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The Warring States

( Originally Published 1910 )

Five Dictators Diplomacy and Strategy—A Brave Envoy—Heroes Reconciled—Ts'in Extinguishes the House of Chou

IN THE first half of the Chou dynasty the machinery moved with such regularity that Confucius could think of no form of government more admirable, saying, "The policy of the future may be foretold for a hundred generations—it will be to follow the House of Chou." The latter half was a period of misrule and anarchy.

Ambitions and jealousies led to petty wars. The King being too feeble to repress them, these petty wars grew into vast combinations like the leagues of modern Europe. Five of the states acquired at different times such a preponderance that their rulers are styled Wu Pa, the "five dictators." One of these, Duke Hwan of western Shantung, is famous for having nine times convoked the States-General. The dictator always presided at such meetings and he was recognised as the real sovereign—as were the mayors of the palace in France in the Merovingian epoch, or the shoguns in Japan during the long period in which the Mikado was called the "spiritual emperor."

The legitimate sovereign still sat on his throne in the central state; but he complained that his only function was to offer sacrifices. The Chinese dictator-ship was not hereditary, or the world might have witnessed an exact parallel to the duplicate sovereignty in Japan, where one held the power and the other retained the title for seven hundred years.

In China the shifting of power from hand to hand made those four centuries an age of diplomacy. Whenever some great baron was suspected of aspiring to the leadership, combinations were formed to curb his ambitions; embassies sped from court to court; and armies were marshalled in the field. Envoys became noted for courage and cunning, and generals acquired fame by their skill in handling large bodies of soldiers. Diplomacy became an art, and war a science.

An international code to control the intercourse of states began to take shape; but the diplomat was not embarrassed by a multiplicity of rules. In negotiations individual character counted for more than it does at the present day; nor must it be supposed that in the absence of our modern artillery there was no room for generalship. On the contrary, as battles were not decided by the weight of metal, there was more demand for strategy.

All this was going on in Greece at this very epoch: and, as Plutarch indulges in parallels, we might point to compeers of Themistocles and Epaminondas. The cause which in the two countries led to this state of things was the existence of a family of states with a common language and similar institutions; but in the Asiatic empire the theatre was vastly more extensive, and the operations in politics and war on a grander scale.

To the honour of the Chinese it must be admitted that they showed themselves more civilised than the Greeks. The Persian invasion was provoked by the murder of ambassadors by the Athenians. Of such an act there is no recorded instance among the warring states of China. It was reserved for our own day to witness in Peking that exhibition of Tartar ferocity. The following two typical incidents from the voluminous chronicles of those times may be appropriately presented here:


The Prince of Ts'in, a semi-barbarous state in the northwest, answering to Macedonia in Greece, had offered to give fifteen cities for a kohinoor, a jewel belonging to the Prince of Chao (not Chou). Lin Sian Ju was sent to deliver the jewel and to complete the transaction. The conditions not being complied with, he boldly put the jewel into his bosom and returned to his own state. That he was allowed to do so—does it not speak as much for the morality of Ts'in as for the courage of Lin? The latter is the accepted type of a brave and faithful envoy.


Jealous of his fame, Lien P'o, a general of Chao, announced that he would kill Lin at sight. The latter took pains to avoid a meeting. Lien P'o, taxing him with cowardice, sent him a challenge, to which Lin responded, " You and I are the pillars of our state. If either falls, our country is lost. This is why I have shunned an encounter." So impressed was the general with the spirit of this reply that he took a rod in his hand and presented himself at the door of his rival, not to thrash the latter, but to beg that he himself might be castigated. Forgetting their feud the two joined hands to build up their native state much as Aristides and Themistocles buried their enmity in view of the war with Persia.

As the Athenian orators thundered against Macedon so the statesmen of China formed leagues and counter-plots for and against the rising power of the north-west. The type of patient, shrewd diplomacy is Su Ts'in who, at the cost of incredible hardships in journeying from court to court, succeeded in bringing six of the leading states into line to bar the southward movement of their common foe. His machinations were all in vain, however; for not only was his ultimate success thwarted by the counterplots of Chang Yee, an equally able diplomatist, but his reputation, like that of Parnell in our own times, was ruined by his own passions. The rising power of Ts'in, like a glacier, was advancing by slow degrees to universal sway. In the next generation it absorbed all the feudal states. Chau-siang subjugated Tung-chou-Kiun, the last monarch of the Chou dynasty, and the House of Chou was exterminated by Chwang-siang, who, however, enjoyed the supreme power for only three years (249—246 B. C).

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