China Enters Chaotic Warring States Period

During the Warring States Period, China broke down into seven major feudal states and entered into two and a half centuries of political and social chaos.

Summary of Event

The Warring States Period is one of the most important eras in Chinese history. The social, political, and philosophical systems that emerged during this time would form the foundation of Chinese civilization for almost two millennia. Politically, this era is seen as a crisis of the old regime. The ancient political power structure rested on the relationship between the emperor and the traditional noble families. This noble class formed the foundation of the early Chinese military. The most important strategic weapon at this time was the war chariot. This mode of warfare demanded horses, bronze weapons, and the chariot itself. The nobles were the only segment of Chinese society that could afford to maintain this equipment. This made these aristocrats extremely important to the welfare of the nation. Confucius

As the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.) began to decline, the rulers of the seven major provinces attempted to enrich themselves through military conquest. Traditionally, battles among groups of nobles were regulated by codes of conduct that controlled the actions on the battlefield. A new form of warfare emerged that ignored these traditional codes of conduct. The acceptance of a military philosophy in which the end justified the means increased the carnage and casualties and plunged China into an era of disastrous civil war. The Warring States Period also witnessed the rise of a new group of military professionals who accelerated the decline of the traditional aristocracy. This new martial class directed its energies to the development of strategic and tactical doctrines and laws of warfare that displaced the traditional codes of military conduct. Success on the battlefield based on inflicting heavy casualties on one’s enemy became an acceptable practice among this new officer class.

Socially as the acquisition and retention of these professional warriors became more important, the leaders of the warring states were willing to give land, honors, and power to the most successful officers in exchange for their military expertise. This new landed gentry would in time replace the traditional noble families in China’s new social structure.

The most important military change was the new emphasis on the use of infantry. To be an effective power, a state had to field and maintain a large standing army. Forces in excess of 250,000 men were commonplace. This in turn necessitated that greater emphasis be placed on the quality of training. The publication of training manuals that codified rules of discipline, training, and tactics became routine. This standardization increased the effectiveness of fighting forces, which in turn increased the likelihood of war. This incessant warfare placed a great economic burden on the leaders of the warring states and forced them to increase their agricultural output; therefore, many of their military campaigns targeted rich agricultural areas.

The political and social upheaval that was so characteristic of the end of the Zhou Dynasty, also known as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 b.c.e.), and the subsequent chaos of the Warring States Period set the stage for a Chinese intellectual renaissance. This philosophical golden age created systems that explored every aspect of human behavior, the structure of government, and military theory. This intellectual explosion has been designated by historians as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Scholars of the period have reduced these differing philosophical schools into three main schools: Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Legalism.

The most influential of these schools was Confucianism. Confucius lived during the declining period of the Zhou Dynasty. He was a member of one of the traditional noble families that had fallen on hard times during the chaotic social restructuring of the Spring and Autumn Period. Confucius based his social system on the early, successful days of the Zhou Dynasty. He believed that an orderly, prosperous society was based on the natural social stratification found in the traditional Chinese class system. Confucius wrote that if everyone followed the strict code of ethical conduct found within the confines of his particular class, the nation would prosper. The foundation of this ethical conduct was virtue, and everyone—emperor, noble, warrior, and peasant alike—was expected to follow its dictates. The model for this social paradigm was to be found in the patriarchal structure of the Chinese family. Confucius believed that harsh Legalist codes of law were the result of the breakdown of the family structure, and a nation with an extensive legal structure was exhibiting the major characteristic of a society in decline. Confucius spent his life trying to obtain a position at the court of one of the regional rulers. He was unsuccessful in this quest and went to his grave believing that he was a failure.

The antithesis of the Confucian model was Legalism, the authoritarian response to the social and political chaos of the Warring States Period. Its original proponent was a disciple of the Confucian school, Xunzi, but this theory was popularized by Hanfeizi. The basic principle of Legalism was that people are basically evil, and the carnage and chaos of the period seemed to confirm this negative view of humanity.

The structure of Legalism rested on three concepts: law, legitimacy, and the act of governing. Legalists believed that everyone was equal under the law, and to ensure proper behavior, laws had to be codified and published for all to see. Adherence to these laws formed the basis of a well-run society. Because a Legalist state was theoretically a nation of laws, not people, the legitimacy of a ruler was not based on Confucian virtue but strictly on the individual’s ability to gain and hold power. The ruler, in fact, could be considered part of a larger legal apparatus whose primary function was the enforcement of a strict legal code. Legalists believed that the Confucian model of a virtuous leader looking out for the welfare of his people would eventually lead to disorder and failure because most people would mistake kindness for weakness and rise up to overthrow the king. Strict, harsh, authoritarian rule was the only way to ensure a safe, stable society.

The Daoist school was a rejection of the attempt by the first two models to create a human structure to govern society. Daoists believed that all such attempts were futile because they challenged the natural order of the cosmos. Disciples practiced a lifestyle that was in tune with the rhythms of nature in an attempt to find inner peace.

The philosophical inquiries concerning the proper role of government and virtuous personal conduct flowed over into discussions concerning military philosophy. Six of the seven major military classics of early China were either popularized or composed during this time. Military philosophers composed works that encompassed every aspect of military theory. These theories can be subdivided into three categories: the interrelationship between warfare and the state, proper conduct on the battlefield, and the human aspect of war.

All six military classics recognized that warfare and the welfare of the state were closely linked and a government that ignores the possibility of war does so at its own risk. At the same time, most military philosophers warned that if a state focused too much on war and conquest, it would most likely perish by the sword. A sound, well-ordered government would ensure a highly efficient, balanced military establishment.

The military classics also described proper conduct on the battlefield. All theorists believed the first guiding principle should be restraint, whether in deciding to go to war or in determining actions taken in battle and, especially, in victory. The enemy should always be soundly defeated, but after hostilities cease, great care should be taken to treat the surviving forces in humane fashion. Such actions not only are virtuous but also eliminate the possibility of creating a new set of hatreds that in the end could create conditions for another conflict. Finally, every military philosopher believed that it was necessary to have a training program for military personnel that emphasized honor, courage, and self-reliance.


The social and political chaos of the Warring States Period created a Chinese culture that demanded stability. The Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.) developed a strong central government that subdued the seven warring states and created the beginning of modern China. The new emperor used the authoritarian principles of Legalism to maintain his control. Great emphasis was placed on uniformity, especially in the area of philosophical thought. Books were burned, and dissenting intellectuals were executed. This need for conformity and orthodoxy is a major characteristic of Chinese culture to the present day.

Further Reading

  • De Barry, William Theodore, et al., eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. An excellent source for early Chinese cultural history. Index.
  • Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.e.
    New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A comprehensive overview of the time period. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Sawyer, Ralph. D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China: Translations and Commentary. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993. The best collection of Chinese military history available. Index.
  • Sun-tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. The most important Chinese philosophy of war. Index.

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Confucius; Hanfeizi; Xunzi; Zhuangzi. Warring States Period