Lecture Four

Fragmentation and Social Change

Scope: Beginning in the 8th century B.C.E., local strongmen, originally appointed as representatives of the Zhou kings, began to arrogate to themselves the powers and titles of the royal court. The Zhou state waited too long to try to counter this and found its power slipping away as new “hegemons” arose in various parts of the empire. Small states proliferated and fought among themselves, ushering in a centuries-long age of warfare and chronic social and economic instability. Known as the Warring States period, the crises of this age led many Chinese to question the basic foundations of their society and to search for answers to the problems facing them. A new social strata of educated, professional administrators grew up at the many “royal” courts, known as the shi, and from the ranks of this class emerged many of the thinkers who shaped the great philosophical systems of Confucianism, Daoism, and the Hundred Schools.


I. By the 8th century B.C.E., the Zhou order began to fragment.

A. The forces that led to fragmentation were, in part, a result of the success of the early Zhou rulers.

1. Overall, the Zhou was the longest lasting of China’s historical dynasties.

2. The Zhou faced the challenge of administering a large empire, which they expanded far beyond what the Shang had ruled.

3. They added territory in the Yangzi River valley and along the southeast coast.

4. The peace and prosperity they maintained allowed the population to grow, as well.

B. As their empire grew, the Zhou kings had to delegate more power to local strongmen.

1. As time passed, these local power holders began to resist the demands for revenue from the royal court.

2. They adopted royal rituals and clothing and began to defy the power of the Zhou kings.

C. Because of military unrest on the northwestern frontier, the Zhou kings could not suppress their former subordinates.

1. A new people known as the Qin began to build their power in the former homeland of the Zhou.

2. The Zhou were forced to move their capital east, to the site of present-day Luoyang.

Through the next few centuries, the number of small states steadily increased.

A. This period is known as the Spring and Autumn period.

1. The name comes from the Spring and Autumn Annals, which were records kept in the state of Lu, one of the most important of the many small kingdoms of this period, whose rulers claimed descent from the Duke of Zhou.

2. Confucius, who we will talk about more in the next lecture, was traditionally said to have been the editor of the Spring and Autumn Annals.

B. As time went by, some local rulers began to covet the wealth or territory of their neighbors.

1. Warfare became endemic across China as states fought over resources or population centers.

2. Some strongmen began to emerge and build alliances with other states.

3. These rising powers became known as ba, or “hegemons,” meaning men who had power but did not have legitimate authority, which remained with the Zhou kings.

4. A new class of administrative specialists, known as the shi, developed at the new local courts, becoming a professional political elite serving the growing number of small states.

C. By about the 5th century B.C.E., the process of fragmentation began to reverse itself, as stronger states conquered and absorbed weaker ones.

1. This period became known, appropriately enough, as the Warring States period.

2. As some states became stronger, they competed for the best and brightest talents among the ranks of the shi.

3. At the same time, many shi began to ask why China had fallen into such a prolonged period of instability and chaos.

4. Local rulers developed new ways to increase their revenues and transformed the system of land ownership from one based on rewards to military leaders to one granting land to administrators as compensation for their services.

5. In time, this led to the emergence of a market in land and to the beginnings of an agrarian-based national economy.

D. The 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. became a critical period in China’s history, as many schools of thought sought to address the problems facing the people. We will turn to these matters in the next two lectures.

Essential Reading:

Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, 545-650.

Supplemental Reading:

Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did the Zhou kings appoint men from outside the royal family to administer territories far from the capital?

2. Why didn’t the Zhou kings order local officials to follow proper ritual forms in the performance of their duties?

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