Composition of the

The Spring and Autumn Annals established a Chinese historiographic tradition based on the rational observation of events and delineation of historic patterns.

Summary of Event

The Chunqiu (Ch’un-ch’iu; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals) is the earliest complete chronicle extant in China. Attributed to Confucius, it records events in his home state of Lu during the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.). The work’s title (literally, spring, autumn) is derived from its format, which contains references to a season for most entries. The entries themselves tend to be brief, at times gnomic; they record everything from affairs of state, wars, and matters of dynastic succession to astronomical signs and even sightings of a lin (purported to be a Chinese unicorn). The work covers a span of some twelve rulers, from 722 to 476 b.c.e., an epoch in Chinese history often referred to as the Spring and Autumn Period in honor of the work. Although it deals primarily with events in the tiny state of Lu and its more powerful neighbors, the work suggests the general atmosphere of change and uncertainty during the middle Zhou period and prefigures the dynasty’s disintegration during the subsequent Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). The work’s title has become symbolic as it records the “rise-and-fall” of Zhou culture as illustrated by the vicissitudes of Lu. Confucius

The Spring and Autumn Annals is the only book of the Five Classics claimed to be actually written, rather than merely edited, by Confucius. According to the later philosopher Mencius (Mengzi, Meng-tzu; c. 372-c. 289 b.c.e.), Confucius was so devoted to the work that he once told his disciples that his literary reputation would rise or fall by it alone. Another tradition indicates that the original text of the work was copied from the walls of Confucius’s family mansion. To most modern scholars, Confucius’s authorship of the Spring and Autumn Annals, as with his editorship of the other classics, remains open to debate. Although its ultimate origin is uncertain, the text does seem to derive from authentic records dating to the Spring and Autumn Period. Unlike many other histories, it survived the burning of the books in 213 b.c.e. by the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.) and was elevated to classic status during the subsequent Confucian revival of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.).

Perhaps the least accessible of the Five Classics, the work attracted the attention of ardent Confucianists seeking to discern hidden meanings in the brief, obscure entries. This tradition of close reading looked back to the very source of history writing in China (and, indeed, of writing itself) in the collection and interpretation of oracle inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. This oracular impulse is evident in the text’s inclusion of astronomical events as portents of change and indications of the “will of Heaven.” The Spring and Autumn Annals mentions thirty-seven solar eclipses and includes the first recorded sighting of Halley’s Comet. With its emphasis on pure observation and causation, the text acts as a meeting place between older divination processes and an emergent scientific tradition.

According to tradition, the text is deliberately opaque as Confucius’s strict notions of propriety prevented him from directly criticizing the social elite. For instance, an apparently innocent entry in the Spring and Autumn Annals (as translated in Classical Chinese Literature, edited by John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau) reads: “In the third month, the late duke’s wife returned to Qi”; however, later commentaries explain the woman’s departure as a result of her involvement in incest and murder. Another entry reports: “In winter, the duke and an officer of Qi hunted in Zhuo”; yet later commentaries see the incident as an indication of the duke of Lu’s declining status in that he would hunt in a neighboring state with a mere “officer.” Of course, such interpretations may simply represent excessive zeal on the part of commentators, quick to look for Confucian signs of “praise or blame” in the original text written centuries before. However, they may document authentic oral traditions dating back to the time of Confucius, who may have used the original text as a guide for more frank oral discussions of history with his students.

Confucius plays the lute in this twelfth century drawing.

(Library of Congress)

Ironically, the Spring and Autumn Annals’ ultimate importance seems to lie not so much in its own text but in the commentary traditions to which it gave rise. Indeed, three of these commentaries join the Spring and Autumn Annals in the Thirteen Classics of Confucianism. According to Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien; 145-86 b.c.e.), the earliest written commentary of the text, the Zuo Zhuan (between fifth and third centuries b.c.e.; c. fourth century b.c.e.; Zuo Commentary, in Vol. 5 of The Chinese Classics, 1872) was compiled to sift through various oral traditions surrounding the incidents recorded in the work. Although the Zuo Zhuan may have originally been an independent work, it shares the annalistic structure of the Spring and Autumn Annals; however, it expands the earlier text’s spare entries into dramatic episodes with motivated characters similar to those in the classical Greek histories of Herodotus or Thucydides. The other major commentaries, the Gongyang Zhuang (Kung-yang Chuan; c. third century b.c.e.) and the Guliang Zhuan (Ku-liang Chuan; c. third century b.c.e. ), are more formalistic in their approach, seeking to systematize the Spring and Autumn Annals into a consistent program of Confucian ideology.

Although the interpretations of particular events in the Spring and Autumn Annals may vary, the commentaries seem to agree in the basic assumption that the original text contains a consistent, if submerged, ideology. If read correctly, each event is potentially a microcosm of the whole of Confucian thought. Taken as a whole, the work’s structure implies an essential conservatism, if not pessimism: The same mistakes get repeated from generation to generation and the subjects of the chronicle inevitably ignore the disastrous consequences of their actions to pursue a short-term or selfish gain. As such, not only the text reflects the tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period but also becomes a model of Chinese history as a whole—a dynasty’s rise followed by its inevitable fall.

In the elevation of the work to canonical status, as perhaps the ur-text of Chinese history, one is tempted to read an unflinching fatalism into the subsequent Chinese historiographic impulse. At the same time, the text illustrates the preference in Confucian ideology, and perhaps in Chinese thought itself, for inductive rather than deductive thought. Like both the Shijing (Shih Ching, compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937) and the Liji (Li Chi, compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), the Spring and Autumn Annals calls on its reader to come to terms with often opaque particulars before establishing patterns and making generalizations. As with the other classics, close reading and attention to detail are required for the reader to wrest a meaning from the text. To some degree, this confrontation with the text becomes its ultimate meaning.


The Spring and Autumn Annals established the role of historian in Chinese culture as an objective rationalistic observer of events, a person able to distill complex historic detail into its moral and ideological essence. Despite the self-imposed censorship based on notions of propriety, the work’s continued influence and subsequent commentary traditions illustrate how Chinese historians became political figures in their own right who not only passed final judgment on the elite but also, more important, discerned the broad social and historic patterns that led to cultural triumph or tragedy.

Further Reading

  • Durrant, Stephen. “The Literary Features of Historical Writing.” In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. This accessible overview of early Chinese historical writing places the Spring and Summer Annals within the tradition of the shih or scribe.
  • Legge, James. The Chinese Classics. 5 vols. Taipei: Literature House Reprints, 1966. A facsimile edition that includes Legge’s translation of the Chunqiu (supported by his translation of the Zuo Zhuan) as volume 5. Though originally published in 1872, this text remains the standard edition in English.
  • Minford, John, and Joseph S. M. Lau, eds. Classical Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. This excellent anthology of Chinese literature includes representative selections from the Spring and Summer Annals annotated with selections from with later commentaries.
  • Pines, Yuri. Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 b.c.e.
    Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. This work examines the intellectual ferment in China during the Spring and Autumn Period that gave rise to the Confucian school and the Spring and Summer Annals.
  • Schaberg, David. A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001. An examination of the emergence of Chinese historical writing during the Spring and Autumn Period, with close study of the relationship between the Spring and Summer Annals and the Zuo Zhuan.
  • Watson, Burton. Early Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. A good general introduction to Chinese historiography (and its beginning with the Spring and Summer Annals) in the broader context of Chinese literature.
  • Yutang, Lin, ed. The Wisdom of Confucius. New York: Modern Library, 1994. This work couples a good sampling of major Confucian literature in translation with an able introduction that places the Spring and Summer Annals within the context of the larger Confucian canon.

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