Warring States Period 战国 476 - 221 BCE the end of the Zhou Dynasty
In the preceding Spring and Autumn Period division of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, China was a feudal society, where people 'belonged' to their lord. Small walled cities had emerged which were largely independent. By the time of the Warring States small town based fiefdoms (around 170) 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.
The period takes its name ‘Warring States’ from the historical work ‘Strategy of the Warring States ➚’ 战国策 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 孙武 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.
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.
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 二郎神 is reputedly his son]. It was during this period that the traditional bamboo writing brush came into use as well as chopsticks.
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.