San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Warring States Period of Ancient China
480 BCE to 221 BCE

The period of the Warring States (Zhanguo or Chan-Kuo) refers to the era of about 475 BCE to 221 BCE. It commenced at a time of when the numerous petty city-state kingdoms of the Spring and Autumn period had been consolidated into seven major contenders and a few minor enclaves. The above map shows a delineation of the states. The exact description of the states is subject to some uncertainty and the above map is based upon the map of the Warring States given in China: Empire and Civilization edited by Edward L. Shaughnessy and published by Oxford University Press in 2000 on page 27.

There was a larger state of Jin which broke up into the states of Han, Wu and Zhao. There also was to the south the state of Chu and to the east the states of Qi and Yan. These states, Han, Wu, Zhao, Chu, Qi and Yan, were thought to be the six major contenders for domination. As it turned out it was the state of Qin in the west that emerged victorious. Qin was not only not initially considered one of the contenders, it was not even considered fully Chinese. It had barbarian roots. But that is a subject for later.

Advances in military technology gave superiority to larger states with the resources to take advantage of the newer technology. Part of this technology was the casting of individual weapons which allowed the arming of foot soldiers. In previous eras the fighting was done by aristocrats in chariots. Chariots were not produced on a mass production basis so participation in the battles was limited to a small proportion of the population, the ruling elite of the city-states. But with the development of the casting of individual weapons there was a marked advantage to states with the economic resources to produce the weapons and the population to provide large armies to use these weapons.

This military technology made the consolidation of smaller states into larger states an inevitability.

The Warring States period is usually interpreted as a time of endless brutal wars that came as a result of friction among the seven states and that this unfortunate state of affairs could end only with one state bringing all into one empire. This interpretation is probably propaganda for the "One China" policy. First of all the Warring States period was not so bleak. It was a time of great intellectual ferment. The Confucian philosophers Mencius and Hsun-tzu taught and wrote during the period. Administrative systems were developed for territorial states to replace the methods that worked only for relatively small city states. The wars that occurred were not generally ones due to diplomatic or territorial frictions among the seven states but instead were wars stemming from one state attempting to conquer and control all of the states. In other words, the formation of the empire came not as a result of anarchy but as a result of greed and drive for power. The wasteful and bloody conquest of the separate states was justified as an unfortunate necessity to end the era of anarchy, but the wars were primarily those of empire-building.

The kingdom of Qin of the northwest finally conquered the southeastern kingdom of Chu in 223 BCE. The last opponents were conquered two years later in 221 BCE, thus creating the Empire of Qin (China). This dynasty did not last long. After the death of Shihuangdi (First August Emperor) in 210 BCE his successor held the Qin Empire together for only a few years. Shihuang-di was searching for an elixir that would give him immortality. Some of the elixirs he tried may have shortened his life. For more on the rise and fall of the Qin Empire see Rise and Fall.

Qin Shihuang
The First Emperor

The ruling family of Han then took control of the former Qin Empire which became the Han Empire. The Han adopted from the Qin Empire the idea of professional bureaucrats running the empire, but instead of the legalists the Han bureaucrats were scholars chosen by competitive examinations. The Han Empire roughly matched the period of the Roman Empire in West.

For more on the history of China see China.

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins