With the fall of the Western Zhou in 771 BCE, royal majesty faded into a long, sputtering twilight. The lords of regional domains, large and small, broke free from Zhou rule, although they continued to pay homage to the ritual preeminence of the Zhou kings. Many of the several hundred newly independent polities took the form of agrarian city-states, consisting of a capital city where the ruling lineages dwelled and adjoining rural settlements whose inhabitants worked the land under servile conditions. The largest territorial states were located on the periphery: Jin in the north, Qi in the east, Qin to the west, and Chu stretching across the southern perimeter of the Zhou ecumene (Map 2.1). The political world of the early Eastern Zhou period – known as the Spring and Autumn era (771–481 BCE), named after the chronicle of this age purportedly written by Confucius (551–479 BCE) – was wracked by chronic warfare. Many states perished, victims of internecine struggles as much as foreign attack. Even the most powerful states were not immune to these centripetal political forces. Jin, descended from the Zhou royal house, expanded northward from its original base in the lower Fen River valley through conquests of non-Zhou peoples. But powerful noble families brazenly asserted their own independence, and the Jin ruling house itself succumbed to a coup-d’état by a junior kinsman in 678 BCE. Despite its military might, Jin “was actually a congeries of semi-independent city-states that spent almost as much time fighting their ruler and each other as waging war with other states.”
The endemic disorder that afflicted the Zhou ecumene in the Spring and Autumn era was temporarily ameliorated by the advent of the institution of the hegemon (ba 霸), which first appeared in 667 BCE. The first hegemon, Lord Huan of Qi (r. 685–43 BCE), claimed to act in the name of the Zhou king to summon the rulers of the various states to assemblies, negotiate truces and succession disputes, and marshal the collective forces of the various states to pursue military campaigns against non-Zhou peoples. But the Qi rulers’ assertion of hegemonic authority rested on their precarious military supremacy and transient political alliances. By the end of the seventh century BCE the rulers of Jin had usurped the mantle of hegemon, although they likewise faced constant challenges to their nominal suzerainty, notably from the upstart southern state of Chu.