The Chinese idiom 尊王攘夷 (zūn wáng rǎng yí) means to “respect the king and defend against barbarians.”
This idiom is based on a diplomatic policy advocated during the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋時代) (770–476 B.C.) of the Eastern Zhou (東周) (770–221 B.C.), the second part of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝).
It was a time of chaos, violence, and escalating warfare, in contrast to the great unity and political stability during the Western Zhou (西周) (approximately from the 11th century B.C. to 770 B.C.) when the virtuous Zhou kings gradually expanded their territory and were venerated as the empire’s supreme rulers under the Mandate of Heaven.
The Zhou Empire had gradually declined, with its feudal states becoming increasingly powerful and challenging the leadership of the central government.
The many vassal states became essentially independent states that were mired in internal conflicts as well as interstate power struggles in their efforts to claim dominance.
Chinese territory, at the time, was also frequently threatened by invasions of foreign “barbarian” nomadic tribes, such as the Di (狄 or 翟) and Rong (戎).
Thus the royal house of Zhou eventually lost much of its authority in the eighth century B.C.
Two figures central to political developments during this period were Guan Zhong (管仲) and Duke Huan (齊桓公) of the state of Qi (齊國). Guan was the brilliant prime minister of Qi in 685–645 B.C., serving under Duke Huan, who ruled in 685–643 B.C.
Guan had pushed forward major reforms that helped Qi become the strongest state in China, with great gains in agricultural output and commerce, as well as powerful armies. Guan also tempered expediency with morality in his policies and his advice to Duke Huan.
Duke Huan became so well-respected that he came to be regarded as the dominant leader, called “hegemon” (霸 or 伯), among the feudal lords (諸侯) of the Zhou vassal states.
In this context, “respect the king and defend against barbarians” was a most noteworthy policy advocated by Guan, which called for loyalty to the Zhou king and Zhou patriarchal system and resistance against the foreign tribes as the common enemy.
With economic wealth and military strength along with diplomatic policies that had a moral basis, Duke Huan was able to unite many of the states into a system of alliance, with Qi serving as a central authority to resolve conflicts between member states and help maintain peace.
The alliance also strengthened the member states as a whole against non-member states and foreign invaders.
Confucius later praised Guan Zhong, stating, “If it were not for Guan Zhong, we would all be wearing foreign hairstyles and clothing.”