Sunday, 1 April 2012

Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States

Bronze Vessel from the Zhou Dynasty
In a previous post I wrote about the Shang Dynasty, the first dynasty of China to be archaeologically attested to. As recounted in that post the Shang Dynasty came to an end after the Battle of Muye, around 1046 BC, and the Zhou Dynasty took its place.

While other states may have ruled over portions of China at the same time as the Shang, there nevertheless seemed to be a sense in which the Shang rulers were supreme. To justify the overthrow of these supreme rulers, while at the same time discouraging thoughts of similar overthrow, the Zhou formulated a doctrine known as the Mandate of Heaven. This was a fairly loose doctrine, but the main idea was that the supreme ruler was chosen by Heaven. If the ruler displeased Heaven then natural disasters would occur on earth and one of the main ceremonial duties of the rulers was to perform rituals to appease Heaven. If the disasters continued and a successful rebellion took place it meant that Heaven now favoured the new rulers, who could command the same respect for their divine ordination as the previous rulers. In other words, it legitimised rebellion but in practice made it difficult, as the dynasty only lost the Mandate of Heaven when they were actually dethroned.

Statue of Charioteer
The capital of the Zhou was originally placed in Fenghou and the rulers were able to successfully expand their territory for several hundred years. However, the ever increasing size of their domains made communication and direct rule from the capital very difficult. The Zhou rulers attempted to continue the expansion by delegating power to local leaders who, if they served the king well, were given the incentive of allowing their sons to succeed them in their position. This system grew to closely resemble the much later European system of feudalism. The advantages were that any attack by outsiders would be faced by powerful local lords who knew the area and their opponents well and who were fighting for their lands and family. The disadvantage was that by allowing local lords to establish permanent power bases for themselves they gradually put local interests ahead of imperial ones.

As early as the mid-900’s BC it appears that local lords would actually attack the armies of the emperor. Having created this Frankenstein of a system the Zhou rulers now resorted to playing coalitions of local lords against each other. Originally the Zhou fielded six armies of varying strength to protect the various sectors of the realm but these were reduced to augmenting the strength of the local armies in a national emergency.

Arrows from Zhou Dynasty
In 771 BC an internal power struggle at court led to one faction mobilising the armies of their area, making alliances with outside barbarians and marching on the capital at Fenghao. Despite desperate pleas for aid, none of the other local lords aided the emperor, who was slain and his capital burnt. Their traditional power base was gone and their armies were reduced so the court fled eastwards to a new capital of Chengzhou. Here they were further away from barbarians and nearer to lords who might support them. They were allowed to set up a new capital but given very little land in which to do so. The Zhou Dynasty’s area of direct control was now reduced to a tiny enclave where the emperor performed ceremonial duties. The local lords still pledged allegiance but it was little more than lip service. While they tolerated the existence of the defunct regime they soon began to claim the title of king for themselves and the feuding that went on between the lordships escalated.

Bronze and iron weapons from Zhou Dynasty
Before the flight to Chengzhou the Dynasty is referred to as the Western Zhou and afterwards as the Eastern Zhou. The period of 771-403BC is referred to as the Spring and Autumn Period (after a chronicle describing the period) while from 475-221 BC is similarly referred to as the Warring States Period.

Originally there were hundreds of “states”, mainly centred around the old Shang heartland on the Huang He river, however the states on the periphery were able to expand outwards thus gaining more territory and becoming stronger relative to the inner states. They were then able to absorb many of the weaker states. By the end of the Spring and Autumn Period there were four strong states, Jin, Qin, Qi and Chu. Jin was the strongest and looked as if it might have been able to conquer the other states but instead splintered after a bloody civil war into the states of Han, Wei and Zhao around the year 403BC. With the addition of Yan, which came to power later, these seven states exploited the new political realities to struggle for ultimate supremacy.

Yan Helmet
Warfare became increasingly sophisticated. Armies could number in the hundreds of thousands and chariots were used with great efficiency. The definition of a great state was “a state of a thousand chariots”, but the latter stages of the Warring States period saw chariots becoming increasingly irrelevant. Iron was used for the body armour of soldiers and the disciplined infantry armed with spears and crossbows eventually made chariots obsolete. Cities were fortified with great walls and, as the northern states focused on fighting each other, they constructed long fortifications on their exterior borders to ward off barbarian invasion while their armies fought each other. Among other developments in war this period may have even seen the first use of poison gas in battle.

Self-proclaimed experts in war, diplomacy and statesmanship roamed from state to state offering advice. The Chinese script evolved into one that is still recognisable today. This was the period that saw Sun Tzu write the Art of War. This period of conflict also saw the rise of competing philosophies and the birth of Daoism, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism, but the intellectual activity of the time is so complex that it merits a post in its own right.

Map showing China in 260BC with Yan highlighted
The southern state of Chu was the largest of the states and had never fully been under the control of the Zhou Dynasty. It controlled the fertile Yangtze plains and had large manpower reserves but the inefficiency of its state bureaucracy hampered its expansion. Qi, on the east coast, was extremely efficient and pioneered many new ideas but found it difficult to expand. Zhao and Yan, in the north, were quite weak but were able to use their isolated position to attack central states when they were exhausted by the constant warfare. Both states copied the horse archer tactics of the northern horse-riding barbarians which gave them some advantages over chariot based armies. Wei and Han were central states with rich resources and numerous cities but their central position made them targets for the outer states.

First one state, then another, rose to prominence in the continuous wars of the time. Whenever a single state rose to power the others would coordinate their efforts in a temporary truce to cut down the rising state, with the alliance collapsing as soon as the rising state had lost pre-eminence. The states were quite evenly matched and the mobile nature of the bureaucrats of the time meant that, if one state adopted a winning strategy, the rest would soon follow suit. First Qi, then Zhao, then Chu attained prominence before foundering against the grand alliances.

Ceremonial sword from period
The state of Qin in the west of China was based near the old Zhou heartlands. Their capital of Xian was surrounded by a wall of mountains, through which there were only three passes through which an army could march. Its isolated position and proximity to northern barbarians meant that it was ignored in many of the wars of the early Warring States period. After a series of brutal but effective military reforms Qin armies were able to strike against the states of Zhao, Wei, Han and Chu with great success while the fortified passes meant that, even if their armies were defeated, the armies could regroup in safety and their heartlands were never raided. From around 300BC onwards Qin became the strongest of all the states.

The states tried to cope with the threat of Qin by forming great alliances against it. The Qin armies were well equipped and may possibly have numbered up to a million strong but the combined armies of the other states were stronger. This policy was known as a Vertical Alliance (the north and south against the west). However, the distrust that had built up between the states after centuries of warfare and betrayal meant that Qin was almost always able to detach states from these alliances by promising shares of the victory spoils. These were the Horizontal Alliances (west and north against south or vice versa). The temptation to join in the destruction of another state to enlarge one’s own possessions was very strong and by means of this tactic, Qin were able to continue expanding while avoiding facing any grand alliances.

Later depiction of Qin Emperor
In 256 BC King Nan of the Zhou Dynasty died and no one took his place. The last vestige of the old dynasty was dead but the irrelevance of the emperor meant that this was hardly noticed. In 230 BC Qin was able to destroy the state of Han, which had stood in the way of its armies when they emerged from the passes. With one of the seven states fallen and Qin’s armies far stronger than their competitors the end was near. Han had made it difficult for Qin armies to strike wherever they pleased but now they were given free access to the plains. The states of Zhao and Wei fell shortly thereafter. Chu fought off the invasion of the south initially but the returning Qin armies destroyed their capital and suppressed guerrilla resistance with extreme savagery. The northern state of Yan sent an assassin to kill the king of Qin (an incident upon which the film Hero is very loosely based) but failed. Yan was annexed leaving only the state of Qi, which surrendered shortly after, having failed to help any of the other states, possibly as a result of promises by Qin.

The ruler of Qin, King Zheng, was now ruler of all China. He renamed himself Qin Shi Huang Di, meaning First Qin Emperor. After one of the longest periods of continuous war the world has ever seen a new dynasty had been born. 

"...I have raised troops to punish violence and chaos and, with the support of the sacred power of the ancestral temples, the six kings have all admitted their crimes, and order is magnificently restored in all under Heaven." 

Excerpted proclamation of Qin Shi Huang Di quoted by Sima Qian and translated by Raymond Dawson from this edition.