Political Power in the Warring States



In this entry I will analyze the constitution of political power in the Warring States. I will argue that in the Warring States there were three political actors: the ruler jun 君, the individual with knowledge and talent shi 士 and the people min 民 as it is shown by Zhan Guo Ce in the following quotation:


At that time, the greatness of all under Heaven, the mass of the people, the influence of the strategists and the power of the rulers did not doubt the strategies of Su Qin[1].

Yuri Pines points out that, unlike the aristocrats of the period of Spring and Autumn, the shi of the Warring States did not possess territories and this made them more dependent on a ruler though, because the talent market, could criticize kings and feudal lords[2]. When the ideas of a shi were not accepted in one place, they had the possibility of moving to another country. In addition, a careful reading of Zhan Guo Ce shows us that, despite a process of centralization held by a few rulers, there were still shi who possessed their own territories. Although held positions in the court of a ruler, they had a territory in which to take refuge.

When Cai Ze and Lord of Ying encounter problems in the court of Qin, they withdraw to their respective fiefdoms[3]. Lord of Mengchang exercised his power in Xue independently despite having a position in Qi[4]. In addition, in certain passages of Zhan Guo Ce we can observe that the zhuhou 諸侯 have a sufficiently large power and their support was necessary to defend themselves against other states or to fight against an enemy. Yao Jia, in order to protect Qin, performs a tour to gain support among the zhuhou 諸侯. Han Feizi accuses him of taking advantage of his relationship with the feudal lords for his own benefit[5]. Dan, the crown prince of Yan, believes that the assassination of King Qin would provoke chaos among the zhuhou 諸侯 and, in this way, the kingdom of Qin would fall[6]. Tang Qie and Fan Ju, in order to appease the military pressure of the kingdoms of the Hezong, bribe their shi in order that they serve the kingdom of Qin[7].

Yuri Pines states that a anti-shi discourse took place in the Warring States for two reasons: first, the shi undermined the ruler’s authority in favor of the ministers. Secondly, there was a mistrust between the ruler and his entourage[8]. This discourse does not go against the shi 士 itself but proposes the creation of a strong and depersonalized power controlled by an intellectual elite in order to have greater power. This is shown in certain texts of Zhan Guo Ce.

Su Qin, after failing persuading the King of Qin, was ruined. However, after persuading the king of Zhao, he earned a great reputation and wealth[9]. Yan Chu claimed that the decentralization of the era of the kings of the past and considers the shi sycophants who come to the court of King of Qi, [10].

In the Zhan Guo Ce there is an interest in establishing a strong institutional power subject to the ideology of an intellectual elite. Shi 士 had incentives to be part of a strong power. The shi 士 who possessed their own territories did not have the wealth of those who held positions in the great centers of power.

Su Qin is concerned about the evil words that make King Hui of Qin not follow the path of the righteous kings of the past[11]. Fan Ju warns the king of Qin that he is only willing to advise him if he proves not to be carried away by the wrong advice of deceivers[12].

Yuri Pines notes that in the Chinese texts there is, on the one hand, the ideal of the minben sixiang 民本思想, while the people’s intervention in politics is seen as the source of political chaos[13]. According to Yuri Pines, Zi Chang shows a contradiction in his vision of the people’s participation in political affairs: he considers the people’s protests to be good, but, at the same time, he does not think they should be heard.

The relationship between government and people must be understood in terms of harm-benefit. It is not possible to have power without the support of popular masses. Following the advice of Zou Ji, the king of Qi establishes prizes for those who criticize him[14]. The Lord of Mengchang in order to gain the approval of the people, forgives the debts to the people of Xue[15]. King Wen of Zhou, under the pressure of so-called guoren 國人 is forced to readmit court craftsman Ji 籍[16]. Sima Cuo urges King of Qin to conquer Shu because this territory has riches with which he can enrich the people and strengthen the army[17]. Under pressure from his ministers, especially the Duke Hui, the Prince of Wei postpone the funeral of his father to prevent the people fall ill because of bad weather[18].

In the Warring States, the ruler needed the support of the shi 士, not only because of their intelligence and talent, but also because they possessed their own territories and could influence other centers of power. Likewise, loyalty of the people was not guaranteed, but depended on policies that were beneficial to the masses.


[1] Zhan Guo Ce, 3.2

[2] Yuri Pines, ‘From Teachers to Subjects : Ministers Speaking to the Rulers , from Yan Ying 晏嬰 to Li Si 李斯’, in Facing the Monarch: Modes of Advice in the Early Chinese Court, ed. by Garet Olberding (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 69–99.

[3] Zhan Guo Ce, 5.16

[4] Zhan Guo Ce, 11,1

[5] Zhan Guo Ce 7.8

[6] Zhan Guo Ce, 31.5

[7] Zhan Guo Ce, 5.13

[8] Yuri Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire :Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009).pp. 172-173

[9] Zhan Guo Ce, 3.2

[10] Zhan Guo Ce, 11,5

[11] Zhan Guo Ce, 3.2

[12] Zhan Guo Ce 5,8

[13] Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire :Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era.pp.187-197

[14] Zhan Guo Ce, 8.12

[15] Zhan Guo Ce, 11.1

[16] Zhan Guo Ce, 1.11

[17] Zhan Guo Ce, 3.3

[18] Zhan Guo Ce, 23.6



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