A “money tree” sculpture from the Warring States period of the late Zhou dynasty, Chu Culture, Sichuan Provincial Museum. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The tumultuous Warring States period led to the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. The period also was the foundational era of Chinese philosophy.
The Warring States (Zhanguo) period (475–221 BCE) was a period of Chinese history that ended with the unification of China under the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) in 221 BCE. Although scholars agree that the Warring States period ended in 221, the date of its beginning is a matter of contention: Some place it in 481, when the chronicle known as Chunqiu (Springs and Autumns) draws to a close; others in 453, when the state of Jin was divided into three territories; still others in 403, when each of these three new states was formally recognized by the Zhou king. For the purposes of this discussion, the Warring States period begins in 475 BCE, the first year of the reign of Viscount Xiang of Zhao, one of the three states that supplanted Jin. The Warring States period constitutes the second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 BCE), whereas the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty is known as the “Spring and Autumn period” (770–476 BCE), after the chronicle of the same name.
The Eastern Zhou kings were recognized as the heaven-ordained rulers of the terrestrial world, but they were forced over the centuries to cede more and more power to the feudal lords occupying the lands around them. During this time the most powerful of the semi-independent statelets gradually conquered and annexed their neighbors, so that by the Warring States period, only eight contenders remained: Zhou, Qin, Qi, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, and Yan. In 256 BCE the last Zhou king, who was by this time nothing more than a figurehead, was finally deposed, and the Chinese world awaited the final victory of the state of Qin.
The political landscape of the Warring States period was determined by the intensification of several interrelated geopolitical processes that began in the Spring and Autumn period: the ongoing decline of centralized power, the rise of warlike and expansionist states with their own domestic and foreign policies, and the continual diminution in the number of autonomous states as the weakest were annihilated by the strongest. By Warring States times these underlying historical forces had brought about pervasive political, economic, social, and intellectual changes that radically transformed the character of Chinese life.
“Agriculture and war” became a popular slogan as states recognized the substantial benefits of a healthy economy and a mighty army. As the stakes of battle rose, the conception of war necessarily changed from a ritualized competition between educated aristocrats (as in the Spring and Autumn period) to a lawless and bloody struggle between infantry armies as large as could be mustered.
The logistical problems associated with raising, training, and supplying a massive army induced rulers to rethink their approach to governing their territories. Those rulers who could most fully exploit their resources gained a sizable advantage in the theater of war. Thus, the demands of battle led to the restructuring of the state as a vast production ground of people and munitions, maintained by an efficient and organized administration and serving a single king, to whom the entire population owed unquestioning allegiance. Kinship ties, ritual obligations, and traditional practice, which had been significant considerations guiding human action in earlier times, were now subordinated to the material requirements of the “warring state.” In this manner the imperial model of Chinese statecraft was being forged even before the establishment of the empire itself. The governments of the Qin and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties were largely based on the precedents of the Warring States.
Birth of Chinese Philosophy
The Warring States period is celebrated as the foundational era of Chinese philosophy. Historians sometimes ask why such a tumultuous and perilous time provided the context for some of the most sophisticated philosophers in Chinese history, but the reasons for this intellectual burgeoning are not obscure. The competing lords valued any resource that might aid them in their quest for world dominion, and so they were willing to listen to new ideas. The old ways, after all, were leading the Zhou dynasty to assured extinction. The demand for original thinkers resulted in the growth of a new profession: “wandering persuaders” (youshui), who traveled freely from state to state in search of landed patrons, earning their bread alongside diplomats, generals, diviners, and other educated specialists.
The two foremost philosophical schools in Warring States times were those of the Confucians and the Mohists. The former were followers of the ethical worldview laid down by Confucius (551–479 BCE); the latter group was founded by Mozi, or Master Mo (Mo Di, c. 480–c. 390 BCE), who preached a philosophy of “universal love” (jian’ai). The Confucians and Mohists were irreconcilable enemies—Confucians could never accept the Mohist tenet that one should love the father of one’s neighbor as one loves one’s own father—but they were alike in that their doctrines did not always coincide with the desires of the lords whom they served. Confucians, for example, believed that loyal advisers should remonstrate (jian) with their lord when he is in error, and their outspoken criticism often alienated their superiors. Mohists, for their part, believed that human acquisitiveness is at the root of all suffering in the world, and they actively disrupted campaigns of conquest in the hope of deterring warlords from preying on their neighbors.
Other philosophical orientations were more amenable to the aspirations of rulers. Political philosophers such as Shan Buhai (flourished 354–340 BCE), Shen Dao (b. c. 360 BCE), and Han Fei (d. 233 BCE) formulated an ideal of statecraft (often misleadingly called “legalism”) that relied on standardized laws, proto-bureaucratic administrative systems, and unfailing adherence to the protocols of reward and punishment. The political aspect of philosophy was so important that even the Laozi (or Daode jing), a text whose primary purpose is to elucidate the benign cosmological notion (an idea based on a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe) of the “way” (dao), takes pains to point out the political applications of its teachings.
The term Warring States is usually said to derive from Stratagems of the Warring States (Zhanguo ce), a collection of anecdotes about the period compiled by Liu Xiang (79–78 BCE). But the term zhanguo was already used in an essay by the statesman Jia Yi (201–169 BCE); this suggests that the era was known as the “Warring States” almost as soon as it had ended.
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Source: Goldin, Paul R. (2009). Warring States Period. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2416–2418. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Historical illustration of Kwante, the god of war.