Warring States Period

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, or the Warring Kingdoms period, covers the Iron Age period from either 476 BC or 453 BC to the reunification of China under the qin dynasty in 221 BC. It is 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 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.


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, centred 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, centred 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.



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: 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.

Background and Formation

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 sphere's of influence; this situation would end partition of Jin, whereby the state was divided between the houses of Han, Zhao and Wei, created the situation of seven major warring states.

The Partition of Jin (453 and 403 BC)

Since the middle of the sixth 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 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.

In 453 BC, at the Battle of Jinyang, the Han, Zhao and Wei allied and destroyed the Zhi family, dividing its lands between them. With this, they became the de facto rulers of most of Jin's territory, though this situation would not be officially recognised until half a century later, by King Weilie of Zhou.

The three Jins: alliance and conflict (453-368 BC)

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 to Sichuan .

From before 405 until 383 the three Jins were united under the leadership of Wei and expanded in all directions. The most important figure was Marquess Wen of Wei (445-396). In 408-406 he conquered the State of Zhongshan to the northeast on the other side of Zhao. At the same time he pushed west across the Yellow River to the Luo River taking the area of Xihe (literally 'west of the [Yellow] river').

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. As usual, 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 (370-340)

King Hui of Wei (370-319) set about restoring the state. In 362-359 he exchanged territories with Han and Zhao in order to make the boundaries of the three states more rational. In 344 he assumed the title of king.

In 364 Wei was defeated by Qin at the Battle of Shimen and was only saved by the intervention of Zhao. Qin won another victory in 362. In 361 the capital was moved east to Daliang to be out of the reach of Qin.

In 354 BC, King Hui of Wei started a large-scale attack on Zhao. By 353 BC, Zhao was losing badly and its capital, Handan, was under siege. The State of Qi intervened. The famous Qi strategist, Sun Bin the great, great, great grandson of Sun Tzu (author of the Art of War), proposed 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. The generals from the Battle of Guiling met again (Sun Bin and Tian Ji versus Pang Juan), by using the same tactic, attacking Wei's capital. Sun Bin feigned a retreat and then turned on the overconfident Wei troops and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Maling.

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)

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.

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)

After Chu was defeated in 278, the remaining great powers were Qin in the west and Zhao in the north-center. There was little room for diplomatic maneuver and matters were decided by war in 265-260. Zhao had been much strengthened by King Wuling of Zhao (325-299). In 307 he enlarged his cavalry by copying the northern nomads. In 306 he took more land in the northern Shanxi plateau. In 305 he defeated the northeastern border state of Zhongshan. In 304 he pushed far to the northwest and occupied the east-west section of the Yellow River in the north of the Ordos Loop. King Huiwen of Zhao (298-266) chose able servants and expanded against the weakened Qi and Wei. In 296 his general Lian Po defeated two Qin armies.

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 exclave of Shangdang north of Luoyang and south of Zhao. The Han king agreed to surrender Shangdang, but the local governor refused and presented it to King Xiaocheng of Zhao. Zhao sent out Lian Po who based his armies at Changping and Qin sent out general Wang He. Lian Po was too wise to risk a decisive battle with the Qin army and remained inside his fortifications. Qin could not break through and the armies were locked in stalemate for three years.

The Zhao king decided that Lian Po was not aggressive enough and sent out Zhao Kuo who promised a decisive battle. At the same time Qin secretly replaced Wang He with the notoriously violent Bai Qi. When Zhao Kuo left his fortifications, Bai Qi used a Cannae maneuver, falling back in the center and surrounding the Zhao army from the sides. After being surrounded for 46 days, the starving Zhao troops surrendered (September, 260 BC). It is said that Bai Qi 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

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.

389: 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 King Dao of Chu (楚悼王) named the famous reformer Wu Qi as his chancellor.

334: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.

278: General Bai Qi of Qin attacked from Qin's new (from 316) territory in 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.

Royal titles

The title of "king" (wang, 王) was held by figurehead rulers of the zhou dynasty, while the rulers of most states held the title of "duke" (gong, 公) or "marquess" (hou, 侯). A major exception was Chu, whose rulers were called kings since King Wu of Chu started using the title circa 703 BC.

In 344 BC King Hui of Wei changed his title from Marquess to King. In 334 BC his victorious enemy, King Wei of Qi adopted the same title. In 325 the rulers of Qin and Han declared themselves kings, followed by those of Zhao, Yan, and Zhongshan in 323 BC. In 318 BC, the ruler of Song, a relatively minor state, declared himself king. The ruler of Zhao held out until around 299 BC, and was the last to take the royal title. In 288-287 the kings of Qin and Qi briefly called themselves "emperor" (di), before reverting to "king".

Horizontal and Vertical Alliances

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 (合縱/合纵) in which the states would ally with each other to repel Qin. The other advocated a 'horizontal' or east-west alliance called lianheng (連橫/连横) 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. During this period, many philosophers and tacticians travelled around the states, recommending that the rulers put their respective ideas into use. These "lobbyists," such as Su Qin (who advocated vertical alliances) and Zhang Yi (who advocated horizontal alliances), were famous for their tact and intellect, and were collectively known as the School of Diplomacy, whose Chinese name (縱橫家, literally 'the school of the vertical and horizontal') was derived from the two opposing ideas.

The rise of Qin

After the Zhou were driven out of the Wei River valley in 771 BC the house of Qin was given the task of restoring Zhou rule in the valley. This they did by slowly absorbing the local Rong tribes. The valley was bounded on the south by high mountains and on the north by dry country. Its great advantage was its location in the far west "within the passes" which tended to keep Qin out of needless wars with the other states.

We have little information about the early history of Qin during the spring and autumn period. Most of its interactions were with its powerful eastern neighbor, Jin. In 632 Duke Mu of Qin (660-621) helped Jin win the Battle of Chengpu against Chu. In 579 Qin, Jin, Chu and Qi held a peace conference and agreed to limit the size of their armies.

During the early Warring States Period Qin generally avoided conflicts with the other states. It began to become aggressive after the Shang Yang reforms of about 356 and then played a very active role in the final 180 years (300-221 BC).

Circa 408 Wei pushed Qin back to the Luo River occupying the Xihe area west of the Yellow River. 364: Qin defeated Wèi and Han at the battle of Shimen. Wei was saved by the intervention of Zhao. 356-338: Shang Yang made centralizing and authoritarian reforms. 340: Qin took land from Wèi after it had been defeated by Qi. 316: Qin conquered Shu and Ba in Sichuan to the southwest. Development of this area took a long time but slowly added greatly to Qin's wealth and power. 325: The Duke of Qin took the title of king. 312: Qin defeated an attack from Chu. 307: Qin was weakened by a disputed succession. 301:For the intervention of Qi see "period of Qi" above. 269: General Lian Po of Zhao decisively defeated two Qin armies.

After 269: Fan Sui became chief advisor. He advocated authoritarian reforms, irrevocable expansion and an alliance with distant states to attack nearby states (the twenty-third of the Thirty-Six Stratagems). His maxim "attack not only the territory, but also the people" enunciated a policy of mass slaughter that became increasingly frequent. 278: Qin's notoriously bloody general Bai Qi captured the Chu capital and pushed the Qin frontier east of Sichuan . 265: Qin started a war with Han, probably to open up the Yellow River corridor south of Shanxi . 260: Zhao aided Han but its power was broken by Bai Qi at the battle of Changping. Qin was now the strongest state in China.

Qin conquers the other states (230-221)

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 terrible potential 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 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, 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 general, 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 by allowing a few initial victories, but then 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 the death of its last leader, Lord Changping of Chu, 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, more than those involved in the campaign of Changping between Qin and Zhao 35 years earlier.

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.

Economic Developments

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. 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.

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