Zuo Zhuan

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Zuo zhuan
Li Yuanyang Zuo zhuan first page.png
Zuo zhuan title page, Ming dynasty print (16th century)
Author (trad.) Zuo Qiuming
Original title 左傳
Country Zhou dynasty (China)
Language Classical Chinese
Subject History of the Spring and Autumn period
Published late 4th century BC
Zuo zhuan
Traditional Chinese 左傳
Simplified Chinese 左传
Literal meaning "Zuo Tradition"
Full Title
Traditional Chinese 春秋左氏傳
Simplified Chinese 春秋左氏传
Literal meaning "Mr. Zuo's Tradition of the Chunqiu [Spring and Autumn Annals]"

The Zuo zhuan (pronounced [tswò ʈʂwân]; Chinese: 左傳, Wade–Giles transcription: Tso chuan), generally translated as Zuo Tradition or 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 thirty densely written chapters covering a period from 722 to 468 BC, and focuses mainly on political, diplomatic, and military affairs from that era.[1][2]

Unlike the other two surviving Annals commentaries—the Gongyang and Guliang commentaries—the 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 history and culture. The Zuo zhuan is the source of more Chinese sayings and idioms than any other classical work,[3] and its concise, flowing style came to be held as a paragon of elegant Classical Chinese.[2] Its tendency toward third-person narration and portraying characters through direct speech and action became hallmarks of Chinese narrative in general,[4] and its style was imitated by historians, storytellers, and ancient style prose masters for over 2000 years of subsequent Chinese history.[2]

Although the Zuo zhuan has long been regarded as "a masterpiece of grand historical narrative",[5] its early textual history is largely unknown, and the nature of its original composition and authorship have been widely debated. The "Zuo" of the Zuo zhuan's 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.[6][7] Modern scholars now generally believe that the Zuo zhuan was originally an independent work composed during the latter half of the 4th century BC that was later rearranged as a commentary to the Annals.[7]


Tracing the early history of the Zuo zhuan is complicated by the fact that there were originally two versions of it: one, known as the "modern script" (jinwen 今文) version, which circulated during the early Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220); and another, known as the "ancient script" (guwen 古文) version, which was discovered in the Han imperial archives by scholar Liu Xin during the reign of Emperor Ai of Han (r. 7–1 BC).[8] Like the other two surviving commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋)—the Gongyang and Guliang traditions—the Zuo zhuan originally existed in an independent format, with no direct references to the Annals. In the 3rd century AD, scholar Du Yu intercalated it with the Annals so that each Annals entry was followed by the corresponding narrative from the Zuo zhuan, which became the received format of the Zuo zhuan that exists today.[9]


The earliest known mention of the Zuo zhuan appears in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史記), China's first dynastic history, which was completed about 104 BC. The Records 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"),[2] traditionally assumed to be the Zuo Qiuming who briefly appears in the Analects of Confucius (Lunyu 論語) when Confucius praises him for his moral judgment.[8][6] 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.[10] This traditional assumption that the title's "Master Zuo" refers to the Zuo Qiuming of the Analects is not based on any specific evidence, and was challenged by scholars as early as the 8th century during the Tang dynasty.[8] 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 that the Zuo Qiuming of the Analects could not have known.[2] Alternatively, some scholars 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".[2]

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).

Commentary status[edit]

In the early 19th century, the Chinese scholar Liu Fenglu (1776–1829) initiated a long, drawn-out controversy when he proposed, by emphasizing certain discrepancies between it and the Annals, that the Zuo zhuan was not originally a commentary on the Annals.[11] Liu's theory was taken much further by the noted 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.[12] 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 Mang.[12][13]

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.[13] In the early 1930s, French sinologist Henri Maspero performed a detailed textual study of the issue, concluding the Han dynasty forgery theory to be untenable.[13] 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."[12][14] Kang's theory of Liu Xin forging the Zuo zhuan is now considered discredited,[5] and modern scholars now generally believe that the Zuo zhuan was originally an independent work—possibly a history of the State of Qi[15]—composed during the latter half of the 4th century BC that was later rearranged as a commentary to the Annals.[7]


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.[9] Four of the fragments date to the Six Dynasties period (3rd to 6th centuries), while the other two date to the early Tang dynasty (7th century).[9] The oldest known complete Zuo zhuan manuscript is the "ancient manuscript scroll" preserved at the Kanazawa Bunko Museum in Yokohama, Japan.[16]


The Zuo zhuan recounts the major political, military, and social events of the Spring and Autumn period, and is famous "for its dramatic power and realistic details".[17] Speeches feature prominently in nearly all Zuo zhuan stories. 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,[18] with the traditional Confucian notion of "ritual propriety" or "ceremony" (li ) being presented as the governing force of all actions, including war.[4] Although moral lessons are strongly incorporated in the Zuo zhuan, it is primarily a history, and presents a "relentlessly realistic" portrayal of the chaos and violence of the historical period it covers, including examples of innocent people being unjustly persecuted and killed.[4] Unlike the Histories of Herodotus or the History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides—with which it is roughly contemporary—the narrator in the Zuo zhuan always remains in the third person perspective, and presents as a dispassionate recorder of facts.[19]


     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 and Cai.
     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.

Description of battle,
"The Battle of Chengpu", Zuo zhuan, 28th year of Duke Xi (632 BC)[20]

Several of the Zuo zhuan's most famous sections are those dealing with critical historical battles, such as the Battle of Chengpu and the Battle of Bi.[21]

The Battle of Chengpu, the first of the Zuo zhuan's great battles, took place in 632 BC at Chengpu (modern Juancheng County, Shandong Province) in the State of Wey.[22] 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.[22] 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.[22] Chu suffered a disastrous defeat in the battle itself, and it resulted in Chong'er being named Hegemon (ba ) of the various states.[22]

The narrative of the Battle of Chengpu is typical of Zuo zhuan battle narratives in that the description of the battle itself is relatively brief, 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.[22] 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.[21]

Succession crises[edit]

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.[21] 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.[21] The best known of these stories is that of Duke Zhuang of Zheng, who ruled the State of Zheng from 743 to 701 BC.[21] 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.[21] The story ends with eventual reconciliation between mother and son—exemplifying the traditional Chinese virtues of both "ritual propriety" (li) and "filial piety" (xiao )—which has made it consistently popular with readers over the centuries.[21]

Moral verdicts[edit]

     "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."

Moral postface after Chong'er, Duke of Jin's ultimate victory and foundation of alliance
"The Battle of Chengpu", Zuo zhuan, 28th year of Duke Xi (632 BC)[23]

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").[24] 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."[24] 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 fail.[25]


The Zuo zhuan has been recognized as a masterpiece of early Chinese prose and "grand historical narrative" for many centuries, and has had an "immense influence" on Chinese literature and historiography for nearly 2000 years.[5][1] The 400-year period it covers, now known as the Spring and Autumn period after the Spring and Autumn Annals, is a highly significant period 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.[1] The latter years of this period also saw the appearance of Confucius, who later became the preeminent figure in Chinese cultural history.[1] 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.[1] It was canonized as one of the 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.[1]


  • Legge, James (1872). The Ch'un Ts'ew, with the Tso Chuen. The Chinese Classics V. London: Trübner.  Part 1 (books 1–8), Part 2 (books 9–12). Revised edition (1893), London: Oxford University Press.
  • Couvreur, Séraphin (1914). Tch'ouen Ts'iou et Tso Tchouan, La Chronique de la Principauté de Lou [Chunqiu and Zuo zhuan, Chronicle of the State of Lu] (in French). Ho Kien Fou. 
  • (Japanese) Takeuchi, Teruo 竹内照夫 (1974–75). Shunjū Sashiden 春秋左氏伝 [Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan]. Zenshaku kanbun taikei 全釈漢文体系 [Fully Interpreted Chinese Literature Series] 4–6. Tokyo: Shūeisha.
  • Watson, Burton (1989). The Tso chuan: Selections from China's Oldest Narrative History. New York: Columbia University Press.  Reprinted (1992).
  • Hu, Zhihui 胡志挥; Chen, Kejiong 陈克炯 (1996). Zuo zhuan 左传. Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe. (Contains both English and Mandarin translations)


  1. ^ a b c d e f Watson (1989), p. xi.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Shih (2014), p. 2394.
  3. ^ Wilkinson (2012), p. 612.
  4. ^ a b c Wang (1986), p. 805.
  5. ^ a b c Kern (2010), p. 49.
  6. ^ a b Kern (2010), p. 48.
  7. ^ a b c Idema & Haft (1997), p. 78.
  8. ^ a b c Cheng (1993), p. 69.
  9. ^ a b c Cheng (1993), p. 72.
  10. ^ Watson (1989), p. xiii.
  11. ^ Cheng (1993), pp. 69-70.
  12. ^ a b c Shih (2014), p. 2395.
  13. ^ a b c Cheng (1993), p. 70.
  14. ^ Karlgren (1926), p. 64-65.
  15. ^ Wilkinson (2012), p. 613.
  16. ^ Cheng (1993), pp. 72-73.
  17. ^ Wang (1986), p. 804.
  18. ^ Watson (1989), p. xviii-xix.
  19. ^ Durrant (2001), p. 497.
  20. ^ Watson (1989), pp. 60-61.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Durrant (2001), p. 499.
  22. ^ a b c d e Watson (1989), p. 50.
  23. ^ Watson (1989), p. 63.
  24. ^ a b Kern (2010), p. 50.
  25. ^ Kern (2010), pp. 50-51.
Works cited
  • Cheng, Anne (1993). "Chun ch'iu 春秋, Kung yang 公羊, Ku liang 穀梁, and Tso chuan 左傳". In Loewe, Michael. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China; Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley. pp. 67–76. ISBN 1-55729-043-1. 
  • Durrant, Stephen (2001). "The Literary Features of Historical Writing". In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 493–510. ISBN 0-231-10984-9. 
  • Idema, Wilt; Haft, Lloyd (1997). A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. ISBN 0-89264-099-5. 
  • Karlgren, Bernhard (1926). "On the Authenticity and Nature of the Tso chuan". Göteborgs Högskolas Arsskrift 32: 3–65.  Reprinted (1968), Taipei: Ch'eng-wen Publishing.
  • Kern, Martin (2010). "Early Chinese literature, Beginnings through Western Han". In Owen, Stephen. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Volume 1: To 1375. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–115. ISBN 978-0-521-11677-0. 
  • Shih, Hsiang-lin (2014). "Zuo zhuan 左傳". In Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping. Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Part Four. Leiden: Brill. pp. 2394–99. ISBN 978-90-04-27217-0. 
  • Wang, John (1986). "Tso-chuan 左傳". In Nienhauser, William H. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 804–6. ISBN 0-253-32983-3. 
  • Watson, Burton (1989). The Tso chuan: Selections from China's Oldest Narrative History. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06714-3. 
  • ——— (1999). "The Evolution of the Confucian Tradition in Antiquity — The Zuozhuan". In de Bary, Wm. Theodore; Bloom, Irene. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 183–89. ISBN 978-0-231-10939-0. 
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2012). Chinese History: A New Manual. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard-Yenching Institute; Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-06715-8. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Chunqiu Zuozhuan Bilingual text of Zuo Zhuan with side-by-side Chinese original and Legge's English translation
  • Zuo Zhuan Fully searchable text (Chinese)