Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC – 403 BC)
The fall of the capital of the Western Zhou Dynasty, Hao, marks the beginning of the Spring and Autumn Period, which represented an era in Chinese history between 722 BC and 403 BC. During the flight from the western capital to the east, the Zhou king relied on the nearby lords of Qin, Zheng and Jin for protection from barbarians and rebellious lords.
The newly powerful states were more eager to maintain aristocratic privileges over the traditional ideology of supporting the weak ruling entity during times of unrest, which had been widely propagated during imperial China to consolidate power into the ruling family.
Dukes Huan of Qi and Wen of Jin made further steps in installing the overlordship system, which brought relative stability, but in shorter time periods than before. Annexations increased, favoring the several most powerful states, including Qin, Jin, Qi and Chu. The overlord role gradually drifted from its stated intention of protecting weaker states; the overlordship eventually became a system of hegemony of major states over weaker satellites of Chinese and "barbarian" origin.
The great states used the pretext of aid and protection to intervene and gain advantages over the smaller states during their internal quarrels. Later overlords were mostly derived from these great states. They proclaimed themselves master of their territories, without even recognizing the petty figurehead of Zhou. Establishment of the local administration system, with its officials appointed by the government, gave states better control over the dominion. Taxation facilitated commerce and agriculture more than proto-feudalism.
The three states of Qin, Jin and Qi not only optimized their own strength, but also repelled the southern state of Chu , whose rulers had proclaimed themselves kings. The Chu armies gradually intruded into the Yellow River Basin . Framing Chu as the "southern barbarian", Chu Man , was merely a pretext to warn Chu not to intervene into their respective spheres of influence. Chu intrusion was checked several times in three major battles with increasing violence - the Battle of Chengpu, the Battle of Bi and the Battle of Yanling; this resulted in the restorations of the states of Chen and Cai.
After a period of increasingly exhaustive warfare, Qi, Qin, Jin and Chu finally met for a disarmament conference in 579 BC, where the other states essentially became satellites. In 546 BC, Jin and Chu agreed to yet another truce.
During the relatively peaceful 6th century BC, the two coastal states in today's Zhejiang , Wu and Yue, gradually grew in power. After defeating and banishing King Fu Chai of Wu, King Gou Jian of Yue became the last recognized overlord.
This era of peace was only a prelude to the period of the Warring States Period. The four powerful states were all in the midst of power struggles. Six elite landholding families waged war on each other in Jin. The Chen family was eliminating political enemies in Qi. Legitimacy of the rulers was often challenged in civil wars by various royal family members in Qin and Chu . Once all these power strugglers firmly established themselves in their dominions, the bloodshed among states would continue in the Warring State Period. The date for the beginning of the Warring States Period is somewhat in dispute. Although it is frequently cited as 475 BC , the Warring States Period officially started in 403 BC when the three remaining elite families in Jin - Zhao, Wei and Han - partitioned the state; the impotent Zhou court was forced to recognized their authority.