's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Warring States Period

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

The Warring States period, also known as the Era of Warring States, is a period in ancient China following the Spring and Autumn period and concluding with the victory of the state of Qin in 221 BC, creating a unified China under the Qin Dynasty. Different scholars use dates for the beginning of the period ranging between 481 BC and 403 BC, but Sima Qian's date of 475 BC is most often cited. Most of this period coincides with the second half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, although the Chinese sovereign (king of Zhou) was merely a figurehead.

The name of the period was derived from the Record of the Warring States, a a renowned ancient Chinese historical work compiled early in the Han Dynasty.

Geography[edit | edit source]

The Warring States c. 260 BCE

The political geography of the era was dominated by the Seven Warring States, namely:

  • Qin: The State of Qin was in the far west, with its core in the Wei River Valley and Guanzhong. This geographical position isolated it from the states of the Central Plains, which limited its initial influence but also afforded it protection from other states.

The Three Jins: Northeast of Qin, on the Shanxi plateau, were the three successor states of Jin. These were:

  • Han, south, along the Yellow River, controlling the eastern approaches to Qin.
  • Wei, middle.
  • Zhao, the northernmost of the three.
  • Qi: located in the east of China, centered around the Shandong Peninsula.
  • Chu: located in the south of China, with its core territory around the valleys of the Han River and, later, the Yangtze River.
  • Yan: located in the northeast, centered around modern-day Beijing. Late in the period Yan pushed northeast and began to occupy the Liaodong Peninsula

Besides these seven major states, some minor states also survived into the period.

  • On the southeast coast near Shanghai was the State of Yue, which was highly active in the late Spring and Autumn era but was eventually annexed by Chu.
  • In the far southwest in Sichuan were the States of Ba and Shu. These were non-Zhou states that were conquered by Qin late in the period.
  • In the Central Plains, comprising much of modern-day Henan Province, many smaller city states survived as satellites of the larger states, though they would eventually be absorbed as well.
  • Between the states of Zhao and Yan was the state of Zhongshan, which was eventually annexed by Zhao in 296 BC.

History[edit | edit source]

Start of the Warring States Period, 5th century BC, before the breakup of Jin and the Qin invasion of Sichuan. The Wei on this map is Wey, not the other Wei that arose from the Partition of Jin.

The system of feudal states created by the Western Zhou Dynasty underwent enormous changes after 771 BC with the flight of the Zhou court to modern-day Luoyang and the diminution of its relevance and power. The Spring and Autumn Period led to the strengthening of a few states at the expense of many others, who could no longer depend on central authority or legitimacy for their protection.

The struggle for hegemony eventually created a state system dominated by several large states, such as Jin, Chu, Qin and Qi, while the smaller states of the Central Plains tended to be their satellites and tributaries. Other major states also existed, such as Wu and Yue in the southeast. The last decades of the Spring and Autumn era were marked by increased stability, as the result of peace conferences between Jin and Chu which carved out their respective spheres of influence. This situation would end with the partition of Jin, whereby the state was divided between the houses of Han, Zhao and Wei, creating the situation of seven major warring states.

Unlike the Spring and Autumn Period, which was initiated by the event of the Zhou court's eastward flight, there is no equivalent, clear starting point for the Warring States era. The political situation of the period was a culmination of historical trends of conquest and annexation which also characterised the Spring and Autumn period; as a result there is some controversy as to when exactly the era began. Some proposed starting points are as follows:

  • 481 BC: this is the starting point proposed by Song-era historian Lü Zuqian, since it is the end of the Spring and Autumn Annals.
  • 476 BC-475 BC: this starting point is based on the Records of the Grand Historian. Sima Qian, author of the Records, chose this year since it was the inaugural year of King Yuan of Zhou.
  • 453 BC: this starting point is based on the Partition of Jin into Han, Zhao, and Wei, destroying a key state of the earlier period and creating three of the seven warring states.
  • 441 BC: this starting point is also based on the inaugural year of Zhou Kings, in this case the inaugural year of King Ai of Zhou.
  • 403 BC: this is the starting point proposed by Sima Guang, author of the Zizhi Tongjian, being the year when Han, Zhao and Wei were officially recognised as states by the Zhou court. Sima Guang states that this, as a symbol of the final erosion of Zhou authority, should be taken as the start of the Warring States era.

As mentioned in the Introduction, Sima Qian's date of 475 BC is most often cited as the starting point for the Warring States Period.

The Partition of Jin (453 and 403 BC)[edit | edit source]

Since the middle of the 6th century BC, the rulers of Jin had steadily lost political powers to their nominally subordinate nobles and military commanders, a situation arising from the traditions of the Jin which forbade the enfeoffment - deed by which a person was given land in exchange for a pledge of service - of relatives of the ducal house. This allowed other clans to gain fiefs and military authority, and decades of internecine struggle led to the establishment of four major families, the Han, Zhao, Wei and Zhi.

The Three Jins (453-368 BC)[edit | edit source]

During the first 50 years the division of Jin allowed the other states to expand, Chu and Yue northward and Qi southward. Qin increased its control of the local tribes and began its expansion southwest.

From before 405 until 383 BC the three Jins were united under the leadership of Wei and expanded in all directions. The growing power of Wei caused Zhao to back away from the alliance. In 383, it moved its capital to Handan and attacked the small state of Wey. Wey appealed to Wei which attacked Zhao on the western side. Being in danger, Zhao called in Chu. Chu used this as a pretext to annex territory to its north, but the diversion allowed Zhao to occupy a part of Wei. This conflict marked the end of the power of the united Jins and the beginning a period of shifting alliances and wars on several fronts.

In 370 BC, Marquess Wu of Wei died without naming a successor, which led to a war of succession. After three years of civil war, Zhao from the north and Han from the south invaded Wei. On the verge of conquering Wei, the leaders of Zhao and Han fell into disagreement about what to do with Wei, and both armies abruptly retreated. As a result, King Hui of Wei (still a Marquess at the time) was able to ascend the throne of Wei.

By the end of the period Zhao extended from the Shanxi plateau across the plain to the borders of Qi. Wei reached east to Qi, Lu and Song. To the south, the weaker state of Han held the east-west part of the Yellow River valley, surrounded the Zhou royal domain at Luoyang and held an area north of Luoyang called Shangdang.

Wei Defeated by Qin (370-34 BC)[edit | edit source]

King Hui of Wei set about restoring the state. In 362-359 BC, he was able to exchange territories with Han and Zhao in order to make the boundaries of the three states more rational. In 364 BC, Wei was defeated by Qin at the Battle of Shimen and was only saved by the intervention of Zhao. In 361 BC, the capital was moved east to Daliang to be out of the reach of Qin.

In 354 BC, Wei started a large-scale attack on Zhao. By 353 BC, Zhao was losing and its capital, Handan, was under siege. The State of Qi intervened. The Qi decided to attack the Wei capital while the Wei army was tied up besieging Zhao. The strategy was a success; the Wei army hastily moved south to protect its capital, was caught on the road and decisively defeated at the Battle of Guiling. The battle is remembered in the second of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, "besiege Wei, save Zhao" meaning to attack a vulnerable spot to relieve pressure at another point.

In 341 BC, Wei attacked Han. Qi allowed Han to be nearly defeated and then intervened. In the following year Qin attacked the weakened Wei. Wei was devastatingly defeated and ceded a large part of its territory in return for truce. With Wei severely weakened, Qi and Qin became the dominant states in China.

The Period of Qi (301-284 BC)[edit | edit source]

This is the most complex part of the Warring States period. It corresponds to the reign of King Min of Qi and the schemes of Lord Mengchang of Qi and Su Qin. There are some important dates to remember:

300 BC: Lord Mengchang of Qi, grandson of the former King Wei of Qi came to power when King Min acceeded to the throne. He made a westward alliance with the States of Wei and Han. In the far west, Qin, which had been weakened by a succession struggle in 307, yielded to the new coalition and appointed Lord Mengchang its chief minister. This "horizontal" or east-west alliance might have secured peace except that it excluded the State of Zhao.

298 BC: Zhao offered Qin an alliance and Lord Mengchang was driven out of Qin. The remaining three allies, Qi, Wei and Han, attacked Qin, driving up the Yellow River below Shanxi to the Hangu Pass. After 3 years of fighting they took the pass and forced Qin to return territory to Han and Wei. They next inflicted major defeats on Yan and Chu. During the 5-year administration of Lord Menchang, Qi was the major power in China.

294 BC: Lord Mengchang was implicated in a coup d'etat and fled to Wei. His alliance system collapsed. Qi and Qin made a truce and pursued their own interests. Qi moved south against the State of Song whilst the Qin General Bai Qi pushed back eastward against a Han/Wei alliance, gaining victory at the Battle of Yique. In 288 BC the two rulers took the title of "Di", (帝 literally emperor), of the east and west respectively. They swore a covenant and started planning an attack on Zhao.

287 BC: The diplomat Su Qin, possibly an agent of Yan, persuaded King Min that the Zhao war would only benefit Qin. King Min agreed and formed a 'vertical' alliance with the other states against Qin. Qin backed off, abandoned the presumptuous title of "Di", and restored territory to Wei and Zhao. In 286 Qi annexed the state of Song.

285 BC: The success of Qi frightened the other states (some say that this was part of Su Qin's plan). Under the leadership of Lord Mengchang, who was exiled in Wei, Qin, Zhao, Wei and Yan formed an alliance. Yan had normally been a relatively weak ally of Qi and Qi feared little from this quarter. Yan's onslaught under general Yue Yi came as a devastating surprise. Simultaneously, the other allies attacked from the west. Chu declared itself an ally of Qi but contented itself with annexing some territory to its north. Qi's armies were destroyed and the King Min was slain. Qi was reduced to the two cities of Ju and Jimo. King Min himself was later captured and executed by his own followers.

After 284 BC Tian Dan was able to restore much of the state's territory, but it never regained the influence it had under King Min.

The Period of Zhao (284-260)[edit | edit source]

fter Chu was defeated in 278, the remaining great powers were Qin and Zhao . There was little room for diplomatic maneuver and matters were decided by war in 265-260 BC. In 265 King Zhaoxiang of Qin made the first move by attacking the weak state of Han which held the Yellow River gateway into Qin. He moved northeast across Wei territory to cut off the Han enclave of Shangdang. The Han king agreed to surrender Shangdang, but the local governor refused and presented it to King of Zhao. Both, Zhao and Qin sent their armies. Either of them could break through and their armies were locked in stalemate for three years. In September 260 BC the starving Zhao tropps surrendered. It is said that the Qin had all the prisoners killed and that Zhao lost 400,000 men.

Qin was too exhausted to follow up its victory. Some time later it sent an army to besiege the Zhao capital but the army was destroyed when it was attacked from the rear. Zhao survived, but there was no longer a state that could resist Qin on its own. The other states could have survived if they remained united against Qin, but they did not.

The History of Chu[edit | edit source]

The general policy of Chu was to slowly annex the small states to its north. By late in the period, it had a common border with Qi and Wei. Chu rose to its peak in 334 BC, when it conquered Yue to its east on the Pacific coast. The series of events leading up to this began when Yue prepared to attack Qi to its north. The King of Qi sent an emissary who persuaded the King of Yue to attack Chu instead. Yue initiated a large-scale attack at Chu but was defeated by Chu's counter-attack. Chu then proceeded to conquer Yue. In 278 BC, the Qin attacked from Sichuan to the west of Chu. The capital of Ying was captured and Chu's western lands on the Han River were lost. The effect of 334 and 278 was to shift Chu significantly to the east.

The Rise of Qin[edit | edit source]

Towards the end of the Warring States Period, the Qin state became disproportionately powerful compared to the other six states. As a result, the policies of the six states became overwhelmingly oriented towards dealing with the Qin threat, with two opposing schools of thought. One school advocated a 'vertical' or north-south alliance called hezong in which the states would ally with each other to repel Qin. The other advocated a 'horizontal' or east-west alliance called lianheng in which a state would ally with Qin to participate in its ascendancy. There were some initial successes in hezong, though mutual suspicions between allied states led to the breakdown of such alliances. Qin repeatedly exploited the horizontal alliance strategy to defeat the states one by one. After the Battle of Changping in 260 BC, Qin was the strongest state in China.

The Qin's Wars of Unification (230-221 BC)[edit | edit source]

In 230 BC, the Qin state conquered the Han state. Han, the weakest of the Seven Warring States, was adjacent to the much stronger Qin, and had suffered continuous assaults by Qin in earlier years of the Warring States Period.

In 225 BC, Qin conquered Wei. The Qin army led a direct invasion into Wei by besieging its capital Daliang but soon realized that the city walls were too tough to break into. They devised a new strategy in which they utilized the power of a local river that was linked to the Yellow River. The river was used to flood the city's walls, causing massive devastation to the city. Upon realizing the situation, the king of Wei hurriedly came out of the city and surrendered to the Qin army in order to avoid further bloodshed of his people.

In 223 BC, Qin invaded the relatively strong Chu state. However, the first invasion was an utter disaster when 200,000 Qin troops were defeated by 500,000 Chu troops.

The following year, the Qin launched a second invasion with 600,000 men. High in morale after their victory in the previous year, the Chu forces were content to sit back and defend against what they expected to be a siege. After a year, the Chu defenders decided to disband due to apparent lack of action from the Qin. The Qin invaded at that point, with full force, and overran the remaining Chu forces. Chu lost the initiative and could only sustain local guerrilla-style resistance until it too was fully conquered in 223 BC. At their peak, the combined armies of Chu and Qin are estimated to have ranged from hundreds of thousands to a million soldiers.

In 222 BC, Qin conquered Yan and Zhao. In 221 BC, Qin conquered Qi. Qi was the final unconquered warring state. It had not previously contributed or helped other states when Qin was conquering them. As soon as Qin's intention to invade it became clear, Qi swiftly surrendered all its cities, completing the unification of China and ushering in the Qin Dynasty.

Society[edit | edit source]

The Warring States Period was an era of intensive warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation; the major states, ruling over large territories, quickly sought to consolidate their powers, leading to the final erosion of the Zhou court's prestige. As a sign of this shift, the rulers of all the major states (except for Chu, which had claimed kingly title much earlier) abandoned their former feudal titles for the title of 王, or King, claiming equality with the rulers of the Zhou.

At the same time, the constant conflict and need for innovative social and political models led to the development of many philosophical doctrines, later known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. The most notable schools of thought include Mohism, expounded by Mozi; Confucianism, represented by Mencius and Xunzi; Taoism, represented by Zhuangzi, and Legalism, represented by Shang Yang and Han Feizi.

This period is most famous for the establishment of complex bureaucracies and centralized governments, as well as a clearly established legal system. The developments in political and military organization were the basis of the power of the Qin state, which conquered the other states and unified them under the Qin Empire in 221 BC.

Economy[edit | edit source]

Iron sword and two bronze swords, Warring States Period

The phenomenon of intensive warfare was one major trend which led to the proliferation of iron working in China, replacing bronze as the dominant type of metal used in warfare. Areas such as Shu (present-day Sichuan) and Yue (present-day Zhejiang) were also brought into the Chinese cultural sphere during this time.

Trade also became important, and some merchants had considerable power in politics, the most prominent of which was Lü Buwei, who rose to become Chancellor of Qin and was a key supporter of the eventual Qin Shihuang.

At the same time, the increased resources of consolidated, bureaucratic states, coupled with the logistical needs of mass levies and large-scale warfare, led to the proliferation of economic projects such as large-scale waterworks. Major examples of such waterworks include the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, which controlled the Min River in Sichuan and turned the former backwater region into a major Qin logistical base, and the Zhengguo Canal which irrigated large areas of land in the Guanzhong Plain, again increasing Qin's agricultural output.

Attribution[edit | edit source]

"The Warring States Period" (Wikipedia)