Author:Pankenier, David W.

Few episodes in ancient Chinese history can compare for historical drama and political significance with the struggle for supremacy in north China between the states of Chu and Jin in the early Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.). Besides constituting an epochal challenge to the dominant northern Hua-Xia cultural heritage, the military conflict in 633-632 between Jin and the distinctive southern Man-Yi tradition represented by Chu was also the final act of the intense competition for ascendancy that followed the lapse of the eastern state of Qi after the demise of the illustrious Duke Huan (685-643). "The deer was loose," as commentators of a later epoch would put it when imperial dignity was the game. In mid-seventh century the contenders all knew that Duke Huan's status as Lord Protector (ba) of the ruling Zhou dynasty (1046-256) was up for grabs.

As if this scenario did not provide drama enough, Jin's ascendancy is inextricably linked with the fascinating personal history and celebrated adventures of Prince Chong Er, better known as Duke Wen of Jin. Intrigued against at the Jin court, he fled with his maternal relatives, spent nineteen years in exile - twelve among his mother's people, the Di barbarians - and then was an itinerant guest at various state courts, all the while accompanied by loyal retainers. Recognition of his personal qualities and potential usefulness resulted in magnanimous treatment by the rulers of some of Jin's major rivals, including Qin and Chu. Ultimately, at age sixty-one, Chong Er was restored to power as Duke Wen of Jin in 636, with military backing from Qin. Not long after, Jin was drawn into military confrontation with Duke Wen's nemesis, Premier Ziyu of Chu, when the armies of Jin and Chu collided at the Yellow River.

The decisive clash came in early 632 at Chengpu near the Yellow River in western Shandong. Chu had the advantage of better tactical position, but superior generalship by Jin's commanders (supported by troops from Qi and Qin) resulted in a total rout of Chu's expeditionary forces, which had been marauding in western Shandong. The Chu army, though supported by Cai and Chen was below strength, apparently because of King Cheng's (671-626) dispatch of inadequate reinforcements, being displeased with Premier Ziyu's aggressiveness in pursuing a grudge against the former Prince Chong Er, and also, apparently, because the King saw no compelling reason to seek a decisive confrontation with Jin, now in the ascendancy. Indeed, the precise timing of the battle of Chengpu and the eagerness of Jin to confront Chu at this juncture will shortly be the focus of our interest. In the event, however, all but Ziyu's army of the center went down to defeat, and Ziyu himself, one of Chu's most able military commanders, was shamed into committing suicide while enroute back to Chu.

Here is how the modern historian Tong Shuye characterizes this epic confrontation at Chengpu:

The battle of Chengpu was the first great battle of the early part of the Spring and Autumn period, one which fully concerned the whole situation in the Central Plain. At the time Chu was projecting its power throughout the Central Plain, and had already invaded the great states of the lower reaches of the Yellow River like Qi and Song, while Lu, Wei, Zheng, Chen, and Cai had already capitulated to Chu. On the other hand, the barbarian Di forces had also attacked the royal lands, forcing the Zhou king into flight. By this time Duke Huan of Qi's career as Lord Protector was over. The age was truly one in which "aggression by southern and northern barbarians coincided, and survival of the central states hung by a thread." Had Duke Wen of Jin not risen to prominence in the north and taken the situation in hand, the royal Zhou house and the lords of the central states would have been swept away long before the Warring States period. After the total defeat of the Chu armies the influence of the southern Yi barbarians receded from the Central Plain and the incursions of the northern Di also gradually declined. Thus the survival of the Hua-Xia states and their culture was secured, and Duke Wen of Jin is to be credited with this great achievement!(1)


Despite the early date, the events of Chong Er's life and this epic confrontation are especially well documented in the historical record. Although the expected intertextual dependency is noticeable in late accounts, especially that in Sima Qian's Shiji, there is a remarkable complementarity between the earlier Warring States period narratives preserved in Zuozhuan and Guoyu - the Guoyu version being unique in a number of important respects. The version of events in the Spring and Autumn Annals and Zuozhuan commentary is a fairly straightforward account of the high points of Chong Er's career, culminating in a series of precisely dated military and political activities during the months before and immediately after his restoration and the battle of Chengpu. Most of this account, differing only in minor detail, is reproduced in the "Hereditary House of Jin" chapter in Shiji. These accounts are corroborated in important respects by the recently discovered royal commendation inscribed on a set of bells cast by Chong Er's maternal uncle, Zi Fan, who, besides serving him faithfully during his long exile, was also the brilliant strategist who helped engineer Chong Er's restoration and the subsequent defeat of Chu.(2) For our purposes the precise dates of significant events in the first year of Duke Wen's reign, 636, and in the spring of 632 will prove particularly valuable because of what they reveal about considerations of timing.

Of special interest will be the version in the Guoyu's "Discourses of Jin" which, in addition to retelling the story of Chong Er's exploits, recasts the history of the period in astrological terms, as the playing out of a sequence of events preordained by Heaven. The only similar passage in Guoyu is Ling Zhoujiu's famous "musicological" analysis (in the "Discourses of Zhou") of the sequence of events leading up to the Zhou conquest of Shang in 1046 B.C. There, the text reports the locations of principal heavenly bodies during the campaign of conquest and alludes to their significance in terms of the "field-allocation" (fenye) system of astrological correlations. Elsewhere, I have demonstrated that certain of these positional observations, most significantly that of Jupiter in the astrological space called Quail Fire (Chunhuo, the immediate vicinity of Alphard or [Alpha] Hydrae) traditionally allotted to Zhou, are accurate and help to explain much about the timing of major events, as well as the import of the Zhou leaders' pronouncements concerning conferring Heaven's Mandate on the Zhou dynasty.(3)

Later it will become apparent why these two watershed events, the Zhou conquest and the battle of Chengpu, are singled out in Guoyu for special attention and astrological interpretation. For the moment, suffice it to say that celestial events accompanying the Zhou conquest established important astrological precedents against which subsequent claims of heavenly endorsement had to be measured. What I intend to show here is that sufficiently informative traditions concerning those astrological precedents were known to the author of Guoyu in the late Warring States period, as were the astrological circumstances of Chong Er's ascendancy and the battle of Chengpu. Before discussing those considerations in detail, however, it will be helpful briefly to review what is now known about applied field-allocation astrology as it was practiced in the mid- to late Zhou.


Preoccupation with the correlation of celestial and terrestrial phenomena preceded by centuries the elaboration of systematized cosmo-political theories, gradually establishing the conceptual parameters within which such theories would develop. Such archaic predilections certainly contributed to the formation of the influential Yin-Yang and Huang-Lao thought of the late Warring States (fifth to third centuries B.C.) and Hah periods (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), a dominant principle of which was that knowledge of the natural world translates directly into political power. Thus, in his discussion of the cosmological chapters of the Huainanzi, John S. Major shows how this assumption underlies the world-view that "cosmology, cosmography, astronomy, calendrical astrology, and other forms of cosmology form a seamless web, the principles of which a ruler would ignore only at his peril."(4) Similarly, Mark Edward Lewis has described the popular Warring States-period mythos in which a non-heroic figure with no combat skills gains victory over a great warrior through the possession of a divinely or magically revealed military treatise, showing that "military theorists thought of their doctrines as an esoteric wisdom that expressed divine patterns inherent in the cosmos."(5) At its simplest, the most basic principle of the so-called "calendrical model of warfare" held that killing was consonant with the cosmos only when carried out according to the seasons of the year. Other accounts that describe revealed texts, such as the so-called "River Diagram" and the "Luo Writing", also point to the connection of these texts with astral portentology and political ascendancy. More to the point, perhaps, Huainanzi ranks astrological factors first among those to be taken into tactical consideration, in this way pointing directly to the agency by means of which patterns of cosmic order having military application were revealed.(6) Such conceptions are reinforced by still earlier textual accounts in Zuozhuan and Guoyu concerning the correlation of political and military actions with celestial events, most notably Jupiter's motion.(7) By the early imperial period, the conjunction of the five planets constituted a definitive sign of the...

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