over to the Ch’in; while this may have seemed like a defeat, it shifted the responsibility of dealing with the barbarians neatly over onto the shoulders of the Duke of Ch’in and his army. Now he coped with the internal troubles by ignoring them. Records are sketchy from the first century or so after this shift from Western Zhou to Eastern Zhou rule,136 but in the traces that survive we see noblemen circling around each other, jockeying for position and keeping a cautious eye on the king. Meanwhile, in fifty years of reign, P’ing did almost nothing to interfere in spats between noblemen. This avoidance of war earned him the nickname “P’ing the Peaceful.”


53.1 States of the Eastern Zhou (with Alternate Spellings)

Almost immediately, powerful lords began to throw cautious nets over nearby, smaller kingdoms. “During the reign of King P’ing,” Sima Qian writes, “among the feudal lords, the strong annexed the weak. Qi, Chu, Ch’in, and Jin emerged as major powers, and national policies were made by local lords.”2 Five hundred years earlier, China had been the home of 1,763 separate territories. Now states ran together like drops of water on a smooth surface, joining at last into at least twelve major centers of power: Qi, Chu, Ch’in, and Jin, as Sima Qian notes; along with these, the seven states Yen, Lu, Wey, Wu, Yueh, Sung, and Cheng; and finally the Zhou land centered around Loyang. Surrounding these were perhaps a hundred and sixty smaller chunks of land, each boasting its own walled city and warrior lord.1373

The crown went from P’ing to his grandson (he had outlived his son during his long and peaceful reign). In P’ing’s fifty-odd years on the throne, no one had challenged his assumption of rule; but now it began to be clear that the noblemen surrounding the Zhou land would not even bear ceremonial kingship for much longer.

The first burst of resentment came from the leader of the smallish Cheng state, on the Zhou’s eastern side. “Duke Chuang of Cheng came to court,” Sima Qian writes, “and King Huan did not treat him according to the norm.”

Cheng should have been loyal to the Zhou; the Cheng and the Jin states, which now surrounded the Zhou land on three sides, had their roots in the same clan as the Zhou rulers.4 But the Cheng state in particular was prickly. The “norm” apparently involved an acknowledgment of the duke’s power in his own right, and King Huan had neglected to pay his distant relative the proper respect.

Duke Chuang responded by seizing one of the royal residences for his own use; it lay in the territory of Hsü, a small and unthreatening state south of both Cheng and the Zhou center of power. But it was the palace where the king worshipped, meaning that the duke of Cheng’s seizure was a claim of authority both over Hsü, and over the king’s religious observances: the ceremonial role which was one of the few powers left to him.

It took a full eight years for King Huan to screw himself up to a retaliation—or to get his soldiers into shape. “In the thirteenth year,” Sima Qian goes on, “the king attacked Cheng.”5

The attack was a disaster. King Huan himself was wounded by an arrow in the fighting and forced to retreat, leaving Cheng unpunished and Hsü still in the hands of his enemy. But although Cheng had defied the royal authority, the Duke of Cheng did not push his advantage further. The tenuous identity that linked the states of China together into a single people depended in large part on their willingness to accept the nominal lordship of the Son of Heaven. Without his unifying rule, cast like a net around the territories, they would break apart; and the northern and western barbarians would move in and destroy the separate states, one by one.

IN THE REIGN of King Huan’s grandson, King Hsi, the threat of barbarians returned.

The attacking tribes were called the Yi and the Ti, more of those nomads who lived in the high grounds and had never accepted the authority of either lord or king. The Zhou army was in no shape to counter their attacks: “[The position of] the son of Heaven had become humble and weak,” says the Guanzi (a book of historical essays written at least two hundred years later and collected three hundred years after that). “The feudal lords used their energies in attacking [one another]. The Southern Yi and Northern Ti engaged the Central States in battle, and the continued existence of the Central States seemed [to hang by] a thin thread.”6

The “Central States” were Cheng, Wey, Jin, and the Zhou land itself: the center of China. Seeing the threat of disorder swallowing his lands to the west, the new Duke of Qi was stirred into action. “He wished to keep alive what was dying,” the Guanzi relates, “and to preserve what was ceasing to exist.”7

The Duke of Qi, a young man who had just inherited his power, may have wished to preserve the existence of the Central States for the sake of their shared culture, but he was probably motivated by more practical concerns. Qi ran up the northeast edge of the plain, encompassed the mouth of the Yellow river, and stretched out to cover the Shantung peninsula. Disorder along Qi’s long western border would have been disastrous for the duke.

But it seemed clear to the young duke that King Hsi was incapable of keeping the Central States safe. Three years after Hsi’s enthronement, he announced himself as the new military leader of China: “In the third year of King Hsi,” Sima Qian tells us, baldly, “Duke Huan of Qi138 was first considered Hegemon.”8 The year was 679 BC.

The claim of the title hegemon, or “overlord,” was a declaration of authority over the surrounding states. But the Duke of Qi intended to use this power to unite the bickering lands in defense against the invading Yi and Ti, not to mention the other nomadic peoples who roamed along the highlands and looked down with envy on the fertile Eastern Zhou lands. Led by the duke and his minister, Kuan Chung, the Qi army threatened the other states into submission for the common good. The bickering lords, faced with a bristling frontline of armed Qi, agreed to stop fighting among themselves long enough to donate soldiers to a coalition force which would march along the borders and beat back barbarian invasions.

The Duke of Qi never tried to claim the title of king; he was content to leave that in the hands of the Zhou representative. But “king” no longer meant “ruler,” as it did in the west; the Duke of Qi could rule China without ever grasping for the word itself. And on the flip side, the king of China still held a kind of spiritual power which even a hegemon could not simply ignore. When Hsi died before his time, after a short five-year reign, his son took the throne and then made official the power which the duke had taken for himself: “he conferred upon Duke Huan of Qi the status of Hegemon.”9

Once again Duke Huan—who presumably had succeeded in pushing off the barbarian invaders with a coalition force—had been recognized as the chief general of the Chinese states. He had already been acting in this capacity for years. But now the role of Hegemon had been formalized, recognized by the king himself; and China had managed to turn itself into a two-headed country with both a military and a religious leader.

IN THE YEAR that Hsi’s grandson Hsiang was enthroned, the Hegemon—still Duke Huan of Qi, who had now spent decades fighting for China—found himself fighting off a different kind of barbarian invasion.

The invasion began as a contest between siblings. King Hsiang’s half-brother Shu Tai wanted the throne for himself; to get soldiers for his coup, he sent to the barbarian tribes of the Ti and the Jung for alliance. His plan called for the Ti to descend down en masse on Jin, the state which lay between the barbarian north and the Zhou land itself. Meanwhile, the second tribe, the Jung, would march on down to the Zhou capital through Jin land, getting past the Jin soldiers while they were occupied fighting off the Ti invasion. They would invade the palace, kill Hsiang, and enthrone Shu Tai instead.

When King Hsiang found out about these secret negotiations, he ordered his brother arrested and killed. Shu Tai got wind of the arrest order and fled to the Hegemon, asking for sanctuary.

This was a tricky situation for the Hegemon. If he refused to protect Shu Tai, he would be admitting that he feared the king’s power. If, on the other hand, he granted the asked-for protection, he would be proclaiming hostility for the king and might bring untold grief down on his own head.

He chose a middle path. Ignoring the whole issue of Shu Tai’s treachery altogether, the Hegemon sent two of his own ministers to negotiate treaties between the Zhou and the Jung, and between the Jin and the invading Ti. The negotiations were apparently successful. The attacks were diverted; Shu Tai apparently did his best to pretend that he had never been involved; and disaster was averted.

This was a very different kind of power struggle than the clashes going on farther west. The kings of the ancient Near East were caught in a spiralling contest; any king who did not immediately set out to conquer territory risked losing some of his own to an opponent who was likely to speak a different language and worship a different god. The negotiations between the Chinese states were more like battles between cousins, all of whom were going to end up in the same vacation house during the summer months no matter how much they fought in between times. There was plenty of empire-building ambition in China, but it was considerably more subtle than the spear-clashing farther west. Empire-builders did best when they were able to portray themselves as guardians of China against the rest of the world, uniting the states together against the barbaric threat of the non-Chinese.

Six years after negotiating the safety of the Zhou and Jin lands against the barbarians, the Hegemon died without delegating his power to an heir. In the power vacuum left by the Hegemon’s passing, King Hsiang made a tentative attempt to lasso the Hegemon’s military authority and yank it back into the royal house.

He was given a marvellous excuse almost at once; the smallish state of Cheng showed the bad judgment to throw one of the king’s ambassadors into jail. King Hsiang decided to punish, sharply, this insult to royal power.

Unfortunately, he chose exactly the wrong kind of strategy. He offered to marry the daughter of the Ti leader and make her a queen, if the Ti barbarians would help him invade and punish the Cheng.

The Spring and Autumn Annals, compiled at least three hundred years after the fact, put a dreadful caution into the mouth of one of King Hsiang’s advisors. The Ti are not like the Zhou, the advisor warns; they are different in at least four ways. “Those whose ears cannot hear the harmony of the five sounds are deaf,” he explains, “those whose eyes cannot distinguish among the five colors are blind; those whose minds do not conform to the standards of virtue and righteousness are perverse; those whose mouths do not speak words of loyalty and faith are foolish chatterers. The Ti conform to these four evils.”10

King Hsiang paid no attention. “In the fifteenth year,” according to Sima Qian, “the King sent down the Ti forces to attack Cheng,” and prepared to make the barbarian Ti princess his queen.11

What exactly happened next is not recorded by Sima Qian, but apparently the invasion failed. The Cheng state remained standing, and the year after the invasion, King Hsiang decided to put his new wife away.

At this, the Ti turned and invaded the Zhou capital itself. Hsiang fled. Shu Tai, his half-brother, older but no wiser, then reappeared on the scene and offered himself for enthronement. The Ti, who (after all) had originally been summoned into the mix by Shu Tai himself, enthusiastically agreed; Shu Tai married his half-brother’s discarded barbarian princess wife and made himself king. He also set up a new royal palace at Wen, thirty miles along the Yellow river from his brother’s old royal residence.

However, Shu Tai’s strategy for empire-building was no sounder than his brother’s. King Hsiang travelled incognito to Jin and arrived at the court of the Jin leader, Duke Wen, asking for help against the barbarians. The Duke of Jin now had the opportunity to repeat the Duke of Qi’s feat; he rounded up his own Jin soldiers, sent them down to drive the Ti out of the Zhou palace, and killed Shu Tai with his own hands. What happened to the Ti princess remains unknown.

He then used his own soldiers to reenthrone King Hsiang. And, not surprisingly, Hsiang then agreed to recognize Duke Wen of Jin as the Hegemon, heir to the power of the Overlordship. For good measure, Hsiang handed a good fertile chunk of land over to the Jin as well.

The new Hegemon exerted his power so lavishly that, unlike his predecessor, he almost made himself king. Three years after he was declared Hegemon, he was sending royal orders to King Hsiang: “In the twentieth year,” Sima Qian writes, “Duke Wen of Jin summoned King Hsiang. And King Hsiang went to meet him.” In the annals of Hsiang’s reign, this was recorded, euphemistically, as “The Heavenly King took an inspection tour.’”12 He was inspecting the Hegemon’s authority, and finding himself a nonentity.


DOWN TO THE SOUTH, the huge Chu state had made its own plans to deal with the barbarians storming back and forth through Jin and Cheng and in and out of the Zhou capital. The Duke of Chu had ordered a huge wall, the “Square Wall,” erected along his northern border. It was a wall which served him not only against barbarians, but also against the ambitions of the new Hegemon. The Square Wall blocked the route that a Jin army might take, if it were to march straight down to the east of the Zhou land into Chu territory.

Now Chu and Jin faced each other from the north and south of the humbled Zhou king, staring each other down over his head. To the east and west, the Ch’in and the Qi faced each other as well; the Qi diminished from its previous prominence as the land of the Hegemon, but by no means out of the picture, and the Ch’in in possession of the old western Zhou lands. The Eastern Zhou rule had been transformed into this square of powerful states with the Zhou king cowering in the middle.

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