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Warring States Period

Duration: 403~221 BC

In 403 BC, China stepped into the second half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, known as the Warring States Period, as the former state of Jin was partitioned by its three leading aristocratic families (Han, Wei, and Zhao). The Warring States Period is characterized by highly frequent wars between regional warlords which did not end until the reunification of China under Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.

Constant wars during the preceding Spring and Autumn Period left the heartland of China in the hands of some twenty states, among which seven emerged as the dominant powers: Qin in the west, Qi in the east, Chu in the south, Yan and Zhao in the north, and Han and Wei in the centre. The demesne of Zhou (of the supposed “Chinese sovereign”) continued shrinking amid power struggles between the major powers, and was to be totally annexed by Qin in 256 BC.

Map, 262 BC, Warring States Period

Map of Warring States, 262 BC
By 262 BC, Qin (dark yellow in the west) has annexed the southwestern states of Ba and Shu, and a large part of Chu (its major rival, indicated in light brown), including Yingdu, its former capital. It kept expanding its terrority in the wars, and was to further annexed the other states.

Complex interstate relations, i.e. war and peace, alliance and conflict, alternated between the major powers. And diplomatic manipulations were constant as lobbyists and advisors pushed the rulers to forge alliances against the others from time to time. The state of Wei, a fragment of the former powerful Jin, was dominant during the beginning decades of the Warring States Period. However, its aggressions were survived by the other states. The main period of conflict was between c. 350 and c. 250 BC during which the states ruined each other in increasingly violent, cut-throat conflicts (sometimes involving over 400,000 casualties), leaving Qin as the strongest power. And Qin was to conquer all the other six states between 230 and 221 BC.
Battle of Changping, 262 BC, Warring States Period

Increasingly violent wars characterised the Warring States Period. In the Battle of Changping, 262~260 BC, between Qin and Zhao, around a million troops were involved. The victorious Qin commander Bai Qi ordered to bury the 400,000 Zhao prisoners of war alive. Greatly reduced, Zhao never recovered from the defeat. And unification of China by Qin became inevitable.


The Zhou kings had long been a mere figurehead since the Spring and Autumn period. And by the middle of the Warring Sates Period, their prestige was further undermined as the rulers of the vassal states updated their titles from the former gong 公 or hou 侯 (duke or marquis, as in Qi Huan Gong 齐桓公 and Wei Wen Hou 魏文侯) to wang 王 (meaning king), putting themselves on a par with the Zhou kings.

The Warring States Period was an important transition period in the course of Chinese history. It was an era of reforms. In most states, reform-minded ministers came into office: Li Li 李悝 in Wei, Wu Qi 吴起 in Chu, Zou Ji 邹忌 in Qi, Shang Yang 商鞅 in Qin, etc. The reforms launched by Shang Yang in Qin were the most thoroughgoing and successful, though Shang Yang was to be executed later because his reforms infringed upon the interests of the old feudal nobles. Complex bureaucracies and centralized governments with a clearly established legal system were developed in the states to sustain the excessive war efforts, replacing the former political system of granting much of the land to the nobles as fiefs. Population growth was encouraged, and military merits were awarded, making the Qin army the most ferocious of all forces.
Shang Yang, Warring States Period

The Warring States Period was an age of reforms. Shang Yang's reforms in the state of Qin was the most thoroughgoing and successful, greatly building up the strength of Qin.


As part of the Hundred Schools of Thought period, the Warring States Period saw further development in Chinese scholarship. Confucianism was inherited and further developed by such scholars as Mencius and Xunzi, Taoism by Zhuangzi, and Legalism by Han Fei Zi. Other schools of thought included the Yin-Yang School (represented by Zou Yan 邹衍), School of Diplomacy (Zong Heng Jia 纵横家, by such influential diplomats as Zhang Yi 张仪, Su Qin 苏秦, and Gongsun Yan 公孙衍), School of Logicians (Ming Jia 名家, by Gongsun Long 公孙龙), etc.


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