Rites still valued in chaotic Spring and Autumn Period

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-04-25

A page of the first volume of the Chunqiu, or Spring and Autumn Annals Photo: CFP

The Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) in Chinese history, which was characterized by chaos and turmoil, is often regarded as an era of li beng yue huai, literarily meaning “rites shattered and music destroyed.” Figuratively, the term represents a society in total disarray. However, some scholars maintain that rites were still valued during the period, and it could even be considered an era centered around ritual.

Basis of li beng yue huai theory

The theory that the ritual system collapsed during the Spring and Autumn Period mainly points to vassals, their subordinate officers, and ministers, who largely disregarded the importance of hierarchy and the performance of rites. In The Analects, Confucius hinted at the distorted order during this period, saying, “When good government prevails in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the Son of Heaven. When bad government prevails in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the vassals. When these things proceed from the vassals, as a rule, there are few cases in which they do not lose their power in 10 generations. When they proceed from the great officers of the vassals, as a rule, there are few cases in which they do not lose their power in five generations. When the subsidiary ministers of the great officers hold in their grasp the orders of the state, as a rule there are few cases in which they do not lose their power in three generations.”

Mencius was even more critical of impropriety during the Spring and Autumn Period, scathingly stating, “The world fell into decay, and principles faded away. Perverse speakings and oppressive deeds waxed rife again. There were instances of ministers who murdered their sovereigns, and of sons who murdered their fathers.”

Among other scholars, great historian Sima Qian offered the most comprehensive summary of the perverse ruling order during this period. In the autobiographical afterword to his masterpiece Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian introduced the Chunqiu, or Spring and Autumn Annals, the first Chinese chronological history, at length. He said, “according to the Annals, in the Spring and Autumn Period, 36 monarchs were assassinated, 52 vassal states perished, and countless vassals fled instead of defending their own states. The reason for the turbulence and failure lied in the abandonment of fundamental principles for sustaining the states and conducting oneself.”

The “fundamental principles” were understood to be rites and music, based on which later generations concluded that the Spring and Autumn Period was marked by the disintegration of the ritual and music system.

Different view

Offering an alternative to this theory, some scholars conducted a detailed comparison of the Spring and Autumn Period and its subsequent Warring States Period (476–221 BCE), noting that rites were also taken seriously in the Spring and Autumn era. For example, Gu Yanwu, a famous thinker from the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), dedicated a section to customs in the late Zhou Dynasty (770–256 BCE) in his work Ri Zhi Lu, or Records of Daily Knowledge. He said in the section that in the Spring and Autumn Period, propriety and faithfulness were particularly upheld, the King of Zhou was highly revered, sacrificial ceremonies were strictly observed, and the clan system was implemented, but these practices were not mentioned or upheld in the seven warring states [Qin, Chu, Qi, Yan, Zhao, Wei, and Han].

Gu noticed that, despite power decentralization and political upheavals, the ritual system was still in use in the Spring and Autumn Period; it remained an important force maintaining social order.

According to historical documents, although Confucius detested officials’ misconduct and objected against their improper practices, he didn’t consider the Spring and Autumn Period to be an age of li beng yue huai. In The Analects, he said “If the superior man abstains for three years from the observances of propriety, those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined.” However, this was just a conjecture by Zaiwo, Confucius’s disciple, about the potential ill-effects of abolishing the customs of three years’ mourning for deceased parents, rather than a statement about reality.

Source and implication of term

The exact term “li beng yue huai” can be traced back to Kong Anguo, a decedent of Confucius, philosopher, and commentator on Confucian classics in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). Kong first used the term in his annotations on the chapter “Wei Zi,” or “Viscount of Wei,” in The Analects.

In the chapter, it was stated: “The grand music master, Zhi, went to [the state of] Qi. Gan, the master of the band at the second meal, went to Chu. Liao, the band master at the third meal, went to Cai. Que, the band master at the fourth meal, went to Qin. Fang Shu, the drum master, withdrew to the north of the Yellow River. Wu, the master of the hand drum, withdrew to the Hanshui River basin. Yang, the assistant music master, and Xiang, master of the musical stone, withdrew to the coastal Binzhou area.”

On this statement, Kong commented: “During the reign of the Duke Ai of the State of Lu, rites were ruined and music disintegrated, so musicians all left.”

In fact, when properly contextualized, Kong’s comment suggested that the withdrawal of musicians made the performance of ritual music for the Zhou royalty hard to sustain, rather than noting the complete collapse of political order as interpreted by later generations.

Moreover, Duke Ai of Lu (r. 494–468 BCE) was the last of the 12 dukes documented in the Annals who lived in the late Spring and Autumn Period. Kong’s term, li beng yue huai, referred actually to the reign of Duke Ai and the ensuing Warring States Period.

In addition, the term was mostly applied to other historical periods than the Spring and Autumn Period, such as a period in the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) when a purge known as feng shu keng ru, or burning of books and burying of scholars, was staged, and the late Tang Dynasty (618–907) as the empire was torn apart by warlords. The phrase doesn’t refer only to the Spring and Autumn Period, nor can it generalize historical features of the period that lasted nearly 300 years.

Rebuilding order

In the Spring and Autumn Period, while old order broke down, new order was also established. Namely, a ritual-based political order was formed, centering around the five hegemons [Duke Huan of the Qi State, Duke Xiang of Song, Duke Wen of Jin, Duke Mu of Qin, and King Zhuang of Chu].

During this period, albeit the decline of the Zhou court, the power to offer sacrifices to Heaven remained monopolized by the king, or Son of Heaven, of Zhou. Overlords, such as Duke Huan and Duke Wen, were unlikely to obtain political legitimacy by taking over the Mandate of Heaven.

Meanwhile, aggression by “foreign” tribes from the north and south posed serious threats to the Central Plains, thus the dukes had no alternative but to call on vassals under the slogan “Zun Wang Rang Yi,” or “Revere the King, Expel the Barbarians.” The dukes also tried to integrate fractured states within ancient China by meeting with sovereigns, or their deputies, to form alliances and paying visits to and seeking missions from the central court, in order to rebuild the political and ethical order.

The political and ethical order was represented by the ritual system, the only basis for legitimizing the hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period.

It is noteworthy that rulers or officials from different states had met to form alliances and paid court visits in the previous Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), and this practice mainly involved the king of Zhou and vassals as well as their subordinates. Only the king of Zhou was entitled to chair the meetings. It was absolutely improper for a vassal to preside over these ceremonies.

In the Spring and Autumn Period, the hegemons were allowed by the Son of Heaven and its vassals to preside over the alliance meetings, acquiring legitimacy in the practice. According to the Annals, hegemons chaired the meetings 22 times, and visits began to occur among vassal states in greater frequency.

The ritual system, dominated by the hegemons and extensively participated in by other vassals, embodied a new political and ethical spirit. It was no longer based on traditional patriarchal hierarchy. Instead, states sought hegemony by dint of political and military strength, building and maintaining a new ruling order. Small states should obey large ones, performing duties by the latter’s command, while large states protected their smaller counterparts, offering them help when needed. This was the basic ritual principle in the Spring and Autumn Period, and also the foundation for hegemon-based politics at the time.

Therefore, rites during the period were primarily interstate behavioral guidelines, akin to international law. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that propriety was irrelevant to initial states and among individuals. The Spring and Autumn Period’s ritual system differed essentially from that of previous dynasties, in that the spirit of propriety had been instilled into state governance and personal cultivation of the nobility, fostering a consciousness of civilization.

Foundational to the states, rites were leveraged for governance purposes and to educate the people. The guiding role of the ritual system in politics was partly reflected in an emphasis on dignity. According to the Annals, if every member of society behaved in a dignified manner, the state would be well governed. Thus personal self-cultivation was closely linked to state governance in the Spring and Autumn Period. To individuals, propriety was fundamental to conducting oneself in society.

Although the Spring and Autumn Period has conventionally been labeled li beng yue huai, deeper research reveals that rites were ubiquitous during the period. As renowned historian Hsu Fu-kuan said in his work A History of Chinese Theories of Human Nature, the Spring and Autumn Period was a ritual-centered humanistic era to some extent.


Liang Tao (professor) and Zheng Hong are from the School of Chinese Classics at Renmin University of China.

Editor:Yu Hui

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