29: Warring States Era (403-221 BCE)

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The last two hundred years of the Chou dynasty was marked by such turmoil that it was called the ‘Warring States Era’. During this time period, the larger kingdoms began conquering the smaller ones. This was a marked contrast from the previous Spring and Autumn Era, when the Chou empire was splintering into many smaller states.

A Change in the Rules of War

This political change was due in part to a change in the rules of war. During the Spring and Autumn Era, the Chou states, while engaged in constant warfare, engaged in ‘polite’ warfare. During the next few centuries, warfare became ‘rude’, in the sense that it was serious. By the last few hundred years of the Chou, the Ch’in and other Chinese states had changed the Chou rules of war. During the middle Chou, as in Renaissance Europe, war had become more of a game for most of the Chou principalities. Small amounts of land would change hands, only to change again soon. Treaties were signed; negotiations were made; alliances were confirmed and broken. Yet the rulers, who belonged to same class and even similar families, fought politely according to their own rules of war.

“[Referring to the Chou after 771 BCE] The rulers of these kingdoms were small groups of hereditary lords and warriors whose lives were governed by tradition and the unchanging feudal code of conduct.”1

Etiquette of war: A Polite War

As examples: In 638 BCE, the Duke of Sung refused to attack an army that was crossing a river. In 594 BCE, during the siege of a city, the King of Ch'u found out from a negotiator that the citizens were eating their children. Impressed by their honesty, he lifted the siege and went home.2

We also see this same type of warrior code in Europe and India in different time periods. The warrior mentality seeks out war as a way of testing a man’s strength and courage, rather than as a way of acquiring plunder and territory. The desire to battle is primary. The acquisition of power and possessions are secondary. Battling was the real love of the warrior culture. Winning was secondary.3

Impolite War

From the fringes of the Middle Kingdom, the Ch’in State fought to win, to conquer, and to vanquish. They did not enter battle for the sake of battle itself, but instead entered battle to increase their power. They fought to expand their land holdings, which might entail enslaving and/or slaughtering their enemies. They conquered more and more land and executed the old guard, i.e. the incumbent aristocracy of the Chou dynasty. They wanted no threats to their leadership. With the passing of the old aristocracy, a culture of power replaced the warrior culture. It was during this time of transition in warfare that Sun Wu wrote his famous book, “The Art of War”, which is based upon Taoist principles.

Traditional states conquered by the warlike

This process is representative of a mechanism that is regularly in play throughout world history. The first generation is comprised of military conquerors. The subsequent generations tend to increasingly cultivate the civilized pleasures, such as the arts, food, and music. Then a ‘fresh’ military society from the perimeter would conquer this ‘softened’ culture.

In the case of China, the militarized Chou conquered the ‘softened’ Shang. During the Western Chou, Chinese culture intellectualized the warrior mentality. Battle was intended to exhibit valor, courage and honor, rather than to conquer neighbors. Chinese rulers began cultivating the delights of civilization rather than the battle skills of the warrior. In typical fashion, a ‘barbarian’ state on the fringes, one who was not involved in the peaceful culture, barged in with a new set of rules. Rather than exhibit some kind of rarefied feudal warrior code, battle was intended to vanquish the opponent. This ‘barbarian’ culture from the perimeter was the Ch’in state.

Causes of change: Nomads on horses

What caused the big change in style of warfare?

Mounted horseman of the nomads

There were two technologies that challenged traditional Chou culture – a new military technology and iron. The nomadic tribes on the northern and western borders of China had developed and mastered a new and superior martial technique. It was based upon an archer with a compound bow mounted on a horse. His horse could easily out-maneuver a chariot, and the arrows from his compound bow were powerful enough to pierce armor. The horses could also travel large distances quickly.

“Mounted on horseback and using the compound bow, the nomads were more than a match for the Chinese troops, who were finally forced to abandon the chariot and copy both the methods and the weapons of their attackers. The influence of the nomads on the Chinese did not end with warfare.” 4

Nomads on horseback force abandonment of chariot

Armies with mounted horsemen quickly made the chariot military technology obsolete. In many ways, the mounted horseman with his bow and arrow was the dominant military technology until relatively modern times. The knight on his charging horse and the cavalry are both manifestations of the horseback riding warrior of the Central Asian nomads. It took modern science to surpass this style of warfare.  In the early 19th century, Napoleon’s cannons demolished the elite Egyptian cavalry that had never been defeated. Then with the advent of motorized vehicles in the 20th century, the mounted warrior finally became obsolete after over 2000 years of military supremacy.

A millennium of Chariot military technology hard to break

The Chou princes of the Spring and Autumn Era had been employing chariot military technology for close to 1000 years to dominate their countryside and fight amongst each other. As an indication of its cultural significance, charioteering even became institutionalized as a necessary talent of the Chinese aristocracy. Over this long period of time, the forms of fighting had become ritualized. Then ‘barbarian’ nomadic tribes attacked the provinces in the west and north. In order to survive, these provinces had to adapt or perish.

Border provinces: Adapt or perish

Because they had not been challenged, the inner provinces of China could easily maintain their millennium long traditions. Recall that the Chou also came from the western borders, but then moved east. The internal provinces held onto the past, while the border provinces were forced to move into the future or be conquered. Their traditional mind-set was shattered.

In Western Chou, influence extends from the center, outwards

To understand the eventual consolidation of China under the First Emperor, let us explore the Chinese conception of boundary. The Chinese notion of boundary was not something set, but something that could be extended or contracted depending upon circumstances. For the Chinese of the Western Chou dynasty, China was the center of the universe and the ‘barbarians’ on the exterior were merely uncivilized parts of the Empire, which would eventually become assimilated through proper rites.

Mounted Nomads militarily superior

When the mounted horse technology of the nomads proved superior to their chariot technology, it was not only an embarrassment; it also challenged their worldview. The provinces in the interior could easily maintain their unchallenged illusions, while the boundary provinces had to learn the superior new military techniques from the ‘barbarians’ on their border in order to survive. They were then able to use this technology against their neighbors to conquer and dominate them.

Stalemate of Spring and Autumn Era

Prior to the advent of the warrior on horseback, a military parity had been reached between the proliferating states of the Spring and Autumn Era. While one might be stronger, alliances between the weaker states would neutralize the threat, leading to a virtual stalemate between the multitudes of states. This stalemate was maintained because everyone was using the same military technology and forming alliances with provinces from a similar cultural background.

Alliances not enough, anymore

The transmission of the superior military technology to the border-states gave them a technological advantage, which could not be simply neutralized through mutual alliances. If the internal Chinese provinces could have formed alliances with the nomadic border cultures, this might have neutralized the power of the border-states. However, the internal mindset of traditional Chinese culture placed these nomadic cultures in a sub-human status. Making alliances with these ‘barbaric sub-humans’ made as much sense to the ‘civilized’ Chinese as making bargains with a wolf pack. This cultural blindness was to continually plague Chinese policy-making throughout their history, even unto the 20th century.

Iron farm implements & Irrigation

In addition to the superior mounted horse technology, a new agricultural technology based around iron emerged. The durable iron tools allowed for a greater agricultural yield. Simultaneous with the iron tools were new irrigation techniques assisted by these hard iron tools. While this new agricultural technology was available to everyone, it needed intentionality to transform it into a military technology.

The interior states were happy just the way things were. They had enough food to wage their petty wars. They liked their chariots. Why change when the traditional ways had proven adequate since antiquity?

The new ways of iron making and irrigation needed large-scale centralization to work. Just as centralization was needed to control the flooding of the Yellow River in the past, now centralization was needed to take advantage of the new agricultural technology based upon iron.

“All these innovations could only be properly developed by large-scale social organization with unified central authority. The hereditary aristocrats with their vested interest in their small-scale feudal authority, their endless squabbling among themselves, and their concern for the fixed and unchanging feudal code of conduct and of ceremonial were neither willing nor able to make use of them. But in states such as Ch’in on the frontiers of this feudal world, where the old order was not so firmly established, the king was able to carry out sweeping social reforms and establish a unified central control. The new techniques in agriculture and water-control brought in greatly increased revenue, which could pay for a more powerful army. This in turn led to territorial conquests and more resources to exploit.”5

Iron farm tools and large scale irrigation

In such a manner, the border states were able to dominate the inner states through superior military techniques learned from the nomads of the steppes. After seizing territory, they were able to use the new agricultural techniques to irrigate large areas of land. During this period “a tributary of the Yellow River was harnessed to irrigate over half a million acres.”6

Innovations needed centralized authority

The unwillingness of the interior Chinese provinces to adapt to these new technologies led to their eventual demise. The frontier states, which were less rooted in tradition, were able to more easily exploit the new martial skills to dominate, swallow up their neighbors, and further expand their holdings. With this increased prosperity, they were able to expand their army and dominate more states. Their willingness to use the new technologies was the key to their success, just as the unwillingness to change led to the demise of the more ‘civilized’ states. This process led to the increasing centralization of China, which eventually culminated in the Ch’in Empire.

Alliances unsuccessful against centralization

While alliances were successful at neutralizing military threats during the Spring and Autumn Era, they were helpless against the advantages of centralization during China’s Iron Age. Indeed as China centralized, five states in the northeast allied themselves unsuccessfully ‘against the power of the semi-barbarian Ch’in, now looming dangerously on the western horizon’.7

Politics of metal

Political implications of mining

Iron technology transformed the military landscape by providing harder weapons from a more plentiful source. The search for sources of iron combined with the protection and mining of these sources reinforced the political landscape that had already been transformed by the aforementioned bronze military technology.

Let us reiterate some themes that were first introduced in our discussion on bronze. First, the search for vital ‘military’ metals has initiated global exploration and political expansion in order to control the supply and the mining of these metals. The expansion of the Ch’in state was somewhat connected to this mechanism.

Further the need for people to mine these ‘military’ metals influenced the entire societal structure. Few people actually volunteer to leave the security of their farms for a job in the dangerous career of mining. Hence the government had to recruit men from the lower rungs of society to mine the ore that was so important for their military security.

“Since ancient times mining has had a fundamental political impact on society. Wars have been fought to acquire minerals. The institution of slavery received much of its legitimacy from the need to use slaves in the onerous and often life-threatening work of mining. The exploration of Latin America and the opening of the American West were both accelerated by the presence of gold and silver in those new lands. Colonization of many areas of the world was in part due to the need of Europe to acquire the metals to feed the factories of the Industrial Revolution. Today, world politics and world trade are shaped in large measure by the locations of mineral and energy reserves.”8

The products of mining, iron in the case of the Ch’in, allowed the military aristocracy to remain on top of the political hierarchy. Further, the ability to mine was dependent upon a slave or serf class to do the work. In other words, the Metal Age military aristocracies needed ‘military’ metals to maintain their dominant position and the only way to acquire the metal was through forced labor projects. As such, the demand for metal restructured society in a hierarchical fashion. Those with the metal dominated society, while those that were required to mine it were the dominated class.

The Metal Age aristocracies were dependent upon both a subservient mining and agricultural class. Although subjugated, the lives of the agrarian population was the preferable in many ways. While the farmers were enslaved, at least they were above ground with their own land to work. Below ground and with little independence, the miners were just a step above slavery, if that.9 Indeed escaping conscription into the imperial army or workforce was a common folk theme.

Summarizing to reinforce retention, two new technologies upended the relative balance of the Spring and Autumn Era – the mounted horseman and iron. The nomadic cultures of the Central Asian Steppes employed the horseman with the compound bow to raid and invade the western states on the perimeter of the Middle Kingdom. These perimeter states adopted this military technology to both defend their territory and conquer their neighboring states in the Chou kingdom.

Advances in casting techniques, primarily a hotter fire, enabled the Chinese states to employ plentiful iron for both farm implements and weaponry. A perimeter state, the Ch’in, embraced this new metal, while the interior states resisted change, instead holding onto their traditional ways. While iron farm tools greatly increased the agricultural yield, the mining of iron required a greater centralization and stratification of Chinese society. This trend towards centralization led eventually and inevitably to the first Chinese Empire.

The State of Ch’u controls the artistic South

As the Ch’in consolidated its power over the northern states of the fading and fragmented Chou dynasty surrounding the Yellow River, the state of Ch’u was absorbing the many kingdoms south of the Yangtze River. This southern territory had never been part of the Chou political system. However, Chou culture had exerted a significant influence upon the ruling military aristocracy of the Ch’u. 

The power of the Chinese state emanated from the center. The boundaries of the state were not fixed. Rulers were more concerned with exerting a politico-cultural influence than protecting borders. They were more interested in expanding their sphere of influence. Even as the Chou political influence splintered, its cultural influence still spread.

Typical Bronze Age culture spreads where there is agriculture

The Chou culture was a typical Bronze Age Culture with a military aristocracy atop an agricultural peasantry. Chinese cultural influence could only spread where there was an agrarian population to dominate. The dominant military political technology spread easily into the Yangtze River Valley of Central China. Indeed wherever agriculture existed, the Chou political technology spread whether or not the Chou ruled the territory. Although splintering into feudal princedoms diminished the centralized power of the Chou, the proliferation of these semi-independent states spread the dominant Chinese culture of the Middle Kingdom throughout agricultural China.

Central & South China under Ch'u

While the ‘semi-barbarous’ state of Ch’in was swallowing up states in northern China, the partially sinicized state of Ch’u was exerting an increasing control upon Central China to the south.

“A huge area of Central China was under the domination of the southward-looking and only partly sinicized state of Ch'u.”11

Ch’u: Chinese with roots in the south

While the state of Ch’u had cultural roots further south, they were still Chinese. Their rulers participated in the dominant patriarchal culture of the Middle Kingdom. This included literacy and the sophisticated ideology behind the powerful Chinese ideograms. Books that were common to the participating states included the I Ching and the Chinese Classics with their pervasive Confucian influence.

Non-agricultural nomads did not assimilate

Boundaries were generally only drawn for defense. Boundaries were perceived as a limitation of vision rather than as a definition of territory. Based upon a classic military aristocracy, Chinese culture easily spread into agrarian areas due to the sedentary nature of agriculture. It did not easily spread into areas dominated by nomadic cultures. Because agriculture was virtually impossible in the arid steppes to the north of China, the sinofication of the north did not occur in the same way that it occurred in the south. The sedentary agricultural peasantry was easy to subdue and assimilate. However, the nomads of the steppes were difficult to subdue and assimilate due to their mobility. Their dynamic migratory lifestyle was incompatible with the agriculturally based Chinese culture. The Ch’in learned the new military technology, i.e. archer on horseback, from the nomads. However, the nomads did not adopt Chinese culture from the Ch’in.

Vigorous culture in Ch'u to the south

As the Ch’in began dominating the states surrounding the Yellow River, the Ch’u state began absorbing the states surrounding the Yangtze River to the south. The centralized structure of the Ch’in allowed them to irrigate the plains of the Yellow River Valley, which yielded great prosperity. At the same time, Ch’u was the cultural center of China, in terms of the arts, including poetry and the visual arts.

“Until Ch’in rose menacing in the west, Ch’u had been secure, and in the lush valleys of the Yangtze and its tributaries had developed a rich culture in which poetry and visual art flourished exceedingly. So vigorous indeed, was Ch’u culture that even after Ch’in sacked the last Ch’u capital, in 223 BC, it survived to become a significant element of Chinese civilization during the Han dynasty.”12

Lacquer from the south

Indeed the famous Chinese medium of lacquer probably originated in the south.

“The lacquer medium and the techniques of working it were other great innovations of the Late Chou Period. Its seems probable that the origins of this work are to be found in the South.”13

Ch'u pictorial art earlier than north

The Ch’u people of the Yangtze River basin probably developed pictorial art at an earlier stage than did the peoples of the Yellow River basin in the north of China. The artistic technique of painting on both silk and domestic items preceded this process in the north. Favorite motifs were tigers, phoenixes and dragons – all popular Taoist symbols.14

Taoism from the south

Indeed just as the philosophy of Confucius and the ju class originated in northern China and the Yellow River basin, many elements of Taoist philosophy originated in south and central China and the Yangtze River Basin.

Ch'u linked to Southeast Asia

As we’ve pointed out throughout this paper, central China from the Yangtze River south is connected culturally with the decentralized craft-oriented peoples of Southeast Asia.

“The gong-stand found in a tomb in the Ch’u city of Hsin-yang in Honan reflects the contacts of Ch’u with the south.”15

Ch’u germinates Taoism and arts

Remember that bronze casting technology and the symbol of the dragon probably came from the cultures of Southeast Asia. It is not surprising then that China south of the Yellow River would be the center of Chinese artistic culture, as well as a major contributor to Taoist philosophy.

“It was, in fact, through Taoism, with its intuitive awareness of things that cannot be measured or learned out of books, that the Chinese poets and painters were to rise to the highest imaginative flights. The state of Ch’u was the heart of this new liberating movement. … It is perhaps no accident that not only the finest poetry of this period, but also the earliest surviving paintings on silk, should have been produced within its boundaries.”16


The Warring States Era saw the increasing centralization of political power in China. The state of Ch’in with connections to the military nomads of the north eventually dominated the Yellow River Basin of northern China. The state of Ch’u with connections to peaceful and artistic cultures of the south eventually came to dominate southern China. It is no surprise that the military Ch’in of the north ended up on top.

Savage Chin, sophisticated Ch'u

An art historian characterizes the Ch’in people as ‘savages from the western marches’ and refers to the people of Ch’u as ‘sophisticated and enlightened’. He speculates that a cultural golden age might have emerged had the Ch’u ended up victorious instead of the state of Ch’in.17 Unfortunately military cultures usually dominate artistic cultures. Historically the north has ended up as the center of political culture, while the south has emerged as the center of artistic culture. These trends crystallized in the Warring States Era in the northern state of Ch’in and the southern state of Ch’u.


1 Chinese Art, MacKenzie, 1961, p. 8

2 This is reminiscent of the Norman rules of war during the Middle Ages. When the King of France was captured by the English in the 100 Year War, he was neither beheaded, tortured, or even imprisoned. Instead parties were thrown with him included while his country was ransomed. The Normans fought for the glory of war, rather than the extermination of their foe. This was why Cromwell in England or the French revolutionaries were never accepted as royalty. They didn’t play by the royal rules of war. This is why the Scots to this day resent the English for treating Braveheart, William Wallace, so shabbily. According to the Scots, he led the Scots as nobility but was treated by the English King as a revolutionary and so was drawn and quartered, instead of ransomed. Edward I of England played to win, not for etiquette.

3 Again we see a parallel in the behavior of the French Norman knights. Informed by their code of chivalry, which included a love of battle, the trained warriors would always lead their troops into battle. They maintained this ‘honorable’ strategy, even though it led to their eventual demise. Their opponents, the Turks and Moslems thought nothing of sending peasant armies in advance to weaken the opposition. The French knights would never consider this strategy, although it allowed their enemy to overcome them. Their warrior mentality valued battle over winning. Just as in China, the warrior mentality was destroying Europe with its constant battles. Just as in China, the warrior mentality was replaced by the power mentality with the centralization it entailed.

4 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 56

5 Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p9

6 Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p.9

7 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan p. 50

8 Grolier Interactive 1997: Mining & Quarrying

9 This mining ‘slavery’ continued into relatively recent times. The Spaniards enslaved the indigenous population of Mexico to mine silver and the English impelled their own citizens through economic necessity to become coal miners. There was very little difference in the working conditions of these subject populations.

11 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 50

12The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p59

13A History of Far Eastern Art, p 50

14The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p62

15The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 61

16 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 51

17The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 59


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