China and East Asia

The Warring States period

Chinese people are fond of saying that their country has the longest continuous history of any still existing country, yet the subject of this history — “China,” “The Middle Kingdom”— has itself varied considerably over time. What we mean by “the Chinese people” is also less than clear. People who historically have lived in what today is the People’s Republic of China represent many hundreds of different ethnic groups. Even within the largest of these — the Han people — a number of mutually incomprehensible languages have been spoken. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that it became possible to talk about a Chinese “nation,” understood as a community of people that encompassed most of the country.

What made a person Chinese, and what brought a sense of unity to the Chinese people, was not state power but instead more than anything a shared set of rituals and seasonal celebrations. These rituals go way back in time. The first rulers — the Shang dynasty, 1600-1046 BCE — engaged in human sacrifice and ancestor worship. They were also the first to use characters — divinations inscribed on so-called “oracle bones” — as a means of writing. While human sacrifice soon ceased, ancestor worship and the unique Chinese form of writing have survived to this day. During the following dynasty, the Zhou, 1050-777 BCE, the kings became more powerful and the territory they controlled increased dramatically. The Zhou kings regarded themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who had been given a “Mandate of Heaven” to rule the country. This mandate could be revoked, however, by any rebels who could demonstrate that they were powerful enough to take over the state. A successful uprising was proof that Heaven had withdrawn its favors and instead bestowed them on the rebels.

Towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, political power began to fragment as regional leaders who had been given land by the kings asserted their independence. Eventually, seven separate states emerged, and they were constantly at war with each other. This era has been referred to as the “Warring States period,” 475-221 BCE. During the Warring States period, China was not a country as much as an international system in its own right. The seven independent states engaged in traditional forms of power politics: they forged alliances, made treaties and fought battles, and they took turns in the position as the most powerful state in the system. The armies were enormous, counting up to perhaps one million men, and it was said that some hundreds of thousands of soldiers might die in a single battle. Not surprisingly, the Warring States period is a favorite of twenty-first century costume dramas on Chinese TV. Eventually one of the states, Qin, emerged on top. The question for the smaller states was how to react to Qin’s ascendancy. The topic was much discussed by the philosophers and military strategists of the day.

This was a bleak time of insecurity and war, but the Warring States period also was a time of great economic progress. Military competition, it seems, helped spur innovation. The imperative for all seven states, as the popular dictum put it, was to “enrich the nation and to strengthen the army.” This was first of all the case as far as military hardware was concerned, with new forms of swords, crossbows and chariots being invented. In addition, each state became far better organized and administrated. Taxes were collected more efficiently, the independent power of the nobility was suppressed, and a new class of bureaucrats took over the running of state affairs and organized their work according to formal procedures. A powerful state required a powerful economy, and to this end, farming techniques were developed and major irrigation projects were undertaken. The amount of cast iron produced by China already in the fifth century BCE would not be rivaled by the rest of the world until the middle of the eighteenth century — over two thousand years later. Economic markets developed as well, with coins being used to pay for goods coming from all over China but also from distant lands far beyond, including Manchuria, Korea, and even India.

The intellectual developments of the period were at least as impressive. The Warring States period was known as the age of the “Hundred Schools.” This was the time when all major Chinese systems of thought first came to be established. Eventually, nine of these schools dominated over the others, a group which included Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, and Mohism. These teachings were propagated by scholars who wandered from one court to the other, looking for a ruler who would be interested in their ideas. Those who were successful found themselves jobs as advisers and courtiers. Since there were many states and multiple centers of competing power, even unorthodox ideas could be given a sympathetic hearing somewhere.

Kongzi, 551-479 BCE — better known outside of China as “Confucius” — is the most famous of these wandering scholars. Born in the state of Lu in what today is the Shandong province — the peninsula which juts out in the direction of Korea — Kongzi rose from lowly jobs as a cow-herder and clerk to become an adviser to the king of Lu himself. Yet eventually political intrigues forced him to leave the court and this was when his life as a peripatetic teacher began. Kongzi’s philosophy emphasized the importance of personal conduct, and he insisted that the virtue of the rulers was more important than the formal rules by which the state was governed. Moral conduct, as Kongzi saw it, is above all a matter of maintaining the obligations implied by our social relationships. Society, in the end, consists of nothing but hierarchical pairs — relations between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, ruler and subject, and between friends. The inferior party in each pair should submit to the power and will of the superior, but the superior has the duty to care for the inferior and to look after his or her welfare. A well-ordered society is a society in which these duties are faithfully carried out.

Daoism is a philosophy associated with Laozi, a contemporary of Kongzi’s. Laozi is the author of the Daodejing, a text of aphorisms and assorted teachings. Yet there is little historical evidence for the actual existence of a person by that name and the teachings are for that reason best regarded as a compilation of texts produced by others. Dao, “the way,” does not only provide you with religious wisdom but also hands-on advice for how to live a successful life. Daoist monks emphasized the spiritual dimensions of human existence and sought to communicate with the spirits of nature. In addition, Daoism has had an impact on politics too. Its spiritualism and disdain for formal rules have been an inspiration for several political movements that have risen up against the political authorities.

But it was the Legalists who were to have the most direct impact on practical politics. Legalism is the school of political philosophy which the Chinese know as fajia. And the law was indeed important to them but only as a tool of statecraft. The Legalists assumed that all people act only in their self-interest and that they follow no moral codes which do not benefit themselves. It is consequently only the law and its enforcement which can keep people in line and guarantee peace and order in society. The law must, therefore, be clear enough for everyone to understand it, and the punishments which it requires must be harsh enough to make sure that everyone obeys. In the end, it was only the state and its survival that mattered to the Legalists. The ruler was free to act in whichever way he chose as long as it benefited the state. This applied not least to matters of foreign policy. Alliances could be made but also broken; ostensibly friendly countries could be attacked without warning; peace negotiations could serve as a pretext for starting another war, and so on.

Qin Shi Huang, often referred to as “the First Emperor,” 220-210 BCE, came to power on the back of advice such as this. He suppressed the rivaling states, united the country, and standardized weights and measures, the Chinese language, and even the width of roads and of the axles of carts. In an attempt to restart Chinese history, and to do it on his own terms, he ordered all classical texts to be burned and had Confucian scholars buried alive. Despite the Legalists’ ruthless advice, or perhaps because of it, the Qin dynasty only lasted fifteen years. After Qin Shi Huang’s death, the country soon descended into another round of wars. Yet the many philosophical schools of the period — Confucianism and Legalism in particular — would continue to play an important role throughout Chinese history.