International Relations in Ancient China
E Bruce Brooks
Harvard University, 13 November 2002

E Bruce Brooks


The multi-state system of pre-Imperial China has long invited comparison with the early modern European system which is paradigmatic for Western theorists of international relations. Those comparisons have often centered on the Chinese Spring and Autumn period (08th through 06th centuries). Our researches have shown that the salient features of that system, as traditionally envisioned, are either fictional or represent backward historical projections from the following Warring States period (05th through 03rd centuries). Among familiar but nonexistent events are the ba or "hegemon" system, the self-strengthening of Chi under Hwan-gung, and the rise of the mass infantry army. The previous understanding thus needs to be corrected, and in that light the previous comparisons need to be revisited. In particular, much that has been attributed to "Spring and Autumn" must be investigated in the Warring States, when it actually occurred. This presentation will consider both periods as a two-stage whole.

In this revised view, the states of the Spring and Autumn proper only gradually formed an articulated system. They were at first weak, and the territories of some were still shared with native peoples. These states were palace structures with an agrarian base and a landed chariot-warrior elite, dispersed as a garrison presence over the area of domination. Only gradually did they extend their size or complete their control, and acquire military strength more proportionate to their size. The Spring and Autumn multi-state system was not culturally uniform. It included Sinitic and non-Sinitic states on a basis of functional equality. Interstate diplomacy was ruler-based, though with social as well as geographical expansion in the 07th century. Diplomacy recognized some strategic issues of common concern to the northern (Yellow River) states, as against the southern (Yangdz River) states, but it did not polarize along Sinitic vs non-Sinitic lines. Interests of states were (a) expansionist but (b) local.

The Warring States period is marked by a dramatic change in the character of the states and the system, and accelerated military growth. Specific changes include: (a) expansion and bureaucratization of palace regimes, (b) incorporation of trade and manufacturing into the economic basis of the state, and (c) creation of a mass infantry army based on the whole population. These changes together made it possible to create and sustain armies of a size and effectiveness previously unknown. Interstate rivalry quickly reduced itself to a competition among the larger states to conquer the others and control the resulting superstate. Political disputes between pro-war and anti-war viewpoints at the various courts, and between offensive strategists and defensive technicians in the battlefield, are well documented. By this period, assimilation within the old multicultural system, and the extinction of some central but non-Sinitic states, had produced a center-periphery situation, with Sinitic culture in the center and alien (especially, steppe) culture challenging it from the edges. Later Chinese cultural self-concepts and military and diplomatic planning, down to the present time, are based on this new paradigm.

With due caution, "modern" elements can be discerned in the actions of states in both periods. On the whole, war was conducted not as chivalric display, but like a business, for its results. The 0656 campaign of northern states against Chu will be cited as an imperfect example of a "spheres of influence" concept, and the reaction to Chi attempted expansion in 0324 (against Yen) and in 0286 (against Sung) will be considered as examples of "balance of powers" thinking. The grand strategy of Chin, from 0318 to 0249, will be shown to be largely intelligible to a modern general staff, and note will be taken of the persistent preference in both periods for diplomatic intimidation over war, and within war, a steady bias toward tactical frugality.

In assessing the unification outcome of the Chinese system as opposed to its ancient Greek and modern European counterparts, emphasis will be placed on the technology of rule, the role of ideology in securing consent to rule, and the importance of differential development in understanding different outcomes from seemingly similar situations. The rise and eclipse of Chinese populism (the theory that the state exists for its people, rather than the reverse) will be briefly reviewed, and contrasted with the greater success of similar ideas in the Greek and European cases. Overall, the analysis will seek to clarify the ancient Chinese case for the benefit of future historical comparisons, and also to clarify what can and cannot be validly expected from comparative history itself.


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