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Warring States period
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The Warring States Period (simplified Chinese: 战国时代traditional Chinese: 戰國時代pinyin: Zhànguó Shídài), also known as the Era of Warring States, covers the period from 475 BC to the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It is nominally considered to be the second part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, following the Spring and Autumn Period, although the Zhou Dynasty ended in 256 BC, 35 years earlier than the end of the Warring States period. During these periods, the Chinese sovereign (king of the Zhou Dynasty) was merely a figurehead.

The name Warring States Period was derived from the Record of the Warring States, a work historically compiled early in the Han Dynasty. The date for the beginning of the Warring States Period is disputed. While it is frequently cited as 475 BC (following the Spring and Autumn Period), 403 BC, the date of the tripartite Partition of Jin, is also considered as the beginning of the period.[citation needed]

The Warring States Period was an era when regional warlords annexed smaller states around them and consolidated their power. The process began in the Spring and Autumn Period and by the 3rd century BC, seven major states had emerged as the dominant powers in China. The states were: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin. Another indicator for the shift in power was the change in the title used by the rulers of the states. Those rulers were initially addressed as "Dukes" (公), a sign that they were vassals of the Chinese sovereign (King of the Zhou Dynasty), but they titled themselves "Kings" (王) later, putting them on par with the Chinese sovereign.

The Warring States Period saw 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. Different philosophies, known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, developed in this period. The most notable schools of thoughts include those of Mencius, Sun Tzu, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Han Feizi, Xun Zi and Mozi. Trade also became important and some merchants had considerable power in politics.[citation needed]

Warfare in the Warring States Period was also different from the Spring and Autumn Period, as most armies made use of infantry and cavalry in battles and the use of chariots became less popular. From this period onward, nobles in China remained in the literate class as opposed to the warrior class previously, as the various states competed with each other by mobilizing their armies to war.

This period is also notable because of the development 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.


Change of government in Qi

In 389 BC, the Tian (田) family seized control of the Qi state and were given the title of Duke. The old Jiang (姜) family's Qi state continued to exist with a small piece of territory until 379 BC, when it was finally absorbed into Tian family's Qi state.

Early strife in the Three Jins, Qi, and Qin

A jade-carved dragon garment ornament from the Warring States period.

In 371 BC, Marquess Wu of Wei died without specifying a successor, causing Wei to fall into an internal war of succession. After three years of civil war, Zhao and Han, sensing an opportunity, invaded Wei. On the verge of conquering Wei, the leaders of Zhao and Han fell into disagreement on what to do with Wei and both armies mysteriously retreated. As a result, King Hui of Wei (still a Marquess at the time) was able to ascend the throne of Wei.

In 354 BC, King Hui of Wei initiated a large scale attack at Zhao, which some historians believe was to avenge the earlier near destruction of Wei. By 353 BC, Zhao was losing the war badly, and one of their major cities—Handan (邯鄲/邯郸), a city that would eventually become Zhao's capital—was being besieged. As a result, the neighbouring Qi state decided to help Zhao. The strategy Qi used, suggested by the famous tactician Sun Bin (孫臏/孙膑), a descendant of Sun Tzu, who at the time was the Qi military advisor, was to attack Wei's territory while the main Wei army is busy sieging Zhao, forcing Wei to retreat. The strategy was a success; the Wei army hastily retreated, and encountered the Qi midway, culminating into the Battle of Guiling where Wei was decisively defeated. The event spawned the idiom "圍魏救趙/围魏救赵", meaning "Surrounding Wei to save Zhao", which is still used in modern Chinese to refer to attacking an enemy's vulnerable spots in order to relieve pressure being applied by that enemy upon an ally.

In 341 BC, Wei attacked Han, and Qi interfered again. The two generals from the previous Battle of Guiling met again, and due to the brilliant strategy of Sun Bin, Wei was again decisively defeated at the Battle of Maling.

The situation for Wei took an even worse turn when Qin, taking advantage of Wei's series of defeats by Qi, attacked Wei in 340 BC under the advice of famous Qin reformer Shang Yang. Wei was devastatingly defeated and was forced to cede a large portion of its territory to achieve a truce. This left their capital Anyi vulnerable, so Wei was also forced to move their capital to Daliang.

After these series of events, Wei became severely weakened, and the Qi and Qin states became the two dominant states in China.

Shang Yang's reforms in Qin

A jade-carved huang with two dragon heads, Warring States, Shanghai Museum.

Around 359 BC, Shang Yang, a minister of the Qin state, initiated a series of reforms based on the political doctrine of legalism that transformed Qin from a backward state into one that surpasses the other six states. It is generally regarded that this is the point where Qin started to become the most dominant state in China.

Ascension of the states

In 334 BC, the rulers of Wei and Qi agreed to recognize each other as Kings (王), formalizing the independence of the states and the powerlessness of the Zhou throne since the beginning of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The King of Wei and the King of Qi joined the ranks of the King of Chu, whose predecessors had been Kings since the Spring and Autumn Period. From this point on, all the other states eventually declare their Kingship, signifying the beginning of the end of the Zhou Dynasty.

In 325 BC, the ruler of Qin declared himself as King.

In 323 BC, the rulers of Han and Yan declared themselves as King.

In 318 BC, the ruler of Song, a relatively minor state, declared himself as King.

The ruler of Zhao held out until around 299 BC, and was the last to declare himself as King.

Chu expansion and defeats

A Warring States bronze ding vessel with gold and silver inlay

Early in the Warring States Period, Chu was one of the strongest states in China. The state rose to a new level of power around 389 BC when the King of Chu named the famous reformer Wu Qi to be his chancellor.

Chu rose to its peak in 334 BC, when it gained vast amounts of territory. The series of events leading up to this began when Yue state prepared to attack Qi. 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. This campaign expanded the Chu's borders to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.

Domination of Qin and the resulting Grand Strategies

An iron sword and two bronze swords dated to the Warring States Period

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: Hezong (合縱/合纵), or alliance with each other to repel Qin expansionism; and Lianheng (連橫/连横), or alliance with Qin to participate in its ascendancy. There were some initial successes in Hezong, though it eventually broke down. Qin repeatedly exploited the Lianheng strategy to defeat the states one by one. During this period, many philosophers and tacticians travelled around the states recommending the rulers to put their respective ideas into use. These "lobbyists" such as Su Qin, were famous for their tact and intellect, and were collectively known as the School of Diplomacy, which takes its name from the two main schools of thought.

In 316 BC, Qin conquered the Shu area.

In 312 BC, King Huai I of Chu attacked Qin due to a perceived abrogation of a treaty by Qin. Qin had taken more land than agreed to by Chu. Qin defeated Chu's attack at the Battle of Danyang.

Around 300 BC, Qi was almost totally annihilated by a coalition of five states led by Yue Yi of Yan (Qin were among those five). Although under the leadership of Tian Dan, Qi managed to recover their lost territories, it would never be a great power again. Yan was also too exhausted afterwards to be of much importance in national affairs after this campaign.

In 293 BC the Battle of Yique against Wei and Han resulted in victory for Qin. This effectively removed Wei and Han threat to further Qin aspirations.

In 278 BC, Qin attacked Chu and managed to capture their capital city, Ying, forcing the Chu king to move eastwards to Shouchun. This campaign virtually destroyed Chu's military might, although they recovered sufficiently to mount serious resistance against Qin 50 years later.

In 260 BC, the Battle of Changping was fought between Qin and Zhao, resulting in a catastrophic defeat for the latter. Although both sides were utterly exhausted after the titanic clash, Zhao, unlike Qin, could not recover after the event.

In about 50 years Qin superiority was secure, thanks to its powerful military and, in part, constant feuding between the other states.

Military developments

A bronze soldier's helmet from the Yan state

The Warring States Period saw the introduction of many innovations to the art of warfare in China, such as the use of iron and cavalry.

The various states fielded massive armies of infantry, cavalry and chariots. Complex logistical systems maintained by efficient government bureaucracy, was needed to supply, train, and control such large forces. The size of the armies ranged from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand men.[1]

Iron became more widespread and began to replace bronze. Most armour and weapons of this period were made from iron.

The first official native Chinese cavalry unit was formed in 307 BC by King Wuling of Zhao.[2] But the war chariot still retained its prestige and importance, despite the tactical superiority of cavalry.

Crossbow was the preferred long range weapon of this period due to many reasons. The crossbow could be mass-produced easily, and mass training of crossbowmen was possible. These qualities made it a powerful weapon against the enemy.

Infantrymen deployed a varieties of weapons, but the most popular was the dagger-axe. The dagger-axe came in various length from 9–18 ft, the weapon comprising a thrusting spear with a slashing blade appended to it. Dagger-axes were an extremely popular weapon in various kingdoms, especially for the Qin who produced eighteen-foot long pikes.

Military thought

The Warring States was a great period for military strategy. The military strategist Sun Tzu is said to have written the The Art of War which is recognized today as the most influential, and oldest known military strategy guide.[3] Along with this are other military writings that make up the Seven Military Classics of ancient China: Jiang Ziya's Six Secret Teachings, Sima Rangju's The Methods of the Sima, Sun Bin's Art of War, Wu Qi, Wei Liaozi, Three strategies of Huang Shigong and Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong (the last being made approximately 800 years after this era ended). Once China was unified, these seven military classics were locked away and access was restricted due to their tendency to promote revolution.

Zhao's military reforms

In 307 BC, King Wuling of Zhao adopted the "nomads attire with galloping marksmanship" (胡服騎射), superior horse-riding clothing, in particular the split trousers instead of robes, and the use of mounted bowmen to better facilitate superior light cavalry fighting tactics.[4]

Qin's conquest of China

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. This went on until Emperor Qin Shi Huang sent general Wang Jian to attack Zhao. King An of Han, frightened by the thought that Han would be the next target of the Qin state, immediately sent diplomats to surrender the entire kingdom without a fight, saving the Han populace from the potential terrible consequences of an unsuccessful resistance.

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 which was linked to the Yellow River. The river was then used to flood the city's walls, causing massive devastation to the city. Upon realizing the situation, King Jia of Wei hurriedly came out of the city and surrendered its city 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, led by the inexperienced Li Xin, were defeated by 500,000 Chu troops in the unfamiliar territory of Huaiyang, modern-day northern Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. Xiang Yan, the Chu commander, had lured Qin allowing a few initial victories but counterattacked and burnt two large Qin camps.

The following year, Wang Jian was recalled to lead 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 of Chu. However, Wang Jian decided to weaken Chu's resolve and tricked the Chu army by appearing to be idle in his fortifications whilst secretly training his troops to fight in Chu territory. After a year, the Chu defenders decided to disband due to apparent lack of action from the Qin. Wang Jian invaded at that point, with full force, and overran Huaiyang and the remaining Chu forces. Chu lost the initiative and could only sustain local guerrilla-style resistance until it too was fully conquered with the destruction of Shouchun and death of its last leader, Lord Changping of Chu, in 223 BC. During their peak sizes, both armies of Chu and Qin combined numbered over 1,000,000 troops, more than the massive battle of Changping between Qin and Zhao 35 years before.[5]

In 222 BC, Qin conquered Yan and Zhao. After the conquest of Zhao, the Qin army then turned its attention towards Yan. Realizing the danger and gravity of this situation, Crown Prince Dan of Yan had sent the assassin Jing Ke to kill the Qin king but this failure only helped to fuel the rage and determination of the Qin king and he increased the number of troops to conquer the Yan state.

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.


  1. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, James B. Palais. Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2006. ISBN 0618133860.
  2. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, James B. Palais. Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. page 29. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2006. ISBN 0618133860.
  3. ^ Sun Tzu. "The Art of War", Trans. Samuel B. Griffith. page v. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. ISBN 0195014766
  4. ^ Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, ed. The Cambridge History of Ancient China. page 624. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521470307
  5. ^ Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, ed. The Cambridge History of Ancient China. page 626-629. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521470307
  • Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, James B. Palais. Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2006. ISBN 0618133860.
  • Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, ed. The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521470307.
  • Li Xueqin. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations. Trans. K.C. Chang. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. ISBN 0300032862.

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