The Warring States Period, or, A Wild Confucius Appears

In 771 BCE the Zhou Dynasty moved its seat from Hao, to the eastern city of Luoyang, precipitating a long period of gradual decentralization, spanning from 770-221 BCE. This period of Chinese history is divided into two segments: the Spring and Autumn Period (770-479 BCE), and the Warring States Period (479-221 BCE).

The Zhou kings retained their technical status as supreme monarchs during the Spring and Autumn Period. However, their once centrally governed fiefs increasingly began to function as independent, competing entities. Frequent intermarriage between the ruling families of various states made for messy succession disputes, and states constantly plotted with and against each other to maintain a balance of power. Sometimes the states would even attack the Zhou monarch.


Map courtesy of Wikipedia; no further source material provided despite geographic accuracy.


Map courtesy of East Asia: a Cultural, Social, and Political History by Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall.


See attribution of first map.

The states of Qin, Jin, Qi, and Chu emerged as the most powerful actors as the Spring and Autumn Period drew to a close. They made official their dominance by styling themselves as kings, a direct challenge to the charade of a Zhou-centered power balance which had endured through the Spring and Autumn Period.

This new balance of power represented the fifth century beginning of the Warring States Period. This period saw dramatic changes in modes of warfare as chivalric codes of warfare fell by the wayside, as the increased use of defensive walls led to the development of siege warfare, as the states adopted the use of the crossbow, and as militaries began dressing in the style of nomadic groups to ease the transition to cavalry warfare. Where Spring and Autumn Period military campaigns typically lasted no longer than one season and battles lasted no more than two days, Warring States Period campaigns lasted for years, and were fought over many fronts.

However, changes more profound than pure military innovation occurred. The combined social and political instability of both the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period led to a flowering of intellectual thought, the impact of which has never truly been absent from Chinese thinking, culture, and subsequent history.

As various states fell, the nobility of each successive state lost its status. The lower ranks of these defunct nobilities, the shi, began to serve as advisers to victorious rulers. As the shi competed for influence within this ever-changing socio-political environment, they set into motion an intellectual movement known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought.”

The most famous and influential of the shi, Confucius, began his career in the state of Lu in the mid-sixth century BCE. Failing to gain much influence in his home state, Confucius wandered with a group of his students until he found a ruler interested in his philosophy, which put forth the idea that sets of interdependent relationships between superior and inferiors must be followed in order to maintain the balance of the universe.

The third century BCE founders of Daoism disagreed with Confucian thinking, focusing instead on the flow of the universe, and the effect of human action on that flow. The Legalist school of thought emerged in the third and fourth centuries BCE in response to the fear of various rulers that their polity may be next to fall. This school places emphasis on rigorous laws and obedience as necessary to the existence of a state.

Other schools of thought and thinkers which emerged out of this period included Mohism, a school of thought opposed to Confucianism founded by Mozi in the fifth century BCE. Mohism stresses universal equality and is opposed to decadence on the part of rulers; it was rediscovered in the twentieth century after falling into disuse a few centuries after its founding.

There was Mencius, a fourth century BCE Confucian scholar who rose out of a school eager to defend Confucianism against Mohism. He argued that human nature was inherently moral. The fourth century BCE Xunxi, a Confucian rival of Mencius who opposed the Mencian perception of human nature, argued that people are born selfish, and may only become moral through education and ritual.

Sunzi’s third century Art of War stressed the importance of discipline, spying, and manipulation in the course of warfare, and argues that great generals are not those who charge uphill against overwhelming odds, but those who advance only when positive that they will emerge victorious.

The Warring States Period ended as the state of Qin emerged victorious in 221 BCE. The Qin Dynasty was quickly supplanted by the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE. The Hundred Schools of Thought came to an end alongside the Warring States Period as the First Emperor (the self-styled title of Zhoa Zheng, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty), a staunch Legalist, ordered a mass burning of scholarly works beginning in 213 BCE.

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