The stories in the Stratagems of the Warring States take place during the period from the fifth to the third century BC, when the Zhou dynasty had already lost control of much of its former territory, and a variety of feudal principalities were vying to gain control of the area that their inhabitants knew as "All Under Heaven" (天下), the Chinese cultural sphere centred around the Yellow River basin. Maps help somewhat in understanding the situation, but both the borders of the states and the prevalent ideas of what a state was were fluid, meaning that any one map is only a snapshot.
Gradually the smaller states were swallowed up by larger neighbours. By the time the book was compiled, the entire region had been conquered by Qin. The Qin dynasty collapsed after just a few years, and was replaced by the Han dynasty, under which Liu Xiang assembled the "persuasions" (說, the contemporary term for short anecdotes intended to be used by politicians and diplomats as stock-in-trade) contained in the Stratagems from various sources to form a unified text. In the intervening time, however, new states rose and fell. Most notably for the purposes of the book, Jin was split into three states: Wei, Han and Zhao, all of which contribute extensively.
The Stratagems are grouped according to the state of the individual proposing, and a certain awareness of the situation at the time is often required to understand the stories. This page provides a brief glossary of of states, with links to more detailed material.
You can find a Google map with the major cities and other places mentioned in the Stratagems overlaid onto a map of modern China here. The principal states featuring in the book are highlighted in purple.
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A confederation of non-Chinese tribes centred on the Sichuan basin. They maintained regular contact with Chu and Qin, occasionally playing a part in their internal politics. In 316 BC they formed an alliance with Qin to attack Shu. Once Shu had been conquered, Qin overran Ba as well, annexing the whole territory.
A small feudal state between Qin and Chu, it existed to have been on the border of the Chinese cultural sphere and the barbarian world, maintaining diplomatic relations with the Zhou court but preserving its own culture. It was annexed by Qin during the Spring and Autumns period.
Cai was a semi-independent state to the North of Chu. It was annexed by Chu in the mid-seventh century BC as a result of a series of disputes surrounding Xi Gui, wife of the Duke of Xi and (later) King Wen of Chu. Nevertheless, the concept of Cai persisted within Chu, though the area designated by the name changed frequently. The last traces of Cai as a self-directing entity were finally wiped out by Chu in the fourth century BC.
A small state in modern Dingtao, Shandong. It was wiped out by Song in 487 BC.
A small state North of Cai. It came under attack by Wu in the fifth century, appealed to Chu for help, and was annexed by Chu in 479 BC.
One of the most successful states of the Spring and Autumn period thanks to its early adoption of political reforms, during the Warring States era it grew increasingly culturally distinct from the Northern states under the influence of the Yue barbarians to the South. Occasionally referred to as Jing (荆) after a tribe that inhabited the area during the early Zhou Dynasty.
A Northern state founded by Di barbarians, it lived off trade between the Chinese world and the steppe nomads. It was annexed by Zhao in 457 BC after the King of Zhao invited the Dai leadership to a banquet and then massacred them.
The early Korean state had some interactions with its Chinese contemporaries, exchanging diplomats and engaging in a large-scale war with Yan.
The Guo family ruled a succession of states in various locations, beginning in the Southwest and moving northwards in the face of barbarian harassment. The final state was finally destroyed by Qin in 687 BC. The family was made up of two branches - 虢 and 郭 - which are both transliterated as Guo. The Stratagems considers the two characters equivalent.
A product of the break-up of Jin by vassal clans, Han existed in a state of perpetual precarity, surrounded by larger, better-resourced and more threatening states. Despite initial successes - such as the annexation of Zheng - it was the first of the seven states to fall to Qin.
A general term for the various nomadic tribes that inhabited the area to the North of the Chinese cultural sphere. See also: 匈奴 Xiongnu.
Huang was a state based around Huangchuan County in modern Henan. It was annexed by Chu in 648 BC.
Powerful during the Spring and Autumns period, Jin was gradually weakened as the vassal nobility gained power at the expense of the ruling family. By the late sixth century the Jin Dukes had become nothing more than symbols, with the real power being held by feudal clans. In 386 BC the leaders of the surviving clans - Zhao, Han and Wei - officially deposed the last Duke of Jin and split his territoy between them. Zhao, Han and Wei are occasionally referred to as the "three Jins" (三晋) in historical texts.
See: 楚 Chu.
Ju began its existence as a Dongyi barbarian state in Shandong, but fell victim to the ongoing conflicts between Chu, Lu and Qi, being captured by Chu in 431 BC, before being occupied by Qi. It later become an important military stronghold for Qi.
See: 魏 Wei
A strong state during the early Spring and Autumn period, Lu had a cultural influence disproportionate to its size. Confucius was born and worked in Lu and the Spring and Autumn Annals uses the Lu calendar. The power of the ruling family was gradually undermined by the nobility, and the state was annexed by Chu in 249 BC.
Situated in the far East of China on the Shandong Peninsula, Qi was the last of the seven states to be conquered by Qin. The original rulers, the House of Jiang, had been overthrown and replaced by the Tian clan in the early fifth century BC. The rule of the Tian family was eventually accepted, though even generations later they retained something of a reputation as nouveau riche upstarts. Qi was the source, both direct and indirect of much of the new scholarship that emerged during the era, after the Tian family founded the Jixia Academy to bolster its own prestige, and the model was later copied by competing states.
An inhospitable and semi-barbarian state on the far western border of the Chinese world, Qin was forced by its lack of resources to pursue ruthless efficiency and military expansion. Much of the Stratagems is effectively the story of the Qin conquest, and the stories end with the unification of the empire by the Qin dynasty in 221 BC.
The Rong were non-Chinese peoples living West of Qin, possibly related to modern Burmese ethnicities. They enjoyed a similar relationship with Qin to the Northern steppe nomads, engaging in commerce, war, alliances and diplomacy, often simultaneously.
Founded by the remnants of the Shang Dynasty after its defeat by the House of Zhou, Song suffered from infighting within the ruling family starting in the mid fourth century BC, and was finally annexed by Qi in 286 BC.
The state of Shu grew out of a culturally distinct civilisation centred on the Sichuan basin. While its military had participated in intra-Chinese conflicts during the Shang and early Zhou Dynasties, interactions declined with the power of the Zhou sovereigns. By the time of the Stratagems, Qin and Chu were the only state that maintained regular contact with Shu, with Qin finally annexing it in 316 BC.
Teng was a small state covering the area now occupied by Tengzhou in Shandong. It was a vassal of Lu and the home of Mozi. It was conquered by Yue and then reestablished by members of its former nobility, before being annexed by Song in 297 BC.
A cadet branch of the Jin ruling family that grew in strength after the main branch came close to wiping itself out during the Li Ji Rebellion, Wei gradually evolved from a fiefdom into a fully-fledged state. It enjoyed a brief period of success following political reform under the direction of Li Kui, but exhausted itself through a series of failed military expeditions aimed at conquering better land to the East. Not to be confused with 衞 Wey, which is pronounced similarly but spelled differently in English transliterations, purely to distinguish it from 魏 Wei.
Smaller, older and further North than Wei, Wey declined throughout the Warring States era, its rulers preoccupied with family in-fighting. The ruling family progressively surrendered their lands and titles, becoming absorbed to a large degree by Zhao. The country is memorable for having produced and subsequently so frustrated Shang Yang that he abandoned Wey for Qin, contributing heavily to its rise.
Founded by a younger branch of the Zhou royal family, Wu was a sizeable state on the Eastern coast during the Spring and Autumn period, covering the area that is now Shanghai. It enjoyed long-running conflicts with its neighbours Chu and Yue, during which it employed Sun Tzu, among others. It was wiped out by Yue in 473 BC.
Xi was situated between Cai and Chu during the Spring and Autumn period, before being annexed by Chu in 684 BC as a result of a series of disputes centred on Xi Gui, the wife of the Duke of Xi. It became an important military stronghold within Chu.
A confederation of nomadic tribes whose territory covered much of Southern Siberia, possibly belonging to the same cultural group as the Huns or Scythians. They enjoyed mixed relations with the Chinese world to the South, engaging in sporadic conflict as well as continuous trade and occasional marriage diplomacy. The confederation grew more politically organised over time, particularly after Qin began to conquer their Southern territories.
Situated in the far Northeast of China, Yan's capital, Ji (薊) eventually became modern Beijing. Yan spent much of the Warring States era engaged in running border squabbles with its neighbours, Qi and Zhao. It is notable for having - almost by accident - come closest to preventing the Qin conquest, when the Crown Prince dispatched an assassin who almost succeeded in killing Ying Zheng (who would later become Qin Shi Huangdi).
A Southern barbarian tribe of the Baiyue ethnicity based around modern Zhejiang. Their land was eventually conquered by the Qin Dynasty and became Chinese territory.
This state to the Northwest of Qin may have had Chinese origins somewhere in the distant past, but had become assimilated to the barbarians by the time of the Stratagems. Having agriculture, cities and kings, they were more settled than many of the tribes in the area, and had regular relations with Qin, even interfering in Qin politics from time to time. Qin destroyed Yiqu in 272 or 271 BC.
A small vassal state in the Spring and Autumn period, it was annexed by Jin and the ruling family continued as vassals of Han. Their stronghold was near modern Jiaozuo, in Henan.
A small state centred on Pinglu in Shanxi. Its ruling family seems to have been related to that of Wu, and the two states had close relations despite the distance between them. It was destroyed by Jin in 655.
A maritime state centred around modern Zhejiang and originally occupied by Baiyue barbarians. It seems to have shared cultural similarities with indigenous Taiwanese tribes, with inhabitants speaking an Austronesian language. It annexed its Northern neighbour, Wu, in 473 BC, before being wiped out by Chu in 306 BC. The survivors moved South and set up a new state, Minyue, in modern Fujian, which survived until 110 BC.
A small state situated in modern Lanling County, Shandong. It was conquered by Ju in 567 BC.
Carved out by an entrepreneurial minister following the Jin collapse, Zhao was large but weak for much of its early history, consisting as it did of quasi no-man's land subject to regular raids by the northern barbarians. It was only after Zhao adopted the cavalry tactics of the nomadic tribes and began using them against its own neighbours to the South that it became a force to be reckoned with.
Zheng was among the strongest of the feudal states at the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period, and also among the the first to engage in legal reform, under Prince Zichan. It gradually declined, and was eventually annexed by Han in 375 BC.
Zhongshan was a small state between Zhao and Yan. Contemporary sources describe it as having been founded by Northern Di barbarians, but by the time of the Stratagems it had been thoroughly sinicised, and the ruling family may even have been replaced by members of the Zhou or Wei royal lines.
The last remnants of the Zhou Dynasty, which had replaced the Shang Dynasty in 1046 BC. While the territory of the Zhou was gradually eaten away over the subsequent centuries, the imperial aura remained, meaning that the Zhou heartlands were considered sacrosanct and thus survived long after the family had lost the capacity to defend them. The same formal respect was accorded to the imperial insignia and the titles bestowed by the Zhou rulers, though by the time of the Stratagems even this was beginning to decline as ambitious feudal princes put pressure on the Zhou leadership to endorse them. Indeed, towards the end of the period, Zhou itself split into two states: East and West, and their stratagems are separated according to this split. Confusingly, the same Chinese terms - 西周 and 東周 - are used to designate both the early and late periods of the Zhou Dynasty and the two states that formed during the final years of the dynasty. In the Stratagems, however, the terms always refer to the competing states. To distinguish them, we refer to the states as East and West Zhou, and where it is necessary to mention the eras, follow conventional usage with Eastern and Western Zhou.
Zhu had been an independent state in Southern Shandong during the Spring and Autumn period, but gradually declined , destroyed by King Xuan of Chu in the mid-fourth century BC. Prior to this it seems to have been under Qi protection.