Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Sixty-Seven

The Rise of the Ch’in

In China, between 403 and 325 BCJin divides and Ch’in dominates

AFTER DECADES OF UNENDING BATTLES against neighbors, barbarians, and its own noblemen, the northern state of Jin finally cracked apart. Its fall is recorded by Sima Qian in cryptic terms: “In the twenty-fourth year of King Wei-lieh,” he writes, a year that works out to 403 BC, “the Nine Tripods shook. The king appointed Han, Wei, and Chao as feudal lords.”1

Han, Wei, and Chao were three battling families of the Jin state who had each claimed part of the Jin territory for themselves. When they demanded that the Eastern Zhou monarch recognize them as lords over their three newly defined lands, he had no power to refuse. The Nine Tripods shaking is a very bad metaphor indeed; the Eastern Zhou king had now lost his authority even over his own sacred sanction.

The Jin state, as such, ceased to exist. A tentative reconstruction of the map of China at the onset of the fourth century shows that the thirteen states of the Spring and Autumn Period had now become nine, with the Zhou territory still perched uneasily at the center. Chu had claimed the two states to its east, nearly doubling its size. Sung and Qi had survived, as had the Lu state, although Lu had shrunk. The three new states of Chao, Wei, and Han overflowed the old Jin territory to swallow the old states of Hsü, Cheng, and the old Wey; Yen had lost some of its western territory, but had made up for it by spreading east along the coast.

But the state that emerged as the biggest winner was Ch’in, which at least quadrupled its original size. Evenutally, the eastern border of the Ch’in stretched from the Yellow river all the way down to the Yangtze.

THE WARRING STATES PERIOD, which began with these nine states, continued as one might expect from the name: with constant wars. It would be weary to recount all of them in detail, but between 403 and 361, the unending interstate squabbles slowly shook the nine states out into a pecking order. By 361, the most powerful states on the plain lay in a three-state line, from east to west: Qi, Wei, and Ch’in. The massive Chu, down to the south, was temporarily preoccupied by the two eastern states which it had swallowed, the Wu and Yueh; both were struggling to break away.


67.1 The Warring States

The Qi state was the most prosperous; it had an unusual run of competent dukes, who collected taxes in an orderly manner and also managed to corner a salt monopoly.2 The Wei had the edge in military might. The Ch’in, all the way to the west, had a huge amount of territory, but it was a backwater state, far from the center of power, with a ridge of high lands separating it from the older Chinese states.3 These still regarded the Ch’in as semibarbaric. “The feudal lords of the Central States…treated Ch’in as an uncivilized Yi or Ti people,” Sima Qian comments.4Even a hundred years later, a Wei nobleman could sniff of Ch’in, “It is greedy, untrustworthy, and ignorant of polite manners, proper relationships, and upright behavior.”5

This began to change in 361 BC, when a nobleman named Shang Yang arrived at the court of the lord of Ch’in, offering to help make Ch’in into a major power.

Shang Yang was born in the new state of Wei, the son of a royal concubine and so barred from rule. He felt himself deserving of more power than his birth allowed, so when the news worked its way east that the new lord of Ch’in, Duke Hsiao, had sent out an invitation to all capable men to join him in making Ch’in stronger, he left his native land and journeyed to the west.187

Duke Hsiao was so impressed by Shang Yang’s ideas that he gave the man free rein to make whatever changes he thought necessary. At once, Shang Yang began a new regime by instituting strong penalties for treason and feuds; even private quarrels were punishable by law. To enforce this, he ordered Ch’in divided into a whole network of small squares, each containing not more than ten households, with each household given the responsibility of informing on any wrongdoing committed by the others. The people of Ch’in were, in the words of Shang Yang’s biographer, “mutually to control one another and to share one another’s punishments. Whoever did not denounce a culprit would be cut in half.”6 Nor was anyone allowed to escape the watchful eye of officials and neighbors by disappearing into the distance; innkeepers were forbidden to offer rooms to travellers unless those travellers carried official permits.

With this control mechanism in place, Shang Yang set about making Ch’in into a meritocracy. Rather than aping the ranks and privileges of the noble-dominated states to its east, Ch’in would turn its weakness—its lack of aristocracy, its blended heritage of Chinese and non-Chinese—into a strength. Titles would from now on be awarded by the duke solely on the basis of “military merit,” and aristocrats who couldn’t fight would be aristocrats no longer: “Those of the princely family, who had no military merit, could not be regarded as belonging to the princely clan.”7 Anxious to show that noble birth gave no privileges, Shang Yang even insisted that the duke’s own son Huiwen be punished when he commited a minor infraction of the new laws. This seems to have created a bit of trouble in the palace; Shang Yang finally admitted that it wouldn’t be a good idea to inflict capital punishment on the duke’s heir, and instead consented to executing one of Huiwen’s tutors and branding the other (or, according to some accounts, cutting off his nose).8

Furthermore, from now on no Ch’in citizen would be allowed to duck the task of performing useful labor for the good of the state. As far as Shang Yang was concerned, merchants were parasites who sold goods made by other men and took a cut of the proceeds. “Everyone had to assist in the fundamental occupations of tilling and weaving,” writes Sima Qian, of Shang Yang’s reforms, “and only those who produced a large quantity of grain or silk were exempted from labour on public works. Those who occupied themselves with trade were enslaved, along with the destitute and lazy.”9

On the other hand, those who worked hard could look forwards to being rewarded with tracts of land. This was a new idea, and probably the first officially sanctioned private ownership of land in all of China.10 This new private ownership was backed up with its own set of regulations: no one could now move to a new home without official permission, meaning that farmers could not exhaust their land and then shift to new farms. They had to manage their lands properly or else starve.11

Not everyone was pleased with the reforms. Shang Yang’s biographer remarks that the protestors who “came to the capital and at first said that the laws were not appropriate could be counted by the thousands.”12 But the new importance given to farming meant that much of the Ch’in land now lying waste could be put into crops. And despite the severity of Shang Yang’s penalties, his policies (which also allowed convicted criminals to earn their freedom by farming previously untilled land) attracted more and more poor peasants from other Chinese states. In Ch’in, they at least had the opportunity to rise in the hierarchy through military service. A hundred years later, the philosopher Xun Zi visited Ch’in and remarked on this: “The man who returns from battle with five enemy heads,” he writes, “is made the master of five families in his neighborhood.”13

Most ancient historians disliked Shang Yang intensely, but even Sima Qian had to admit that all this legislation established a kind of stability in a previously lawless state. He writes that, ten years into the new regime, “there were no robbers in the mountains; families were self-supporting and people had plenty…. great order prevailed throughout the countryside and in the towns.”14

Despite this, Sima Qian thought the despotic Ch’in state a wretched place to live. The people were enslaved, if prosperous. Other worries had replaced the fear of thieves and riots: “None of the people dared to discuss the mandates,” he notes, since Shang Yang had ordered malcontents to be banished.15 Music and poetry were dismissed as unproductive; philosophy was scorned. As part of his campaign to make Ch’in strong, Shang Yang burned all of the teachings of Confucius that he could find.

BY 344 CH’IN had grown strong enough for Duke Hsiao to exercise one of the privileges of the Hegemon and summon the other feudal lords into his presence. Sima Qian, who records this request, does not tell us how they reacted. He does add that, in 343, the Eastern Zhou king formally recognized Duke Hsiao of Ch’in as the Hegemon. It was the first time in a century that a duke could lay claim to the title, and the first time in history that a Ch’in lord had won it.16

Now the ultimate goal of all Shang Yang’s reforms became clear. The new laws had produced a well-fed and growing population, and had made military service one of the most attractive careers for the new crop of young Ch’in men. In 340, Ch’in began to fight its way towards conquest of its neighbors.

Shang Yang’s first target was Wei, and the new state fell to the Ch’in armies without too much of a struggle. But this victory was Shang Yang’s last triumph. Duke Hsiao died and was succeeded by his son Huiwen—the Huiwen who had watched his tutors executed and disfigured, some twenty years ago, for his own trespassess. He had hated Shang Yang ever since. As soon as power was in his hands, he ordered Shang Yang arrested.

The minister disguised himself and fled from the Ch’in court, but when he sought shelter at an inn, the innkeeper refused to admit him. Neither would anyone else. He had no permit, as the law required.

Deprived of any hiding place, Shang Yang was soon overtaken by Huiwen’s men and taken back to the Ch’in capital. There, he was sentenced to be tied to four chariots which were driven off in different directions, tearing him apart.

With Shang Yang’s irritating presence gone, Huiwen decided not to revoke any of the minister’s reforms. They had, after all, made Ch’in more powerful than it had ever been; so powerful, in fact, that in 325 he proclaimed himself king.

The other feudal lords reacted as you might expect: “Thereafter,” Sima Qian writes, “all the feudal lords became kings.” The wars of the Warring States continued as before, except that now they were conducted by kings rather than dukes.

IN THIS continually disrupted world, teachers of philosophy continued to try to understand their lives and to ask the central question of their times: how can men be whole, in a world constantly torn apart?

The teachings of Confucius, which Shang Yang found so damaging to his own purpose, were carried on by his most famous pupil, Mencius (a Latinized form, like Confucius, of the name Meng-tzu). Mencius’s writings paid particular attention (as is hardly surprising) to the relationship between a ruler and his people. The ruler governs by the will of Heaven, Mencius wrote, but since Heaven “did not speak,” the ruler had to measure whether or not he was in fact carrying out the will of Heaven by listening to the opinions of the people.17 If he listened closely enough, he would learn that warfare was never Heaven’s will. “One can guess what your supreme ambition is,” he writes, addressing an imaginary king. “To extend your territory, to enjoy the homage of Ch’in and Chu, to rule over the Central Kingdoms…. Seeking the fulfillment of such an ambition [by force of arms] is like looking for fish by climbing a tree.”18 This was not a philosophy welcomed by kings, who preferred tree-climbing; Mencius, who offered to become an advisor to the dukes of several different states, was turned down by all of them.

Mencius was not the only voice offering solutions, though. His writings reveal a very Confucian emphasis on the basic perfectability of man, man’s essential goodness, and the proper observation of forms as a way of finding peace in troubled times. And many in the Warring States found this totally insufficient. They had daily proof of man’s essential self-centeredness and lust for power; they lived in such daily chaos that the observation of forms seemed pointless.

During these years, a new philosophy, quite different from that of Mencius, was drawing together mystical threads from more ancient times. This philosophy was finally set down in writing as the Tao-Teh-Ching. Tao: the Way. The Taoist believed that the way to peace lay in a passive acceptance of the way things are, which must have seemed eminently doable.

The Taoist makes no laws. All pronouncements on ethical behavior are inevitably flawed, reflections of man’s own innate depravity.19 All positive pronouncements must be avoided, in fact, along with all aggression and ambition. As the Tao-Teh-Ching explains,

Tao inevitably does nothing,

and yet there is nothing that is not done.

If kings and dukes can preserve it,

all things will go through their own transformation….

Absence of desires will lead to quietude;

The world will, of itself, find its equilibrium.20

To withdraw from chaos, to wait in the faith that what will be, will be: this is a practical philosophy for evil times. Perhaps the most famous of Taoists was Chuang Tzu, who was born in the same year that Duke Hsiao inherited the rule of Ch’in and welcomed Shang Yang into his country. “The accomplishments of emperors and kings are superfluous affairs as far as the sage is concerned,” he wrote, “not the means by which to keep the body whole and to care for life. Yet how many gentlemen of the vulgar world today endanger themselves and throw away their lives in the pursuit of mere things! How can you help pitying them?”21

Chuang Tzu himself put it into metaphor this way:

Once Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Tzu. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.22

In such days, the Taoist found it most satisfying to let go of the material world. The next campaign that thundered by his door, the next law passed by his duke to restrict him: these were only incidental annoyances, not the true nature of things. No matter how many bars were placed around him, he remained as unconcerned as the butterfly.


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