Warring States period

Last updated
Warring States about early-4th century BC Streitende-Reiche2.jpg
Warring States about early-4th century BC
Warring States period
Warring States (Chinese characters).svg
"Warring States" in seal script (top), Traditional (middle), and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 戰國時代
Simplified Chinese 战国时代
Hanyu Pinyin Zhànguó Shídài
Literal meaning"Warring States era"
History of China.png
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BC
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BC
  Western Zhou
  Eastern Zhou
    Spring and Autumn
    Warring States
Qin 221–206 BC
Han 202 BC – 220 AD
  Western Han
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei , Shu and Wu
Jin 265–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
  (Wu Zhou 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao 916–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present

The Warring States period (Chinese : 戰國時代 ; pinyin :Zhànguó Shídài) was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period and concluded with the Qin wars of conquest that saw the annexation of all other contender states, which ultimately led to the Qin state's victory in 221 BC as the first unified Chinese empire, known as the Qin dynasty.

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han Dynasty, and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Pinyin Chinese romanization scheme for Mandarin

Hanyu Pinyin, often abbreviated to pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan. It is often used to teach Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin without tone marks is used to spell Chinese names and words in languages written with the Latin alphabet, and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.

Spring and Autumn period period of ancient Chinese history

The Spring and Autumn period was a period in Chinese history from approximately 771 to 476 BC which corresponds roughly to the first half of the Eastern Zhou period. The period's name derives from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BC, which tradition associates with Confucius.


Although different scholars point toward different dates ranging from 481 BC to 403 BC as the true beginning of the Warring States, Sima Qian's choice of 475 BC is the most often cited. The Warring States era also overlaps with the second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, though the Chinese sovereign, known as the king of Zhou, ruled merely as a figurehead and served as a backdrop against the machinations of the warring states.

Sima Qian Chinese historian and writer

Sima Qian was a Chinese historian of the early Han dynasty. He is considered the father of Chinese historiography for his Records of the Grand Historian, a general history of China in the Jizhuanti style (紀傳體) covering more than two thousand years beginning from the rise of the legendary Yellow Emperor and the formation of the first Chinese polity to the reigning sovereign of Sima Qian's time, Emperor Wu of Han. As the first universal history of the world as it was known to the ancient Chinese, the Records of the Grand Historian served as a model for official history-writing for subsequent Chinese dynasties and the Chinese cultural sphere up until the 20th century.

Chinese sovereign

The Chinese sovereign is the ruler of a particular period in ancient China, and later imperial China. Several titles and naming schemes have been used throughout history.

Figurehead person who holds de jure an important title or office, yet de facto executes little actual power

In politics, a figurehead is a person who de jure holds an important and often supremely powerful title or office, yet de facto exercises little to no actual power. This usually means that they are head of state, but not head of government. The metaphor derives from the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship.

The "Warring States Period" derives its name from the Record of the Warring States , a work compiled early in the Han dynasty.

Han dynasty 3rd-century BC to 3rd-century AD Chinese dynasty

The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period. Spanning over four centuries, the Han period is considered a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the "Han Chinese" and the Chinese script is referred to as "Han characters". It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han, and briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang. This interregnum separates the Han dynasty into two periods: the Western Han or Former Han and the Eastern Han or Later Han (25–220 AD).


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

Seven Warring States former country

The Seven Warring States or Seven Kingdoms refers to the seven leading states during the Warring States period of ancient China:

Qin (state) Chinese feudal state

Qin was an ancient Chinese state during the Zhou dynasty. Traditionally dated to 897 B.C., it took its origin in a reconquest of western lands previously lost to the Rong; its position at the western edge of Chinese civilization permitted expansion and development that was unavailable to its rivals in the North China Plain. Following extensive "Legalist" reform in the 3rd century BC, Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States and unified China in 221 BC under Qin Shi Huang. The empire it established was short-lived but greatly influential on later Chinese history.

Guanzhong, or Guanzhong Plain, is a historical region of China corresponding to the lower valley of the Wei River. It is called Guanzhong or 'within the passes', as opposed to 'Guandong' or 'east of the pass', i.e., the North China Plain. The North China Plain is bordered on the west by mountains. The Yellow River cuts through the mountains at the Hangu Pass or Tong Pass separating Guanzhong from Guandong.

Shanxi Province

Shanxi is a landlocked province in Northern China. The capital and largest city of the province is Taiyuan, while its next most populated prefecture-level cities are Changzhi and Datong. Its one-character abbreviation is "晋", after the state of Jin that existed here during the Spring and Autumn period.

Besides these seven major states other smaller states survived into the period. They include:


The eastward flight of the Zhou court in 771 BC marks the start of the Spring and Autumn period. No one single incident or starting point inaugurated the Warring States era. The political situation of the period represented 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 the beginning of the era. Proposed starting points include:

Background and formation

Map showing states at the beginning of Warring States period of Zhou Dynasty in Chinese history Early Warring States Period.png
Map showing states at the beginning of Warring States period of Zhou Dynasty in Chinese history

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty began to fall around 5th century BC. They had to rely on other armies in other allied states because their military rule no longer followed. Over 100 smaller states were made into seven major states which included: Chu, Han, Qin, Wei, Yan, Qi and Zhao. However, there eventually was a shift in alliances because each state's ruler wanted to be independent in power. This caused hundreds of wars between the periods of 535-286 BCE. The victorious state would have overall rule and control in China. [1]

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 a few states gaining power at the expense of many others, the latter no longer able to depend on central authority for legitimacy or protection. During the Warring States period, many rulers claimed the Mandate of Heaven to justify their conquest of other states and spread their influence. [2]

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 negotiations between Jin and Chu which established their respective spheres of influence. This situation ended with the partition of Jin, whereby the state was divided between the houses of Han, Zhao and Wei, and thus enabled the creation of the seven major warring states.

Partition of Jin (453–403 BC)

The rulers of Jin had steadily lost political powers since the middle of the 6th century BC 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.

The Battle of Jinyang saw the allied Han, Zhao and Wei destroy the Zhi family (453 BC) and their lands were distributed among 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. The Jin division created a political vacuum that enabled during the first 50 years expansion of Chu and Yue northward and Qi southward. Qin increased its control of the local tribes and began its expansion southwest to Sichuan.

Early Warring States

The three Jins recognized (403–364 BC)

Tomb Guardian of Chu Kingdom (300 BC) held at Birmingham Museum of Art Chinese tomb guardian 300 BC.jpg
Tomb Guardian of Chu Kingdom (300 BC) held at Birmingham Museum of Art

In 403 BC, the Zhou court under King Weilie officially recognized Zhao, Wei and Han as immediate vassals, thereby raising them to the same rank as the other warring states.

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 376 BC, the states of Han, Wei and Zhao deposed Duke Jing of Jin and divided the last remaining Jin territory between themselves, which marked the final end of the Jin state.

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.

Qi resurgence under Tian (379–340 BC)

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

Duke Kang of Qi died in 379 BC with no heir from the house of Jiang, which had ruled Qi since the state's founding. The throne instead passed to the future King Wei, from the house of Tian. The Tian had been very influential at court towards the end of Jiang rule, and now openly assumed power. [3]

The new ruler set about reclaiming territories that had been lost to other states. He launched a successful campaign against Zhao, Wey and Wei, once again extending Qi territory to the Great Wall. Sima Qian writes that the other states were so awestruck that nobody dared attack Qi for more than 20 years. The demonstrated military prowess also had a calming effect on Qi's own population, which experienced great domestic tranquility during Wei's reign. [4]

By the end of King Wei's reign, Qi had become the strongest of the states and proclaimed itself "king"; establishing independence from the Zhou dynasty (see below).

Wars of Wei

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

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

In 364 BC Wei was defeated by Qin at the Battle of Shimen and was only saved by the intervention of Zhao. Qin won another victory in 362 BC. In 361 BC the Wei 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.

Domestically, King Hui patronized philosophy and the arts, and is perhaps best remembered for hosting the Confucian philosopher Meng Zi at his court; their conversations form the first two chapters of the book which bears Meng Zi's name.

Dukes become kings

Chu Painting on silk depicting a man riding a dragon from Zidanku Tomb no. 1 in Changsha, Hunan Province (5th-3rd century BC). Changshadragon.jpg
Chu Painting on silk depicting a man riding a dragon from Zidanku Tomb no. 1 in Changsha, Hunan Province (5th-3rd century BC).

Qi and Wei become kings (344 BC)

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

In 344 BC the rulers of Qi and Wei mutually recognized each other as "kings": King Wei of Qi and King Hui of Wei, in effect declaring their independence from the Zhou court. This marked a major turning point: unlike those in the Spring and Autumn period, the new generation of rulers ascending the thrones in the Warring States period would not entertain even the pretence of being vassals of the Zhou dynasty, instead proclaiming themselves fully independent kingdoms.

Shang Yang reforms Qin (356–338 BC)

The Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, a set of bronze bianzhong percussion instruments from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Hubei province (433 BC). Bianzhong.jpg
The Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, a set of bronze bianzhong percussion instruments from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Hubei province (433 BC).

During the early Warring States period Qin generally avoided conflicts with the other states. This changed during the reign of Duke Xiao, when prime minister Shang Yang made centralizing and authoritarian reforms in accordance with his Legalist philosophy between the years 356 and 338 BC.

Shang introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved subjects as rewards for those who met government policies. As manpower was short in Qin relative to the other states at the time, Shang enacted policies to increase its manpower. As Qin peasants were recruited into the military, he encouraged active immigration of peasants from other states into Qin as a replacement workforce; this policy simultaneously increased the manpower of Qin and weakened the manpower of Qin's rivals.

Shang made laws forcing citizens to marry at a young age and passed tax laws to encourage raising multiple children. He also enacted policies to free convicts who worked in opening wastelands for agriculture. Shang abolished primogeniture and created a double tax on households that had more than one son living in the household, to break up large clans into nuclear families. Shang also moved the capital to reduce the influence of nobles on the administration.

The rise of Qin was recognized by the royal court, and in 343 BC the king conferred the title of hegemon on Duke Xiao. As was customary for the designated hegemon, the duke hosted a conference of all the feudal lords, although it did not lead to any lasting peace. [3]

After the reforms Qin became much more aggressive. In 340 Qin took land from Wèi after it had been defeated by Qi. In 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.

Qin defeats Wei (341–340 BC)

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), 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. After the battle all three of the Jin successor states appeared before King Xuan of Qi, pledging their loyalty. [5]

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.

Wei came to rely on Qi for protection, with King Hui of Wei meeting King Xuan of Qi on two occasions. After Hui's death, his successor King Xiang also established a good relationship with his Qi counterpart, with both promising to recognize the other as "king". [4]

Chu conquers Yue (334 BC)

A Warring States bronze ding vessel with gold and silver inlay Warring States bronze ding with gold and silver inlay.JPG
A Warring States bronze ding vessel with gold and silver inlay
A lacquerware painting from the Jingmen Tomb (Chinese:
Jing Men Chu Mu ;; pinyin: Jingmen chu mu) of the State of Chu (704-223 BC), depicting men wearing precursors to Hanfu (i.e. traditional silk dress) and riding in a two-horsed chariot Lacquer painting from Ch'u State.jpg
A lacquerware painting from the Jingmen Tomb (Chinese :荊門楚墓;; pinyin :Jīngmén chǔ mù) of the State of Chu (704–223 BC), depicting men wearing precursors to Hanfu (i.e. traditional silk dress) and riding in a two-horsed chariot

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.

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.

Qin, Han and Yan become kings (325–323 BC)

King Xian of Zhou had attempted to use what little royal prerogrative he had left by appointing the dukes Xian (384-362 BC), Xiao (361-338 BC) and Hui (338-311 BC) of Qin as hegemons, thereby in theory making Qin the chief ally of the court. [6]

However, in 325 the confidence of Duke Hui grew so great that he proclaimed himself "king" of Qin; adopting the same title as the king of Zhou and thereby effectively proclaiming independence from the Zhou dynasty. [6] King Hui of Qin was guided by his prime minister Zhang Yi, a prominent representative of the School of Diplomacy. [7]

He was followed in 323 BC by King Xuanhui of Han and King Yi of Yan, as well as King Cuo of the minor state Zhongshan. [3] In 318 BC, even the ruler of Song, a relatively minor state, declared himself king. Uniquely, while King Wuling of Zhao had joined the other kings in declaring himself king, he retracted this order in 318 BC, after Zhao suffered a great defeat at the hands of Qin.

Partition of Zhou (314 BC)

King Kao of Zhou had enfeoffed his younger brother as Duke Huan of Henan. Three generations later, this cadet branch of the royal house began calling themselves "Dukes of East Zhou". [6]

Upon the ascension of King Nan in 314 BC, East Zhou became an independent state. The king came to reside in what became known as West Zhou. [6]

Horizontal and vertical alliances (334–249 BC)

Rectangular lacquered shield from the Warring States Period. Found in Baoshan Tomb 2, Jingmen. Chang Fang Dun .jpg
Rectangular lacquered shield from the Warring States Period. Found in Baoshan Tomb 2, Jingmen.
An iron sword and two bronze swords dated to the Warring States period Iron sword and two bronze swords, Warring States Period.JPG
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 with 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.

Su Qin and the first vertical alliance (334–300 BC)

Beginning in 334 BC, the diplomat Su Qin spent years visiting the courts of Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Qi and Chu and persuaded them to form a united front against Qin. In 318 BC all states except Qi launched a joint attack on Qin, which however was not successful. [3]

King Hui of Qin died in 311 BC, followed by prime minister Zhang Yi one year later. The new monarch, King Wu, reigned only four years before dying without legitimate heirs. Some damaging turbulence ensued throughout 307 BC before a son of King Hui by a concubine (i.e. a younger half-brother of King Wu) could be established as King Zhao, who in stark contrast to his predecessor went on to rule for an unprecedented 53 years.

After the failure of the first vertical alliance, Su Qin eventually came to live in Qi, where he was favored by King Xuan and drew the envy of the ministers. An assassination attempt in 300 BC left Su mortally wounded but not dead. Sensing death approaching, he advised the newly crowned King Min have him publicly executed to draw out the assassins. King Min complied with Su's request and killed him, putting an end to the first generation of Vertical alliance thinkers. [8]

The first horizontal alliance (300–287 BC)

A bronze statue of a seated man, from the State of Yue, Warring States period Yue statue.jpg
A bronze statue of a seated man, from the State of Yue, Warring States period

King Min of Qi came to be highly influenced by Lord Mengchang, a grandson of the former King Wei of Qi. Lord Mengchang 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. The alliance between Qin and Qi was sealed by a Qin princess marrying King Min. [4] This "horizontal" or east-west alliance might have secured peace except that it excluded the State of Zhao.

Around 299 BC, the ruler of Zhao became the last of the seven major states to proclaim himself "king".

In 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 Mengchang, Qi was the major power in China.

In 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 King Zhao of Qin and King Min of Qi took the title "Di", (帝 literally emperor), of the west and east respectively. They swore a covenant and started planning an attack on Zhao.

Su Dai and the second vertical alliance

In 287 BC Su Dai, the younger brother of Su Qin [8] and 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.

The second horizontal alliance

In 285 BC the success of Qi had frightened the other states. 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 while the territory of Qi was reduced to the two cities of Ju and Jimo. King Min himself was later captured and executed by his own followers.

King Min was succeeded by King Xiang in 283 BC. His general Tian Dan was eventually able to restore much of Qi's territory, but it never regained the influence it had under King Min.

Qin-Zhao war (278–260 BC)

Seven Warring States late in the period
Qin has expanded southwest, Chu north and Zhao northwest EN-WarringStatesAll260BCE.jpg
Seven Warring States late in the period
Qin has expanded southwest, Chu north and Zhao northwest

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 was to shift Chu significantly to the east.

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 north-eastern border state of Zhongshan. In 304 he pushed far to the north-west 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 269 BC Fan Sui became chief advisor to Qin. 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.[ citation needed ]

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 north-east 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 in 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.

End of Zhou dynasty (256–249 BC)

The forces of King Zhao of Qin defeated King Nan of Zhou and conquered West Zhou in 256 BC, claiming the Nine Cauldrons and thereby symbolically becoming The Son of Heaven.

King Zhao's exceptionally long reign ended in 251 BC. His son King Xiaowen, already an old man, died just three days after his coronation and was succeeded by his son King Zhuangxiang of Qin. The new Qin king proceeded to conquer East Zhou, seven years after the fall of West Zhou. Thus the 800-year Zhou dynasty, nominally China's longest-ruling regime, finally came to an end. [6]

Sima Qian contradicts himself regarding the ultimate fate of the East Zhou court. Chapter 4 (The Annals of Zhou) concludes with the sentence "thus the sacrifices of Zhou ended", but in the following chapter 5 (The Annals of Qin) we learn that "Qin did not prohibit their sacrifices; the Lord of Zhou was allotted a patch of land in Yangren where he could continue his ancestral sacrifices".

Qin unites China (247–221 BC)

Animated map of the Warring States period De stridande staterna animering.gif
Animated map of the Warring States period
Unification of Qin from 230 BC to 211 BC Qin Unification.png
Unification of Qin from 230 BC to 211 BC

King Zhuangxiang of Qin ruled for only three years. He was succeeded by his son Zheng, who unlike the two elderly kings that preceded him was only 13 years old at his coronation. As an adult Zheng would turn out to be a brilliant commander who, in the span of just nine years, unified China. [7]

Conquest of Han

In 230 BC, Qin conquered Han. [10] 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.

Conquest of Wei

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 capital and surrendered it to the Qin army in order to avoid further bloodshed of his people.

Conquest of Chu

A drinking cup carved from crystal, unearthed at Banshan, Hangzhou, Warring States period, Hangzhou Museum. Crystal Cup(Warring States Period) in Hangzhou Museum.JPG
A drinking cup carved from crystal, unearthed at Banshan, Hangzhou, Warring States period, Hangzhou Museum.

In 223 BC, Qin conquered Chu. The first invasion was however an utter disaster when 200,000 Qin troops, led by the 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.

In 222 BC, Wang Jian was recalled to lead a second military invasion with 600,000 men against the Chu state. 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, 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. [11]

Conquest of Zhao and Yan

In 222 BC, Qin conquered Zhao and Yan. After the conquest of Zhao, the Qin army turned its attention towards Yan. Realizing the danger and gravity of this situation, Crown Prince Dan of Yan had sent Jing Ke to assassinate King Zheng of Qin, 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.

Conquest of Qi

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. The last Qi king lived out his days in exile in Gong and was not given a posthumous name after death, therefore he is known to posterity by his personal name Jian.

The Qin king Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi, “The first Sovereign Emperor of Qin". [10]

In the rule of the Qin state, the union was based solely on military power. The feudal holdings were abolished, and noble families were forced to live in the capital of China, Xianyang, in order to be supervised. A national road as well as greater use of canals was used in order for deployment and supply of the army to be done with ease and speed. The peasants were given a wider range of rights in regards of land, although they were subject to taxation, creating a large amount of revenue to the state. [10]

Military theory and practice

Iron sword of the Period of Warring States. Warring States Iron Sword.jpg
Iron sword of the Period of Warring States.
A Chinese soldier's bronze helmet, from the State of Yan, dated to the Zhou Dynasty. W Zhou Yan helmet.JPG
A Chinese soldier's bronze helmet, from the State of Yan, dated to the Zhou Dynasty.
Model of a Warring States period traction trebuchet. Warring States Traction Trebuchet Model.jpg
Model of a Warring States period traction trebuchet.

Increasing scale of warfare

The chariot remained a major factor in Chinese warfare long after it went out of fashion in the Middle East. Near the beginning of the Warring States period there is a shift from chariots to massed infantry, possibly associated with the invention of the crossbow. This had two major effects. First it led the dukes to weaken their chariot-riding nobility so they could get direct access to the peasantry who could be drafted as infantry. This change was associated with the shift from aristocratic to bureaucratic government. Second, it led to a massive increase in the scale of warfare. When the Zhou overthrew the Shang at the Battle of Muye they used 45,000 troops and 300 chariots. For the Warring States period the following figures for the military strengths of various states are reported:

For major battles, the following figures are reported:

Many scholars think these numbers are exaggerated (records are inadequate, they are much larger than those from similar societies, soldiers were paid by the number of enemies they killed and the Han dynasty had an interest in exaggerating the bloodiness of the age before China was unified). Regardless of exaggeration, it seems clear that warfare had become excessive during this period. The bloodshed and misery of the Warring States period goes a long way in explaining China's traditional and current preference for a united throne. [12]

Military developments

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

Warfare in the Warring States period evolved considerably from the Spring and Autumn period, as most armies made use of infantry and cavalry in battles, and the use of chariots became less widespread. The use of massed infantry made warfare bloodier and reduced the importance of the aristocracy, which in turn made the kings more despotic. From this period onward, as the various states competed with each other by mobilizing their armies to war, nobles in China belonged to the literate class, rather than to the warrior class as had previously been the case.

The various states fielded massive armies of infantry, cavalry, and chariots. Complex logistical systems maintained by efficient government bureaucracies were needed to supply, train, and control such large forces. The size of the armies ranged from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand men. [13] Iron weapons 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 during the military reforms of King Wuling of Zhao, who advocated 'nomadic dress and horse archery'. [14] But the war chariot still retained its prestige and importance, despite the tactical superiority of cavalry.

The crossbow was the preferred long-range weapon of this period, due to several 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 variety of weapons, but the most popular was the dagger-axe. The dagger-axe came in various lengths, from 9 to 18 feet; the weapon consisted of 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 18-foot-long pike-like weapons.

Military thought

The Warring States was a great period for military strategy; of the Seven Military Classics of China, four were written during this period:

Culture and society

A Chinese lacquerware drinking vessel (over wood), Warring States period, Honolulu Museum of Art Cup, Warring States period, lacquered wood, Honolulu Museum of Art.JPG
A Chinese lacquerware drinking vessel (over wood), Warring States period, Honolulu Museum of Art
A nephrite pendant in the shape of a man wearing silk robes, 5th-3rd centuries BC, Warring States period, Arthur M. Sackler Museum Pendant in the shape of a Human Figure, China, Warring States period, 5th-3rd century BC, nephrite - Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University - DSC00766.jpg
A nephrite pendant in the shape of a man wearing silk robes, 5th-3rd centuries BC, Warring States period, Arthur M. Sackler Museum

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

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

The many states that were competing between each other attempted to display their power not only militarily but in their courts and state philosophy. Many differing rulers adopted the differing philosophies in their own advantage or that of their kingdom.

Mencius attempted to instate Confucianism as a state philosophy through proposing that through the governing of moral principles like benevolence and righteousness, the state would win popular support from one state and those neighboring, eliminating the need of a war altogether. Mencius had attempted to convince King Hui of Liang, although was unsuccessful since the king saw no advantage in the period of wars. [16]

Mohism was developed by Mozi (468–376 BC) and it provided a unified moral and political philosophy based on impartiality and benevolence. [17] Mohists had the belief that people change depending on environments around. The same was applied to rulers, which is why one must be cautious of foreign influences. Mozi was very much against warfare, although he was a great tactician in defense. He defended the small state of Song from many attempts of the Chu state. [18]

Taoism was advocated by Laozi, and believed that human nature was good and can achieve perfection by returning to original state. It believed that like a baby, humans are simple and innocent although with development of civilizations it lost its innocence only to be replaced by fraud and greed. Contrarily to other schools, it did not want to gain influence in the offices of states and Laozi even refused to be in the minister of the state of Chu. [18]

Legalism created by Shang Yang in 338 BC, rejected all notions of religion and practices, and believed a nation should be governed by strict law. Not only were severe punishments applied, but they would be grouped with the families and made mutually responsible for criminal act. It proposed radical reforms, and established a society based on solid ranks. Peasants were encouraged to practice agriculture as occupation, and military performance was rewarded. Laws were also applied to all ranks with no exception; even the king was not above punishment. The philosophy was adapted by the Qin state and it created it into a well-organized, centralized state with a bureaucracy chosen on the basis of merit. [16] This period is most famous for the establishment of complex bureaucracies and centralized governments, as well as a clearly established legal system. The developments in political and military organization were the basis of the power of the Qin state, which conquered the other states and unified them under the Qin Empire in 221 BC.

Nobles, bureaucrats and reformers

The phenomenon of intensive warfare, based on mass formations of infantry rather than the traditional chariots, was one major trend which led to the creation of strong central bureaucracies in each of the major states. At the same time, the process of secondary feudalism which permeated the Spring and Autumn period, and led to such events as the partition of Jin and the usurpation of Qi by the Tian clan, was eventually reversed by the same process of bureaucratisation.

The reforms of Shang Yang in Qin, and of Wu Qi in Chu, both centred on increased centralisation, the suppression of the nobility, and a vastly increased scope of government based on Legalist ideals, which were necessary to mobilise the large armies of the period.[ citation needed ]

Sophisticated arithmetic

The Tsinghua Bamboo Slips, containing the world's earliest decimal multiplication table, dated 305 BC Qinghuajian, Suan Biao.jpg
The Tsinghua Bamboo Slips, containing the world's earliest decimal multiplication table, dated 305 BC

A bundle of 21 bamboo slips from the Tsinghua collection dated to 305  BC are the world's earliest example of a two digit decimal multiplication table, indicating that sophisticated commercial arithmetic was already established during this period. [19]

Rod numerals were used to represent both negative and positive integers, and rational numbers, a true positional number system, with a blank for zero [20] dating back to the Warring States period.


An important literary achievement of the Warring States period is the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, which summarizes the preceding Spring and Autumn period. The less famous work Guoyu is thought to be by the same author.

Many sayings of Spring and Autumn philosophers, which had previously been circulated orally, were put into writing in the Warring States. These include the Analects and The Art of War.

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.[ citation needed ]

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.

See also

Related Research Articles

Zhao (state) one of the states in ancient Chinas Warring States period

Zhao was one of the seven major states during the Warring States period of ancient China. It was created from the three-way Partition of Jin, together with Han and Wei, in the 5th century BC. Zhao gained significant strength from the military reforms initiated during King Wuling's reign, but suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Qin at the Battle of Changping. Its territory included areas now in modern Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. It bordered the Xiongnu, the states of Qin, Wei and Yan. Its capital was Handan, in modern Hebei Province.

Yan (state) ancient Chinese state during Zhao dynasty

Yan was an ancient Chinese state during the Zhou dynasty. Its capital was Ji. During the Warring States period, the court was also moved to another capital at Xiadu at times.

Jin (Chinese state) state during the Zhou Dynasty in China

Jin, originally known as Tang (唐), was a major state during the middle part of the Zhou dynasty, based near the centre of what was then China, on the lands attributed to the legendary Xia dynasty: the southern part of modern Shanxi. Although it grew in power during the Spring and Autumn period, its aristocratic structure saw it break apart when the duke lost power to his nobles. In 453 BC, Jin was split into three successor states: Han, Zhao and Wei. The Partition of Jin marks the end of the Spring and Autumn Period and the beginning of the Warring States period.

Qi (state) ancient Chinese state during the Zhou dynasty of ancient China

Qi was a state of the Zhou dynasty-era in ancient China, variously reckoned as a march, duchy, and independent kingdom. Its capital was Yingqiu, located within present-day Linzi in Shandong.

Chu (state) Ancient chinese state

Chu was a hegemonic, Zhou dynasty era state. From King Wu of Chu in the early 8th century BCE, the rulers of Chu declared themselves kings on an equal footing with the Zhou kings. Though initially inconsequential, removed to the south of the Zhou heartland and practising differing customs, Chu began a series of administrative reforms, becoming a successful expansionist state during the Spring and Autumn period. With its continued expansion Chu became a great Warring States period power, until it was overthrown by the Qin in 223 BCE.

The grand chancellor, also translated as counselor-in-chief, chancellor, chief councillor, chief minister, imperial chancellor, lieutenant chancellor and prime minister, was the highest-ranking executive official in the imperial Chinese government. The term was known by many different names throughout Chinese history, and the exact extent of the powers associated with the position fluctuated greatly, even during a particular dynasty.

Zhang Yi was born in the Wei state during the Warring States period of Chinese history. He was an important strategist in helping Qin to dissolve the unity of the other states, and hence pave the way for Qin to unify China. He was an advocate of horizontal alliance, unlike Su Qin; both were adherents of the School of Diplomacy.

King Zhaoxiang of Qin, or King Zhao of Qin (秦昭王), born Ying Ji (Chinese: 嬴稷, was the king of Qin from 306 BC to 251 BC. He was the son of King Huiwen and younger brother of King Wu.

Qins wars of unification Military campaigns launched 3rd century BC by Qin state against the other six major states

Qin's wars of unification were a series of military campaigns launched in the late 3rd century BC by the Qin state against the other six major Chinese states — Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Chu and Qi. During 247–221 BC, Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States.

Su Qin Chinese political strategist in the Warring States period

Su Qin, was an influential political strategist during the Warring States period of ancient China. He was born in Chengxuan Village, Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. According to legend Su Qin was a disciple of Guiguzi, the founder of the School of Diplomacy. He was the chief advocate of the Vertical Alliance system, which sought to create an alliance of the other states against the state of Qin. The opposing theory, "Horizontal Alliance" supported alliances with the State of Qin.

Duke Li of Jin was a ruler of the State of Jin, a major power during the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China. His ancestral name was Ji, given name Zhoupu (州蒲), though Shiji records his given name as Shouman (壽曼), and Duke Li was his posthumous title. Duke Li succeeded his father, Duke Jing of Jin, who abdicated after falling ill in summer 581 BC. Duke Jing died a month later.

Ancient Chinese states historical state within China prior to Chinas unification in 221 BCE

Ancient Chinese States were typified by variously sized city states and territories that existed in China prior to its unification by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE. In many cases these were vassal states characterized by tribute paid to the ruling Zhou dynasty. Such states and fiefdoms would again emerge during later dynasties as a political expedient when required.

King Xiang of Wei, personal name Wei Si, was king of Wei from 318 BC to 296 BC. He was the son of King Hui of Wei. In 318 BC, at the suggestion of the Wei minister, Gongsun Yan, he entered into an alliance against Qin created by King Huai of Chu which also included the states of Zhao, Han and Yan. Chu then betrayed this alliance.

<i>The Qin Empire II: Alliance</i>

The Qin Empire II: Alliance is a 2012 Chinese television series adapted from Sun Haohui's novel of the same Chinese title, which romanticises the events in China during the Warring States period primarily from the perspective of the Qin state during the reigns of King Huiwen and King Wu.

<i>The Qin Empire III</i>

The Qin Empire III is a 2017 Chinese television series based on Sun Haohui's novel of the same Chinese title, which romanticises the events in China during the Warring States period primarily from the perspective of the Qin state under King Zhaoxiang. It was first aired on CCTV-1 in mainland China in 2017. It was preceded by The Qin Empire (2009) and The Qin Empire II: Alliance (2012) and followed by The Qin Empire IV (2019), which were also based on Sun Haohui's novels.

Military of the Warring States

The military of the Warring States refers primarily to the military apparatuses of the Seven Warring States which fought from around 475 BC to 221 BC when the state of Qin conquered the other six states, forming China's first imperial dynasty, the Qin dynasty.



  1. Cartwright, M. (2017, July 12). Warring States Period. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Warring_States_Period/
  2. S. Cook, “San De” and Warring States Views on Heavenly Retribution. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37. (2010) pp. 101–123
  3. 1 2 3 4 Shi Ji, chapter 15
  4. 1 2 3 Shi Ji, chapter 46
  5. Shi Ji, chapter 16
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Shi Ji, chapter 4
  7. 1 2 Shi Ji, chapter 5
  8. 1 2 Shi Ji, chapter 69
  9. ”MDBG”, Sökord: 战国策
  10. 1 2 3 Cotterell (2010), pp. 90–91.
  11. Lewis (1999), pp. 626–629.
  12. Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China,1999,page 625
  13. Ebrey, Walthall & Palais (2006), p. ?[ page needed ]
  14. Ebrey, Walthall & Palais (2006), p. 29.
  15. Tzu & Griffith (1963), p. v.
  16. 1 2 Stephen G. Haw. “A traveller’s history of China. Interlink Books”. (Canada 2008) Library of Congress. pp. 64–71
  17. Fraser, Chris (1 January 2015). "Mohism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  18. 1 2 Lu & Ke (2012).
  19. Nature The 2,300-year-old matrix is the world's oldest decimal multiplication table
  20. Unicodes 1D360—1D37F : Counting Rod Numerals


Further reading