According to the Marxist worldview, the first two ages of mankind are the slaveholder society (nuli shehui 奴隸社會) and the feudal society (fengjian shehui 封建社會). These two ages were naturally overlapping, and the Western Zhou society and economy was a period when phenomena of both idealist societies were existing: The Zhou kings enfeoffed their followers with aristocratical fiefdoms, and a large part of the population was enslaved for different reasons, either as war prisoners (li 隸, nu 奴) or as enslaved debtors sold on the market (chenqie 臣妾).
While cities were not much more than walled hamlets, far the most agerage people (shuren 庶人) worked as peasants of their fields. Alhough their social status was that of free men, peasants had often to serve the nobility (guizu 貴族) for different tasks (yi 役). The ideal field system of the Zhou period as described in the Rites of Zhou Zhouli 周禮 is the well-field system (jingtianfa 井田法): Each arable area was divided into nine compartments of which one served as provision for the king's or the noble's household. This part was worked by the eight families together to whom belonged the eight other parts. Peasants prepared their fields with a plough driven by two men (ougeng 耦耕), creating compartments (quan 畎) one chi 尺 wide, six chi counted a pace bu 步. The standard measure of fields was one mu 畝, one pace wide and hundred paces long, one male person idealiter obtained a field (tian 田) measuring one hundred mu. Eight families bound to this field structure thus built also an administration unit from which taxes (fu 賦) and services could be drawn by the government. Although most agrarian tools were made of wood and oder perishable materials, bronze ploughshares and hoes are also known from literary and archeological sources.
Literary sources mention the nine kinds of "grain" (jiugu 九榖): millet (shu 黍), panicled millet (ji 稷), rice (dao 稻), sesame (ma 麻), soybeans (dadou 大豆), small beans (xiaodou 小豆), wheat (mai 麥), sorghum (liang 粱), and water oats (Zanzania, gu 苽). Fields were often laid fallow for one or two years to recover the fertility of the soil in a three year period (new fields zi 菑, two year fields xin 新, and three year fields yu or she 畲 that often were fertilized by burning grass and weeds).
Craftsmen (baigong 百工) had a quite low social status and had to dwell in quarters within the capital. Merchants' (shangjia 商賈) activities were restricted to official markets (shi 市) in the capital and were tightly controled by the government. The currency of the Western Zhou period was a coin shaped like a cowry shell (bei 貝) with the currency unit peng 朋. Another currency was the lüe 鋝. Both currencies were inherited from the Shang period 商. Of course, in the countryside natural goods were the normal currency among the population, greater debts were often payed with fields as immovables. In such cases, contracts were made between the debtor and the recipient or buyer.
The well field system as described above was the basis of an administratorial structure whithin the states of the Spring and Autum period. Eight families worked one 9-field unit. In the state of Qi 齊 that was one of the first to reform its internal administration under Guan Zhong 管仲 (Guanzi 管子) thirty families constituted a hamlet (yi 邑), ten hamlets a village (zu 卒), ten villages a township (xiang 鄉), ten townships a county (xian 縣), ten counties a district (shu 屬) with a grand master (dafu 大夫) as head. The heads of the particular administration units were the first state officials in a state that became more and more centralized, the lower aristocracy was replaced by officials. The old custom of eight families working the ninth field compartment together - whose harvest belonged to the king - gradually vanished. The states had to look for new methods of taxation. The states of Qi and Lu 魯 were the first to introduce land taxes (mushui 畝稅). Additionally, the prolonged alert status in war times made it necessary to impose special tibutes and corvée labour to the military (junfu 軍賦). But even in quiet times, pesants had to deliver their workforce (yaoyi 徭役) for the buildings of the aristocray, to erect and repair city walls or fortifications and to built the ducal palace. Although the higher aristocracy was allowed to acquire and sell land, it was still uncommon for the lower aristocracy or private landowners of the Spring and Autumn period to sell or buy land.
During the Spring and Autumn period, more and more land was made arable by implementing the system of rotating crops (lunxiu 輪休, yuantian 爰田), thereby enhancing the general nouriture of the population. Until the 6th century, bronze was scarcely used for agricultural tools. But iron ploughshares became widespread during the 5th century. Iron was thought to be an inferior metal and thus only used for ploughshares, not for weapons.
Industrial production of ceramics and bronze tools became widespread during the Spring and Autumn period, especially for the need of the states. Every capital had workshops where craftsmen supplied the state with woodwork, ironwork, bronze tools and so on. Private households produced textiles, and while the husband was expected to till the fields, women should weave at home (nan geng nü zhi 男耕女織). Similar to craftsmen, merchants were seen as suppliers of the aristocracy and the ducal courts of the particular states and were therefore no independent economic force. The merchants of the state of Zheng 鄭 were famous for their precious wares they delivered all around the Central Plain 中原. As interstate commerce slowly increased, it was also necessary to produce and to standardize coin that served as currencies on the large markets (shi 市) of he capitals of Zheng (Xinzheng 新鄭, modern Xinzheng/Henan), Lu (Qufu 曲阜, modern Qufu/Shandong ), Qi (Linzi 臨湽, modern Linzi/Shandong ) and Jin 晉 (Jiang 絳, near modern Yicheng 翼城/Shanxi).
Far the most population lived as peasants or "common men" (shuren 庶人) beyond the city walls (cheng 城, guo 國) in the countryside (ye 野). Some people were needed for official service as small clerks in which position they sometimes were able to enter the higher state service. Merchants and craftsmen were restricted to the capital service, but from the 6th century on, it became gradually possible to undertake private trade business and to become rich like Fan Li 范蠡 from Yue 越 and Confucius's 孔子 disciple Zigong 子貢. The lowest social stratum was that of the slaves (nuli 奴隸, pu 僕, shu 豎, mu 牧, yu 圉). The aristocracy had private slaves, but there were also state-owned slaves, most of them enslaved criminals that had to work in the state workshops.
Social classes during the Spring and Autumn period were quite impermeable, members of the aristocracy serving in the particular states as officials handed down their posts to sons; peasants were obliged to transmit their profession to the next generations. Warring States period thinkers created four social classes (simin 四民) that should be the theoretical framework for political thinking for the next two millienia: state officials (shi 士), peasants (nong 農), craftsmen (gong 工), merchants (shang 商). As we can observe from these fourt categories, peasants - by far the largest section of the Chinese population still today - played an important role in political thinking. The peasantry did not only contribute the most part of the state income by taxes (zushui 租稅), but also served as laborers (yaoyi 徭役) for state projects and as militia (bingyi 兵役; either mercenaries mubing 募兵, or conscripts zhengbing 徵兵) in the ever larger infantry units. The heaviest burden thus lay upon the shoulders of the farmers that were not only exploited by their own ruler but also had to suffer the inflictions of the intense warfare campaigns between the contending states. In years of famine peasants gave up their fields and engaged as craftsmen, petty traders or sold their labour force as day-labourers (gugong 雇工, yong 庸). In the worst case, the whole peasant family sold themselves as slaves (nuli 奴隸). While during the Spring and Autumn period, only the state and the aristocracy owned slaves - either debt slaves or war prisoners - it was now possible for every wealthy household to acquire slaves. It was especially the class of merchants that was able to accumulate extraordinary wealth by purchasing cheap and selling expensive. The inter-state trade was of great importance and contributed to the cultural and economic flourishing at the end of the Warring States era. The new class of rich merchants even gained access to important political posts that were hitherto reserved to members of the aristocracy. The best example is the case of Lü Buwei 呂不韋, a wealthy merchant with an exceptional education background who helped to promote Prince Yiren 異人 (Zichu 子楚, Chu 楚) of Qin who was exiled in Zhao to become heir apparent and later king of the state. Lü Buwei, member of the dispised class of merchants, became chancellor of Qin.
It was the work of political advisors who restructured the state system in administration, economy and military. Strengthening the state by concentrating the power within the hands of the sovereign and by codifying (penal) law, increasing the state income by enhancing agricultural productivity and systematizing the tax system, and professionalizing the military were the main strategies of these advisors. The first Warring States country to undertake such reforms was Wei under Marquis Wen 魏文侯 who was assisted by Confucian scholars like Zixia 子夏, Tian Zifang 田子方, and Duan Ganmu 段干木, and by legalist and military advisors like Li Kui 李悝, Wu Qi 吳起 and Ximen Bao 西門豹. In the state of Chu, Wu Qi had King Dao 楚悼王 reformed the official system that was overloaded with useless persons and retainers. In the state of Qi, it was Zou Ji 鄒忌 and Shen Dao 慎倒 and who helped King Wei 齊武王 resp. Xuan 宣王 to eliminate the power of other feudal clans. The legalist advisor Shen Buhai 申不害 helped Marquis Zhao of Han 韓昭侯 to install and exploite the most able state officials. But far the most influential advisor was Shang Yang 商鞅 (later Lord Shang 商君, hence his book Shangjunshu 商君書 "The Book of Lord Shang") who assisted Duke Xiao of Qin 秦孝公. By means of cruel penalties, awards and promotions the population of Qin was made productive and obedient. Measures and weights were standardized, and the whole territorial administration was reorganized in townships (xiang 鄉) and districts (xian 縣). Furthermore, the old well field system was finally abandoned and replaced.
During the Warring States Period iron became much more widespread than before, for both military and civil tools in agriculture and handicrafts. Literary sources and archeology give proof of manifold iron tools for daily use.
The well field system had long disappeared, and families tilled the fields lend to them by the landowners among the aristocracy or the rich. In most states, taxes were drawn as one tenth from the annual yield of the harvest. The productivity of Warring States peasants seemed to have been greater than before, first because of the self-responsibility of families for their harvest, second because of the higher quality of farming tools. Ploughing (geng 耕) with oxen was not yet widespread, the ploughs were still drawn by two persons. But ploughs were now intruding deeper into the soil than before, thanks to the improved quality of the iron share, a technique that enhanced growing and fertitily and prevented parasites from attacking the plants. Weeding (nou 耨) and (you 耰) 耘. Fertilizing was also known and exerted, the most important method being burning weeds and grass in autumn (fencao 焚草). The fertilizing character of ash and bone powder was already known. To assure the moisture of the soil Chinese farmers since oldest times built dykes and canals (gouqu 溝渠) with small sluices (shuizha 水閘). The rulers of the states had the task to organize the digging of great canals (guangai 灌溉) from the rivers to the fields around the capital, like King Liang Huiwang 梁惠王 from Wei 魏 who had built a canal from the Yellow River 黃河 to the capital Daliang 大梁 (near modern Kaifeng 開封/Henan). In Sichuan (part of Qin 秦), canals and waterways were built in the Chengdu Plain 成都平原. Around the capital Xianyang 咸陽 (modern Xianyang/Shaanxi) King Qin Zhuangwang 秦昭王 had built canals to fertilize the central region of Qin with the help of Zheng Guo 鄭國, a famous waterwork architect. This canals deeply contributed to the richness of Qin. Many rulers of various states employed political advisors that proposed methods for a successful economic policy, like the legalist politician Guan Zhong 管仲 in Qi 齊, Li Kui 李悝 in Wei, Shang Yang 商鞅 in Qin, and the many advisors whose methods are described in the book Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 "Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei 呂不韋". The enhanced productivity of the peasant household allowed them even to sell some surplus on the markets.
There existed many mines all around the different states, especially in mountainous areas. The region of the Shandong Peninsula 山東半島 produced much ores. Archeological discovering have made evident that although the iron was quite soft, there existed some methods to smelt it to a more endurable material, hard but not too solid for forging. The method of producing steel by carburization (shentangang 滲碳鋼) also became known during the Warring States period. At Tonglüshan 銅綠山/Hubei mines dating at least from the 7th century were discovered with a 50 m deep shaft or pit. The galleries that spread stellarly from this shaft were protected from collapse by wooden constructions. Bronze and iron tools were used to dig out the ores, and men and freight were lifted by an elevator construction.
Bronze was used to cast different tools like ritual vessels and music bells, coins, seals, standardized measuring tools, and tally objects (fujie 符節), and weapons. According to the Zhouli 周禮 classic there existed six different kinds of copper-tin alloys. While most bronze vessels discovered of the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn periods are of ritual character and were used for ancestral sacrifices and were casted as memorial of enfeoffments, more and more bronze vessels and tools for daily use can be found during the Warring States period. New techniques came up that covered the surface of the vessels with beautiful ornaments made of inlaying gold and silver (cuojinyin 錯金銀). Exceptionally wonderful appearance of Warring States bronze vessels were created by the lost wax technique as can be seen in many vessels and items discovered in the tomb B of Marquis Zeng 曾侯乙墓 in Suizhou 隨州/Hubei (see zun 尊 vessel from the tomb of Marquis Zeng).
Woven textiles of the Warring States period show a wide diversity in patterns and coloring, but also in weaving technique. Textiles unearthed from the Chu tomb of Mashan 馬山 near Jiangling 江陵/Hubei comprise silk (juan 絹), taft (sha 紗), gauze (luo 羅), brocade (jin 錦). Some brocades were decorated with patterns in five different colors. Other decorations are not intervowen but embroidered (xiu 繡) or lockstitched (suo 鎖).
A part of craftsmanship stood still in the service of the particular states that needed craftsmen for various purposes. But now, with growing wealth among some social groups, like merchants, handicraft was also affordable to people outside the royal courts. Private entrepreneurs in some businesses were able to acquire wealth and finances, like the salt producer Yi Dun 猗頓 of Wei, and the ironworks of the families Kong 孔 in Wei and Zhuo 卓, and Guo Zong 郭縱 in the state of Zhao 趙. Widow Qing 寡婦清 in the state of Qin owned mines producing cinnabar (dansha 丹砂).
Increasing productivity and wealth lead to a likewise rising marketeability of agricultural and industrial goods that were offered and purchased in the markets (shi 市) in the large cities. Goods from all China were traded along the canals and trade routes often passing through several different states before being sold in shops in capital markets (shisi 市肆). These shops were observed by policemen who had to collect taxes and to care for law and order. Even immovables like fields, soil and houses were tradeable, like the sub-historical sources (e.g. regulations of the state of Qin as described in bamboo strips discovered in Yunmeng 雲夢/Hubei) made evident. The existence of a market economy made it necessary to produce more coins and a standardized currency. The old cowry shells (beibi 貝幣; often imitated and made of other materials like bronze, jade, or bone; first picture above) were replaced by spade-shaped copper coins (bubi 布幣; second picture), large specimen were used in the Central Plain while smaller types of the spade coins were produced in the state of Jin 晉 and its three successors (Zhao, Wei, Han 韓). In the states of Yan 燕 and Qi coins in the shape of a knife (daobi 刀幣; third picture) was issued. On most coins the name of the mint was given where the coins were casted. Until the 19th century coins in China were not minted but casted. The states of Zhou, Zhao, Wei and Han were the first to issue round coins with a round hole (yuankong yuanqian 圓孔圓錢), from the 3rd century on Qi and Yan issued round coins with a square hole (fangkong yuanqian 方孔圓錢; the fourth picture), a shape that became popular four bronze (copper) coins until the end of the empire in 1911. In the southern state of Chu 楚 a different kind of coin was in in use, a round type with a protruding "ant nose" (mabiqian 螞鼻錢). Larger sums were paid or stored as gold bars (jinding 金錠) or "gold cakes" (jinbing 金餅), especially in the state of Chu. Merchants like Bai Gui 白圭 and Zigong 子貢 could accumulate exorbitant wealth from the interstate trade with different goods. The most prosperous cities were seen at Linzi 臨淄 (modern Linzi/Shandong), capital of Qi and home for about seventy thousand households, and Ying 郢 (modern Jiangling 江陵/Hubei), capital of Chu. Many new towns were founded like Handan 邯鄲 (modern Handan/Hebei), capital of Zhao.