For a general overview of the Chinese Dynasties see:
Consolidation Under Qin
While power politics and administrative efficiency became paramount during the Warring States period the discursive milieu in which it occurred suggested a common goal for that pursuit of power. Any revolutions that occurred after Confucius and during this period were indeed substantial, but only reinforced trends that had been in place before Confucius during the rise of Qi. During the Zhanguo period a declining Jin state and a rising Chu state were pitted against each other with many of the middle states playing decisive roles in the war between them. Out of these initial battles other states began to rise. The first of these was Wu. The Jin state broke apart during a period of civil strife into three separate states: Han, Wu, and Zhao. Of them Wu remained the most vital. Wu was succeeded by Wei and finally by Qin. Each of these only realized a very brief sort of dominance and nothing resembling the ba system that had existed previously. In each of these states their ascendance was formed in the same way that Qi had realized its dominance: through administrative innovation to improve their ability to rule over a territory that they already recognized as unitary whole. In Wei, for example, large-scale feudal farming was replaced by small-scale farming with lands allocated to households.
This allowed for increased production with decreased control which further increased the efficiency of the state. Competing states would quickly copy the innovations of the rising state in order to manage and restrain each other’s ability to dominate. Over a relatively short period of time administrative capacities to manage the various subsystems changed and improved at a remarkable pace. The sovereign principle remained more or less totalizing though: centralize all power, remove challengers, and increase efficiency. Whether proto-Confucian, Confucian, or Legalist all of these philosophies reinforced the pre-existing sovereign principle. It was really a matter of finding the proper set of administrative tools to realize the new efficiency principle embedded in this Qi sovereign principle. In many ways Qin’s rise to dominance was surprising. Where Chu was large and wealthy, Qin was smaller and relatively poor. Where Wu formed a central part of the Chinese core states, Qin languished on the eastern periphery. Where Wei and Qi were contemporary innovators with much greater power and wealth Qin was ignored, under constrant threat and in a strategically inopportune place. All of that began to change around under the ministrations of Shang Yang. Shang Yang was chief minister to the Qin duke Hsiao around 358 BC.1
While minister he was equally formidable and despicable; he was a leader cut in Machiavellian cloth. It was his internal reforms that allowed Qin to gain the strength and momentum necessary to conquer the whole of the Zhou order even after his execution. We can focus simply and briefly on the three reformations that had the most profound consequences on Qin’s fortunes: agricultural reform, abolishing slave labor, and the creation of a written and stable set of laws.
Beginning with last, the Book of Law, which Shang Yang introduced created what Li Yu-Ning has referred to as a principle of collective liability.2 Anybody associated with a lawbreaker was equally culpable. The draconian punishments ensconced in the law had a profound effect on the relationship between the gentry and the aristocracy, “an important purpose of this [law] was to strike at the resistance of the declining slave owner-aristocrats, in order to safeguard the interests of [the] newly rising landlord class, and thereby consolidate its regime.” 3 The laws, which threatened death to those that abetted criminals in any way, worked to encourage compliance with the other reforms that Shang Yang undertook. In so doing Shang Yang was able to erode the economic base of aristocratic power. Shang Yang’s agricultural reforms put farms into the hands of peasant farmers and removed them from aristocratic control. In tandem his agricultural and legal reforms encouraged greater production while simultaneously removing levels of governance between the central bureaucracy and the masses. The policy of collective liability was similarly applied to the productive efforts of the masses. Lack of production was grounds for punishment. Feudal tithing was eliminated at the same time that command and control functions of the bureaucracy were extended and deepened. This level of despotism and cruelty would continue to define Qin even after its victory and the establishment of the Qin dynasty.
Shang Yang was known as a capable general, but it was primarily after his death that Qin began the process of shifting from a defensive development phase to an offensive consolidation phase.4 In 316 BC Qin began conquering the states in its immediate vicinity.5 Besides evidencing the superior strength that was developing in the state of Qin it provided a practical strategic advantage.The local consolidation during this period allowed Qin to remove its immediate geopolitical threats and provide a secure base from which it could strike out at neighboring states. Its new territory was well-protected from most barbarian incursions and had secured an important breadbasket—the states of Shu and Ba that bordered Qin to the south.6/3
This strategic advantage would prove decisive in securing further political advantages. Subsequent rulers would draw heavily upon Shang Yang’s administrative innovations, but would also develop their own methods of conquest and consolidation. Influential in the consolidation process was a Legalist philosopher named Han Feizi. Disregarded in his own state, his teachings were ironically used by the king of Qin, Qin Ying Zheng, who later conquered Han Feizi’s home state. Burton Watson says of Han Feizi, “He is not the inventor of Legalism, buts its perfecter, having left us the final and most readable exposition of its theories.”6
Inasmuch as it was Qin Ying Zheng who would come to conquer the six other major states and consolidate China under imperial rule we ought to be particularly interested in what Han Feizi had to say about the nature of power, politics, and rule. The core concepts that he supported were deception and control. This was not an overt form of deception, but rather one that poker players might call ‘keeping it close to the vest’. Among ministers, allies, and enemies the chief imperative for the leader was to never reveal what he wanted. Doing so allowed ministers to curry favor and build private cliques and it allowed other states to prepare for one’s advances— diplomatic or otherwise. The core of this idea is that the ruler should act as a unitary ruler. As Han Feizi puts it:…the Way itself is never plural—therefore it is called a unity. For this reason the enlightened ruler prizes solitariness, which is the characteristic of the Way. The ruler and his ministers do not follow the same way. The ministers name their proposals, the ruler holds fast to the name, and the ministers come forward with the results. When names and results match, then superior and inferior will achieve harmony. The way to listen to the words of the ministers is to take the statements that come from them and compare them with the powers that have been invested in them. Therefore you must examine names carefully in order to establish ranks, clarify duties in order to distinguish worth. This is the way to listen to the words of others: be silent as though in a drunken stupor. . . . Let others say their piece—I will gain knowledge thereby. 7
This passage espouses a new and final evolution of the prior sovereign principle. Where prior rulers had progressively removed lesser nobility from the offices of power in favor of what some have termed a meritocracy they still allowed too much of what Han Feizi might term a ‘plurality’. Left to their own devices the ministers— while more loyal than the aristocracy—would still plot to gain power, curry favor, and generally improve their standing. By gathering as much information as possible while not revealing any of his own information or preferences, the ruler was thus able to consolidate power within the state and initiate actions surreptitiously outside the state. Subsequent writings by Han Feizi suggest that the ruler ought to build bridges with other states rather than arbitrarily maintain adversarial relationships with powerful opponents and ought to exploit those advantages where necessary. 8 The state had finally become a unitary thing in the minds of rulers and philosophers alike. It was neither ministers, nor rulers who were the state, but the reason of the state, the Way, that represented the state. The ruler was now entreated to make decisions solely on the basis of relative power. The Ten Faults warns against using increased power towards decadent ends.
Outside the state the traditional balancing strategies of lianheng (horizontal balancing similar to bandwagoning) and hezong (vertical balancing similar to balancing) became tools to be used when advantageous and spurned when disadvantageous. While other states debated the superiority of one strategy over the other and only changed reluctantly Qin was notable because of the alacrity and fluidity of its strategy. This manner of administrating the state and interstate relations was aided in large part by Qin Pin Zheng’s ability to comprehend and act upon Han Feizi’s admonitions. In 221 when Qin Ping Zheng became Qin Shi Huangdi (First Emperor of Qin) the Zhou system had finally and fundamentally shifted under the weight and efficiency of this new ascendant sovereign principle; a sovereign principle far closer to modern absolute sovereignty.
Strong leaders weak armies
How were the social subsystems evolving during this period? This is, of course, a central question. It is thus, beneficial to proceed with a brief examination of the state of the subsystems at the beginning of the Western Zhou period.
There is some disagreement regarding the nature and scope of the Western Zhou security subsystem. Without a doubt, it was founded upon the technology of the chariot, but the centrality of the chariot to actual battlefield tactics is somewhat unclear. Lewis contends that chariot warfare was largely ornamental, in much the same way that combat between knights in Europe was during the Middle Ages, but Hsu and Linduff argue that it was the combined superiority of Zhou tactics over broken ground and the ability of the Zhou to use the chariot as a command and control structure that led to their early triumphs over the Shang.9
This difference of opinion suggests that in spite of the technology available at the time certain norms of warfare existed beforehand which limited the organization and extent of warfare. Regardless of whether one believes Lewis or Hsu and Linduff we ought to be struck by both the small size of the armies-usually smaller than 30,000 strong-and the odd centrality of chariots given the plethora of hills, mountains, and rivers. The Zhou superiority in tactics was thus a marginal one. We can infer from this a number of things about the centrality of warfare and the scope of the security subsystem. The most important of these was that there was a concerted effort to limit the art of war to a specific class. This limitation had a profound effect on the ability of the Zhou to exert their power over great distances. The logistical abilities that a larger army provides that were missing from the Western Zhou period. The nature of the chariot, an offensive weapon, and the small size of the armies forced the security subsystem into a secondary role. While one could communicate with one’s neighbors because of the horse one was also unable to exert coercive control over them from a distance.
Zhou territory was vast; from the capital the king was limited in his ability to enforce any peace among his vassals or the barbarians. The Zhou population was not small by any means and we can thus attribute a good deal of this limitation to the structure of the security subsystem. Military honors and battlefield successes were largely reserved for the elites. Foot soldiers were present, but were artificially limited in their unit size and prescribed role during this period. The material for an expansive security subsystem had probably existed from early on in the Zhou dynasty, but during the Western Zhou period this type of expansion did not take place with any regularlity.
Over the course of the eight centuries from the rise of Zhou to the rise of Qin the security subsystem underwent remarkable changes. By the time Qin Ping Zheng came to power armies had shifted to massive infantries. The chariot was almost entirely displaced. The aristocratic norm of calling out one’s opponent and engaging in individual combat had been replaced by massive engagements with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sometimes hundreds of thousands of casualties. The new principle of absolute sovereignty accelerated the process of creating new, better, bigger, and faster armies.
In the Art of War Sun Tzu speaks of armies numbering a hundred thousand.10 Of them he notes the cost and the social upheaval, remarking that spies are far superior because they limit the length of war and improve tactics during the engagement. As Sun Tzu remarked, “Only the farsighted rulers and their superior commanders who can get the most intelligent people as their spies are destined to accomplish great things. Intelligence is of the essence in warfare—it is what the armies depend upon in their every move.”11/300 The evolution of warfare after Sun Tzu may be seen as attempts to reduce the cost of massive armies, increase their efficacy, and improve their ability to assert control abroad over time. Sun Tzu saw the value in limiting the number and extent of engagements. Subsequent rulers attempted to overcome the costs that led Sun Tzu to those conclusions.
Contrary to Victoria Hui's claims that the logic of domination was not inevitable, the nature of the Zhou world order always bound the Zhou feudal states together in important ways. The origins of transborder sovereignty and the shift to absolute sovereignty followed logically-and more or less efficiently-from the changing nature of the social subsystems and the changing priorities placed upon each of them individually. Through it all the Chinese world order had effectively delineated those who were bound, by kith or by kin, and those who were merely barbarians. Though the specific content of this unity might change over time, the overarching linkage provided by a shared ideology provides important clues about when, why and how sovereign principles in ancient China evolved over time.
From the ascendancy of King Wen to the beginning of the Chunqiu period the relative scope of the security subsystem remained the same. It had a central role in aristocratic identity, but a subsidiary role to the control of the dynasty. While wars were rather frequent, engagements were limited, and the art of conquering and occupying territory was even more limited. However, around the time of Sun Tzu we know that armies began to expand rapidly and that the centrality of the chariot to warfare began to decline as well. This shift happened rather close to the period in which the sovereign principle shifted from transborder to absolute. The trade subsystem was limited as well. For example, we know that while more advanced and developed than other early civilizations-because of the prevalence of iron in the area-that the Zhou dynasty did not cultivate land much beyond its network of interlinked cities. The abundance of iron allowed for improvements in agriculture that the west would not experience for quite some time.
However, the feudal system of regulating the farms ensured that the productive capacities of the farmers were arbitrarily limited. China was growing cities and states at a remarkable rate. The growth and dominance of the Zhou dynasty were aided by their agricultural techniques and limited by their inability to profit from it efficiently. The role structure of this trade subsystem was based largely on slavery and serfdom. Free farmers were only small parts of the system during the Western Zhou period. The diffuse network of fiefs meant that the amount of land being tilled was correspondingly small. The serfs and slaves would work near the fief, but much of the intermediate frontiers between the fiefs was left to barbarians and was only mildly integrated into the economic system of the Zhou dynasty.
The trading subsystem was limited as well. For example, we know that while more advanced and developed than other early civilizations-because of the prevalence of iron in the area-that the Zhou dynasty did not cultivate land much beyond its network of interlinked cities.12 The abundance of iron allowed for improvements in agriculture that the west would not experience for quite some time. However, the feudal system of regulating the farms ensured that the productive capacities of the farmers were arbitrarily limited.13 China was growing cities and states at a remarkable rate. The growth and dominance of the Zhou dynasty was aided by their agricultural techniques and limited by their inability to profit from it efficiently.
The role structure of this trade subsystem was based largely on slavery and serfdom. Free farmers were only small parts of the system during the Western Zhou period. The diffuse network of fiefs meant that the amount of land being tilled was correspondingly small. The serfs and slaves would work near the fief, but much of the intermediate frontiers between the fiefs was left to barbarians and was only mildly integrated into the economic system of the Zhou dynasty. The trade subsystem was limited relative to the ideological subsystem.
Near the middle of the Chunqiu period coinage began to appear in the Zhou empire. The first coins to be found throughout the Zhou states were those of Jin.14 Jin held the ba from 632 BC to roughly 550 BC. We can attribute this shift in technology and the increasing scope of the trade subsystem to this period. Perhaps coins had originated prior to this period, but they had not found wide circulation in the way that Jin’s coinage had. The use of coinage in place of other alternatives had two profound effects on the trade subsystem. First, it disrupted the linkage between feudal lords and peasants. It was no longer necessary to have a slave class and an overlord class. Control could be exerted through taxation. By releasing the peasants from the control of the aristocracy-and often then forcing them towards small household farming-subsequent rulers were able to vastly increase the size of the land being tilled. Large populations farming small plots close to the city were becoming obsolete. By the time Shang Yang began implementing changes the goal had shifted broadly to cultivating as much as area as possible and directly monitoring and taxing the product of the peasants.
The change in the trade and security subsystems is therefore nearly identical. Their relative scopes had always been quite similar to each other, but had been outstripped by the ideological subsystem. During the Chunqiu period both began to shift rapidly outwards. The declining viability of the Mandate of Heaven was foretold by the rising importance of infantry armies and currency based economies. Once Jin began to use coinage widely the mandate was effectively defunct. The state of Qi’s ascendance to hegemon started the process by which these other events began to unfold.
it is notable that during the long period of consolidation no state had to undertake an extensive program of Sinicization in the way that Romans and the French had to undertake nation-building projects. This ought to highlight to us the extent which the Zhou empire during this period was a consolidated state waiting to be realized. This is not to imply a teleological inevitability to the rise of the Qin dynasty-the aristocracy could have responded differently, the barbarian incursions could have had more or less profound consequences-instead it suggests that the ability of one state to dominate the others was informed by an understanding of all the states as inherently linked. Where the security and trade subsystems changed and grew rapidly in the middle of the Chunqiu period, the ideological subsystem seems to have been rather stagnant. China, during this period, did not grow substantially, but its internal unity rapidly increased. The shift from transborder sovereignty to absolute sovereignty was a case of the state catching up to the nation rather than, in the European case, the nation catching up to the state. Mark Lewis noted of this shift that:
The new style of polity that appeared in the Warring States period was both an expansion and a contraction of the old Zhou model. It was an expansion in that it developed a full-blown territorial state in place of the city-based state of the Zhou world, but it was a contraction in that it concentrated all power in the court of the single monarch. . . . The foundations of these changes were laid in the Spring and Autumn period, when the pressures of war which had led both rulers and ministerial households to increase their armies through the recruitment of the rural populace. 15
It would take some time for the shift in sovereign principles to be fully realized by the rulers who invented it, but it was an idea which grew firmly and solidly out of the ba system which had preceded it.
The essential structure of the ideological subsystem at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty was built on a two-fold distinction. One tenet held the centrality of king and the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule. The second tenet held the centrality of law and order variously derived as the overarching legitimating factor for any given ruler. This sounds more beneficent than it actually was, but among elites it provided the justification for both their overthrow of the Shang dynasty and the stability of their rule during theWestern Zhou period. Working together the first rule created a center of gravity within the international order while the second rule expanded the scope of the subsystem to new states and new peoples. The moralistic underpinnings of the mandate provided compelling leverage for negotiations with barbarian peoples as the Zhou began to develop the frontiers inside and outside their empire.
After the shift to Luoyang and the formation of the ba system the first tenet of the ideological subsystem, the centrality of the king, began to weaken fundamentally. Without the centralizing force of the king the second part of the ideological subsystem continued to function, but lost much of its coherence. The intellectual milieu that developed during the end of the Chunqiu period reflected much of this problem. Zhou elites were struggling to form a legitimate basis for rule absent a consistently legitimate ruler. The resulting uncertainty caused by this loss of a center caused the ideological subsystem to stagnate. Many of the roles remained the same; the relationship of the states to each other and the hierarchy among nobles remained more or less consistent. Other roles changed significantly. The relationship between feudal lords and royal ministers changed fundamentally after the Legalist philosophies came to dominate the political and social realms.
The ideological subsystem stagnated because many of the policies of development were turned inwards on the states themselves. The content of Zhou identity was fairly stable, but the organization, the social hierarchy, that it implied underwent drastic changes. The shift from kinship-based aristocracy to a meritocracy created profound upheavals in Zhou society. The ultimate effect was to increase the density of relationships in a stable area rather than expand that area. The growth of the Zhou order during the period was rather slow. A few states on periphery did come to play a major role in the politics of the time- Chu and Qin, chief among them-however the relative growth of this subsystem slowed substantially during the Eastern Zhou period. It should come as no surprise then that the relatively large size of the ideological subsystem as the beginning of Western Zhou period began to a have a smaller and smaller impact on Zhou sovereign principles during the Chunqiu period.
Contrary to Victoria Hui's claim that the logic of domination was not inevitable, the nature of the Zhou world order always bound the Zhou feudal states together in important ways. The origins of transborder sovereignty and the shift to absolute sovereignty followed logically-and more or less efficiently-from the changing nature of the social subsystems and the changing priorities placed upon each of them individually. Through it all the Chinese world order had effectively delineated those who were bound, by kith or by kin, and those who were merely barbarians. Though the specific content of this unity might change over time, the overarching linkage provided by a shared ideology provides important clues about when, why and how sovereign principles in ancient China evolved over time.
Transborder sovereignty evolved because the Zhou king was able to establish a broad kinship network, over a thousand fiefdoms, over the whole of ancient China, and keep those fiefs linked through fealty to the Mandate of Heaven. Even when the number of states had dwindled drastically to around one hundred fifty by the beginning of the Chunqiu period the mandate was still a compelling linkage between the remaining states. The mandate was strong, but the ability to develop and control the internal regions of the state was very limited. Even up through the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period non-Chinese peoples lived in the lands between the fiefs and were outside the immediate control of the feudal lords and largely excluded from the trade patterns that were developing.16
During the Chunqiu period Zhou’s policies of expansion turned inwards. Many of the social and technological improvements were focused on growing the individual states. The ideological subsystem became dedicated to the expansion and improvement of the individual states. This allowed for the absorption and expulsion of the non-Chinese peoples and also allowed for a dramatic increase in productive capacity. In so doing the states increased the population from which they could draw troops for the incessant and internecine wars in which they were engaged. Furthermore they increased their capacity to fund those wars and provide the logistical support necessary to sustain the wars over great distances. The inward focus of the ideological subsystem was countered by the expanding importance of the trade and security subsystems. By the time we reach the Zhanguo period the sovereign principle had already shifted to absolute sovereignty. Within the context of the warring states each had realized what was at stake and the basic process by which one might achieve dominance. The rapid and successive improvements in the bureaucracies’ extractive and organizational capacities represent competitive attempts be the first to unite the seven states and to be the first to reclaim the Mandate of Heaven. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the Han Dynasty, who compiled much of what we know about ancient China, quotes Qin Ping Zheng’s advisors as saying, “But now Your Majesty had raised troops to punish the evil and remiss, brought peace to the world, made the entire area within the seas into provinces and districts, and insured that laws and rulings shall proceed from a single authority. From highest antiquity to the present, such a thing has never occurred before, nor could the Five Emperors equal it.”17
This implies of course that the seven states considered themselves a bound group, “the world”, and that such a goal had been the aim of prior kings and emperors, “such a thing has never occurred before.” We can therefore accept that absolute sovereignty, as a principle, had existed prior to the first Qin emperor. The shift from transborder sovereignty to absolute sovereignty presents us with a distinctly different story than what we have traditionally accepted. We tend to accept without question the existence of the state before the nation, of the bureaucracy before territoriality, and of a heteronomous feudalism before an ordered and comprehensible anarchy. Instead, ancient China shows us a highly structured feudalism, a territorially bound state that struggled to develop a bureaucracy to govern it, and a nation rich in tradition before a state could grow powerful enough to govern it. These variations on feudalism lead us back to the basic premise of this dissertation. Sovereign principles are more complex, more fluid, and more varied than we tend to realize. Furthermore, it does not seem that technology or war or wealth by themselves dictate the course of this sovereign evolution and instead it seems to reinforce the claim that we have made earlier, that it is the relative scope of the underlying subsystems that dictates the timing and nature of sovereign shifts.
1. Mark E. Lewis,Warring States Political History. In The Cambridge history of ancient China: from the origins of civilization to 221 B.C, edited by M. Loewe and E. L. Shaughnessy, 1999, pg. 635.
2. Yu-ning Li, Introduction. In Shang Yang's reforms and state control in China, edited by K. u. Yang and Y. Li, 1977.
3. Ibid. pg. 36
4. phase 292 Sun Tzu refers to Lord Shang as a talented general, but not all that skilled. Ibid.
5. vicinity 293 Lewis. Warring States Political History.
6. Burton Watson, Introduction. In Han Feizi: basic writings, edited by F. Han and B. Watson, 2003, pg. 4. (Burton Watson, Introduction. In Han Feizi: basic writings, edited by F. Han and B. Watson, 2003, pg. 4).
7. Fei Han and Burton Watson. Han Feizi: basic writings, Translations from the Asian classics, 2003, pp. 37-8.
8. This is suggested in ‘The Ten Faults’. Ibid.
9. Hsü, and Linduff. Western Chou civilization. pg. 85 Lewis. Warring States Political History. pg.620
10/299 Sunzi, and Clausewitz.
11/300 Ibid. pg.125
12.301 Hsü, and Linduff. Western Chou civilization.
14. Hsü, Cho-yün. Ibid. The Spring and Autumn Period.
15. Lewis, Mark E. Ibid. Warring States Political History. pp. 597-8
16. Hsü, Cho-yün. Ibid. The Spring and Autumn Period.
17. Qian Sima and Burton Watson, Records of the grand historian, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 42-3).