The Warring States Period in Chinese society lasted from 476 BC to 221 BC. In the early Spring and Autumn Period, there were more than a hundred and forty fiefdoms. After years of contention for supremacy and annexation, only around ten fiefdoms remained. The bigger ones were the Qi 齊 Chu 楚 Yan 燕 Han 韓 Zhao 趙 Wei 魏 and Qin 秦 fiefdoms, the so-called “Seven Powers of the Warring States Period.” These bigger states were rivals over the control of the land and its people for several hundred years, hence their name, the “Warring States.”
Among the Seven Powers of the Warring States Period, the reforms by Shang Yang 商鞅 were the most thorough and effective. In 356 BC, Duke Xiao of Qin 秦孝公appointed Shang Yang to enforce reform. His obvious motivation was to enrich the country and strengthen the army, but, inevitably, his reforms adversely affected the interests of the original nobles of Qin. After Duke Xiao of Qin died, Shang Yang was killed. However, later Qin rulers adopted the measures taken by Shang Yang in his reforms and the Qin gradually grew more prosperous.
Social Development in the Warring States Period
The reforms introduced by the states in the Warring States Period encouraged the fast development of the social economy. Fundamental changes also took place in the social structure during the Warring States Period. The newly emerging land-holding peasant class gradually became the major force of agricultural production. The landowner, labor hiring class put in an appearance. The social status of handicraft workers and businessmen also improved to the extent that big, wealthy merchants could obtain political power through their immense wealth. At the same time, when the original noble class began to disintegrate, salary-earning bureaucrats and various intellectual officials increased in number.
During the Spring and Autumn Period, private schools prospered, and lecture tours became popular. By the time of the Warring States Period, the intelligentsia class grew bigger. The monarchs appealed for talented people from all over the country, and the practice of patronizing intellectuals prevailed. Social reforms further stimulated various philosophies and several schools of thought emerged. The major ones were the Schools of Confucianism, Mohism, Taoism, Legalism, Sophists, Military Treatises, Yin and Yang, Divine Farmer, Coalition Persuaders and Selecticism. There emerged a golden age in the Chinese history of thought—the “Contention of One Hundred Schools of Thought.”
The Wars of Annexation at the End of the Warring States Period and the Unification of China by Qin
The ceaseless contention for supremacy between the bigger states in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period brought great suffering to the populace, as well as seriously damaging the fabric of society. People longed for the fighting to cease and for the country to be unified.
In view of the fact that only around ten fiefdoms survived to the Warring States Period, the wars of annexation were an essential step in ending the division and moving towards unification. By the end of this Period, social economic development and the reforms introduced reinforced the potential power of each state and ignited their desire for annexation, with everyone hoping to build an empire. Wars between the major states became increasingly frequent and intense, with each war lasting from several months to several years. Losses were high — in the battle of Changping長平之戰 between the states of Qin and Zhao in 260 BC, the Qin deployed an army of 600,000 soldiers, while up to 400,000 Zhao soldiers who surrendered after being defeated were buried alive.
The state of Qin quickly improved after the Shang Yang reforms. Its national power increased and it emerged from years of annexation wars to become the most powerful state. The strength of Qin was a matter of serious concern for the other states and they decided to unite to control its expansion. However, the Qin adopted a strategy of divide and conquer — they made allies of more distant states and attacked neighboring states, breaking them up one by one. This policy was known as the Coalition Persuaders. The Qin expedition wars were the key to the shaping of the political situation in the late Warring States Period.
After thorough preparation, King Yingzheng嬴政of the state of Qin, in 230 BC, began to launch military attacks against the six states of Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan and Qi. Ten years later, in 221 BC, he finally fulfilled his dream of uniting China, putting an end to years of chaos with fiefdoms tearing apart the nation and contending for supremacy. The establishment of the Qin Dynasty marked a new phase in the history of China.