For a general overview of the Chinese Dynasties see:

Separate States, Common Goals in Ancient China:

The Warring States Period as a transitional phase to imperial China.

The first reliable historic period in Chinese history also corresponds with its longest stable dynasty: the Zhou. The Eastern Zhou period is commonly broken up into two separate periods: the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn) period, and the Zhanguo (Warring State) period.1 These two periods spanned roughly from 722 BC to 221 BC.2 Because the Zhou kings lacked a strong centralized authority and ruled with a vassalage system this has invited easy comparisons to vassalage system employed in Europe some fifteen hundred years later.

However, there are generally two failures within the historical analyses of sovereignty-a limitation in scope and in time.3 The limitation of scope, the Eurocentric predilection of international relations, has been the subject of numerous critiques by sinologists. The main critique is that the patterns of international relations in Chinese history are significantly different from those that we see in European history. What Hui calls the logic of domination-as opposed to the logic of balancing-is taken to define an alternate paradigm of international relations.

Ideological systems get individuals to come to an agreement on how the world is; ideological systems are systems of shared belief. More commonly ideological systems can be understood as religious, nationalist, and philosophical beliefs, as well as a host of other connections to civic associations, and society. With the number of potential ideological systems being potentially infinite it becomes difficult to determine which systems are more crucial than others. Clearly, however, not all identities are created equally. Thus the challenge is not predicting which identity or belief system will become dominant, but merely tracking how it becomes dominant over time and space. The triumph of one ideological organization over another is less important than the effect that triumph will have on the scope of the ideological subsystem as a whole. Ideological subsystems thus are simply the rules and methods of inclusion.

Numerous scholars have suggested points of comparison between China and the Europe.4 The attraction in all of these comparisons is based upon the fact that both periods were indeed feudal. That is, the rulers used vassalage as a means of ruling over vast territories that they were otherwise incapable of ruling. As demonstrated here and here, however, it would be a mistake to simply equate feudalism with sovereignty. Feudalism, which is the system of vassalage between lord and liege and between liege and serf, represented the organizational structure of one subsystem. The bartered sovereignty that emerged in Europe was the result of a composite of various systems: the extensiveness of the church, the paucity of towns and poverty of trade, and the limitations of horseback warfare. It would be a gross oversimplification to equate one feudal structure to another.

Feudal states in China were more autonomous, had no overlapping, cross-cutting authorities, and had strong territorial markers. Given this it would seem that they had an entirely different set of sovereign principles at work. Indeed, one argument that we will be making today, is that during the course of the Zhou Dynasty we see a shift from transborder sovereignty to absolute sovereignty with the Warring States Period representing a transitional phase to imperial China.

For example, when the Zhou defeated the Shang they had relatively weak coercive control over the empire they compensated for this with a relatively strong ideological subsystem in the form of the Mandate of Heaven (t’ien ming). The accelerated growth of the security subsystem in the 5th century BC encouraged norms entrepreneurs to develop new principles of rule. The relatively underdeveloped trade subsystem hampered efforts to consolidate rule until the late 3rd century BC. Innovations in trade and agriculture in the 4th and 3rd century BC encouraged an expansion of the trade subsystem relative to the other subsystems. When the trade subsystem became relatively the same size as the security and ideology subsystems the new sovereign principle rapidly began to structure a stable international order.

The transborder sovereignty that developed during the beginning of the Zhou dynasty is similar to bartered sovereignty in numerous ways. This is probably what leads to the conflation of the two in comparisons of China and Europe. In both the Zhou Dynasty and medieval France the security subsystem and the trade subsystem are relatively the same size while there is a relatively large ideological subsystem at work. The key difference is the marked underdevelopment of the trade and security subsystems in the case of bartered sovereignty. In the European case the geographic scale of Christendom so far outstripped the scope of the cities and fiefs that Christendom’s organizational structure provided little enforceable hierarchy on a day to day basis. It wasn’t until the fiefs and towns began their renaissance that lasting hierarchies began to emerge.

In the case of the Zhou Dynasty each vassal state maintained a fair degree of power, especially among the seven major states. The linkage provided by the Mandate of Heaven was at once far weaker in its ability to generate unfailing faith in the essential holiness of the king, but was far stronger in its ability to create a rigid hierarchy among all the numerous vassals.5

The Confucian revolution of the Warring States Period largely circumscribed the ideological implications of the Mandate of Heaven while reinforcing the practical rigidity that its tenets suggested. This was not fully realized until after the Warring States Period with rising of the Qin and Han dynasties. Transborder sovereignty results from a set of circumstances where every political unit has the strength to assert its own independence but is still bound by the overarching loyalty to a single identity group, and where the range of available actions are constrained by the belonging. This claim must be weighed not only against the historical evidence but against prior and established arguments.

I will start with the argument by Victoria Hui that a logic of domination developed in China because of progressively self-strengthening reforms. Whereby Hui critiques two dominant beliefs about the nature of international relations, one Sinocentric, the other Eurocentric.

The Sinocentric contention is that empire and consolidation are inevitable. The Eurocentric contention is the opposite: balancing is the prevailing characteristic of the international system. Hui points to the relative weakness of the Qin state and its gradual ascent to total domination as proof that the inevitability of each logic is flawed. Hui contends that the logic of balancing and domination vary based the external constraints imposed by contending states and the internal ability to pursue what she calls self-strengthening reforms. The rise of the Qin dynasty was predicated upon the ability of Qin to subjugate other powers through superior strategy, superior tactics, and superior organization. While this tells a convenient story vis-à-vis realism and balance of power politics it leaves the question of sovereign principles unanswered.

Domination and balancing distinguish between the centripetal and centrifugal aspects of the international system without specifying the principles by which both forces operate. Hui is too quick to dismiss the importance of dynastic ideas in the Chinese case. Some world orders, such as medieval Europe are driven by non-state actors like the church.In the case of China, balance of power politics prevailed until Qin finally won out. However, even the context of this competition is limited by the prior dynasty that the feudal states warred over.The Zhou legacy while significantly weaker than Christendom bound all participants to at least acknowledge the inherent linkages between the states. Where Europe experienced an undisciplined feudalism—what some have called variously, fragmented, heteronymous, or acephalous—Chinese feudalism, even during the Chunqiu period, was highly organized and continued to recognize the centrality of Zhou law and identity.6

Roberts points out one definition of feudalism that fits with Hui’s conception: The use of the term [feudal] was first proposed by the Marxist historian Guo Moruo in the 1930s, and its first application to China is based on two assumptions. The first is that feudalism is a form of social organization which arises under certain conditions, namely the decline of a powerful centralized state, and its replacement by a congeries of small states owing only nominal loyalty to a central ruler. . . The second ground for describing the Western Zhou as feudal concerns the essential element of the feudal relationship, the granting of fiefs to vassals, who in return promise to provide their feudal lord with military support.7

But even according to this definition Western Zhou was not exactly feudal. Feudalism accompanied the rise of a powerful Zhou state and not the decline of Shang. The Zhou feudal system increased their ability of the king to rule over vast territories, instead of limiting their own absolute authority. This is further evidenced by the dispersion of Western Zhou bronze inscriptions in places distant from the central Zhou state. In Rome, it was a continual act of will to demand submission by the marcher kingdoms. In the Zhou Empire, this was hardly ever an issue. Even in the Warring States Period non-Zhou people implicitly accepted Zhou identity as they became involved in the system.8

In Europe, the idea of Christendom was gradually eclipsed by the idea of Europe and its parochial identities. In the Warring States period, the Zhou identity remained intact during the rise and fall of numerous hegemons. We must arrive at the conclusion that feudalism is a rather broad concept. The motives of domination are more indicative of sovereign principles than the strategies of domination. We may acknowledge the insights that Hui provides about the strategies and tactics of domination and competition while also understanding that something is missing. To say that every ruler throughout history must at least acknowledge the basic tools of rule and domination is not to say that every ruler ruled the same. While the tools may be constant, they build many different sorts of houses. This leaves us with a fairly clear picture of what remains to be explained. We can grant that Zhou feudalism created within it a logic of domination that Europe lacked. But what are we to make of the centrality of Zhou in the first place? Why did Zhou identity remain intact when their power had so obviously dissipated? We can grant that the Zhanguo period marked a period of profound turmoil producing within it profound physical destruction and intellectual ferment. But why were innovations—and more importantly, innovators—shared so widely among the kingdoms? Even when the last vestiges of Zhou had died out the common bonds between the Warring States was never in question. The Zhou dynasty presented what Roberts believes to be the first vestiges of a Chinese culture.248 A common language united all the various states; literacy is, of course, an entirely separate issue. Given the vastness of the territories and populations at issue the tenuous linkages are curious. The following section will attempt to reproduce the origins of the transborder sovereign principle as it developed in the early Zhou dynasty and as it evolved up to the beginning of the Qin dynasty in 221 BC.

Part 1: Rome

Part 2: Europe



1. I will use these identifiers–Spring and Autumn for Chunqiu and Zhanguo for the Warring States Period—interchangeably. This is nothing more than a stylistic choice.

2. The Western Zhou period began around the 10th century BC.

3. Hobden. International relations and historical sociology: breaking down boundaries, Hobden, S., and J. M. Hobson. 2002. Historical sociology of international relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Hobson, J. M. 1998. The ‘second wave’ of Weberian historical sociology: The historical sociology of the state and the state of historical sociology in international relations. Review of 5 (2):284-320.

4. Tilly, Charles. 2006. Westphalia and China Columbia International Affairs Online, 1998.

5. Hsü, Cho-yün, and Katheryn M. Linduff. 1988. Western Chou civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press.

6. Europe was described in these ways respectively by Gilpin, RB Hall, and Machiavelli (among others). For the centrality of Zhou identity see Cho-Yun Hsu. Gilpin, Hall, Rodney B. 2000. Book Review: The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics by Walter C. Opello, Jr.; Stephen J. Rosow. International Studies Review 2 (1):125 - 128, Hsü, Cho-yün. 1999. The Spring and Autumn Period. In The Cambridge history of ancient China: from the origins of civilization to 221 B.C, edited by M. Loewe and E. L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Machiavelli.

7. J. A. G. Roberts, A concise history of China. Cambridge, 1999, p.9.

8. Edward L.Shaughnessy, Western Zhou 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, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.








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