What If Zhào Dùn Had Fled? Border Crossing and Flight into Exile in Early China

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Newell Ann van Auken



According to the Zuǒ zhuàn, in 607 BCE Zhào Chuān murdered Lord Líng of Jìn, but the Spring and Autumn ascribes the assassination to Zhào Dùn, senior member of the Zhào lineage and chief minister of Jìn. Remarks attributed to Confucius defend the ascription to Zhào Dùn, stating that had he fled across the border, he would have avoided blame. That Zhào Dùn was assigned responsibility for a crime he did not commit has been a source of much discussion and has been described as “false” or “inaccurate.” An overview of flights into exile (bēn 奔) in Spring and Autumn-period China indicates that although flight sometimes provided a practical mechanism for escaping difficulties, crossing the border without official sanction had substantial political and religious ramifications, including loss of position in the ancestral temple. Confucius’s remark may be understood as framing Zhào Dùn’s failure to flee across the border in terms of ritual or legal rules, implying that crossing the border would have removed him from a position of responsibility. Later versions of the story do not mention border crossing, focusing instead on moral responsibility, and their explanations of why blame was assigned to Zhào Dùn were attempts to rationalize recording practices that were based on earlier, Spring and Autumn-period norms, which no longer made sense in later times.

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