Zuo zhuan ([tswò ʈʂwân]; Chinese: 左傳; Wade–Giles:
Tso chuan), generally translated The Zuo Tradition or The Commentary
of Zuo, is an ancient Chinese narrative history that is traditionally
regarded as a commentary on the ancient Chinese chronicle Spring and
Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋). It comprises 30 chapters covering a
period from 722 to 468 BC, and focuses mainly on political,
diplomatic, and military affairs from that era. The
Zuo zhuan is
famous for its "relentlessly realistic" style, and recounts many tense
and dramatic episodes, such as battles and fights, royal
assassinations and murder of concubines, deception and intrigue,
excesses, citizens' oppression and insurgences, and appearances of
ghosts and cosmic portents.
For many centuries, the
Zuo zhuan was the primary text through which
educated Chinese gained an understanding of their ancient history.
Unlike the other two surviving Annals commentaries—the Gongyang and
Zuo zhuan does not simply explain the
wording of the Annals, but greatly expounds upon its historical
background, and contains a large number of rich and lively accounts of
Spring and Autumn period
Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC) history and culture. The
Zuo zhuan is the source of more Chinese sayings and idioms than any
other classical work, and its concise, flowing style came to be held
as a paragon of elegant Classical Chinese. Its tendency toward
third-person narration and portraying characters through direct speech
and action became hallmarks of Chinese narrative in general, and its
style was imitated by historians, storytellers, and ancient style
prose masters for over 2000 years of subsequent Chinese history.
Zuo zhuan has long been regarded as "a masterpiece of
grand historical narrative", its early textual history is largely
unknown, and the nature of its original composition and authorship
have been widely debated. The "Zuo" of the title was traditionally
believed to refer to one "Zuo Qiuming"—an obscure figure of the 5th
century BC described as a blind disciple of Confucius—but there is
little actual evidence to support this. Modern scholars now generally
believe that the
Zuo zhuan was originally an independent work composed
during the 4th century BC that was later rearranged as a commentary to
1 Textual history
1.3 Commentary status
2 Content and style
3.2 Succession crises
3.3 Moral verdicts
6.2 Works cited
7 Further reading
8 External links
Notwithstanding its prominent position throughout Chinese history as
the paragon of
Classical Chinese prose, little is known of the Zuo
zhuan's creation and early history. Bamboo and silk manuscripts
excavated from late Warring States period (c. 300 BC)
tombs—combined with analyses of the Zuo zhuan's language, diction,
chronological references, and philosophical viewpoints—suggest that
the composition of the
Zuo zhuan was largely complete by
300 BC. However, no pre-
Han dynasty (206 BC – AD
220) source indicates that the
Zuo zhuan had to that point been
organized into any coherent form, and no texts from this period
directly refer to the
Zuo zhuan as a source, though a few mention its
Spring and Autumn Annals
Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋). It seems to
have had no distinct title of its own during this period, but was
simply called Annals (Chunqiu) along with a larger group of similar
texts. In the 3rd century AD, the Chinese scholar Du Yu
intercalated it with the Annals so that each Annals entry was followed
by the corresponding narrative from the Zuo zhuan, and this became the
received format of the
Zuo zhuan that exists today. Modern scholars
now generally believe that the
Zuo zhuan was originally an independent
work composed during the latter half of the 4th century BC—though
probably incorporating some even older material—that was later
rearranged as a commentary to the Annals.
China's first dynastic history Records of the Grand Historian,
completed by the historian
Sima Qian in the early 1st century BC,
refers to the
Zuo zhuan as "Master Zuo's Spring and Autumn Annals"
(Zuoshi Chunqiu 左氏春秋) and attributes it to a man named "Zuo
Qiuming" (or possibly "Zuoqiu Ming"), traditionally assumed to
Zuo Qiuming who briefly appears in the
Analects of Confucius
Lunyu 論語) when
Confucius praises him for his moral
judgment. According to Sima Qian, after Confucius' death his
disciples began disagreeing over their interpretations of the Annals,
Zuo Qiuming gathered together Confucius' scribal records and
used them to compile the Zuo Annals in order to "preserve the true
Other than his brief mention in the Analects, nothing is concretely
known of Zuo Qiuming's life or identity, nor of what connection he
might have with the Zuo zhuan. This traditional assumption that
the title's "Master Zuo" refers to the
Zuo Qiuming of the
not based on any specific evidence, and was challenged by scholars as
early as the 8th century. Even if he is the "Zuo" referenced in the
Zuo zhuan's title, this attribution is questionable because the Zuo
zhuan describes events from the late
Spring and Autumn period
Spring and Autumn period that the
Zuo Qiuming of the
Analects could not have known.
Alternatively, a number of scholars, beginning in the 18th century,
have suggested that the
Zuo zhuan was actually the product of one Wu
Qi (吳起; d. 381 or 378 BC), a military leader who served in
the State of Wei and who, according to the Han Feizi, was from a place
called "Zuoshi". In 1792, the scholar
Yao Nai wrote: "The text [Zuo
zhuan] did not come from one person. There were repeated accretions
and additions, with those of Wu Qi and his followers being especially
Ming dynasty Zuo zhuan, edited by Min Qiji (閔齊伋; b. 1580),
printed 1616. The introduction, which begins on the left page, notes
that the Annals and
Zuo zhuan "were not originally arranged together"
(wèi shǐ xiāng péi hé yě 未始相配合也).
In the early 19th century, the Chinese scholar Liu Fenglu (劉逢祿;
1776–1829) initiated a long, drawn-out controversy when he proposed,
by emphasizing certain discrepancies between it and the Annals, that
Zuo zhuan was not originally a commentary on the Annals. Liu's
theory was taken much further by the prominent scholar and reformer
Kang Youwei, who argued that Liu Xin did not really find the "ancient
script" version of the
Zuo zhuan in the imperial archives, as
historical records describe, but actually forged it as a commentary on
the Annals. Kang's theory was that Liu Xin—who with his father
Liu Xiang, the imperial librarian, was one of the first to have access
to the rare documents in the Han dynasty's imperial archives—took
the Discourses of the States (Guoyu 國語) and forged it into a
chronicle-like work to fit the format of the Annals in an attempt to
lend credibility to the policies of his master, the usurper Wang
Kang's theory was supported by several subsequent Chinese scholars in
the late 19th century, but was contradicted by a large number of
20th-century studies that examined it from many different
perspectives. In the early 1930s, the French Sinologist Henri
Maspero performed a detailed textual study of the issue, concluding
Han dynasty forgery theory to be untenable. The Swedish
Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren, based on a series of linguistic and
philological analyses he carried out in the 1920s, concluded that the
Zuo zhuan is a genuine ancient text "probably to be dated between 468
and 300 BC." While Liu's hypothesis that the
Zuo zhuan was
not originally an Annals commentary has been generally accepted,
Kang's theory of Liu Xin forging the
Zuo zhuan is now considered
The oldest surviving
Zuo zhuan manuscripts are six fragments that were
discovered among the
Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century by
the French Sinologist
Paul Pelliot and are now held at the
Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Four of the fragments date to
Six Dynasties period (3rd to 6th centuries), while the other two
date to the early
Tang dynasty (7th century). The oldest known
Zuo zhuan manuscript is the "ancient manuscript scroll"
preserved at the
Kanazawa Bunko Museum in Yokohama, Japan.
Content and style
Zuo zhuan recounts the major political, military, and social
events of the
Spring and Autumn period
Spring and Autumn period from the perspective of the
State of Lu, and is famous "for its dramatic power and realistic
details". It contains a variety of tense and dramatic episodes:
battles and fights, royal assassinations and murder of concubines,
deception and intrigue, excesses, citizens' oppression and
insurgences, and appearances of ghosts and cosmic portents.
Zuo zhuan originally contained only its core content, without any
content from or references to the Spring and Autumn Annals. In the 3rd
century AD, the Chinese scholar
Du Yu intercalated the Annals into the
Zuo zhuan, producing the received format that exists today. The
entries follow the strict chronological format of the Annals, so
interrelated episodes and the actions of individual characters are
sometimes separated by events that occurred in the intervening
Zuo zhuan chapter begins with the Spring and Autumn
Annals (Chunqiu) entry for the year, which is usually terse and brief,
followed by the
Zuo zhuan content for that year, which often contains
long and detailed narratives.
The following entry, though unusually short, exemplifies the general
format of all
Zuo zhuan entries.
In the 31st year, a terrace was built in Lang. In summer, in the 4th
month, the Liege of Xue died. A terrace was built at Xue. In the 6th
month, the Prince of Qi came to present spoils from the Rong. In
autumn, a terrace was built in Qin. In winter, it did not rain.
In the 31st year, in summer, in the 6th month, the Prince of Qi came
here to present spoils from the Rong: this was not in accordance with
ritual propriety. In all cases when the princes achieve some merit
against the Yi of the four directions, they present these spoils to
the king, and the king thereby issues a warning to the Yi. This was
not done in the central domains. The princes do not present captives
to one another.
— 31st year of Lord Zhuang (663 BC), (Durrant, Li, and
Zuo zhuan Chapters
Ruler of the State of Lu
Period of Coverage
Duke Yin of Lu (魯隱公)
722 – 712 BC
Duke Huan of Lu (魯桓公)
711 – 694 BC
Duke Zhuang of Lu (魯莊公)
693 – 662 BC
Duke Min of Lu (魯閔公)
661 – 660 BC
Duke Xi of Lu (魯僖公)
659 – 627 BC
Duke Wen of Lu (魯文公)
626 – 609 BC
Duke Xuan of Lu (魯宣公)
608 – 591 BC
Duke Cheng of Lu (魯成公)
590 – 573 BC
Duke Xiang of Lu (魯襄公)
572 – 542 BC
Duke Zhao of Lu (魯昭公)
541 – 510 BC
Duke Ding of Lu (魯定公)
509 – 495 BC
Duke Ai of Lu (魯哀公)
494 – 468 BC
Zuo zhuan narratives are famously terse and succinct—a quality that
was admired and imitated throughout Chinese history—and usually
focus either on speeches that illustrate ethical values, or on
anecdotes in which the details of the story illuminate specific
ethical points. Its narratives are characterized by parataxis,
where clauses are juxtaposed without much verbal indication of their
causal relationships with each other. On the other hand, the
speeches and recorded discourses of the
Zuo zhuan are frequently
lively, ornate, and verbally complex.
Zuo zhuan was probably not originally a commentary on the
Spring and Autumn Annals
Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋)—a work which was
traditionally viewed as a direct creation of Confucius—its basic
philosophical outlook is also strongly Confucian in nature. Its
overarching theme is that haughty, evil, and stupid individuals
generally bring disaster upon themselves, while those who are good,
wise, and humble are usually justly rewarded. The Confucian
principle of "ritual propriety" or "ceremony" (lǐ 禮) is seen as
governing all actions, including war, and to bring bad consequences if
transgressed. However, the observance of li is never shown as
guaranteeing victory, and the
Zuo zhuan includes many examples of the
good and innocent suffering senseless violence. Much of the Zuo
zhuan's status as a literary masterpiece stems from its "relentlessly
realistic portrayal of a turbulent era marked by violence, political
strife, intrigues, and moral laxity".
The narratives of the
Zuo zhuan are highly didactic in nature, and are
presented in such a way that they teach and illustrate moral
principles. The German Sinologist Martin Kern has written:
"Instead of offering authorial judgments or catechistic hermeneutics,
Zuo zhuan lets its moral lessons unfold within the narrative
itself, teaching at once history and historical judgment." Unlike
the Histories of
Herodotus or the
History of the Peloponnesian War
History of the Peloponnesian War of
Thucydides—with which it is roughly contemporary—the Zuo zhuan's
narration always remains in the third person perspective, and presents
as a dispassionate recorder of facts.
Several of the Zuo zhuan's most famous sections are those dealing with
critical historical battles, such as the
Battle of Chengpu
Battle of Chengpu and the
Battle of Bi.
The Battle of Chengpu, the first of the Zuo zhuan's great battles,
took place in the summer of 632 BC at Chengpu (modern Juancheng
County, Shandong Province) in the State of Wey. On one side were
the troops of the powerful State of Chu, from what was then far
southern China, led by the Chu prime minister Cheng Dechen. They
were opposed by the armies of the State of Jin, led by Chong'er, Duke
of Jin, one of the most prominent and well known figures in the Zuo
zhuan. Chu suffered a disastrous defeat in the battle itself, and
it resulted in Chong'er being named Hegemon (bà 霸) of the various
On the day ji-si the Jin army encamped
at [Chengpu]. The Jin commander Xu Chen, who was acting as assistant
to the leader of the lower army, prepared to oppose the troops of Chen
On the Chu side, Dechen, with the 600
men of the Ruo'ao family, was acting as commander of the central army.
"Today, mark my word, Jin will be wiped out!" he said. Dou Yishen was
acting as commander of the left wing of the Chu army, and Dou Bo as
commander of the right wing.
Xu Chen, having cloaked his horses in
tiger skins, led the attack by striking directly at the troops of Chen
and Cai. The men of Chen and Cai fled, and the right wing of the Chu
army was thus routed.
Hu Mao [the commander of the Jin upper
army] hoisted two pennons and began to retreat, while Luan Zhi [the
commander of the Jin lower army] had his men drag brushwood over the
ground to simulate the dust of a general rout. The Chu forces raced
after in pursuit, whereupon Yuan Chen and Xi Chen, leading the duke's
own select troops of the central army, fell upon them from either
side. Hu Mao and Hu Yan, leading the upper army, turned about and
likewise attacked Dou Yishen from either side, thereby routing the
left wing of the Chu army. Thus the Chu army suffered a resounding
defeat. Only Dechen, who had kept his troops back and had not
attempted to pursue the enemy, as a result managed to escape defeat.
— from Zuo zhuan, 28th year of Duke Xi (632 BC)
The narrative of the
Battle of Chengpu
Battle of Chengpu is typical of
Zuo zhuan battle
narratives in that the description of the battle itself is relatively
brief, with most of the narrative being focused on battle
preparations, omens and prognostications regarding its outcome, the
division of the spoils, and the shifts and defections of the various
allied states involved in the conflict. This "official [and]
restrained" style, which became typical of Chinese historical writing,
is largely due to the ancient Chinese belief that ritual propriety and
strategic preparation were more important than individual valor or
bravery in determining the outcome of battles.
Several of the most notable passages in the
Zuo zhuan describe
succession crises, which seem to have been fairly common in China
during the Spring and Autumn period. These crises often involved
the "tangled affections" of the various rulers, and are described in a
dramatic and vivid manner that gives insight into the life of the
aristocratic elite in the China of the mid-1st millennium BC.
The best known of these stories is that of Duke Zhuang of Zheng, who
ruled the State of Zheng from 743 to 701 BC. Duke Zhuang was
born "in a manner that startled" his mother (probably breech birth),
which caused her to later seek to persuade her husband to name Duke
Zhuang's younger brother as the heir apparent instead of him. The
story ends with eventual reconciliation between mother and son, thus
exemplifying the traditional Chinese virtues of both "ritual
propriety" (lǐ) and "filial piety" (xiào 孝), which has made
it consistently popular with readers over the centuries.
A number of
Zuo zhuan anecdotes end with brief moral comments or
verdicts that are attributed to either
Confucius or an unnamed junzi
(君子; "gentleman", "lordling", or "superior man").
The gentleman remarks: This alliance accorded with good faith. In this
campaign, the ruler of Jin [Chong'er] was able to attack through the
power of virtue.
— "The Battle of Chengpu", Zuo zhuan, 28th year of Duke Xi
These "moral of the story" postfaces, which were added later by
Confucian scholars, are directed toward those currently in power,
reminding them of "the historical precedents and inevitable
consequences of their own actions." They speak with the voices of
previous ministers, advisers, "old men", and other anonymous figures
to remind rulers of historical and moral lessons, and suggest that
ruler who heed their advice will succeed, while those who do not will
Several sections of the
Zuo zhuan demonstrate the traditional Chinese
concept of "fate" or "destiny" (mìng 命), referring either to an
individual's mission in life or their allotted lifespan, and
illustrates how benevolent rulers ought to accept "fate" selflessly,
as in the story of Duke Wen moving the capital of the state of Zhu in
Duke Wen of Zhu divined by turtle shell
to determine if he should move his capital to the city of Yi. The
historian who conducted the divination replied, "The move will benefit
the people but not their ruler." The ruler of Zhu said, "If it
benefits the people, it benefits me. Heaven gave birth to the people
and set up a ruler in order to benefit them. If the people enjoy the
benefit, I am bound to share in it."
Those around the ruler said, "If by
taking warning from the divination you can prolong your destiny, why
not do so?" The ruler replied, "My destiny lies in nourishing the
people. Whether death comes to me early or late is merely a matter of
time. If the people will benefit thereby, then nothing could be more
auspicious than to move the capital."
In the end he moved the capital to Yi.
In the fifth month Duke Wen of Zhu died.
The noble person remarks: He understood
the meaning of destiny.
— Zuo zhuan, 13th year of Duke Wen (614 BC)
Zuo zhuan has been recognized as a masterpiece of early Chinese
prose and "grand historical narrative" for many centuries. It has
had an immense influence on Chinese literature and historiography for
nearly 2000 years, and was the primary text by which historical
Chinese readers gained an understanding of China's ancient history.
It enjoyed high status and esteem throughout the centuries of Chinese
history because of its great literary quality, and was often read and
memorized because of its role as the preeminent expansion and
commentary on the Annals (Chunqiu), which almost all Chinese
traditionally ascribed to Confucius. It was commonly believed
throughout much of Chinese history that the terse, succinct entries of
the Annals contained cryptic references to Confucius' "profound moral
judgments on the events of the past as well as those of his own day
and on the relation of human events to those in the natural order",
and that the
Zuo zhuan was written to clarify or even "decode" these
Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) down to the present
Zuo zhuan has been viewed as a model of correct, elegant, and
Classical Chinese prose. The Zuo zhuan's great
influence on the Chinese language—particularly on Classical
Chinese—is evident from the fact that it is the source of more
Chinese literary idioms (chéngyǔ 成語) than any other work,
Analects of Confucius. The well-known Qing dynasty
Guwen Guanzhi included 34 passages from the Zuo
zhuan as paragons of
Classical Chinese prose – more than any other
source. These passages are still part of the Classical Chinese
curriculum in mainland China and Taiwan today.
The 400-year period the
Zuo zhuan covers is now known as the Spring
and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, but the Zuo
zhuan is the most important source for the period. This era was
highly significant in Chinese history, and saw a number of
developments in governmental complexity and specialization that
preceded China's imperial unification in 221 BC by the First
Emperor of Qin. The latter years of this period also saw the
appearance of Confucius, who later became the preeminent figure in
Chinese cultural history. The
Zuo zhuan is one of the only
surviving written sources for the history of the Spring and Autumn
period, and is extremely valuable as a rich source of information on
the society that
Confucius and his disciples lived in and from which
the Confucian school of thought developed. It was canonized as one
Chinese classics in the 1st century AD, and until modern times
was one of the cornerstones of traditional education for men in China
and the other lands of the
Sinosphere such as
Japan and Korea.
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