The Creative Side of War. Part 1: China

illustration by Cool Art

When an army feeds its horses with grain, and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang the cooking pots over the camp fire, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death. Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

War. Possibly the Alpha and Omega of Human history. But what, as the Motown song asks, is it good for? The answer is, of course “Nothing!” And yes, war does indeed suck most heinously. But war — in the ancient world, if not in the modern — always did things, had, in other words, a function, or an effect, unpleasant as it may be to admit this, and tempting as it is to simply see it as stupid and destructive.

What I want to put out here, in brief, is the idea that ancient warfare created states. And empires. And this creation of states and empires often led to conditions of peace, as larger states meant the evaporation of the closer enemy. And peace is, ironically, the opposite of war.

Perhaps the poster child in this argument is Warring States China (475–221 BCE). China itself is the largest and longest-lived state in the world. First unified under the Qin, from which China derived its name, the geographical region it encompassed had until 221 BCE been ruled by multiple warring states. This process of war whittled the number of states down to one, from seven. In the ancient world the existence of multiple states almost guaranteed warfare as they were uniformly competitors, and lacked the institutional wherewithal or cultural tools to avoid war, even through trade.

Before this, archeologists estimate that China in the second millennium BCE had thousands of polities. Only one process drove this “unification” from many polities to one China: War. This is why both the written records (books like Sun Tzu’s the Art of War, and the books of the Han court historian Sima Qiam), and the archeological record are all about war.

War historian Azar Gat talks of the constancy of war in the Shang Dynasty (c.1500 BCE): “Waged against rebellious vassals, other states that were emerging on the Shang’s periphery, and tribal neighbors, warfare was a constant state occupation.”

Not much had changed a few hundred years later under the Zhou: Says Francis Fukuyama in his Origins of Political Order: “War was without question the single most important driver of state formation during China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty.”

The process of “state formation” continued after the Zhou, through the “Spring and Autumn Period,” (770–475 BCE). Over some 300 years there were only an estimated 38 years of peace. Over 1000 separate wars were fought in this period. If subsequent years saw fewer wars it was only because there were fewer adversaries to fight them. However, if the frequency of wars declined, their intensity increased: One historian reported that 245,000 soldiers died in one day in 293 BCE, and 450,000 in 260. This may sound incredible — ancient armageddons — and we can only hope that it is exaggerated for effect, but the idea is the numbes were huge.

Such incredible war mongering required money, lots of it, and this meant…taxes. Bureaucracy, in other words, was a direct creation of warfare.

So go the written sources. Exhibit A on the archeological front, however, would probably be the Terra Cotta Army, approximately 8,000 life-size clay soldiers, along with chariots and horses, buried with Shi Huangdi, the Qin’s first emperor. The dead were believed to need the things they posessed in this life, and an army was top of the list.

Once China had been unified (by war) it became surprisingly peaceful. Subsequent to defeating its last enemies, the Qin dynasty dismantled its last fortification, confiscated all weapons in the empire — except those of its own army — and cast them into a series of giant statues, erected across the empire (none of them remaining today, sadly).

What happened next is was that China was free to focus on external threats. In this case the norther “Barbarians” — Manchus and Mongols — played the part and this story leads to the building of the Great Wall of China. Facing them down with massive armies outside the empire, in the steppes and deserts was famously disastrous. Better, the Chinese conclude, to wall themselves in and buy them off with gifts of princessess and silk.

Thus, in China at least, the story of state creation.

Next up, we’ll talk about the process that made ancient Egypt…

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart! www.adrianvcole.com