There is little doubt about where the Warring States period ends. It ends with one state, Chin, conquering all the others, the last of the others being Chi in 0221. But the beginning of the period varies, in scholarly usage, by almost a century. It would be nice to agree on a beginning date, and it would be still nicer if that date had some relation to reality. We here give our best suggestion about a meaningful beginning date.
It is conventionally given that "Warring States" follows the "Spring and Autumn," a period named for the court chronicle of Lu, whose first entry is for 0722. But different editions of this chronicle have different ending dates. And some ignore the "Spring and Autumn" text altogether, and prefer to date the period from the splitting of Jin into three successor states. But it is also possible to argue about when that undoubtedly major event may properly be said to occur. All this leads to a wide variety of "Warring States" beginning dates. Here is a sample, from several recent and not so recent works:
- 0481, the "unicorn" entry in the Chun/Chyou (CC) chronicle, an incident thought to have inspired Confucius's departure from the Lu court (Gungyang and Gulyang commentaries to CC)
- 0479, the year of Confucius's death (Dzwo Jwan commentary to CC)
- 0475, the beginning of the next Jou reign after this point (Shr Ji 15)
- 0468, the beginning of the next Jou reign after that (Lin Chun-pu)
- 0463, the year after the last CC entry in one version of that text (Creel)
- 0453, the de facto tripartition of Jin
- 0403, the supposed formal Jou recognition of that tripartition (Szma Gwang)
These dates span almost a century, a degree of uncertainty which makes "Warring States" useless as a chronological term. For a time, archaeologists were inclined to label as "Warring States" any tomb containing iron artifacts. This involves the assumption (the Sekino theory) that the introduction of iron weapons increased the severity of previous conflicts (thus justifying the term "Warring States") and even determined the final victor in the conflict. Neither premise has been validated by archaeology itself, and this position has now been largely abandoned by reflective persons.
Orthodox nomenclature, which upholds the effective existence of the Jou kingdom even after its effective decline, uses the term "Eastern Jou" to refer to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods collectively, this being the time during which the surviving Jou power was at Lwo-yang, the previous Jou eastern capital. We note here that this term has no historical warrant. The people of the period felt themselves to be living not under the Jou, but in a political vacuum, a vacuum which the rulers of the larger states aspired to fill, and which the theorists of the time either lamented or attempted to explain away. Even Lu, at best a second-rank state, had dreams of achieving at least a cultural hegemony. Those dreams were played on by the late Analects "Confucius" saying in LY 17:4, "If there were one who would use me, could I not make a Jou in the East?" This make no sense if there were already, in the perceptions of the time, a "Jou in the East" or anywhere else. To Warring States people, "Eastern Jou" usually meant the eastern portion of the Jou enclave at Lwo-yang. The Analects idea of a parallel sovereignty extending over only the eastern states (such as Yen, Chi, Lu, Sung, Wu, and Ywe), leaving Jou (or some western power, such as Chin) to control the central and western states, was thus at least tenable. It was so tenable that at some point in the early 03rd century, Chi and Chin are said to have proclaimed themselves as the Emperors of the East and West, respectively.
Our previous choice for a Warring States start date was the death of Confucius in 0479. This has the convenience of putting Confucius's life within a single historical period. For the larger span of time beginning with the effective end of Jou in 0771, the year in which they relocated to Lwoyang, this gives the following periods and their dates:
- -0771 Jou Dynasty (properly so called)
- 0770-0479 Spring and Autumn period
- 0478-0222 Warring States period
- 0221- Chin Dynasty (unified Empire)
This solution leaves the boundary between the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods based not on outward events (acknowledged catastrophic conquests), but on essentially literary considerations (the "Spring and Autumn" text). Are there firmer grounds on which a periodization might be based?
One meaningful shift occurring during this larger period is the transition from the old palace culture to the new bureaucratic culture. Among the developments which we see as aspects of this general change (and which do not occur at exactly the same time) are increases in the efficiency of agriculture and in the complexity of government, the replacement of speech by writing as the basic medium for state records and intellectual contact (and the resulting rise of a non-court medium of public discourse), the obsolescence of the old elite chariot force by the new mass infantry army, a shift from personal to national loyalties, the growth of wealth and leisure, the development of gnomic wisdom into systematic philosophy, and the transition, for the ordinary people, from a probable peonage to a perhaps incipient citizenship. There were also profound changes in ritual, law, and economics.
One landmark in the economic aspect of this process in Lu was probably the land tax imposed by Ai-gung in 0483. The extant sayings of Confucius (probably recorded after his death in 0479) already show a distaste for the new class of uncultured "little people," the mere functionaries in the expanding government, who lacked the high-mindedness and refinement of the traditional elite group to which he himself belonged. It follows that this social shift must already have been in progress during his lifetime, and that the 0483 tax may be only a step in a larger process, and not necessarily a beginning.
One plausible guess for the new institutional beginning, at least in Lu, is the accession of Lu Ding-gung in 0509. This reign seems to mark a recovery from the low point of state power represented by the exile of Ding-gung's predecessor Jau-gung. It would have been logical for Ding-gung to be concerned with structural improvements in the palace government which might offset the power of the great families. Ding-gung waited for a couple of years, presumably to consolidate his position, and then began making his move, which would be in 0506. On the other end of the social scale, there is archaeological evidence, not from Lu but from Jau (the Houma oath texts), which suggests a role for the sub-elite population in state events as early as 0490. The incorporation of the sub-elite population into the larger state structure was one of the key events of the period, the others being the refashioning of the state along more powerful bureaucratic lines, and the creation (given the other two as prerequisites) of the new mass army; the army that unified China.
Given these dates, we will not go far wrong in practice to call the 05th century "Early Warring States," the 04th century "Middle Warring States" (it ends with some important rulership changes, especially in Chi), and the 03rd century down to the Empire as "Late Warring States."
It will do no harm to continue to use 0479 as the conventional dividing point (there is little hope of ending a period called "Spring and Autumn" otherwise than where that text itself happens to end), but with the understanding that the social forces which created the distinctive Warring States culture were already in motion by that time. The "05c/04c/03c" definition makes a handy rule of thumb, and may be slightly more accurate in matching real-world events.
14 June 2001 / Contact The Project / Exit to Results Page