Five Hegemons

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Map of the Five Hegemons during the Spring and Autumn period of Zhou Dynasty

The Five Hegemons (Chinese: 五霸; pinyin: Wǔ Bà) refers to several especially powerful rulers of Chinese states of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history (770 to 476 BCE), sometimes alternatively referred to as the "Age of Hegemons". There are various lists of five hegemon rulers of those certain states which rose to power over the other states of this time period, states which were also formed during the period of dissolution of a once real and strong central state, namely the empire of the Zhou dynasty. The Hegemons mobilized the remnants of the Zhou empire, according to shared mutual political and martial interests. An especially prominent Hegemon was Duke Huan of Qi.

Pronunciation and meaning[edit]

In ancient Chinese, (Old Chinese: *pˤrak-s;[1] Pinyin: ) 'hegemon' has a similar meaning and pronunciation to (Old Chinese: *pˤrak;[2] Pinyin: ), which means 'the eldest son born to the principal wife in a family', or 'senator'. Both 五霸 and 五伯 can be translated as the 'Five Hegemons'. (wu) literally means 'five', but in the context of ancient Chinese also has a more generally qualitative and less precisely quantitative use, implying completeness.

Use of the term[edit]

During the Spring and Autumn era itself, the hegemony tended to apply to states; it was therefore possible to speak of the State of Jin and the State of Chu struggling for hegemony over the Zhou states. In historical accounts it instead became associated with individual rulers, namely the ones who first brought their respective states to a dominant position. During the Spring and Autumn period the reigns of each hegemon tended to correspond with the zenith of their state's power.

Timeline of the most prominent hegemons
years in BCE
GoujianFuchai of WuHelü of WuDuke Dao of JinKing Zhuang of ChuDuke Mu of QinDuke Wen of JinDuke Xiang of SongDuke Huan of QiDuke Zhuang of Zheng

The Hegemon System[edit]

The concept of hegemony arose out of the weakness of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. Whilst its predecessor, the Western Zhou dynasty, was also feudal in nature, the centre was strong enough to command the obedience of most of its vassals, as well as to maintain a central army. The death of King You of Zhou and the sack of the Zhou capital in 771 BC rendered the position of the central court untenable and eventually dependent on the protection of neighbouring states.

The concept of the Hegemon was important to the interstate relations during the Spring and Autumn period, since the Hegemon was nominally charged with underwriting the stability of the whole system, often heading a league of smaller states whose security was to some extent guaranteed by the state, in exchange for tribute.

The Five Hegemons[edit]

These are the two most commonly used lists of hegemons.

The Records of the Grand Historian lists:

Alternatively, the Xunzi lists:

The first two hegemons are widely referred to in primary sources (e.g. Zuo Zhuan) and therefore rarely disputed because Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin themselves were officially rewarded the hegemony by the kings of Zhou (King Xi and King Xiang) in 679 BCE and in 632 BCE respectively.[3][4][5][6][7]

Zuo Zhuan also recognizes Duke Dao of Jin as a hegemon.[8]

Duke Zhuang of Zheng (鄭莊公)[9] and Fuchai King of Wu (吳王夫差)[10] were also amongst the contenders aside of the seven rulers mentioned above.

These lists are:

The Ci Tong (辭通) lists:

The Disquisition of Four Masters Discussing Virtue [zh] lists:

  • Duke Huan of Qi
  • Duke Wen of Jin
  • Duke Mu of Qin
  • King Zhuang of Chu
  • Goujian, King of Yue

The Bai Hu Tong lists:

  • Duke Huan of Qi
  • Duke Wen of Jin
  • Duke Mu of Qin
  • King Zhuang of Chu
  • Helü, King of Wu

The Book of Han lists:

  • Duke Huan of Qi
  • Duke Xiang of Song
  • Duke Wen of Jin
  • Duke Mu of Qin
  • Fuchai, King of Wu (吳王夫差)


  1. ^ Baxter, William; Sagart, Lauren (2011). "Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction" (archived pdf). p. 109 of 187
  2. ^ Baxter, William; Sagart, Lauren (2011). "Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction" (archived pdf). p. 110 of 187
  3. ^ Zuozhuan "Duke Zhuang - 15th year - zhuan" quote: "十五年春,復會焉,齊始霸也。" translation based on Durrant, Li, & Schaberg (2016): "In the fifteenth year, in spring, they once again held a meeting there [i.e. at Juan 鄄]: Qi was for the first time acting as Overlord / Hegemon."
  4. ^ Shiji "Basic Annals of Zhou" quote: "釐王三年,齊桓公始霸。" translation: "In King Xi's third year, Duke Huan of Qi for the first time acted as Hegemon / Overlord."
  5. ^ Zuo zhuan "Duke Xi - 28th year - zhuan". quote: "已酉,王享醴,命晉侯宥。王命尹氏及王子虎、內史叔興父策命晉侯為侯伯,……。" translation based on Durrant, Li, & Schaberg (2016): "On the jiyou day (12), the king offered ceremonial toasts and presented sweet wine, commanding the Marquis of Jin to offer toasts. The king commanded the Yin lineage's head, the Royal Prince Hu, and the court-scribe Shuxingfu to draw up a document on bamboo strips commanding the Marquis of Jin to act as Overlord / Hegemon of the Marquises. [...]"
  6. ^ Shiji, "Basic Annals of Zhou" translation: "十七年,襄王告急于晉,晉文公納王而誅叔帶。襄王乃賜晉文公珪鬯弓矢,為伯,以河內地與晉。" translation: "In the 17th year, King Xiang announced an emergency to (and asked for emergency help from) Jin, Duke Wen of Jin installed the King in power and slew Shudai. The King then bestowed upon Duke Wen a jade tablet, sacrificial wine, bow, and arrows, made him Hegemon / Overlord, and gave Jin lands on the inside of the Yellow River."
  7. ^ Durrant, Li, & Schaberg (translators) (2016). Zuo tradition: Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. fn. 68 on p. 722. Quote: "Lord Huan of Qi and Lord Wen of Jin figure in all versions."
  8. ^ Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan "Duke Cheng's 18th year - zhuan", relevant passage (二月。乙酉朔。晉侯悼公即位于朝。…… 所以復霸也。). For translations see Legge (1872: 409-410) or Durrant, Li, & Schabert (2016: 871-873)
  9. ^ Zhao Dingxin (2015) The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History. p. 113. quote: "In short, some minor differences not withstanding,7 ancient as well modern scholars are in general agreement that (1) hegemonic politics started with Duke Zhuang of Zheng and ended with king Goujian of Yue, and (2) at any given time during this period there existed only one hegemon.8"
  10. ^ Yan Shigu's commentary on Book of Han, "vol. 14". quote: (師古曰:「伯讀曰霸。此五霸謂齊桓、宋襄、晉文、秦穆、吳夫差也。」)

See also[edit]