Zuo Zhuan

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Zuo zhuan
Li Yuanyang Zuo zhuan first page.png
Zuo zhuan title page, Ming dynasty print (16th c.)
Author (traditionally) Zuo Qiuming
Original title 左傳
Country Zhou dynasty (China)
Language Classical Chinese
Subject History of the Spring and Autumn period
Published No later than 389 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 ([tswɔ̀ ʈʂwân]; Chinese: ; Wade–Giles: 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 Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋). It consists of 30 densely written chapters covering a period from 722 to 468 BC, beginning with the first year of Duke Yin of Lu (r. 722–712 BC) and continuing until the 27th year of Duke Ai of Lu (r. 494–467 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 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 at least two versions of it: one, known as the "modern script" (jinwen 今文) version, which circulated during the early Han dynasty; 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 Annals commentaries – 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 the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史記) of Sima Qian, 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's life or identity, nor of what connection he might have with the Zuo zhuan.[10] This identification of Zuo is not based on any specific evidence, and was challenged as early as the 8th century by Tang dynasty scholars Dan Zhu (啖助; fl. 750) and Zhao Kuang (趙匡; early 8th century).[8] Even if the Zuo Qiuming of the Analects 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 Zuo would not have known.[2] Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that the Zuo zhuan was actually the product of 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

Commentary status[edit]

In the early 19th century, Qing dynasty 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 find the "ancient script" version of the Zuo zhuan in the imperial archives, but actually forged it as a commentary on the Annals.[12] Kang's theory was that Liu, who with his father Liu Xiang was one of the first to have access to the rare documents in the Han dynasty imperial archives,[13] 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 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 Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot.[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.[15]


Zuo Zhuan follows the sequence of 12 dukes of the State of Lu, starting in the first year of Duke Yin of Lu and finishing in the 27th year of Duke Ai of Lu. Altogether, the 18,000 character work records the history of the various vassal states of the Zhou Dynasty over a period of 254 years.

Contents of Zuo Zhuan


Ruler of the State of Lu Reign
Period of Coverage
隱公 Duke Yin of Lu (魯隱公) 11 722 – 712 BC
桓公 Duke Huan of Lu (魯桓公) 18 711 – 694 BC
莊公 Duke Zhuang of Lu (魯莊公) 32 693 – 662 BC
閔公 Duke Min of Lu (魯閔公) 2 661 – 660 BC
僖公 Duke Xi of Lu (魯僖公) 33 659 – 627 BC
文公 Duke Wen of Lu (魯文公) 18 626 – 609 BC
宣公 Duke Xuan of Lu (魯宣公) 18 608 – 591 BC
成公 Duke Cheng of Lu (魯成公) 18 590 – 573 BC
襄公 Duke Xiang of Lu (魯襄公) 31 572 – 542 BC
昭公 Duke Zhao of Lu (魯昭公) 32 541 – 510 BC
定公 Duke Ding of Lu (魯定公) 15 509 – 495 BC
哀公 Duke Ai of Lu (魯哀公) 27 494 – 468 BC

Note: Zuo Zhuan contains an appendix starting in the fourth year of the reign of Duke Dao of Lu (463 BC).


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 places in 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. ^ 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 d Cheng (1993), p. 70.
  14. ^ Karlgren (1926), p. 64-65.
  15. ^ Cheng (1993), pp. 72-73.
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. 
  • Idema, Wilt; Haft, Lloyd (1997). A Guide to Chinese Literature. Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies 74. 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. 2394–2399. 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. 804–806. 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. 
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2012). Chinese History: A New Manual. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 84. Cambridge, MA: 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)