Warring States China

Of the four great Spring and Autumn powers — 1) Jin, 2) Qin (Central States), 3) Qi and 4) Chu— Qi, Chu, and Qin survived into the Warring States Period. Jin had been divided into three states of Han, Zhao and Wei, sometimes collectively referred to as the "Three Jins". The state of Yan, north of Qi, although ranked considerably below its greater rivals, is sometimes counted as a seventh powerful state competing for dominance. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) was a time of turmoil and violence, with constant warfare between the regional states... As military conflict became more frequent and more deadly, one by one the smaller states were conquered and absorbed by the half dozen largest ones. One of the more successful such states was Chu, based in the middle reaches of the Yangzi River. It defeated and absorbed fifty or more small states, eventually controlling a territory as extensive as the Shang or Western Zhou dynasties at their heights. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Dr. Robert Eno wrote: “The fifth century was an era during which the growth of armies and military technology began to be felt. During the first century of the Warring States era, the new scale of battles made it impossible for the smaller central states to compete. Consequently, the war aims of the larger states began to change. Whereas during the Spring and Autumn period the usual motives of a campaign had been the formation of security alliances, the great states now became outright predators, seeking to occupy and annex the territories of neighboring states. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The results were quickly apparent. Venerable states such as Lu, which fell under the power of Qi, retained only a nominal existence, while one after another, border states between Qin and Wei, Qi and Chu, and Chu and Qin fell prey to the great new armies, whose soldiers now numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In consuming their near neighbors, these great states were also eliminating the buffer regions that insulated them against one another. The expansion of their territories increased their shared borders, thus bringing gradually closer the inevitability of a military conflict engaging armies so massive that the casualties of a single campaign could number close to a half million men.” /+/

“The altered relationship between ruler and people” resulting from increased agricultural productivity and the utilization of peasants in the military “is also reflected in the restructuring of administration which occurred in many states. The degree of change varied widely from state to state: among the major states, Chu was probably least touched by them, while Qin was unquestionably the most fundamentally transformed. The nature of the changes also differed among states, but there was a common thread. In virtually all cases, state administration was restructured so that lands and cities were divided into centrally designated units and control over these units was directly determined by the ruler and his close advisors, rather than becoming the hereditary prerogatives of patrician clans. Thus the peasants and city-dwelling commoners fell increasingly under the control of the ruler’s court, and the regional patrician clans more and more found themselves excluded from access to real power. The increased control that the lord exercised aided him in the task of maintaining the state’s readiness in war and coherence in diplomatic policy. /+/

“During the fourth century B.C., the balance of power was delicate enough that it shifted with great frequency. Qin, Qi, and Chu remained the greatest of the states, but the “three Jin” – that is, Han, Wei, and Zhao, the states into which Jin had dissolved – played important roles. In fact, during the middle years of the century, Wei actually held so much power and was so centrally located that it seemed nearly preeminent among the states. By the close of the century, however, Qin was clearly gaining the dominance that would eventually bring it to absolute power. /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ;
Books: "Cambridge History of Ancient China" edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties" by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009)

Usurpation in Qi

Of the main Warring States powers, the one that underwent the greatest change during the fifth century, was Qi. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ Now that Jin was gone, Qi was the major state with the greatest claim to legitimacy in the Zhou cultural sphere. Qin and Chu were relative newcomers to China. Their ruling houses had emerged only late in the Western Zhou or during the first decades of the Spring and Autumn period. Qi, however, had been founded as the patrimonial estate of the Grand Duke Wang, the general-in-chief of King Wu during the conquest of the Shang. Although the Grand Duke was not a member of the Zhou royal lineage, his clan of Jiang was honored through his accomplishments and its prestige had been renewed by the greatness of Duke Huan during the seventh century. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“By the fifth century, however, the quality and power of the Jiang house had declined in Qi, and a situation had emerged similar to those in Jin and Lu, where great families rather than the duke’s clan held the balance of power. In the case of Qi, however, the outcome of the struggle for power was different, and of a distinct benefit to the state. /+/

“During the hegemony of Duke Huan, he had sheltered at court a princely refugee from a neighboring state. This man’s descendants settled permanently in Qi, and the prestige of their lineage, together with an apparent family tendency towards ambition, soon brought their lineage, the Tian clan, into competition with other great patrician clans native to Qi. /+/

“As in other states, over the centuries the power of the great clans came to overawe the dukes in Qi, and it may have appeared as if Qi would follow the path of the three clans of Jin, who had carved new states from a great power. But in the case of Qi, successive generations of talented men from the Tian family proved increasingly indispensable to the rulers of Qi. By the middle of the fifth century, the Tians dominated the state to such a degree that they planned the usurpation of both power and title. Launching successful attacks on their greatest competitors, the Tian clan managed first to achieve a full monopoly of political control as ministers to the duke, then to divide the territory of Qi, taking half for their direct control and leaving half to their puppet ruler, then transporting the ruler himself to an obscure seaside town (391). Finally in B.C. 386, after the last legitimate ruler of Qi died without a son in his lonely outpost, the leader of the Tians obtained recognition from the Zhou king as the hereditary ruler of Qi, succeeding to the rights of the Grand Duke Wang. /+/

“Upsetting as this process may have been to those remaining loyal to the Zhou system of hereditary privilege, the accession of a vigorous new clan to the leadership of Qi prevented that state from either disintegrating or being overwhelmed by growing military threats from other powers. The shift of the ducal mandate of a great power to an ambitious émigré lineage exemplified the flexibility which had come to the notion of hereditary privilege. It is no accident that thereafter in the state of Qi, the dukes followed a policy of actively courting talented men to come to Qi from other states, rewarding them with high office if their abilities met the needs of the ruler. /+/

Court of Marquis Wen of Wei

Dr. Eno wrote: “The new rulers of Qi were not the first to seek out friends from afar when in need of talented men at court. The innovators of this tradition, which became a hallmark of Warring States politics, seem to have been the rulers of Wei, one of the three new states created out of the lands of Jin. Wei, along with Han and Zhao, the two other Jin states, was eager to gain some leverage over the multi-state community within which it had suddenly emerged. Initially, none of the three was a match for the established powers. Wei’s political initiative represented a response to its particular precarious position. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Only seven years after the partition of Jin, a young and ambitious ruler came to the throne in Wei. This man, Marquis Wen, was anxious to establish the security of his state. Not long after his installation, the marquis issued a public pronouncement to the effect that he would provide audiences and the opportunity for high position to any man of talent who would journey from his home state to Wei. While the state of Qin had for years relied on men from other states to fill high office, and we have seen the example of Wu Zixu’s role in Wu as a sixth century case of a visiting minister exercising great influence, nevertheless this was the first instance of so broad an invitation being issued as a matter of state policy. Wei could not provide quality manpower at court, so the ruler was entering the import market. /+/

“The court of Marquis Wen of Wei became renowned for its illustrious company of brilliant men. Even one of Confucius’s own disciples, the aging Zixia, traveled to Wei in response to the duke’s call and became the court tutor, the highest regular post that a Confucian is known to have attained after Confucius’s death. /+/

“While Zixia may have lent the greatest culture to the Wei court, others offered it skills of more immediate use. In particular, a number of men who became famous as military strategists congregated at court and aided Wei to prepare for the great power role that had once been played by Jin. Indeed, by the early years of the fourth century, they had done their work so successfully that the young state of Wei was for several decades the most powerful state in China. /+/

the six warring states

Shang Yang

One of the most important figures of the Warring States periods is Shang Yang, a 4th century B.C. administrator who established a set of laws designed "to punish the wicked and rebellious, in order to preserve the rights of the people."

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Lord Shang (d. 338 B.C., also known as Gongsun Yang or Shang Yang) was prime minister of the state of Qin in the middle of the fourth century B.C. — when Qin was simply one of the many states of the weak and fragmented feudal kingdom of Zhou. Lord Shang was from the neighboring state of Wei. Hearing that Duke Xiao of Qin was seeking men of worth to help strengthen his state, he left Wei in 361 B.C. to find his fortune in Qin. As an advisor to Duke Xiao, Lord Shang recommended revising the laws. When some of the Duke’s other advisors expressed reservations, Lord Shang is said to have responded: “Wise men make laws; stupid men are constrained by them.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “ If we rely on the historical texts that have been left to us to determine the greatest turning point of Classical Chinese political history, it would be the ministry of Shang Yang in the state of Qin. While it is undoubtedly true that the histories exaggerate his achievements, it is still likely that the reality was extraordinary. Shang Yang was a political thinker who reflected his times, and it may be that even without his personal efforts, the same general outcome of the chaotic years of the Warring States era would have been brought about in time – another Shang Yang would have eventually arisen. But Shang Yang’s career is no less remarkable for that. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Mao Zedong's earliest surviving essay, written when he was 19, praised the pragmatic but ruthless policies of Shang Yang. Mao concluded, "At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it." Yang's policy's paved the way for the brutal but unifying rule of Emperor Qin.

Shang Yang and Reforms in Qin, 360-338 B.C.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Shang Yang’s “reforms, initiated in 359 B.C., remade Qin and contributed substantially to its strength. Lord Shang’s reforms built on previously existing Qin laws. His reforms are distinguished by their thoroughness and focus. His goals were to guarantee the disciplined, efficient use of the state’s resources and to concentrate the people’s energies on two tasks: agriculture and warfare. To achieve these ends, he drafted and promulgated written laws prescribing rewards and punishments for desirable and undesirable behavior. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “What Shang Yang did in Qin was to crystallize the early tendencies that had arisen to create centralized states whose governments were managed both by the officers of a central court and by district officers whose appointments were made without reference to birth. Shang Yang also recognized that the benefits of such a system to the central government would only accrue if there were fashioned sophisticated systems of social control that would have the same effects as micro-management by the ducal court, without requiring great additional manpower and expense. In Qin, the law code and its enforcement became just such a tool of social control. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Although to later Confucians Shang Yang represented the epitome of political immorality, Shang Yang was actually a legitimist in the same sense as Confucius: he relied on the legitimacy of the Zhou-appointed ducal house, but otherwise sanctioned only criteria of merit rather than birth. His reforms had the predictable effect of drastically reducing the power of the patrician class; however, before this ultimate outcome was determined, the enmity of the patricians in Qin brought Shang Yang down.” /+/

Life and Career of Shang Yang

Shang Yang

Dr. Eno wrote: “Shang Yang was born in Wey about 390 B.C. to a patrician family descended from the Wey ruling house (he is also known as Wei Yang, or Prince Yang of Wey).Wey, which had been a significant political force among the Central States centuries earlier, had lost nearly all of its interstate influence by the fourth century. Nevertheless, as a young man, Shang Yang seemed on the way to a brilliant career in Wey. He became a clan retainer of the prime minister of Wey, who was greatly impressed with his abilities. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is said that when the prime minister fell ill, the duke of Wey visited him to consult on a successor, should one be needed. The prime minister startled the duke by naming Shang Yang, who, in the duke’s eyes was still an obscure youth. The duke not only ignored the recommendation, he ridiculed it. Consequently, Shang Yang came to the conclusion that his fortune would best be sought outside his home state. /+/

“In 362 B.C. the prime minister of Wey, having recovered his health, was captured in battle by the armies of Qin, and the following year a new ruler took the throne in Qin, Duke Xiao. Duke Xiao was intent on recapturing territories and influence that had slipped from Qin in recent centuries, and like other ambitious rulers of the time, he issued a proclamation inviting men of talent throughout China to travel to his court. With his future in Wey seeming bleak, Shang Yang responded to Duke Xiao’s call. /+/

“It seems to have taken Shang Yang some time to persuade the duke of his usefulness to Qin. Many of the reforms that he ultimately engineered were apparently proposals that he announced soon after his arrival in order to attract the duke’s attention and stand out from the crowd of learned men flocking to Qin in hopes of wealth and prestige. When the duke at length began to probe Shang Yang’s ideas in greater depth, traditionalists at his court voiced strenuous objections to the radical nature of his proposals. But Shang Yang kept his self-possession and continued to speak eloquently for his ideas. He was, after all, not only a brilliant man, but a cultivated patrician who had seen service as a key aide to a prime minister in Wey. In the end, the duke decided to adopt Shang Yang’s ideas and put him in charge of their implementation as prime minister of Qin. As the established power holders in Qin were adamantly opposed to this outsider’s programs, we may assume that the administrative staff that Shang Yang used to manage his reforms probably included many men not previously of high standing. Their loyalty towards Shang Yang would have been unusually strong, as their own careers were most likely dependent on his success. Thus because Shang Yang was denied a chance to join the political establishment of his small native state, he became instead the unusually independent head of government in one of the greatest states in China. /+/

Shang Yang: "Making Orders Strict"

In the Book of Lord Shang ( Shangjun shu), Shang Yang is recorded as saying: The six parasites are: rites and music, odes and history, cultivation and goodness, filial devotion and brotherly love, sincerity and trustworthiness, uprightness and integrity, humaneness and rightness, criticism of the army and being ashamed of fighting. [It is unclear why the “six parasites” actually involves sixteen items, despite this numbering problem, the list is significant and suggestive] [Source: Book of Lord Shang ( Shangjun shu) in “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999]

“In applying punishments, light offenses should be punished heavily; if light offenses do not appear, heavy offenses will not come. This is said to be abolishing penalties by means of penalties, and if penalties are abolished, affairs will succeed. If crimes are serious and penalties light, penalties will appear and trouble will arise. This is said to be bringing about penalties by means of penalties, and such a state will surely be dismembered.

“The sage ruler understands what is essential in affairs and so, in the governing of the people, there is that which is most essential. Therefore in administering rewards and punishments he relies on uniformity. Humaneness is extending the heart. The sage ruler, by his governing of men, is certain to win their hearts; consequently he is able to exert strength. Strength produces force; force produces prestige; prestige produces virtue. Virtue has its origin in strength. The sage ruler alone possesses it, and therefore he is able to transmit humaneness and rightness to all under Heaven.”

Shang Yang’s Qin Reform Program

Shang-Yang-era punishment

Dr. Eno wrote: “Shang Yang was in power in Qin for about twenty years and during that time he made Qin into a completely new type of state. That state was characterized by centralized administration, new systems of taxation, government management of the economy, standardization of weights and measures (a major undertaking in those times), armament of a greatly enlarged army, and, what later writers most stressed, the implementation of a brutally draconian set of laws. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“To achieve centralized control of the state, Shang Yang divided the lands of Qin into counties, administrative units determined by the duke’s court rather than by tradition. The management of these counties was entrusted not to local power holders, but to magistrates whose talents were valued by the court and who were answerable to the duke and the prime minister for their actions. These were men who could be fired without repercussions – they did not represent powerful clans, only themselves, and there was no hereditary right associated with their offices. Their sole political loyalty was thus to the men who appointed them, and in this way, Shang Yang created the first true state-wide bureaucracy in China. /+/

“The patrician clans still retained rights to incomes from the lands that earlier dukes had bestowed upon them, and the aristocracy was by no means eliminated. In fact, Shang Yang himself received a patrimonial estate from Duke Xiao (it was the city region of Shang, which is why he is usually called Shang Yang, or sometimes Lord Shang). But the power of the patrician clans to influence the operations of both state and local government was sharply reduced. /+/

“The changes that Shang Yang effected in Qin were more than administrative, they were social as well. All families were registered, and groups of five or ten families living in a single village, neighborhood, or lane were designated as a “mutual responsibility” unit. Each member of the unit was a guarantor to the government for the behavior of the entire group. Thus if one member of the group broke the law, all members received punishment. /+/

“And the punishments were severe. Heavy punishments were decreed for crimes that might be considered relatively minor, and any who sheltered law breakers were sentenced to be cut in two. Rewards were similarly great, and good conduct could actually earn promotion to patrician status in a newly crafted system of sixteen social grades (another thorn in the side of the established patricians in Qin, who were equally dismayed to learn that law breaking could strip them of their ancient status under the new system). In practice, the punishments made a far greater impact on cultural memory than the rewards. /+/

“A second wave of reforms attacked the family structure of Qin still further. In order to discourage the formation of large family compounds that might become points of independent social influence, government policies encouraged the independence of the nuclear family unit. Fathers, married sons, and brothers were forbidden to occupy a single household once of a certain age. Families with two unmarried adult sons faced a double tax assessment. As families, the basic economic units of the state, were reconfigured in this way, the boundaries of fields were completely redrawn so as to reflect new realities. /+/

Impact of Shang Yang’s Reforms

Dr. Eno wrote: “Despite these pressures on social arrangements, which worked to the disadvantage of the less influential strata of society, Shang Yang’s reforms initially benefited the peasant class at the expense of the patricians. The sharp limitations on the prerogatives of the patricians were complemented by the explicit designation of all farming families as independent units owing taxes directly to the Qin state. Over the portions of Qin where patrician claims were not clearly established, this act essentially gave farmers ownership responsibilities over their lands, and spelled the end of any expansion of patrician control over the peasant class, apart from control exercised directly from court. However, this system seems not to have benefited the peasant class in the long run. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Shang Yang’s laws also established the legality of the private purchase of land. Land was thus transformed into a marketable commodity of great value, substantially increasing the volatility of commerce in Qin. Under these circumstances, a process of land speculation appears to have occurred in which those with liquid assets, principally members of the merchant class, bought out poor peasants and accumulated substantial holdings of land. Although Qin had strong bars against members of the merchant class being awarded patrician rank, it does appear that economically the merchant class was the chief beneficiary of Shang Yang’s reforms. /+/

“In time, it was widely acknowledged that Shang Yang had created a state that worked. The population was orderly, the harvests were huge, the markets were flourishing, and soldiers fought bravely. When Shang Yang exhibited the fairness of the laws by punishing high ranking courtiers as severely as commoners, he won grudging admiration. But when people began to praise his laws, he took further action. Desirous of suppressing the notion that independent evaluation of the duke’s legitimate government was permissible, regardless of the nature of the judgment, he had those who praised his reforms banished along with his opponents and passed a law forbidding any discussion of the laws whatever. /+/

“Shang Yang claimed that the sole values relevant to a state were its wealth and its military success. Since his political outlook was framed entirely from the perspective of the personal interests of the legitimate ruler, no other values were of importance. It was irrelevant whether the people of the state were content or not: whichever was more conducive to enlarging the duke’s treasuries and strengthening his armies was the one more desirable. Shang Yang’s state was an absolute tyranny, but like many well managed tyrannies, it purchased the toleration of the population by delivering to them the fruits of order: wealth and security. /+/

Fall of Shang Yang

Dr. Eno wrote: “Had Shang Yang been able to stay in office another decade or two, it is conceivable that he would have died with utmost honor in his adopted state. But in 338 B.C., Duke Xiao died, and his son and heir was no friend of Shang Yang. He bore a deep resentment against the prime minister, who had taken severe action against some of the prince’s closest patrician friends and advisors in the past. Shang Yang’s severity in dealing with the patrician class had earned him many enemies. Soon after the new duke assumed his throne, courtiers eager to exploit his suspicions reported that Shang Yang was planning a rebellion to seize the throne. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Shang Yang’s partisans at court carried the news of the slander to him, and knowing the new duke’s temperament, he determined to flee the capital and escape eastwards to the state of Wei. He set out with a group of retainers, traveling in disguise in the hope that he couldflee unobserved before the duke even knew that he had been warned.When evening fell, Shang Yang and his band stopped at an inn to rest for the night. But the innkeeper would not allow him to stay because he was unwilling to identify himself. “Our prime minister Lord Shang,” said the innkeeper, “has ordered that no one may be granted a place at an inn without proper identification. I dare not disobey his laws!”

Faced with the untimely success of his own policies, Shang Yang and his retainers had no choice but to stagger on towards Wei. When they reached it in exhaustion, however, the border guards detained them and awaited orders from their government. The directive came back: “Shang Yang is an outlaw of Qin. To admit him into our borders would be to invite invasion. Permission is denied. In desperation, Shang Yang fled back to his estate, and there he assembled his men in order to raise the rebellion of which he had previously been falsely accused. But his private army was no match against the well trained troops that he had raised for the armies of Qin, and Shang Yang died a victim of his own success. /+/

“The new duke, convinced by Shang Yang’s rebellion that he had been correctly informed of his treachery, saw no reason to show restraint in this situation. He had Shang Yang’s corpse dragged to the marketplace and pulled to pieces by four teams of horses, after which he murdered all of Shang Yang’s family. He did not, however, repeal Shang Yang’s reforms, which became the basis of Qin’s steady growth and its march towards the conquest of all the patrician states. /+/

King Hui of Wei and Interstate Power in 4th Century B.C.

Dr. Eno wrote: “During the fourth century, the balance of power was delicate enough that it shifted with great frequency. Qin, Qi, and Chu remained the greatest of the states, but the “three Jin” – that is, Han, Wei, and Zhao, the states into which Jin had dissolved – played important roles. In fact, during the middle years of the century, Wei actually held so much power and was so centrally located that it seemed nearly preeminent among the states. By the close of the century, however, Qin was clearly gaining the dominance that would eventually bring it to absolute power. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The reign of a single ruler, King Hui of Wei, illustrates the shifts of influence that characterized the century. King Hui came to the throne of Wei in 370 B.C. as a young man. During the previous eighty years, the three states which had been born from Jin had been engaged in feeling out the appropriate shares of influence which each could expect. Han, which lay principally south of the Yellow River was in a position somewhat too exposed to command influence. It was directly subject to encroachments from Chu to the south and Qi to the east, and its topography made it a difficult area to defend. Zhao in the north was better defended by its peripheral position, but that also hampered it in diplomacy and war.Wei actually stretched from the banks of the Yellow River north of its great bend all the way to the lower reaches of the river, opposite Qi. Its arch formed a bridge from Qin to Qi, separating Han from Zhao. /+/

“King Hui’s predecessors had made good use of this position. They had made Han effectively subservient to Wei, and repeated military threats against Zhao had forced Zhao to seek aid from Qi. The young King Hui clearly appeared to be the most dynamic political force in China at the time of his accession. By 356 B.C., King Hui had coerced not only Han and Zhao, but also a number of key members of the Central States, such as Lu and Song, to join in league with Wei under King Hui’s direction. Restoration of the hegemon position seemed a real possibility. /+/

“But precisely because the rulers of the states recalled that Jin, by virtue of its geographical position and military traditions, had been able to dominate the politics of China for most of the Spring and Autumn years, none of them was willing to allow Wei to recreate the power of Jin, much less extend it again into the Central States. King Hui found himself repeatedly blocked by the other major powers, which now had the opportunity to undermine the unity of Wei’s league by forming agreements with the other Jin states of Han and Zhao. Again and again, the armies of Wei rushed from one end of the state to another, trying first to protect the integrity of its allied forces, and in time trying merely to protect the boundaries of Wei itself. /+/

King Hui of Wei and the Importance of Alliances in Warring States Era

Dr. Eno wrote: “Finally, in 340 B.C., the threat to Wei became so severe that one of its great enemies, Chu, actually had to rush to its aid in order to avoid the destruction of Wei by Qi, which would have upset the balance of power disastrously. From this time, the entire direction of interstate politics begins to change. King Hui, growing old and resigned to the dissolution of his dreams, turned inward and began to cultivate the excellence of his court rather than his armies. He became famous for attracting to Wei outstanding scholars, thus emulating the distinctive glories of his ancestor a century earlier, Marquis Wen, whose court was discussed above. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 335 B.C., King Hui reached an agreement with the ruler of Qi, and at that time the two leaders met and together took the title of “King” (King Hui had previously enjoyed only the relatively modest title of “Marquis”), thus driving another nail into the long closed coffin of the Zhou monarchy. He now looked forward to a peaceful end to his long reign. /+/

“But it was at this point that the state of Qin began to flex the muscles that Shang Yang had so recently strengthened. Qin began to put pressure of Wei’s western territories, bidding to seize Wei’s lands across the Yellow River and so control both banks above the river’s elbow. King Hui, too tired to fight, removed his capital from the west of Wei and resettled in the east, signaling his willingness to reach a territorial compromise with Qin. In the end, the prime minister of Qin was granted an estate and installed in the western portion of Wei as a nominal minister of King Hui, but in fact as a regional viceroy serving the king of Qin (who had copied Wei and Qi and elevated himself to royalty in 325 B.C.). When King Hui finally died in 319 B.C., having reigned for fifty-one years, the state he left was in shambles. /+/

“Qin, on the other hand, was expanding rapidly into several voids. It had successfully completed centuries of war against various nomad tribes to the north, which had come to recognize the quantum growth in the power of their traditional Chinese adversary. Moreover Qin had moved into large and potentially fertile regions in the sparsely populated southwest (where modern Sichuan lies in the upper Yangzi valley). By so doing it had begun to exert pressure on Chu. /+/

“Chu was occupied elsewhere. The collapse of first Wu and then Yue had opened up opportunities for Chu in the lower reaches of the Yangzi, and this expansion had carried the armies of Chu east and then north into lands that were adjacent to Qi’s southern border. In this way the buffer areas between Chu and Qi had disappeared and tensions were rising. When a similar disappearance of buffers developed in the west, Chu was unable to respond. Qin’s expansion came at just the right time and in the end Chu had no choice but to cede valuable lands to Qin, creating a major strategic improvement in Qin’s overall position. /+/

“Thus towards the close of the fourth century, the face of the future was becoming evident in China. The armies of Qin were suddenly encamped across the Yellow River in the north and along the upper Yangzi valley in the south, strategic areas which had never been under the control of any single power before. Rulers were becoming aware that the menace represented by Qin was reaching a scale unprecedented since the beginning of China’s multi-state era.

Horizontal and Vertical Alliances in Warring States China (320-256 B.C.)

Dr. Eno wrote: “The last century of the Classical age is among the most dynamic in Chinese history. Long brewing trends of change in government structures, intellectual imagination, and many aspects of economic and material culture all seem to rise to the surface. Because traditional historians viewed the periodization of Chinese history in terms of dynastic eras, they often failed to see just how far the final century of the Zhou order had departed from the norms of the Classical age. The new Imperial state that was founded by the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C. is in many ways a culmination of Warring States trends, rather than a sudden new social order imposed on China through conquest. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“By the closing years of the fourth century, virtually all the geographical buffers that softened the power struggle among the major powers had disappeared. Qin, Chu, and Qi dwarfed all other states in terms of territory, influence, and military strength. The rulers of all three had taken the title of King, and it was becoming clear that a final struggle to succeed to the throne of the Zhou rulers had begun. Unlike the Zhou founders, who were said to have conquered the Shang in a single morning, this time the battles for the Mandate were destined to stretch on for many years at the cost of blood beyond measure. /+/

“The initial stage of this period is known for a particular type of political contest in which the three powers engaged. As it became apparent that the future would belong to Qin unless the other states could bring their military forces into powerful combinations, some of the rulers and ministers among these states began to engage in the most ambitious alliance building since the age of the hegemons. These alliances, which sought to block the eastward advance of Qin troops by building the barrier of a North-South coalition of states, were known as “Vertical Alliances.” For centuries, one of the cornerstones of Qin’s political strength was the military advantage it enjoyed by virtue of its geographical position. Not only was it located in the far west, which insulated it from attack by states in the east or southeast, its terrain was a mountain basin, easily guarded at the few strategic mountain passes that would allow military movement in and out of the state. Through these passes, which Qin controlled, Qin armies could issue forth towards the east and south, but an army of invasion would need enormous strength to breach these well defended gateways to Qin. /+/

“Now, however, with Qin’s ambitions focused on expansion, its geographical position became a disadvantage. Qin was distant from China’s center of gravity. Its goal to stretch eastward was clearly vulnerable to the counter-strategy envisioned by a north-south defensive coalition: a Vertical Alliance. /+/

“But Qin had many cards to play in dealing with those who might join a Vertical Alliance. As the strongest military force in China, it could coerce its near neighbors into obeying its will against their own long-term interests, and it could trade some of its vast territories for the short-term allegiance of rulers who could not see into the future. In this way, traveling ministers from Qin were able frequently to bully or persuade the governments of other states to join it in an east-west “Horizontal Alliance,” which could parry threats against Qin and provide Qin armies with routes of access towards the east.” /+/

Consequences of the First Warring States Vertical Alliance

Dr. Eno wrote: “The shifting balance of power during this period is far too confused to detail here. One example will suffice to represent the manner in which the alliance system failed to prevent the gradual growth of Qin power. In 321 B.C., at the time when Qin was establishing a protectorate region in the western portion of Wei, the king of Qi became concerned at the growth of Qin power. He sent a prominent member of the royal Tian clan, known by his posthumous title of Lord Mengchang, as an emissary to Chu to propose an alliance against Qin. The plan was well received and Lord Mengchang began to act as an intermediary. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Then, in 319 B.C., the aged King Hui of Wei died and his successor ordered Qin to vacate its protectorate. Spurred by this, Qi and Chu acted together to launch a joint campaign against Qin on Wei’s behalf and enlist the aid of all the other significant states in the north: Han, Zhao, and Yan. But although the campaign was duly launched in 318 B.C., its leadership fragmented when the kings of Chu and Qi could not agree on which was to be regarded as the commander of the campaign.When the other allies indicated that they would follow Chu, Qi ended its active support. Ultimately, the strength of the attack failed to breach the Qin defenses at the Hangu pass, and the war ended in shambles, with Qin not only reestablishing its base in Wei, but even adding lands in Han. /+/

“About a decade later, a brief internal crisis in the royal house of Qin led members of the former alliance to attempt to recreate it. But Qin cleverly forestalled this by offering Chu a bribe. In return for reaching an agreement with Qin to form a horizontal axis against this new Vertical Alliance, Qin promised to return to Chu lands it had seized in previous years. When Chu accepted this proposal, Qi reasoned it could no longer pursue the opportunity. /+/

“So effective was the Qin ploy, that Qi determined that the only path for it to take was to reach an agreement with Qin that would essentially recognize a three-power balance as the desirable order for China. In 302 B.C., Qin, Chu, and Qi made an agreement to this effect, and to seal its part of the treaty, Qi sent Lord Mengchang to Qin, which actually appointed him a minister in the service of Qin. /+/

“Unfortunately, very soon thereafter, the entire arrangement fell to pieces. A prince of Chu who was living in Qin as a hostage (a common method states used to enforce good faith when a treaty was in place) killed a Qin patrician and fled. In the political disruption that ensued, Lord Mengchang barely escaped Qin with his life, and soon the entire cycle of abortive alliances was resumed. While the story of each decade or two differs in its particulars, this example represents the pattern of the Vertical and Horizontal Alliance period. When the Qin encroachment eastwards finally consumed the state of Zhou itself and, in 256 B.C., brought an end to the line of kings that had ruled in fact or in name for almost eight centuries, the progress of Qin became less a matter of overcoming types of inter-state resistance, and more a matter of preparing for the final battles of the major states, once the last of the smaller powers had been absorbed into their ever-widening borders.” /+/

Brewing Trouble for Qi

Dr. Eno wrote: “One particular episode of this penultimate stage of Warring States history deserves special notice because of its rich implications for understanding the stresses in political ideology developing at this time, and because it accounts for the reason why the greatest power of eastern China, the state of Qi, proved unable to withstand the onslaught of Qin, despite the fact that it was a far more natural ally for most of the other states than was either Qin or Chu. The events that follow are reconstructed on the basis of several partial accounts in a variety of sources. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 319 B.C., an ambitious new ruler, King Xuan, came to the throne in Qi. King Xuan was anxious to balance the power of Qin by making Qi a superpower in the east. He actively sought advisors from all over and strengthened the army. Three years later, an unusual circumstance developed in the large but relatively weak state of Yan, located to the north of Qi. The aging ruler there was convinced to follow the example of the Emperors Yao and Shun and cede his throne to a worthy man. He turned over his state to his prime minister, a man named Zizhi. It seems clear from all accounts that Zizhi was an ambitious man who had risen far by virtue of his wits and that the king’s act had followed a long period of persuasion and political pressure. This was, in other words, a bloodless coup d’état. But despite its element of power politics, by cloaking this transfer of power in the most sanctimonious of Confucian rhetoric, Zizhi was able to present himself as a ruler legitimized not only by talent and the circumstances of power, but by virtue and morality as well. /+/

“The king of Qi viewed these events as a golden opportunity. Regardless of the rhetoric involved, Zizhi’s seizure of the throne was contrary to all the explicit norms of the times, and moreover represented simply the victory of one unlikely political faction in Yan over others. After all, the sons of the former ruler had been deprived of their natural expectations and would surely be seeking for revenge. Civil war in Yan seemed likely and King Xuan decided to fish in troubled waters. /+/

Mencius and the State of Qi

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Dr. Eno wrote: “To strengthen his hand, he engineered a political masterstroke. Just at this time, the greatest Confucian of the age, a master named Mencius (Mengzi), had turned up in the state of Qi announcing that he was in quest of a sage ruler who would employ him and put into practice Confucian principles of government. The king did what no one had ever done before: he raised a visiting Confucian to a position of high prestige in government, appointing Mencius an advisor of the first rank. Mencius, an old man who had lived his entire life hoping for his moment in the sun, did not have the political acumen to turn the offer down. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Shortly after his appointment, Mencius was approached by another minister who was an intimate of the king’s. This man came to Mencius’s home on a social visit, and in the course of the conversation, he asked Mencius whether in his opinion, in light of the irregular conduct of the ruler of Yan, that state was would be a proper object of a righteous war. /+/

“Now, Mencius was a Confucian, and Confucians were not known as warmongers. Nevertheless, Yan represented a sore provocation. Zizhi had shamelessly exploited Confucian myths and Confucian ethics to engineer a power play. Mencius could not but have felt the greatest resentment against him. Moreover, Mencius, who had long hoped to play a significant role in pragmatic politics, had actually developed detailed ways of explaining the proper way in which Heaven’s Mandate was supposed to be transferred. He had developed these doctrines both to reassure his potential employers that he was not an opponent of hereditary succession and also to explain why Confucius had not himself received the Mandate, an historical fact that was rather embarrassing to Confucians who wished to claim that the founder of their school had been the greatest sage known to history. /+/

“Mencius claimed that the Mandate could be moved only when a ruler was extraordinarily evil, or, in the case of men such as Yao and Shun, only when the ruling king presented his successor to Heaven and Heaven approved. How did Heaven show its approval? Mencius’s answer was, “Heaven does not speak, it moves through action and event,” and in so doing, “Heaven hears through the ears of the people and sees through the eyes of the people.” That is, only when the population at large showed its clear approval could one claim that the Mandate should be transferred. The transfer of the Mandate through cession was not a private matter between a ruler and his chosen successor, it was in the end a matter of popular assent. /+/

“The seizure of the throne of Yan by Zizhi conformed to none of Mencius’s requirements, and to the minister of Qi who was sitting in his home anxious for an answer, Mencius replied, “Oh yes, Yan is indeed worthy of punishment!”This was all that the minister was waiting for. He had actually been sent by the king to pry just such an answer from Mencius. In short order the troops of Qi marched north to attack Yan and reverse this “Confucian” succession, and they did so, it was proclaimed, with the explicit sanction of the most famous Confucian of the age. In was in vain that Mencius protested that he had been unaware that he was being asked for his advice in an official capacity. “If I had known what the king meant to do,” he said, “I would have told him that though Yan was worthy of being attacked by a righteous state, Qi was not such a state!” He saw clearly that Qi’s invasion was not a matter of ethics but of power. Now, of course, it was too late. King Xuan’s invasion could not have gone better. Zizhi was in fact very unpopular in Yan and the troops from Qi, which marched to place the heir apparent on the throne instead, were much welcomed. When the King Xuan boasted to Mencius of his success, Mencius warned him that though the troops were welcome now, that welcome would soon be worn out if they did not quickly return home and Qi withdraw from its meddling in Yen’s politics. /+/

Fall of Qi

Dr. Eno wrote: But King Xuan’s “ambition was to establish a puppet state in Yan. The troops stayed, and the new ruler of Yan, King Zhao, discovered that he was not a free actor. He was expected to repay his champion with absolute obedience, and he soon chafed to be rid of Qi’s presence. Yan was little more than an occupied territory with the soldiers of Qi patrolling the capital. Although Yan had never been a strong state, it had a proud tradition; the rulers of Yan were the descendants of Duke Shao, a close cousin of the Zhou founder King Wu, the Zhou founder and the Duke of Zhou’s principal aide during the years of rebellion. King Zhao felt much ashamed to have become the pawn of another state. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Eventually, confident that Yan was secure, King Xuan of Qi withdrew his armies from Yan. The king of Yan immediately issued a call for wise men to come to his capital, and among those he treated with the greatest courtesies were men known for their abilities in military administration. King Zhao worked tirelessly to build the armies of Yan into a force capable of exacting revenge on Qi, while at the same time, Qi conducted itself with great arrogance in relations with other states, creating a broad coalition of enemies who were most anxious to aid Yan should it move against Qi. /+/

“It took many years, but in 284 B.C., long after the death of King Xuan of Qi, King Zhao sent the armies of Yan along with allies from almost all the major states south to invade Qi. He was rewarded for his patient devotion to his cause. The troops of Qi were routed and the new king of Qi, King Min, fled south into the small outpost garrison of Ju, where he was soon assassinated. Meanwhile, Yan sacked Linzi, the capital of Qi, burning the palaces and temple shrines and shipping the treasures of the city north to Yan. /+/

“Qi was divided into military districts and administered by Yan until 279 B.C. In that year at last, the Qi heir returned to the capital behind a vanguard of troops which had been maintained in exile, and in the space of a few days, the armies of Yan were driven out and the entire kingdom of Qi restored. But Qi’s power was permanently broken. From that time on, its diplomatic policies were entirely devoted to appeasement. It was no longer a great power, and the vacuum of power in the east that was thus created played a major role in allowing Qin to achieve its ultimate victor.

End of the Warring States Period and Beginning of the Qin Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “The final years of the Warring States period are a whirlwind of bloody battles and sieges, alliances and betrayals. First Chu, benefiting from the crippling of Qi, began to expand, controlling almost all of southern China. But Qin responded with a swift campaign, seized the capital of Ying for good, and threw the center of gravity of the Chu state eastwards, where it was less able to join with other states. Then, with no one strong opponent, the generals and ministers of Qin coordinated a policy of encouraging its enemies to fight one another, with Qin collecting the spoils after the combatants were too weary to protest. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Qin’s conquest was gradual, but relentless. Once the brilliant and ruthless Li Si was firmly established as minister under King Zheng, who was now soon to become the First Emperor, the pace quickened. In 230 B.C., the major states began to fall: first Han, then Zhao (228 B.C.), Yan (226 B.C.), Wei (225 B.C.), Chu (223 B.C.), and finally the once mighty state of Qi. /+/

“The period of political fragmentation and civil war was over at last. The grip of the new government over its conquered territories seemed absolute, and its willingness to employ the most extreme forms of political terror against its own populace appeared to allow no room for rebellion. Who could have guessed that wars even more destructive than those of the past century would erupt again only twelve years later and that these would within three more years sweep the Qin Empire entirely away? /+/

Despite the fact that the rule of Qin lasted only a short season in China, and the fact that the fear with which Qin was regarded by the other states of Classical China was matched by the disdain that later historians would express for the brief period of Qin’s autocratic control of all China, the Qin conquest was, in essence, a revolutionary movement, that brought an end not only to political disarray, but to social, political, economic, and intellectual systems that were characteristic of the Classical era. The Qin government was able to effect such dramatic transformations only because throughout the Warring States period, the competing states and cultures of late Zhou China were, without much awareness of the fact, actually undergoing deep social transitions. In this sense, the revolutionary dimensions of the Qin conquest should be seen more as a culmination of a long process, rather than the sudden initiation of change. As we explore the society of Warring States China through further readings, we will observe the accelerating changes that led to the birth of the Imperial state under the Qin and its survival after the Qin collapse. /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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