Alliances (meng 盟, mengshi 盟誓, mengyue 盟約, mengqi 盟契; as a text called mengshu 盟書, zaishu 載書, zaici 載辭, or zaisheng 載乘) were formal agreements between regional rulers during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), but also into the Warring States era 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE).
These covenants were concluded in a ritual manner by announcing the agreement to the ancestral spirits and delivering sacrificial animals. The ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (ch. Quli 曲禮) discerns between various forms of interstate activities of the regional states, namely occasional meetings (yu 遇), scheduled assemblies (hui 會), formal messages of friendly inquiry carried out by high-rank messengers (pin 聘), solemn declarations including a binding to mutual faith (shi 誓), and covenants including a sacrifice (meng 盟).
The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) adds that the rulers used to smear blood of a victim on their mouths (sha xue 歃血). Wu (2015) doubts the authenticity of this statment. The victim was killed besides a sacrificial pit, its right ear was cut off and placed on a pearl plate (zhupan 珠盤), while the blood was collected in a jade vessel (yudun 玉敦). The blood was used to write the text of the covenant, which was then recited by the participants.
The Liang-period 梁 (502-557) historian Liu Xie 劉勰 (c. 465-521) delivered a homophonic explanation by stating that meng "alliance" meant to "clarify" (ming 明) this matter to the spirits (quoted in Xu Shiceng 徐師曾, Wenti mingbian xushuo 文體明辨序說).
The Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) discerned between large covenants (meng) and lesser covenants (zu 詛). The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Chunguan 春官, ch. Zuzhu 詛祝), knows the office of fulminator (zuzhu 詛祝) who was charged with the arrangement of prayers and invocations during various types of treatises and covenants, during sacrifices to the supreme deities and ancestors, the collective sacrifices and during ceremonies of military campaigns and of royal or ducal addresses. The fulminator also prepares the text of the covenant.
The chapter Sikou 司寇 (part Qiuguan 秋官 of the Zhouli) lists the office of sanctifier of covenants (simeng 司盟), who was charged with the formulation of the text and the guidance of the ceremony.
Wang (2016) enumerates the functions of alliances and covenants: securing the (re-)enthronement of a regional ruler or the investiture of a heir apparent, creating balances of power among regional states or among functionaries of noble houses within regional states, inter-state marriage, protection of smaller and suppressed regional states, disempowering or punishing regional rulers breaking conventions, enforcing cooperation ("loyalty"), and achievement of certain political aims.
Li (1997) leads the origin of alliances and covenants back to the pre-dynastic speeches (shi 誓) to the army by the leaders of the Zhou.
The written form of covenants was a point of critique by Confucians who supported the traditional oral form of agreements in the framework of ritual encounterings (Queen & Major 2016: 163, fn). Li Li 李力 (1995) likewise explains that the custom of concluding written covenants represented a substantial change from the earlier, ceremonial form of agreements to a more legalist form. The decrease of power of the king of Zhou after the resettlement of the house of Zhou to Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan) 770 shattered the old system of the royal court as the centre of political arrangements by ritual acts, like investitures, confirmations of the same, audiences of the king to the regional rulers, "lessons" given by the sovereign, and the like.
Instead, regional rulers began to make arrangments among themselves, mostly without embracing the king of Zhou. More than 250 agreements can be counted in the Spring and Autumn period of which 50 involved the powerful state of Jin 晉 (Li 1995: 67; Wang 2016: 59). The system of alliances and covenants is closely tied to that of the hegemonial lord (ba 霸), who took care for law and order among the Central States (zhongguo 中國), taking over a task actually to be performed by the king of Zhou (Luo & Tian 2002). Yet Luo and Tian interprete the alliances among the regional rulers during the early Spring and Autumn period as a rightful expansion of previous Western Zhou-period customs, and not as a devation from traditional custom. Only during the late Spring and Autumn period, the covenants became an instrument of powerful regional rulers to transform smaller ones into satellites or vassals (Wang 1992).
The alliance tablets from Houma 侯馬, Shanxi, found in the 1950s, demonstrate that such agreements were also made on a lower level, e.g. among the noble houses of the state of Jin.
In the course of the Warring States period, the remnants of "trust" (xin 信) in non-written agreements were fully replaced by written contracts or by the custom of exchanging hostages (jiaozhi 交質; hostage is renzhi 人質) to bind each other to agreements. While the original document, written on the spot of the meeting was buried along with the sacrificial animal (which shows the relation of covenants with deities of the soil, and their nature being one of territorial issues), copies were kept in the "covenant stores" (mengfu 盟府) of the participants (Deng 2015). The text of a covenant included the place and date of the alliance, the names of the participants, the reason for the meeting, its aim, and the text of the oath (zuci 詛辭). The storage of such documents was important for cases of infringement, but also served for historiographical purposes.
Alliance concluded between Ning Wuzi 宁武子 from Jin and some noblemen from Wei, recorded for the year 左传·僖公二十八年. Translation by xxx.
The collective fight of the remaining regional states against Qin caused a revival of the method of alliances, albeit in a less ceremonial form than during the Spring and Autumn period. In 351, King Hui of Wei 魏惠王 (r. 371-335) created an alliance with Zhao 趙 at Zhangshui 漳水; in 350, Qin allied with Wei in the covenant of Tong 彤 (Huaxian 華縣, Shaanxi); and in 344, Wei unified the regional rulers at Fengze 逢澤 against Qin (Li 1997: 25).
The most important alliances during the Spring and Autumn period were the alliance of Shaoling 召陵 in 656 between Qi 齊, Lu 魯, Song 宋, Chen 陳, Wei 衛, Zheng 鄭, Xu 許, Cao 曹, and Zhu 邾; the alliance of Jiantu 踐土 in 632 between Jin 晉, Qi, Qin 秦, Chen, Lu, Song, Cai 蔡, Zheng, Wei, and Ju 莒; the alliance of Chonglao 虫牢 in 586 between Jin, Zheng, Qi, Lu, Song, Wei, Cao, Zhu, and Qi 杞; the gread détente conference of 546 held in Song, and attended by no less than 14 states; and the conference of 538 initiated by Chu, and aimed a punishing the newcomer of the southeast, the state of Wu 吳.
The most famous archaeological testimonies are the alliance tablets of Houma from the state of Jin (Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書) – even if these only give evidence of the internal quarrels among the elite of Jin, and not of an alliance of Jin and another state.
Long-term alliances were known among the Mongols, whose tribes were structured in so-called leagues (meng 盟, Mongolian ayimaɣ) at the beginning of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911). Today, the leagues are administrative units between the higher level of banner (qi 旗, qosiɣu) and arrow (sumu 蘇木, sumu).