After some strong rulers, the Chou dynasty became weak. A major turning point came when barbarians from the frontier sacked their western capital and killed the Chou king or emperor. The Chou dynasty regrouped and moved their capital east to Loyang in 770 BCE1. This began the period in Chinese history called the Eastern Chou. It is considered weaker because the Chou Emperor was only a figurehead with no real power beyond his own state. This period lasted until 256 BCE – over 500 years.
The Eastern Chou was divided into two phases, the Spring and Autumn Era and the Warring States Era. The first, which lasted from 722 to 481 BCE, is named after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a year-by-year history of this period. This chronicle of events was documented and then commented on by later Chou writers. The Spring and Autumn Annals, Ch’un-ch’iu, is one of the 5 Chinese Classics. In the previous section, we mentioned that the other four classics were all written during the Western Chou, the preceding era. In other words, the Chinese named an entire historical era after one of their classics. This reemphasizes the Chinese reverence for their own history and the written word.
The Spring and Autumn Era of the Chou dynasty saw a great flowering of culture in China that included its first historians2. These scholars wrote the outlines of the traditional Chinese history mentioned above. It also included its first great philosophers, including Confucius, Mencius, Mo Ti, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu.
“These and others show how diverse and vigorous was the thought of the [Chou] age. Never again was Chinese philosophy to be so creative and so untrammeled by the past. Systems then begun were to persist until modern times.” 3
During the Spring and Autumn Era, dukes and princes assumed local control due to a weak central government. According to tradition, there were as many as 1000 princedoms at the maximum. This splintering of the Chou Empire was due to feudalization combined with a Chinese form of a code of chivalry.
This fragmentation, combined with the presumed degeneration of society, inspired a multitude of philosophies. Each of the philosophers offered cures for the ills that seemed to plague Chinese society. They could all see that traditional Chinese culture was fragmenting due to the constant warfare between the petty kingdoms. In effect, they all identified the problem as social breakdown. Each philosopher proposed a unique solution to this problem. The philosophies developed during the Spring and Autumn Era proved to be incredibly influential in the rest of Chinese history.
This convenient and easily understood rendition regarding the many philosophies of the Spring and Autumn Era is part of the traditional mindset, both West and East. Scholars, however, have nuanced and refined this understanding. The notion that China stagnated philosophically after this era is a cultural myth. To add prestige, authors in later times such as the Han dynasty would attribute writings to the Spring and Autumn Era to confer them with the prestige of age. As such, literary accretions from later times cloud our understanding of the real philosophies of this time period.
1 This is a recurrent Chinese theme that we’ve seen before and will see again. Entering from beyond its boundaries ‘barbarians’ conquer civilized China. (It is suspected that both the Chou and Shang dynasties conquered an indigenous population.) They are assimilated, only leaving traces of their culture. They become less aggressive, and in turn are overrun by the next wave of barbarians, who invade from the fringes of their world. With each subsequent invasion, the center of Chinese culture moves further away from the boundaries.
2 Encyclopedia Britannica: China 5-519
3 EB 5, 520