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Warring States Period 476 - 221 BCE the end of the Zhou Dynasty

Warring States Period

In the preceding Spring and Autumn Period division of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, China was a feudal society, where people 'belonged' to their lord. By the time of the Warring States small town based fiefdoms had merged to form seven large kingdoms: Qi; Chu; Yan; Han; Zhao; Wei and Qin. Although in theory all still acknowledged the Zhou Emperor as their supreme leader it had become an honorary title with no actual power.

All about the religions of China

All about the religions of China


Untangling the religions of China is quite a struggle for those unfamiliar with the country. There are three main belief systems Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism that have co-existed in relative harmony for over a thousand years. Islam, Christianity and Ancestor veneration are also described in our comprehensive treatment of the subject.

The period takes its name ‘Warring States’ from the historical work ‘Strategy of the Warring States which chronicles the incessant warfare between the kingdoms. This was in part fueled by the need for more aggressive measures to stave off attacks from neighboring barbarian tribes. Powerful clans arose in armed opposition to the local ‘king’. There are similarities with Ancient Greece when Athens; Sparta and other small kingdoms vied for dominance at roughly the same time. Appropriately this was the time that Sun Wu or Sun Tzu WG [544 - 496 BCE] wrote the influential 'Art of War ' . This classic covers such topics as strategy; espionage; maneuvers; using terrain; tactics and planning and has been widely referenced over the ensuing centuries. Phrases such as ‘If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win many battles without risk’ remain useful idioms even to this day. Sun Bin’s ‘Art of War’ (possibly a descendent) was also written in this period. It described the strategy for the nobility to fight each other in chariots, as well as the use of cavalry, infantry, archers (with crossbows) and other specialized fighting units. The building of larger armies had enabled the gradual conquest of smaller fiefdoms to form the seven large states by 300BCE.

Fujian , laozi, deity
Large statue of Laozi, founder of Daoism, Fujian
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng [san shi liu ji, zou wei shang ce]
thirty six sums walk pride up urge
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' were written by the great military thinker Sun Zi
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option
Devil take the hindmost
476BCE Spring and Autumn Period ended; 470BCE Mozi born
391BCE Mozi died
372BCE Mencius born; 369BCE Zhuangzi born
343BCE Qu Yuan born
313BCE Xunzi born
289BCE Mencius died; 286BCE Zhuangzi died; 278BCE Qu Yuan died
247BCE Emperor Gaozu born; 246BCE Emperor Qin Shihuangdi born; 241BCE Empress Lu Hou born; 238BCE Xunzi died; 229BCE Emperor Er Shi born; 221BCE Qin dynasty began; Emperor Qin Shihuangdi became ruler
Warring States key dates
Teacup media video for this topic by Laszlo Montgomery (audio only).
Laszlo podcast
The Eastern Zhou Dynasty

The early development of iron working began principally in the state of Qi, together with the mass production of salt. The iron plow; irrigation systems and the use of oxen greatly increased the productivity of land. Compared to Europe the ability to melt and cast iron by achieving very high temperatures came very early to China. Bronze coins came into circulation to supplement the older form of monetary unit which include the bolt of silk and cowrie shells. In literature the poet Qu Yuan (340-278BCE) of the Chu kingdom is the most famous for his collection ‘Elegies of Chu’. The ‘Classic of Poetry’ or ‘Book of Odes ’ is an anthology of poems from the 10th through to the 7th century BCE. The widely read and used ‘Book of Changes’ Yi Jing is also believed to have been authored at this time as a synthesis of earlier work.

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The Warring States Period is known as the time when all the major schools of philosophical thought developed : Mohism ; Confucianism; Legalism and Daoism. The 'Hundred Schools of Philosophers' (500-200BCE) and the Academy of the Gate of Qi or Jixia Academy flourished. A budding philosopher would advise the various state governments on the wisest way to rule and avoid conquest. Great thinkers such as Mencius Meng Tzu WG; Zhuang Zi Chuang Tzu WG; Xun Zi; Han Fei all built on the founding work started by their masters.

Just north of Xi'an the Qin kingdom built the Zheng Guo canal from the Jing river to the Luo river to provide irrigation that greatly improved agricultural yields. This scheme at the heart of Sichuan around Chengdu was started in 316BCE and continues in operation to this day. The canal engineer Li Bing built the Dujiangyan irrigation system on the Min river during this period. A carved statue of Li Bing proudly attests to this feat of engineering built over two thousand years ago. For many centuries the statue stood in the waters and the level of the river lapping up against the statue warned of flood or drought conditions. [A Daoist deity Erlang Shen is reputedly his son]. It was during this period that the traditional bamboo writing brush came into use as well as chopsticks.

Qu Yuan, Warring States, gateway, Hubei
Temple of poet and minister Qu Yuan at Yichang, Hubei Province.

In the end, it was the kingdom of Qin who became an organized military power with ambitions for conquest. As the westernmost kingdom it was the Qin who had the greatest need for an army, it had to defend itself from the raids of nomadic tribes to its West. Its actions were brutal, for example, a captured Zhao army of 400,000 were all slaughtered and the King of Chu was invited as a guest only to be imprisoned for the rest of his life. The Qin quickly engulfed the other six states to form the unified nation of China for the first time. The great historian Sima Qian described the conquest to be like a silkworm devouring a mulberry leaf.

Hundred Schools of Philosophy

Xunzi, Confucianism
Xún zǐ c. 312-230BCE was a Chinese Confucian philosopher who lived during the Warring States Period and contributed to one of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Available under a Creative Commons license .

Even though the Eastern Zhou dynasty was a period of conflict, it was also a golden age for Chinese thought. All the many contending Chinese schools of philosophy were developed and refined at this time which coincided with the intellectual flowering of ancient Greece. The common factor was that both civilizations had developed to the point of supporting substantial urban populations.

Mon 19th Feb

The year of the Pekingese dog

With many people still celebrating the Spring Festival and the start of the Year of the Dog, I came across a piece describing the decline of what was the most famous breed of dog in China. The Pekingese were Dowager Empress Cixi's favorite dog and she kept hundreds. They were bred to look like tiny lions rather than dogs and Cixi kept them as lap dogs. They were given marble kennels in the Forbidden City and rested on silk cushions. Imperial eunuchs looked after the dogs and they were given the choicest meat and rice. As part of the spoils of the sacking of the Summer Palace in the Opium Wars (1860) one Pekingese dog was sent back to Queen Victoria which she kept as a pet called 'Looty'.

In China the Pekingese breed is not now popular, people now prefer poodles and other breeds. The small, local population is now considered so inbred that Chinese are looking to bring back Pekingese from overseas to re-invigorate the breed.

Read full story...
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Each school of thought had its own scholars producing sets of writings. The schools took their teachings around the many fiefdoms at the time seeking support. Eloquent delivery and criticism of rivals (rhetoric) were just as important as philosophic content. Literate and scholarly courts encouraged competition among followers to secure their adoption. It is likely that many Machiavellian doctrines, advocated and put in place during this period have gone unrecorded. Although there were certainly several schools, a 'hundred' is quite an exaggeration.

Confucius was very much at the heart of this movement, traveling from one kingdom to another, he sought to persuade the ruler and his court that Confucian teachings would bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom. Mozi founded the Mohist school of universal love; pacifism and honoring the virtuous. Laozi and his followers developed Daoism. Han Fei pioneered the Legalist doctrine of rule by central diktat, and as such not really a philosophy at all. Legalism was taken up by the Qin kingdom to dramatic effect. Yang Zhu proclaimed self interest should be the guiding philosophy with indifference to all else. These examples show how the period was characterized by an amazing diversity of outlooks and perspectives.

The burning of the books during the Qin dynasty was intended to remove all traces of every school except the Legalists; and so only fragmentary records of the writings of the other schools have survived. Anyone who hid the forbidden writings faced the death penalty and paradoxically this led to some writings surviving because they were carefully concealed and protected but only the Confucian and Daoist philosophies survived the Qin period in a reasonably complete form.

The Hundred Schools period came back into popular knowledge when Chairman Mao instigated a similar movement with the phrase 争鸣let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” in late 1956. The policy was designed to promote the flourishing of literature, arts and sciences. However, Mao was met by a chorus of dissent and quickly discontinued the policy in July 1957. Those opposing his views faced prison where their wayward thoughts could be remolded by a re-education in the ways of the new Communist orthodoxy.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Warring States Period - the second half of the Eastern Zhou Chinese dynasty 476 - 221 BCE', last updated 7 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dynastywarstates.htm.

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