Home Chinese Culture China History The Warring States Period (475-221 BC)

The Warring States Period (475-221 BC)

The 250 years between 475 and 221 BC is called the Warring States Period because the region of the Zhou Dynasty was divided between 8 states. These states had frequent wars until 221 BC when Qin conquered them all.

The fighting was sometimes fierce. Some kings were fighting to survive or retain power, and some wanted more power and territory. The Qin rulers generally wanted to conquer all the others.

The dominant philosophy of the Qin rulers was Legalism, and their philosophy justified harsh control, forced labor, and subservience to the emperor. They used their manpower for big construction projects that allowed them to field and supply big armies, and they were ruthless in war and in peacetime too.

As the states warred, dominant philosophies and religions of Daoism, Legalism, Confucianism, and Moism emerged in the region and were spread by the surviving states.

The Chronology of the Warring States Period

The  Start of the Warring States Period (476-361)

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476), the dozens of big and small states coalesced into the eight that remained by 476. The eight warring states were Qin, that had a stronghold in a valley in the west, Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Wei, Yue and Zhao.

During the first half of this turbulent era, the boundaries between the states remained about the same. Chu was the biggest state. It controlled the southern third of the entire region of the Warring States. Qin also controlled about a third of the territory in the west. The rest of the states filled in the northeastern third of the region of the Warring States.

Qin was the farthest west of the states. Initially, the rulers of Qin tried to keep out of the warfare to the east of them. There were hostile tribes around their territory. They couldn't send out large armies to conquer the states to the east lest the tribal people attacked when the armies were gone.

They first had to subdue the tribes to make sure their territory was safe. This became one of the Qin clan's main objectives

Shang Yang (361)

Shang Yang came to power as a court official in 361. During the two decades that he ruled, he made big political, philosophical and institutional changes that took permanent hold in Qin though he himself was killed.

His philosophy was called Legalism. It was adopted by the ruling court. The political reforms were revolutionary for his time, and he set the course for Qin to become militarily more powerful and ruthless than the other states.

Under Legalism, political opposition was not tolerated. One of the strengths of Qin was the tight central control.

Yang Started an Offensive Buildup

To increase production, Yang privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet their quotas, and used slaves for his major construction projects to create better infrastructure.

He wanted to improve the transportation system so that the armies could move more easily and to enhance internal trade. He also emphasized the creation of large armies for military offense and the production of the best armaments. The technology advanced so that iron tools and weapons became common in Qin.

For about a generation from 269 to 230 BC, they focused on building up their army and settling the land to provide food for their expeditions and to create wealth. They forced the people to build the Wei River Canal, Dujiangyan, roads and other projects and to be soldiers.

The new philosophy, weaponry, and construction projects made the large Qin armies ready for conquests.

The End of the Zhou Dynasty (230-221 BC)

King Zheng (260-210) started to rule the Qin in 246 BC when he was 13. During a short period of time, his ruling court mobilized Qin for conquests and then started invading the other states in 230 BC.

Several of the states surrendered instead of fighting. In 230, Han surrendered to Qin. They defeated Wei in 225. In 223, they succeeded in conquering Chu after a major defeat. Chu also had a large army and a lot of territory, but they were surprised by a sudden attack.

In 222 BC Qin conquered Yan and Zhao, and in 221 BC Qin conquered the last state called Qi. This is how the Qin Empire began. King Zheng declared himself to be the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

Innovations in Military Tactics and Technology

Partly through the efforts of the Qin dynastic court, in the Warring States Period, the technology in the region advanced so that iron tools and weapons became common. Iron swords were a fearsome weapon of the Qin army.

Instead of corps of dozens of chariots, organized armies of with cavalry and masses of infantry became common. In the end, the Qin could muster armies of hundreds of thousands.

The military strategist Sun Tzu is said to have written The Art of War. It was an influential book about warfare. Other influential books about warfare were written during the era as well.

Philosophical and Religious Literature

The great literary works of philosophy and religion that became the basis for later Chinese religious and social belief stem from the Warring States Period (475-221). However, what we know about the philosophies and literature of those times is limited to mainly just the schools of Taoism, Confucianism, and Legalism because the first Qin Emperor decreed that all literature other than those about Legalism and a few scientific fields be destroyed.

There was a simultaneous emergence of religions and philosophies in the middle and late Zhou Dynasty era that is called the "One Hundred Schools of Thought". There were hundreds of philosophers and writers who wrote conflicting documents, and there was discussion and communication.

Since there were many different countries with their own languages, religion and philosophies, many philosophers could write and teach about their ideas simultaneously. They lived in small kingdoms and were often supported by their kings.

The Book Burning of the Qin

In Chinese history, the dominant rulers generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression that contradict their own.

When Qin Shi Huang Di became the first emperor in 221, he wanted to stop all opposition and force everyone to agree with him. He decreed the killing of all teachers who disagreed with him and the destruction of all texts except Legalism texts and some scientific texts.

Literally dozens of schools of philosophy, history, literature and science were so destroyed during the Warring States Period and the Qin Empire period that almost nothing is known about most of the "One Hundred Schools of Thought". Some information has emerged about a dominant philosophy of the time before the Qin Empire called Moism and the early Buddhism of the period.

The literature of the notable teachers that survived the book destruction included those of Confucius, Mencius, Xun Zi, Lao Zi or whoever wrote the Dao De Jing, Zhuang Zi, Mo Zi, and Shang Yang.

Li Si who was a Qin ruler in the Qin Empire's high court contributed Legalism texts and propagated the older Legalism literature he agreed with. He also standardized the writing system for the Qin Empire.

The major philosophical schools of the Warring States Period are described below.


Confucius was one of the early teachers who lived around the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476) of the Zhou Dynasty era or maybe at the beginning of the Warring States Period (475-221). Scholars are not sure about when he was born, but it is said that he lived between 551 and 479. He taught a philosophy that wasn't very deistic, but emphasized how various types of people should treat each other.

The Analects of Confucius is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples. For foreigners who want a taste of this Confucian philosophy, reading the Analects of Confucius is a good introduction since the statements are usually simple and much like common sense.

Two philosophers that came after Confucius were Mencius (371–289) and Xun Zi. Mencius is said to be the writer of the Confucian text called Mencius that is an important collection of philosophical dialogues. He may have been a disciple of Confucius' own grandson.

One of Mencius' basic teachings was that human nature is basically good but needs training, and he bases a lot of his philosophical theory on this axiom. This variety of Confucian philosophy was most widely accepted after the Qin era.

Xun Zi (c. 300–237 BC) taught that human nature is evil, and it is the antithesis.

The Confucianism that was adopted in the Han era was one somewhat mixed with Legalism. Scholars taught that a strong emperor was necessary. Mencius' philosophy became the standard Confucianism of the rulers of the Han Empire.

Confucius is one name most people in the West have heard about, and he might be the most influential of the Zhou era philosophers. He lived in Qufu, and most of the interesting sites about Confucius are in Qufu. Take a tour of Confucian sites in Qufu.

Daoist-Type Philosophy

A major school that became a basis for post-Qin religion is called Daoism. But it is said that Daoism wasn't thought of as a systematic school of philosophy and religion until the Han era.

In the Han era, the Dao De Jing (道德經) and a secondary text called the Zhuangzi (莊子) were considered to be the main Taoist scripture.

Dao De Jing means the Way of Virtue Scripture. It is said that a man named Laozi wrote the Dao De Jing; but historians debate about whether he wrote the text, when Laozi lived, and whether he was a real historical person

Most people place him as a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius. They say he lived around 450 or 600 BC. Others say that he lived about 380 BC.

It is thought that another influential Daoist philisopher named Zhuangzi wrote Zhuangzi.


As described above, Legalism as propagated by Shang Yang was the dominant political philosophy of Qin. It was the only legal philosophy in the Qin Empire (221-206 BC).

Shang Yang was a high official in the Qin court in 361, and he espoused this philosophy and made a lot of far-reaching reforms. This philosophy justified subservience to a strong emperor since people were said to be inherently selfish.

A later major philosopher of this school and an influential imperial ruler of the Qin court was named Li Si. He taught that human nature was naturally selfish and that a strong imperial government with strict laws was needed for social order.

Li Si's writings on politics and law and other texts of this school much influenced the political thinking in the Han Dynasty and later dynasties.

The Neo-Confucian philosophy of the Song Dynasty was a mixture of Confucianism and Legalism, and the system dictated that people must fulfill the roles assigned to them by tradition, by birth, and by their rulers.


Mo Zi (470-391) and the Moist school was said to be popular before the Qin Empire era, but it was severely persecuted by the Qin rulers so that not much is known about them or their literature.

It is said that he believed that "everyone is equal before heaven" and that people should imitate heaven by engaging in practicing collective love. It is known that some of the scientific concepts of the Moist school were advanced for their time.

Tours of Warring States Period Sites

To see Qin Empire sites and learn more about this dynasty of 2,200 years ago first hand, the best place to go is to the museum of the Terracotta Warriors and other sites in Xi'an. See our Xi'an tours.

The Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan has the largest collection of artifacts from the Warring States era. A visit to the museum can be easily combined with a Wuhan tour or a Yangtze cruise.

Visit Luoyang with our Luoyang Tours. You can see remains of the Zhou era and later empires as well, since Luoyang was the capital of several big empires that emerged later. An important Zhou Dynasty site is the Museum of the Zhou Imperial Carriages where you can tour the archeological excavations and see the artifacts.