Han Fei Zi

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HAN FEI ZI (c. 280233 bce), or Master Han Fei, a Chinese philosopher of the late Warring States period (403221 bce), was important as the main consolidator and most forceful advocate of a set of earlier ideas later to be given the label of "legalism" (fajia ). Historical accounts tell us that he was a noble scion of the relatively weak state of Han, and that he created his writings in response to the ineptitude of Han's governance after failing to gain the ear of its ruler. He would later be sent as an envoy to the powerful western state of Qin, where he would eventually succumb to political intrigue and be forced to commit suicide just twelve years prior to the Qin's unification of the Chinese world. The book of Han Fei Zi is comprised of fifty-five individual essays and anecdotal collections, most of which were likely written by Han Fei prior to his journey to Qin and eventually compiled into a single work bearing the author's name; with a few exceptions, the bulk of the work is considered to be authentic. Han Fei is known as much for his lucid writing and persuasive style of argumentation as for his philosophy itself, and his writings are full of some of early China's most engaging and illustrative stories and analogies.

Han Fei's main "legalist" precursors included Shang Yang (c. 390338 bce), Shen Buhai (c. 400337 bce), and Shen Dao (fl. fourth century bce), who, in the traditional, if overly neat, categorization of their main ideas, respectively proffered such notions as rulership through strict enforcement of clear laws (fa ), management of officials through bureaucratic method (shu ), and reliance on advantageous position (shi ), all of which would, to one degree or another, find their way into Han Fei's thought. Han Fei was also loosely associated with the Huang-Lao tradition, and he was influenced by the book of Laozi (Dao de jing ), from which he and his predecessors borrowed the term nonaction (wuwei) to describe the stance of the ideal ruler. Most directly, Han Fei was also ostensibly a student of the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, though if this is true he would end up radically departing from his teacher on many fronts.

If Han Fei inherited anything from Xunzi, it was certainly the idea that human nature, if left to its own devices, would only lead the people toward struggle and chaos, as humans tended to act out of their own self-interest (as demonstrated, for Han Fei, by the fact that people normally congratulated each other when a son was born, but sometimes killed the child if it was a "useless" daughter). Both employed the analogy that one rarely finds perfectly straight or perfectly rounded wood in nature, and so just as one needs carpentry tools to fashion wood into arrows or wheels, the ruler likewise needs analogous devices to mold human behavior in order to achieve political order and stability. Yet whereas for Xunzi such devices lay first and foremost in education through ritual, music, and moral suasion, for Han Fei it was only the coercive force of punishments and the attraction of rewards that would do the trick, as he viewed the Confucian virtues of humanity and propriety (renyi ) as unteachable aspects of human nature that only a small minority of people possessed. Thus only the rule of might could possibly bring the whole state in line: "For the sage rules not by relying on people to do good for him, but rather utilizes their inability to do wrong.The ruler of method does not follow after chance goodness, but rather implements the way of inevitability" (Xianxue). Likewise, Han Fei cautions the ruler against aiming to "win over the people's hearts," because the people, like children, do not understand what is ultimately good for them and what hardships must be endured in order to achieve it.

Han Fei's writings often take the form of polemic against common views and practices supported or encouraged by his opponents, and they concentrate on showing the contradictions inherent in these rival philosophies, the two most prominent being those of the Confucians and the Mohists. For instance, Han Fei vigorously called into question their common insistence that the rulers of the present adhere to the ways of the ancient sage kings, on the grounds both that those ways were too remote to be known (as evidenced by their contradictory philosophies attributed to the same ancient models) and that it was foolish to blindly follow the ways of the past in the first place, given that former circumstances no longer hold true today. "Thus the sage aims neither to cultivate the ancient nor to emulate anything of constant admissibility" (Wudu ); by showing how circumstances continually change and have always done so, Han Fei advocates a sense of historical perspective over against his rivals' views of historical constancy. Thus, rather than wasting time listening to the praises of the former kings, Han Fei's ruler would give credence only to practical wisdom on how to achieve order in the present. Indeed, Han Fei saw it as a common tendency for rulers to become beguiled by clever persuaders acting out of their own self-interest and thereby reward values and promote characteristics that did not serve the good of the state, an obvious recipe for chaos. Given this, the issue of practical applicability was always his litmus test by which to judge the value of any doctrine. An example of this is his argument against the policy of welfare, one that fails because taxing the wealthy to give to the poor only encourages wastefulness and indolence at the expense of industriousness and frugality; in similar fashion, he also decries the valuing of personal integrity to the detriment of social good, scholastic erudition at the cost of agricultural production, and private vengeance at the expense of military valor.

At the heart of Han Fei's own program for wealth, strength, and social order lay a clear set of laws and an invariable system of rewards and punishmentsthe "two handles" of the statestrictly applied to all members of society. If people inherently tended to act out of their own self-interest, then surely it was only the enticement of rewards or abhorrence for punishments that would encourage them to take appropriate action or deter them from committing misdeeds. Equally crucial, according to Han Fei, was that these "two handles" lie firmly within the grasp of the ruler himself, and that none of his real power ever be relegated to his ministers. The method by which the ruler could thus take full advantage of his might and position involved the practice of matching "names" with "realities" (xingming ), of letting the ministers do all the work within their specifically delimited jurisdictionseach appropriate to his individual talentsand judging their performances solely on how well their actual accomplishments lived up to their proposals or allotted tasks. And to ensure the efficacy of this method and thus avoid the possibility that ministers would act out of interests other than those of the ruler, an impartial and invariable system of promotion and censure based wholly on this method was required.

Thus the key to successful rulership for Han Fei lay in the ruler acting at all times in accordance with inviolable standards and never involving himself in hands-on administration or making political decisions on a personal basis. The legal methods at the ruler's disposal are the precision tools of governance that even the wisest of rulers may not forsake, lest he risk the loss of his power and stability. In this regard, Han Fei (following Shen Buhai) took the Dao and nonaction of the Laozi and made them even more explicitly stand for the principles of wise governance, in which he poetically described the ideal ruler as a purposefully mysterious and unknowable entity who simply waited in quiescent tranquility for affairs to take care of themselves: "Empty, he knows the true nature of realities; still, he is the source of rectitude for those in motion" (Zhu dao ). For Han Fei, such terms by no means symbolized a state of lofty nebulousnesssomething he expressly opposedbut always translated into a concrete and effective means of political orchestration.

Although Han Fei himself would meet with an unfortunate end in Qin, many of the ideas espoused in his writings would later be adopted into the "legalist" policies of the short-lived Qin dynasty (221206 bce). After undergoing a certain amount of modification, they would soon come to be reconciled and blended with Confucian thought to form a core component of the orthodox "Confucianism" of the Western Han (206 bce9 ce) and subsequent dynasties, thereby living on, in a somewhat different form, to carry their influence throughout imperial China, and even, in yet other forms, on into the present day.

See Also



Goldin, Paul. "Han Fei's Doctrine of Self-Interest." Asian Philosophy 11, no. 3 (2001): 151160.

Landers, James R. "Han Fei's Legalism and Its Impact on the History of China." In Critical Essays on Chinese Literature, edited by William H. Nienhauser Jr., pp. 101112. Hong Kong, 1976.

Levi, Jean. "Han fei tzu." In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, edited by Michael Loewe, pp. 115124. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Liao, W. K., trans. The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Legalism. 2 vols. London, 19391959. A complete translation of the entire text.

Liu, Yongping. Origins of Chinese Law: Penal and Administrative Law in its Early Development. Hong Kong, 1998. See chapter six on "The Legalists' Theories of Law."

Lundahl, Bertil. Han Fei Zi: The Man and the Work. Stockholm, 1992.

Waley, Arthur. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. London, 1939; Garden City, N.Y., 1956. Includes translated sections and discussion of Han Fei's thought.

Wang, Hsiao-po, and Leo S. Chang. The Philosophical Foundations of Han Fei's Political Theory. Honolulu, 1986.

Watson, Burton. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. New York, 1964. An excellent translation of twelve chapters plus introduction.

Yang, Kuan. "Han Fei's Theory of the 'Rule of Law' Played a Progressive Role." Chinese Studies in Philosophy 10, no. 1 (1978): 418.

Scott Cook (2005)