General Introduction to Warring States Period

Warring States PeriodWarring States Period also known as the Era of Warring States, covers the period from 475 BC to the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It is nominally considered to be the second part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, following the Spring and Autumn Period, although the Zhou Dynasty ended in 256 BC, 35 years earlier than the end of the Warring States period. During these periods, the Chinese sovereign (king of the Zhou Dynasty) was merely a figurehead.


The name Warring States Period was derived from the Record of the Warring States, a work historically compiled early in the Han Dynasty. The date for the beginning of the Warring States Period is disputed. While it is frequently cited as 475 BC (following the Spring and Autumn Period), 403 BC, the date of the tripartite Partition of Jin, is also considered as the beginning of the period.

The Warring States Period was an era when regional warlords annexed smaller states around them and consolidated their power. The process began in the Spring and Autumn Period and by the 3rd century BC, seven major states had emerged as the dominant powers in China. The states were: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin. Another indicator for the shift in power was the change in the title used by the rulers of the states. Those rulers were initially addressed as "Dukes" (公), a sign that they were vassals of the Chinese sovereign (King of the Zhou Dynasty), but they titled themselves "Kings" (王) later, putting them on par with the Chinese sovereign. 


Early strife in the Three Jins, Qi, and Qin

In 371 BC, Marquess Wu of Wei died without specifying a successor, causing Wei to fall into an internal war of succession. After three years of civil war, Zhao and Han, sensing an opportunity, invaded Wei. On the verge of conquering Wei, the leaders of Zhao and Han fell into disagreement on what to do with Wei and both armies mysteriously retreated. As a result, King Hui of Wei (still a Marquess at the time) was able to ascend the throne of Wei. In 354 BC, King Hui of Wei initiated a large scale attack at Zhao, which some historians believe was to avenge the earlier near destruction of Wei.


By 353 BC, Zhao was losing the war badly, and one of their major cities—Handan , a city that would eventually become Zhao's capital—was being besieged. As a result, the neighbouring Qi state decided to help Zhao. The strategy Qi used, suggested by the famous tactician Sun Bin , a descendant of Sun Tzu, who at the time was the Qi military advisor, was to attack Wei's territory while the main Wei army is busy sieging Zhao, forcing Wei to retreat. The strategy was a success; the Wei army hastily retreated, and encountered the Qi midway, culminating into the Battle of Guiling where Wei was decisively defeated. The event spawned the idiom , meaning "Surrounding Wei to save Zhao", which is still used in modern Chinese to refer to attacking an enemy's vulnerable spots in order to relieve pressure being applied by that enemy upon an ally.


Shang Yang's reforms in Qin

Around 359 BC, Shang Yang, a minister of the Qin state, initiated a series of reforms based on the political doctrine of legalism that transformed Qin from a backward state into one that surpasses the other six states. It is generally regarded that this is the point where Qin started to become the most dominant state in China.


Ascension of the states

In 334 BC, the rulers of Wei and Qi agreed to recognize each other as Kings (王), formalizing the independence of the states and the powerlessness of the Zhou throne since the beginning of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The King of Wei and the King of Qi joined the ranks of the King of Chu, whose predecessors had been Kings since the Spring and Autumn Period. From this point on, all the other states eventually declare their Kingship, signifying the beginning of the end of the Zhou Dynasty. In 325 BC, the ruler of Qin declared himself as King. In 323 BC, the rulers of Han and Yan declared themselves as King. In 318 BC, the ruler of Song, a relatively minor state, declared himself as King. The ruler of Zhao held out until around 299 BC, and was the last to declare himself as King.


Chu expansion and defeats

Early in the Warring States Period, Chu was one of the strongest states in China. The state rose to a new level of power around 389 BC when the King of Chu named the famous reformer Wu Qi to be his chancellor. Chu rose to its peak in 334 BC, when it gained vast amounts of territory. The series of events leading up to this began when Yue state prepared to attack Qi. The King of Qi sent an emissary who persuaded the King of Yue to attack Chu instead. Yue initiated a large scale attack at Chu, but was defeated by Chu's counter-attack. Chu then proceeded to conquer Yue. This campaign expanded the Chu's borders to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.


Military developments

The Warring States Period saw the introduction of many innovations to the art of warfare in China, such as the use of iron and cavalry. The various states fielded massive armies of infantry, cavalry and chariots. Complex logistical systems maintained by efficient government bureaucracy, was needed to supply, train, and control such large forces. The size of the armies ranged from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand men.


Iron became more widespread and began to replace bronze. Most armour and weapons of this period were made from iron. The first official native Chinese cavalry unit was formed in 307 BC by King Wuling of Zhao.


But the war chariot still retained its prestige and importance, despite the tactical superiority of cavalry. Crossbow was the preferred long range weapon of this period due to many reasons. The crossbow could be mass-produced easily, and mass training of crossbowmen was possible. These qualities made it a powerful weapon against the enemy. Infantrymen deployed a varieties of weapons, but the most popular was the dagger-axe.


The dagger-axe came in various length from 9–18 ft, the weapon comprising a thrusting spear with a slashing blade appended to it. Dagger-axes were an extremely popular weapon in various kingdoms, especially for the Qin who produced eighteen-foot long pikes.