Spring and Autumn period elite overproduction: perils and tropes

elite overproduction

If you are interested in learning about the perils of elite overproduction, you could do a lot worse than study the epic life stories of Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin to discover what can happen when there are too many people contending with each other for status and power.

No matter whether they involve regicide, fratricide, and plain old executions or betrayal, intrigue, and sordid sexual scandals, the key episodes in the lives of these two great men feature all the common tropes you find in the histories of the families of the hereditary elite during the Spring and Autumn period. With so many individuals selfishly pursuing their own narrow interests at the expense of the common good, it is no surprise that this was one of the most turbulent times in the history of China and the world.

Not even the most passionate calls for a return to traditional values had a chance of being heeded amid the greed, depravity, and paranoia that consumed the lords and their ladies as they fought to increase their power and wealth while remaining ever fearful of being stabbed in the back by their closest relative, most loyal minister, worst enemy, or best friend.

For those who managed to reach the very top, the pressures intensified rather than relaxed as the number of internal and external threats escalated. Ironically, the greatest dangers most often came from among members of their families anxious to place their own posteriors on the throne – willfully unaware of course that if they managed to achieve their goal, they too would be prey to the same uncontrollable forces that had vanquished those that had come before them.


I took this image in the ancient water town of Wuzhen, which is located just a couple of hours from Shanghai by High Speed Train. You can read more about Wuzhen here.

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