Cities of Warring States China


There are five reasons for a city to fall. The first is long walls and too few people. The second is the walls being too small and overcrowded. The third is not enough food. The fourth is the market being too far from the walls. The fifth is livestock and supplies outside [the walls] and the rich living in the suburbs.


The great cities of China from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC were built of wood and dirt. Little remains of them except some city walls and palace foundations of pounded earth, but they set the pattern for urban China’s whole future course. This era, aptly known as the Warring States, was one of total war. Since the fall of the Western Zhou monarchy in 771 BC there had been no effective central authority over the whole Chinese world. Zhou’s former fiefdoms devoured each other. Some became large, independent states that created substantial walled cities. The Warring States powers needed to be able to use all their human and other resources in order to survive, and the capitals of the seven leading players had to be fortresses to frustrate and exhaust an invading army. In these cities rulers encouraged the development of bureaucratic government through which they could register all the people of the state, tax them and conscript them for labour or military service. They did not allow the people any part in government.

The northern power, Yan, built a new capital, Xiadu, some 100 km (60 miles) southwest of the old one in Beijing in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC to anchor a line of southern defences. The city was surrounded by over 25 km (15 miles) of pounded-earth walls, no doubt built by forced labour. This stretch still stands nearly 7 m (23 ft) high.

The great Warring States capitals dwarfed earlier Chinese cities. The measurable walls of three of them enclosed 15 to 18 sq. km (6–7 sq. miles): Linzi, the capital of Qi, in today’s Shandong; Handan, the capital of Zhao some 320 km (200 miles) to the west; and Ying, the capital of Chu, the great power of the middle and lower Yangtze, 900 km (560 miles) to the southwest. The biggest walled city of the period was the Yan capital, Yan Xiadu (southwest of Beijing), which was at least 20 times the size of Yan’s earlier capital when it had been a Zhou fief, and twice as big as Linzi. Most had both inner and outer walls, the inner being vital. Each probably had a population of one or more hundred thousand. In each state there were also many other smaller but still substantial walled cities. Revolutions in agriculture and commerce made such big cities possible. Cast-iron tools enabled farmers to produce far more food, which led in turn to more people and rapid economic growth. In the great capitals the most important structures apart from the city walls and gates were the palace complexes of the rulers, which were walled off from the rest of the city. Close by were the central government offices, where armies of officials and clerks kept the records and issued the orders through which the country was run. All capitals would also have housed large garrisons of some of the state’s best troops. Civilians lived in walled wards.

In times of foreign invasion the whole urban population would be organized for the city’s defence. A siege was terrible for both attackers and defenders. For the author of Sun zi’s Art of War, attacking a walled city was to be avoided if at all possible. It took three months to prepare the siege engines and another three months to build the earth ramps from which to storm the wall. If an impatient commander sent his troops swarming into the attack like ants he would lose a third of them – and the city still might not fall.

One class of city dwellers who had everything to lose from war were the artisans who had to make military equipment as unpaid labour service. Some of them joined the Mohists, an anti-establishment political party that followed the teachings of Mo zi, a 5th-century BC thinker who wanted to end the extravagance of rulers at the common people’s expense, and opposed aggressive war. Mohists became specialists in the techniques of counter-siege warfare and were sent to defend cities facing attack. The book Mo zigives detailed instructions on how to organize a defence, covering methods of mobilizing the city-dwellers and also military technology, including the use of counter-mining and poison gas weapons.

Stone-lined channels allowed torrential summer rainwater out under the pounded-earth western wall of Linzi, while letting water into the city at other times. Linzi was for over a thousand years the great metropolis of eastern China, surviving the end of the independent state of Qi to go on flourishing under the Han dynasty.

Most Warring States political thinkers and freelance strategists sought an audience with a king in order to pitch him a plan that would make him secure and his country strong, so winning themselves a lucrative job. Some kings encouraged thinkers of many schools to come to their capitals. In Linzi, the Qi capital, for instance, there was an academy where they could stay. Out of the ferment of ideas in Warring States cities came the principles and practices of bureaucratic authoritarian rule that were to govern China for the next 2,000 years and more.

Merchants and trade were essential to the prosperity of the great cities and were closely regulated – commerce was confined to state-controlled markets. Some traders developed business theories to match the military thinking of Sun zi and others. Each capital was linked with the others and with hundreds of smaller cities by a dense network of trade routes. The twin cities that made up the powerless Zhou dynasty’s capital at Luoyang had lost all political importance, but flourished as a commercial metropolis. Having no great state behind them, Luoyang people had to live on their wits, and they traded across the Chinese world.

The city walls did not always provide security. In a line with an aristocratic tomb just south of the walls of Yan Xiadu are 14 pits filled with an estimated 30,000 human skulls. A sample analysed proved to be nearly all of men aged between 18 and 35. No doubt they belonged to soldiers of a losing side in Yan’s civil wars and foreign invasions of the late 4th century who were sacrificed to the tomb owner, an earlier victim of the troubles.

A strategist trying to talk up the city of Linzi at about this time paints a more lively picture. He estimates that each of its 70,000 households had three men capable of bearing arms.

Linzi enjoys great and solid prosperity. All its people play pipes, zithers and lutes; they enjoy cockfights, dog racing, board games and kickball. In the streets of Linzi the carts scrape hubs and people jostle past each other. They are crowded so close together that their clothes are like a hanging screen. Their sleeves form a canopy when they lift them, and when they shake off their sweat it falls like rain.

A bronze mythical winged animal inlaid with silver, late 4th century BC, from a royal tomb of the hill state of Zhongshan that neighboured Yan and Qi. The highly skilled craftsmen of Warring States times had to perform labour service for their rulers, but could also work for the market.

Hebei Provincial Cultural Relics Institute, Shijiazhuang.

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