After a couple of weeks of cultural interlude I’m returning to the history of China. Today we’re going to look at one of the country’s axial periods of its development, one which has significantly contributed to not only what China looks like today, but also how and what it thinks.
The Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC) was an unparalleled era of blood and death, but it was also responsible for the origins of some of the foundational concepts of Chinese culture, philosophy, and diplomacy. As we will see more in one of the forthcoming Tuesday posts, when we look at China’s advances in Artificial Intelligence, it is a period with great relevance today.
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The period from the 8th to the 3rd century BC is foundational to modern human society. Termed the “axial age” by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, it was when population growth and technological change turned an archaic world of divine rulers and human sacrifice into a more enlightened era that valued social justice, family values and the rule of law. Although the term has its critics, it is absolutely certain that that the China of the early Zhou Dynasty (in the first few centuries of the first millennium BC) was very different to the China of 221 BC, when the land was first unified under a central Emperor.
The crucible of this change was what is called the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC). In the West we are used to thinking of this time as being relatively bloody – think the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, or the conquests of Alexander the Great.
It was also a time full to the brim with cultural achievements. The later axial age in the Mediterranean (from about 500-200 BC) was when Herodotus became the father of history, and Eratosthenes the father of geography; it was when Euclid and Archimedes held mathematical and inventive sway; and it was when the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle changed Western consciousness forever.
What is clear is that the same level of progress was sweeping through China at exactly the same time.
Much of this Far Eastern change was brought about by the conflict and chaos that erupted in the centuries after 771 BC, when the Zhou Dynasty were defeated in battle by rebel generals and their “barbarian” allies. Although they weren’t obliged to vacate the throne, the prestige and power of the Zhou was dealt a mortal blow, even if it took a further five hundred years for the body to actually die.
As the influence of the Zhao Dynasty waned, the unity of the country began to fragment. The first three hundred or so years of this decline is called the Spring and Autumn Period*, a time that saw the various dukes and marquesses who controlled the land spin off their territory into personal fiefdoms; such was the breakup that there were eventually 148 separate, sovereign entities. These states (or statelets, in the majority of cases) were soon absorbed by more aggressive neighbours in a constant cycle of war and diplomacy, until not many were left.
Amidst all this chaos, literature and thought blossomed. It was a time of the Hundred Schools of Thought, a great intellectual expansion that saw the rise of legions of itinerant scholars. These wondering men were often employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy. Many of them appeared to be seeking an answer as to how the world had come to so sorry a state, and what the rulers could do to turn the clock back to more peaceful times.
The impact of this golden age of Chinese philosophy is immense. Taoism, Legalism, and the concept of yin and yang all appeared at this time, and all continue to influence the world today. But the thinker with the longest legacy was Confucius, probably the most internationally influential Chinese person until Chairman Mao. The old master will have his own historical post here soon.
In 475 BC the Spring and Autumn turned into the winter of the Warring States. By now the 148 had collapsed into seven major states, all with their own cultural characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Chu was an imposing presence in the south, and considered a bit “foreign” by the others as many of its people were not ethnically Han. The smaller states of Wei and Han lay in the centre, always ready to act as prey for the stronger states around them. The powerful Qi lay to the east, and Yan and Zhao were to the north. Finally, the hick and barbarous Qin were off to the West.
What followed was two hundred and fifty years of neo-Darwinian hell. The kings and dukes of these seven remaining states fought a grinding game of one-upmanship through war and complex diplomacy, all with one solitary aim: to become the regional ba, or hegemon.
Ironically it was this never-ending conflict that helped to sow the seeds of China’s later unification and strength. The historian and archaeologist Ian Morris has made the paradoxical argument that it is war that has been one of, if not the, major drivers of civilisation. The axial age in China supports this theory.
In the furnace of competition, regional warlords competed to build stronger and more efficient armies, but to do this they needed more productive land to support larger populations and to collect more taxes. This in turn needed more bureaucracy, which spurred a greater focus on education to train the bureaucrats. The use of coinage stimulated the growth of commerce, and astonishing public works such as dams, irrigation projects, and canals were carried out.
It was also a time of great military innovation. Horses large enough to ride arrived in about 400 BC, leading to the birth of mobile cavalry units that supplanted the more unwieldy chariots introduced all those years ago by the Shang. Iron reached China by 800 BC, and it wasn’t long after that the crossbow was invented: a perfect weapon for large armies with limited training.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in warfare was the scale of the armies involved, which substantially grew over the period. Even though we have to treat ancient figures with care, the numbers of men fighting and dying was extraordinary.
At the Battle of Maling in 342 BC, fought between Qi and Wei, a possible 220,000 soldiers fought, and 100,000 died. By contrast the bloodiest battle fought by Alexander the Great, Gaugamela in 331 BC, saw around 100,000 troops in total, with casualties of perhaps 40-50,000.
Three or four generations later and the size of armies in China had grown even larger. At the 260 BC Battle of Changping, a million soldiers from Zhao and Qin took to the field; 700,000 of them were slaughtered. Even if the true toll was half of that, it would place this way above anything seen in the Western ancient world. The 216 BC Battle of Cannae – renowned, rightly or wrongly, for being the bloodiest day in European history before the First World War - saw casualties of just 70,000.
Battles weren’t just fought with swords. The Art of War by Sun Tzu was published at the dawn of the Warring States era, reflecting and inspiring the guile and trickery that came to dominate the battles.
At Maling for example, the Qi commander ordered his soldiers to make less cookfires day by day. On the first day, Qi fired up stoves for 100,000 men; on the second day, there were stoves for only 50,000. On the third day, there were only stoves for an army of 20,000. The Wei, thinking that the Qi soldiers were deserting, became overconfident and walked headlong into an ambush, losing the entire 100,000 strong army in the process. The Wei were so weakened by this defeat that they were unable to further compete in the race for ba.
Then, in 221 BC, it was all over. One of the warring states, the far western Qin, had transformed themselves from horse breeders and uncivilised hicks into the major force of the whole period. Adopting a new methodology of controlling the state based on the philosophy of Legalism (more on that another time), they hacked their way to total hegemony, and finally managed to unite the territory of China.
The Zhou and their squabbling warlords were no more. Now it was the time for the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. How he got there, and the brutal means used to achieve his eventual overlordship, is what we will look at in the coming weeks.
*The name comes from a book, the Spring and Autumn Annals, which was an official chronicle of the period from 722 BC to 481 BC. As noted by the historian John Keay, the “spring” part of the name was used to hide the shame of the collapsing Zhou; the “autumn” part referred to the shedding of the political foliage as the country truly fell apart.