Your Book Review: Zuozhuan
Finalist #16 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked.]
To tell the story of the fall of a realm, it’s best to start with its rise.
More than three thousand years ago, the Shang dynasty ruled the Chinese heartland. They raised a sprawling capital out of the yellow plains, and cast magnificent ritual vessels from bronze. One of the criteria of civilization is writing, and they had the first Chinese writing, incising questions on turtle shells and ox scapulae, applying a heated rod, and reading the response of the spirits in the pattern of cracks. “This year will Shang receive good harvest?” “Is the sick stomach due to ancestral harm?” “Offer three hundred Qiang prisoners to [the deceased] Father Ding?” The kings of Shang maintained a hegemony over their neighbors through military prowess, and sacrificed war captives from their campaigns totaling in the tens of thousands for the favor of their ancestors.
But the Shang faced growing threat from the Zhou, a once-subordinate people from west beyond the mountains. Inspired by a rare conjunction of the planets in 1059 BC, the Zhou declared that there was such a thing as the Mandate of Heaven, a divine right to rule—and while the Shang had once held it, their misrule and immorality had forced the Mandate to pass to the Zhou. Thirteen years later, the Zhou and their allies defeated the Shang in battle, seized their capital, drove their king to suicide, and supplanted them as overlords of the Central Plains.
If the Shang were goth jocks, the Zhou were prep nerds. In grave goods, food-serving vessels replaced wine vessels. Mass human sacrifice disappeared, while bureaucracy expanded. The Shang lacked the state power to administer their surrounding subject peoples so much as intimidate them into line; the Zhou, galvanized by a rebellion not long after the conquest, put serious thought into consolidating their control. While the king remained in the west to rule over the original Zhou lands, he sent relatives and allies east into the conquered territories to establish colonies at strategically important locations, anchoring Zhou rule in a sprawling network of hereditary regional lords bound together by blood, marriage, custom, and ancestor worship of the Heaven-blessed founding Zhou kings.
For generations, the system worked, ensuring military successes at the borders and stability in the interior. The first reigns of the dynasty became a golden age in the cultural imagination for thousands of years. But by the dynasty’s second century, barbarian incursions were putting the state on the defensive, and surviving records hint at waning control over the regional lords and power struggles at court. 771 BC marked a breaking point, when barbarians allied with disgruntled nobles to overrun the royal domain and kill King You of Zhou.
Legend has it that the king was bewitched by his new consort, a melancholy beauty born from a virgin impregnated by the touch of a black salamander. Desperate to make her laugh, the king pranked his lords by lighting the beacon fires intended to summon them in case of invasion. When she delighted at the sight, he kept playing the same trick until the lords got sick of him and stopped coming, which doomed him when the barbarians actually invaded.
But the historical reality seems to be the usual sordid political struggle around a new consort—and heir—threatening the power of the old one. The original queen’s powerful father allied with barbarians to root out the upstart, only to get maybe more than he bargained for. Sure, he put his grandkid on the throne in the end, but the royal house had been devastated. It would never regain the ancestral lands it had lost to the barbarians, the direct holdings that filled its treasury and provided for its armies. The king retreated east into the Central Plains, playing ground of lords that were now more powerful than him. While the royal line remained symbolically important, as holder of the Mandate of Heaven from which all the states derived their legitimacy, the loss of central authority in every other sense would unleash centuries of intensifying interstate warfare and upheaval.
This is the world of the Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Zuozhuan.
“Spring and Autumn Annals” is a bit of a redundant translation, since ”spring and autumn” was just an old way of saying “year,” and thus, “annals.” And technically, there were multiple Spring and Autumn Annals—every state kept, in addition to court and administrative documents, its own laconic record of each year’s wars, diplomacy, natural phenomena, major rites, and notable deaths. But the state of Lu’s is special, because Confucius was from Lu. He’s said to have personally edited and compiled the extant version of its 242-year-long Spring and Autumn, loading each character with weighty yet subtle moral deliberation. This ensured it a place in the Confucian canon, and its survival where every other state’s annals have been lost to time. The era that it covers is named the Spring and Autumn period after the text, not the other way around.
Taken on its own, though, the Annals is little more than a list of dry facts. For example, the first year reads:
The first year, spring, the royal first month.
In the third month, our lord and Zhu Yifu swore a covenant at Mie.
In summer, in the fifth month, the Liege of Zheng overcame Duan at Yan.
In autumn, in the seventh month, the Heaven-appointed king sent his steward Xuan to us to present the funeral equipment for Lord Hui and Zhong Zi.
In the ninth month, we swore a covenant with a Song leader at Su.
In winter, in the twelfth month, the Zhai Liege came.
Gongzi Yishi died.
Who is Zhu Yifu? Who’s Duan? What’s all this about “overcoming”? Where does the moral deliberation come in? This canon badly needs meta, and the most notable of the ancient commentaries written for the Spring and Autumn Annals is the Zuozhuan. Ten times as long as the text it’s for, the Zuozhuan is the flesh on the Annals’ bare bones, one of the foundational works of ancient Chinese literature and history-writing in its own right.
While tradition attributes the text’s authorship to Zuo Qiuming, a contemporary of Confucius, most modern historians date its compilation to the century after. In its extant form, it’s presented interleaved with the Annals, so that after the Annals’ account of each year, with entries such as…
In summer, in the sixth month, on the yiyou day (26), Gongzi Guisheng of Zheng assassinated his ruler, Yi.
…you have the Zuozhuan’s account of the year, mostly composed of elaborations upon the above entries, such as:
The leaders of Chu presented a large turtle to Lord Ling of Zheng. Gongzi Song and Gongzi Guisheng were about to have an audience with the lord. Gongzi Song’s index finger moved involuntarily. He showed it to Gongzi Guisheng and said, “On other days when my finger did this, I always without fail got to taste something extraordinary.” As they entered, the cook was about to take the turtle apart. They looked at each other and smiled. The lord asked why, and Gongzi Guisheng told him. When the lord had the high officers partake of the turtle, he called Gongzi Song forward but did not give him any. Furious, Gongzi Song dipped his finger into the cauldron, tasted the turtle, and left. The lord was so enraged that he wanted to kill Gongzi Song. Gongzi Song plotted with Gongzi Guisheng to act first. Gongzi Guisheng said, “Even with an aging domestic animal, one is reluctant to kill it. How much more so then with the ruler?” Gongzi Song turned things around and slandered Gongzi Guisheng. Gongzi Guisheng became fearful and complied with him. In the summer, they assassinated Lord Ling.
The text says, “Gongzi Guisheng of Zheng assassinated his ruler, Yi”: this is because he fell short in weighing the odds. The noble man said, “To be benevolent without martial valor is to achieve nothing.” In all cases when a ruler is assassinated, naming the ruler [with his personal name rather than his title] means that he violated the way of rulership; naming the subject means that the blame lies with him.
There’s a few too many mythological creatures and just-so stories for the Zuozhuan to be taken entirely at face value, but it’s clear that its creator(s) had access to diverse now-lost records for the era portrayed. For example, some of the events show a two-month dating discrepancy—one of the states used a different calendar, and most likely the creator(s) overlooked the difference when borrowing from sources from that state. While the overall level of historical rigor versus 4th century BC authorial invention remains under heated debate, the Zuozhuan is undeniably the most comprehensive written source on its era that we have.
And importantly, it’s enjoyable.
You can think of the Zuozhuan as the Gene Wolfe of ancient historical works. It’s not an easy read, especially in translation, where names that are visibly distinct in the original (e.g. 季, 急, 姬, etc.) all get unhelpfully collapsed into one transliteration (Ji). The work drops you into a whirl of nouns and events, some of them one-off asides, others part of long-running narrative threads that might only surface again decades of entries later. While a casual readthrough still offers plenty of rewards, putting together all the subtext, references, and connections between entries is an endeavor that’s occupied readers for millennia. Your unreliable narrator remains enigmatic on most of the events he presents, leaving interpretation as an exercise for the reader; when he does speak, either directly or in the voice of the “noble man”, he can raise more questions than he answers. For one, the rule about the naming of an assassinated ruler largely holds in the Annals, but seems to have some notable exceptions.
But if you’re willing to plunge in, the work offers an experience unlike anything else. To read the Zuozhuan is to gaze through a dark kaleidoscope at an alien, fascinating world in turmoil, to freewheel through wars,
As they were about to do battle, Gongsun Xia ordered his troops to sing “The Funeral of Yu.” Chen Ni ordered all his troops to hold jade in their mouths. Giving orders to his troops, Gongsun Hui said, “A length of rope for each man: in Wu they cut their hair short.” Dongguo Shu said, “If I go to war three times, I am certain to die. With this it comes to three.” He sent someone to pay his respects to Xian Shi with a zither, saying, “I will not see you again.” Chen Shu said, “In this march, I will hear the drums alone. I will not hear the bells.”
Shen Baoxu [of Chu] went to Qin to plead for troops, saying, “Wu has become a huge boar or a long serpent that will swallow the domains above it. Chu is the first victim of its cruelty. My ruler, having failed to defend the altars of the domain, is now cast out upon the moors. He has sent his lowly servant to report this emergency and to say this: ‘The disposition of [Wu barbarians] is insatiable. Should they become your neighbors, my lord, then they will be a threat on your borders. So long as Wu has not yet firmly established its rule in Chu, you, my lord, should take a part of it. If Chu should then fall, it will come to be your territory. But if by your numinous power Chu should be preserved, then it will serve you for generations.”
The Liege of Qin sent someone to decline, saying, “I have heard your request. For now, sir, take to your quarters. I will report to you after I have made my plans.”
He replied, “With my ruler cast out upon the moors, and having not yet found shelter, how should I, a lowly subject, presume to take my ease?” He stood leaning against the wall of the audience hall wailing. Day and night he wailed without ceasing, and for seven days not a dipperful of water passed his lips.
When Lord Ai of Qin recited “Naked” for him, he prostrated himself nine times and sat down. The Qin army then set out.
Earlier, Lord Xuan of Wei had consorted with Yi Jiang, a concubine of his deceased father Lord Zhuang, and she gave birth to Jizi. [...] They selected a wife for him in Qi, and she was beautiful, so Lord Xuan took her for himself. She gave birth to Shou and Shuo. [...] Yi Jiang hanged herself.
Xuan Jiang, the woman from Qi, conspired with [her younger son] Shuo against Jizi. Lord Xuan sent Jizi to Qi and had brigands await him at Shen, where they were to kill him. [Her older son] Shou told Jizi of the plot, intending to make him flee, but Jizi was unwilling and said, “Of what use is the son who rejects his father’s command? If there were a domain without fathers, then I could flee there.” When Jizi was about to depart, Shou plied him with wine. Shou then carried his banner and went first. The brigands killed him. When Jizi arrived, he said, “I am the one you were after. What crime did he commit? Please kill me!” The bandits also killed him.
On the eve of battle, Hua Yuan [of Song] had slaughtered a sheep to feed his men, but his chariot driver Yang Zhen had been denied his portion. When it was time for battle, Yang said, “With yesterday’s mutton, you were in charge, but in today’s affair, I am in charge.” He drove the chariot into the ranks of the Zheng army, hence Song’s defeat.
In the intercalary month, our lord did not announce the first day of the month: this was not in accordance with ritual propriety. We use the intercalary month to correct the seasons. We use the seasons to perform activities. We use activities to enrich the people’s livelihood. The way of providing the people with livelihood lies precisely in this! Not to announce the first day of an intercalary month is to cast aside timely governance. How could one serve the people by doing this?
In autumn, in the eighth month, on the dingmao day (13), a great affair was undertaken in the Grand Ancestral Temple. We elevated the tablet of [the more recent ruler] Lord Xi above that of Lord Min: this violated the order of sacrifices. At this time Xiafu Fuji was the master of ritual. He did reverence to Lord Xi, and then he declared what he had seen: “I saw that the new ghost is larger and the old ghost is smaller. To put the larger first and the smaller last is to follow the right order. To elevate sages and worthies is wise. To be wise and follow the right order is in accordance with ritual propriety”...
disputing ritual propriety,
…The noble man considered this a deviation from ritual propriety: “In the performance of ritual there is nothing that does not follow the right order. Sacrifices are among the great affairs of a domain. Can it be called ritual propriety to violate the right sacrificial order? [...] That is the reason it says in a Lu hymn,
Not taking our ease in spring and autumn,
We offer sacrifices without error
To the greatly august sovereign god on high,
To the august ancestor Lord Millet.
When the noble man calls this ‘proper ritual,’ he is saying that Lord Millet may be closer kin, but the god on high is placed before him. As it says in the Odes,
I will make inquiries of my paternal aunts
And then I will come to my elder sisters.
When the noble man calls this ‘proper ritual,’ he is saying that older sisters may be closer kin, but paternal aunts are placed before them.”
Confucius said, “In three acts Zang Wenzhong [the high minister in charge at the time] was ignoble in spirit and in three acts was unwise. He kept Zhan Qin in a lowly position, he abolished the six customs barriers, and his concubines wove rush mats for sale. These are three ignoble acts. He fashioned meaningless vessels, he allowed a violation of the sacrificial order, and he sacrificed to the seabird Yuanju. These are the three unwise acts.”
determinedly ignoring supernatural goings-on,
There was a great flood in Zheng, and dragons fought in the Wei pool outside the southern gate of the capital. The inhabitants of the capital asked permission to perform an expiatory sacrifice to them. Zichan would not permit it, saying, “When we fight, dragons take no notice of us, so why should we for our part take notice when dragons fight? You might exorcise them, but then the water is their home. We have nothing to ask of dragons, and dragons likewise have nothing to ask of us.” They therefore gave up the idea.
and the creative interpretation of omens.
The Prince of Jin dreamed that he was wrestling with the Master of Chu. The Master of Chu was bending over him and was sucking out his brains, and because of this the prince was afraid. Hu Yan said, “Auspicious! We are able to obtain Heaven’s blessings [by facing the sky] and Chu is [crouching on the ground] submitting to punishment for its crimes.”
Ministers with various viewpoints discourse at length upon history, governance, politics, custom, morality, and the nature of ghosts and spirits. Diplomatic envoys exchange veiled remarks with their hosts by singing odes from their shared cultural canon (many of which survive to this day, through another compilation associated with Confucius.)
Scatters of vivid anecdotes sketch out conflicted, impressionistic portraits of the recurring historical figures. While the narrative certainly likes some people better than others, there’s always enough messiness in the events presented, and enough fondness for oblique judgment in the ancient Chinese historical tradition, to leave room for the reader to form their own opinion—even for Confucius himself. His purported judgments are scattered throughout the text of the Zuozhuan, but he also appears as an actual historical figure toward the end, a minister of the state of Lu, navigating between ideals and circumstances just like everyone else. In both cases, he proves more interesting and complex than the common perception of him—to the point of unsettling some commentators from later eras where Confucius had become a nigh-divine figure.
In summer, our lord met with the Prince of Qi[...]. As Confucius was assisting, Wang Meng said to the Prince of Qi, “Confucius understands ritual but lacks valor. If we have Lai men [from a conquered Yi, or “barbarian”, state] threaten the Prince of Lu with their weapons, we are certain to achieve our aims.” The Prince of Qi agreed with this plan. Retreating with our lord, Confucius said, “Men, use your weapons! The two rulers have come together with good cheer, yet captive Yi aliens are using their weapons to disrupt the meeting. This is not how the Prince of Qi should command the princes. Aliens should not plot against the [Zhou] domains, Yi should not disrupt the [Chinese] people, captives should not interfere with covenants, and weapons should not strain good cheer. These things are inauspicious with regard to the spirits, they are failures of propriety with regard to virtue, and they are shortcomings in ritual propriety with regard to other men. You, my lord, must not act in this way.” When the Prince of Qi heard this, he immediately sent the Lai men away.
Gongwei and his boy favorite Wang Yi were riding together [in battle]. They both died and both were given funerals. Confucius said, “Since Wang Yi was able to grasp the shield and dagger-axe in order to defend the altars of the domain, it would be right to mourn him as a grown man.”
When Qin Zhang heard that Zong Lu had died, he prepared to go and mourn for him. Confucius said, “He was a brigand for Qi Bao and an assassin for Gongmeng Zhi. Why should you mourn for him? The noble man does not earn his keep from a miscreant. He does not accept things from the rebellious. He does not taint himself with deviations for the sake of profit. He does not serve others with deviations of his own. He neither covers up unjust behavior nor commits deeds that are not in accord with ritual propriety.”
Lord Ling of Chen, Gongsun Ning, and Yi Hangfu all had liaisons with Xia Ji. They each wore her intimate garments under their robes, bantering about them in court. Xie Ye remonstrated with the lord: “When lords and ministers demonstrate their licentiousness, the people have nothing to look to as example. Moreover, the reports that spread as a result will not be good. You, my lord, should put away those garments!” The lord said, “I will be able to change my ways.” He told the two noblemen about this, and when the two requested to have Xie Ye killed, he did not stop them. They thus put Xie Ye to death.
Confucius said, “It says in the Odes,
When the people have many deviations,
Do not set up your own law against deviations!
Does this not describe Xie Ye?”’
There’s a lot of things you can say about the Zuozhuan, and most of them have probably been said already, with the two thousand years of further commentary it’s spawned. But I can offer this: it made me think about what it means to live in a world that’s falling apart.
Western Zhou, from the initial conquest to the fall of the capital, stood for 275 years—longer than the United States has existed. The decay of the system it created would take about as long. Decades went by before the weakness of the king fully sank in, and decades more before one powerful lord, seeing intensifying interstate warfare and barbarian threats, hit upon the idea of the position of hegemon: commanding the various states on behalf of the king, at least in name. But any interstate order he created died with him, and the scramble of the other lords to claim hegemon status for themselves ended with two major rival powers whose back-and-forth wars and demands for homage ravaged the smaller states trapped between them. One of those powers weakened due to internal turmoil (more below); the other was nearly destroyed by a new contender, a peripheral non-Sinitic kingdom—whose overextension led to its own destruction soon after by a different kingdom. An early lord of the Spring and Autumn period, upon overrunning a neighbor, merely installed a few loyal nobles before going home; by the end of the era, outright conquest of other Zhou states had become routine.
The breakdown of the old order between states was mirrored by the breakdown within. Of the first four rulers of Lu in the Zuozhuan, three were murdered. Just as the Zhou royal house lost control of its lords, its lords would lose control of their relatives and ministerial families; in many states, the lords devolved to helpless figureheads, while hereditary ministers competed with each other at the expense of the state. The most dramatic case was the state of Jin, which inaugurated the start of the Spring and Autumn period with a brutal multi-generational succession struggle; at that point, the king was still strong enough to intervene, but not strong enough to actually fix things. The eventually victorious usurping branch decided to prevent future succession struggles by slaughtering all the other branches and exiling any extraneous potential heirs…which, ironically, cleared the way for ministerial lineages to usurp power from a diminished ruling house. After lengthy infighting and multiple rounds of familial exterminations, the remaining three ministerial lineages would ultimately divide the state of Jin among themselves.
The Partition of Jin is often considered the end date of the Spring and Autumn period. States could and did destroy states before then, but the creation of new independent ruling lines was different. Granting rulership had been the prerogative of the king, through which the Mandate of Heaven flowed, some echo of the divine command to overthrow tyranny and build a virtuous order; now, there was increasingly little justification for rulership beyond the power required to seize it.
That set the tone for the Warring States period that followed. The interstate arena became a no-holds-barred all-against-all. States reformed into war machines that lived and died based on how many hundreds of thousands of conscript infantry they could push out onto a battlefield. New philosophies sought to make sense of a world that had burst through the bounds of existing ideas—the Warring States, for all its brutality, was an era of intellectual flourishing.
The Spring and Autumn period can appear the provincial, less glamorous era, next to the Warring States period with all its ambition, dynamism, and wandering men of talent full of new ideas to change the world. But that’s what makes the world of the Zuozhuan so oddly relatable.
For all that the Zuozhuan is accused of didacticism, I’d assert that the stories we have of the figures of the Warring States are even more so. In an era where Moloch reigns, there’s little room for fluff; stories have to be edited down, sleek and streamlined in the service of an agenda. Whereas the Zuozhuan, despite covering over two hundred years and thousands of figures with a word count lower than many fantasy trilogies’, is full of that human richness and messiness. People get squeamish and hangry and do dumb frivolous things (that they then implore the court scribe not to write down.) They make witty poetic references, and complain when the other person doesn’t get them. They politely decline when their grandmother wants to have sex with them (or, alternatively, get depressed when they find out their grandmother wants to murder them in favor of the hot grandson anyway.)
The collapse of the Zhou sociopolitical order wasn’t an abstract phenomenon. It permeated the lives of thinking, feeling human beings, who reacted as human beings were wont to do. Many of them understood themselves to live in a fallen age full of evils, and pondered at length what had gone wrong and how to fix things. It’s just that, as we can see from the lengthy speeches where they laid out their reasoning, the ideas that they knew were about as up to the task as chariots against artillery. Their conceptual maps could not grasp the territory.
I’ve seen one reader exclaim that the people of the Spring and Autumn era read like demonic spirits. Figures from even a century or two later argue from nice rational self-interest in ways that are comprehensible to us today, but for the people in the Zuozhuan, especially the early figures, the world spun on different axes. That’s not to say they didn’t understand self-interest, or that their high-flown speeches couldn’t disguise ruthless calculation, but they interfaced with the world through concepts like Heaven’s Mandate and ritual propriety, truly believed in them the way medieval Europe believed in Hell and heresy. Only, while medieval thinkers at least had ideas from the Classical world to draw on, the thinkers of the Spring and Autumn had no predecessors from more advanced societies than theirs. They were from a Bronze Age kin-based society forced to rapidly scale up by its own success, far beyond what their existing customs and worldview had evolved for. Later peripheral conquerors of China could at least copy the homework of the existing empire, but the Zhou conquered the Shang, whose rudimentary state had never managed more than loose hegemony beyond their core lands, a parochial project next to what the Zhou had committed to. In that light, it’s truly impressive that the Zhou were as successful as they were.
And maybe it’s understandable that figures like Confucius are so preoccupied with quoting the classics and observing ritual propriety without “deviation”. Clearly their ancestors had done things right, because they’d built something unprecedented in China. There had been a time without endemic fratricidal violence, when the Zhou were a united people from the mountains to the sea. By inserting intercalary months according to ritual propriety, they could maintain the order of the calendar year, the plantings and harvests that sustained all of society. Surely, by arranging ancestral tablets and interpersonal relations according to ritual propriety, they could maintain the order of society.
Chinese philosophers from just a century or two later would think this was ludicrous. Zhuangzi would snark about dressing a monkey up in the robes of the first regent Duke of Zhou—it would only bite and tear the robes off. The world had changed; the golden age was forever gone, even if you aped its trappings. Lord Shang, the Legalist reformer, might’ve been the first to go deeper, theorizing that the pressures of growing population create new problems and require the development of new forms of governance. Certainly, with the ideas we have today, it’s clear that the golden age was completely unsustainable to begin with.
The combination of elite polygyny and hereditary positions is a recipe for runaway elite overproduction. The golden age existed because, for the first generations after the conquest, the king could simply jettison all his younger sons and brothers with their entourages east to found new colonies. The Zhou could work with societal rules evolved for smaller groups, as long as there was opportunity to split off those smaller groups and send them elsewhere.
But inevitably, the opportunity ended. The golden age would be romanticized as a time where no penal punishments had to be exacted on the populace for forty years, which likely means it was a time when everyone understood it was easier to take resources from non-Zhou populations than from one’s own people—one doubts Zhou’s neighbors would consider those years a golden age. But at some point the king necessarily started running out of territory to hand out to his supporters that didn’t already belong to other supporters, and the law of diminishing returns put an end to conquering more land. Simultaneously, the personal bond between the king and the established regional lords, at first the relationship between brothers, sons, and comrades-in-arms, would dilute over the generations to the relationship between distant cousins who paid occasional visits. Kinship ties and camaraderie had to be increasingly substituted with bureaucracy and coercion. It took nine generations before the king publicly boiled one of his lords alive to send a message.
And none of the thinking beings in the Zuozhuan, for all their debates and worrying about the world, could’ve understood the additional forces of change beginning to awaken in their own era. This period is also the beginning of China’s Iron Age, a prerequisite for the tools for increased agricultural production and the weapons for mass infantry that would enable the dynamics of the Warring States. And despite Confucius having a reputation as a hardcore traditionalist, he was actually in many ways one of the future. He belonged to the rising shi class—fallen nobles or enterprising commoners whose ties to land and lineage had been broken in the tumult of the Spring and Autumn, who moved between states freely and made their living serving the powerful as warriors, officials, and retainers. The great powers of the Warring States era would depend on an alliance of the ruler and the shi against the landed nobility to create a highly bureaucratized state that could directly wield its masses in war and agriculture. Most of the famous philosophers and ministers of this era would come from the shi.
At the same time, even if the traditionalists in the Zuozhuan put some ridiculous faith in ritual propriety, even if they couldn’t possibly have restored the old ways, were they wrong to fear what lay ahead? Most of them were from the landed warrior-noble lineages, who’d be made obsolete by the breakdown of the old world that they themselves had fueled. And the result of the Red Queen’s race between the states would be the destruction of every existing state—including Qin, the ostensible winner, which collapsed in two generations and saw its capital sacked, its ruling family exterminated, its archives torched. With it burnt almost all the remaining copies of the books and records from the states and the centuries before it.
Later dynasties would turn to the Zhou classics as a source of legitimacy, but underneath the Confucian trappings, the empires would be built atop the Legalist structures forged in the fires of the Warring States. People tend to think of ancient cultures, and especially ancient Chinese culture, as a monolith—the eternal Middle Kingdom—but by then the ancients didn’t understand their ancients. This had something to do with Qin repressions and the burning of the archives, where huge amounts of material were forever lost, and what survived was often of dubious provenance. Scholars would accept later forgeries as genuine writings for millennia—I didn’t realize for the longest time that the Rites of Zhou was written during the Warring States and not Western Zhou. But that also goes to show the enormous gulf between the Zhou and their claimed inheritors, because no, it didn’t seem implausible that massive bureaucratic government departments named after seasons were more than wishful Confucianist utopian worldbuilding exercises. (And then later dynasties took the wishful Confucianist utopian worldbuilding exercises as actual governmental inspiration!) In effect, Chinese history can be divided into imperial and pre-imperial.
Good riddance, you might say. The Zhou were overhyped and their system ought to be put out of its misery. Surely the Warring States, with its Hundred Schools of Thought and fresh outlook, has more to offer us. But the thing is, I don’t think the Warring States is the best analogue for our own time.
The existing foundations of our world are damaged but not broken. For all the upheavals in recent years, I struggle to believe that the pace of change will slow, or that the ideas to truly make sense of these changes already exist. This is only the beginning, and the Zuozhuan gives a visceral sense of what that really means. Our culture wars will seem like people getting mad over ancestral tablet placements. People in the future will look at us the way we look at Ai Jiang weeping for her murdered sons, “Oh, Heaven! Xiangzhong violated the proper way. He killed the legitimate heir and established a secondary son.” There’s more than one layer of grief.
The Zuozhuan can’t provide satisfying answers. But it can provide a sense of perspective, and recognition. I can conclude with one further anecdote from the Zuozhuan, for the commentators to the commentary on the commentary to weigh as they see fit. In 536 BC, toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period, the state of Zheng cast a penal code in bronze. By the standards of the time, this was absolutely shocking, an upending of the existing order—to not only have a written law code, but to prepare it for public display so everyone could read it. A minister of a neighboring state wrote a lengthy protest to his friend Zichan (the dragon-ignorer), then the chief minister of Zheng:
“In the beginning I expected much from you, but now I no longer do so. Long ago, the former kings consulted about matters to decide them but did not make penal codes, for they feared that the people would become contentious. When they still could not manage the people, they fenced them in with dutifulness, bound them with governance, employed them with ritual propriety, maintained them with good faith, and fostered them with nobility of spirit. They determined the correct stipends and ranks to encourage their obedience, and meted out strict punishments and penalties to overawe them in their excesses. Fearing that that still was not enough, they taught them loyalty, rewarded good conduct, instructed them in their duties, employed them harmoniously, supervised them with vigilance, oversaw them with might, and judged them with rigor. Moreover, they sought superiors who were sage and principled, officials who were brilliant and discerning, elders who were loyal and trustworthy, and teachers who were kind and generous. With this, then, the people could be employed without disaster or disorder. When the people know that there is a code, they will not be in awe of their superiors. Together they bicker, appeal to the code, and seek to achieve their goals by trying their luck. They cannot be governed.
“When there was disorder in the Xia government, they created the ‘Punishments of Yu.’ When there was disorder in the Shang government, they created the ‘Punishments of Tang.’ When there was disorder in the Zhou government, they composed the ‘Nine Punishments.’ These three penal codes in each case arose in the dynasty’s waning era. Now as chief minister in the domain of Zheng you, Zichan, have created fields and ditches, established an administration that is widely reviled, fixed the three statutes, and cast the penal code. Will it not be difficult to calm the people by such means? As it says in the Odes,
Take the virtue of King Wen as a guide, a model, a pattern;
Day by day calm the four quarters.
And as it says elsewhere,
Take as model King Wen,
And the ten thousand realms have trust.
In such an ideal case, why should there be any penal codes at all? When the people have learned how to contend over points of law, they will abandon ritual propriety and appeal to what is written. Even at chisel’s tip and knife’s edge they will contend. A chaotic litigiousness will flourish and bribes will circulate everywhere.
“Will Zheng perhaps perish at the end of your generation? I have heard that ‘when a domain is about to fall, its regulations are sure to proliferate.’ Perhaps this is what is meant?”
Zichan wrote back:
“It is as you have said, sir. I am untalented, and my good fortune will not reach as far as my sons and grandsons. I have done it to save this generation.”
If you want to read the Zuozhuan in its entirety in English, you have two options: a 19th century translation by James Legge in the public domain, and the recent Durrant, Li, and Schaberg translation, which I would strongly recommend over the former. The new translation is much better organized, annotated, and explained—it trades elegance for accessibility in some ways, but I think most readers would find the latter a lot more important than the former when it comes to the Zuozhuan.
For example—the usage of names. The Zuozhuan might refer to one figure by multiple different combinations of title, lineage name, given name, and courtesy name in different places. Naming gets especially bad with the later ministers, where, for example, Fan Hui is alternately referred to as Shi Hui, Shi Ji, Sui Wuzi, Sui Ji, Wu Ji, Wuzi, Jishi, Sui Hui, and Fan Wuzi. The Legge translation adds some clarifications in brackets but isn’t comprehensive; the new translation standardizes names used wherever possible, so Fan Hui is always called Fan Hui, with a superscript index so you can look up what name was used in the original text in the back.
If you’re just interested in the Zuozhuan’s greatest hits, you also have two options. Durrant, Li, and Schaberg have come out with a shorter reader of notable excerpts organized by topic. There’s also an older partial translation by Burton Watson—I haven’t personally read it, but it seems regarded highly in terms of readability, both in terms of accessibility and artistry, though it takes some liberties with the text and organization.
For more information about this era, Early China: A Social and Cultural History by Li Feng is a good overview, or the older The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. I also drew from Li Feng’s books on Western Zhou and Yuri Pines’s work on Spring and Autumn and Warring States philosophical development, and a little from the Shiji by Sima Qian—which is another ancient Chinese historical work (generally considered the ancient Chinese historical work, the one that established the model for the rest of imperial history) worth reading, for what it’s worth. While no complete English translation exists for the entire Shiji, there are numerous translations of the short-story-length biographies of various Spring and Autumn, Warring States, Qin, and early Han figures.‘The Biography of Wu Zixu’ is the most notable account of a historical figure also present in the Zuozhuan.