Legalism, Ancient China

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Legalism (fa jia ) is a label applied since the second century b.c.e. to a group of Chinese thinkers of the Warring States period (453221 b.c.e.). The label is doubly misleading: first, because the thinkers concerned did not necessarily consider themselves members of a unified intellectual current, much less a common school of thought; and second, because the notion of law (fa ), albeit important, is by no means central in the thought of all these thinkers. Legalism is thus not a scientific category but rather a scholarly convention.

Major sources for Legalist thought are the works attributed to the leading Legalist thinkers, Shang Yang (d. 338 b.c.e.), Shen Buhai (d. 337 b.c.e.), Shen Dao (fl. late fourth century b.c.e.), and Han Feizi (d. 233 b.c.e.), as well as portions of the Warring States collectanea, the Guanzi and Lüshi chunqiu. Of these only the first has undisputed Legalist credentials, while the intellectual affiliation of the others is constantly questioned. These disputes notwithstanding, we may discern several major approaches that characterize these thinkers and texts and distinguish them from contemporary intellectual currents. First, all of them sought to strengthen the state versus society through the perfection of a centralized bureaucratic mechanism. Second, Legalists adopted a ruler-centered perspective, which held that reinforcing the ruler's authority was crucial for social stability and that this authority should be absolute and limitless. Third, the Legalists rejected the authority of the past and favored institutional and intellectual innovations to match rapid changes in the sociopolitical situation. Fourth, they rejected the priority of moral values over practical considerations advocated by most of their rivals and adopted a pragmatic and often cynical stand toward political issues. Finally, since major Legalist thinkers had rich experience as administrators, military advisers, and diplomats, their writings are often dominated by practical issues to the extent that some modern critics question their philosophical credentials altogether. Paraphrasing Marx, it may be said that while other philosophers often sought to explain the world, the Legalists did their best to change itand indeed achieved remarkable results.

Shang Yang

Shang Yang is the major Legalist thinker and statesman. As a chancellor of Lord Xiao of Qin (r. 361338 b.c.e.), he initiated a series of profound reforms that turned the relatively weak and peripheral state of Qin into the strongest power and the eventual conqueror and unifier of the Chinese world. Shang Yang's views are presented in the Shang jun shu (Book of Lord Shang); although parts of the book were composed after his death, the text reflects to a significant extent Shang Yang's legacy.

Shang Yang aimed to turn Qin into a powerful state through two parallel and interconnected processes: encouraging agricultural production and strengthening military prowess. To achieve these goals he advocated a clear system of rewards and punishments, according to which aristocratic ranks would be granted for high grain yields and for military merits, while high taxation would be applied against merchants and other "parasites," and harsh penalties would be imposed on those who fled the battlefield and on their relatives. He claimed that rational management of state funds and allocating more resources for reclaiming the wastelands would promote agricultural production, while military achievements would be attained through abandoning any pretension of moral behavior on the battlefield: "When you undertake whatever the enemy is ashamed to do, you will benefit."

Shang Yang's major concern was to assist the ruler to subdue and overcome his people. The people are inherently selfish and stupid, and they do not know how to attain prosperity and peace. Hence a uniform legal system of rewards and punishments is needed to bring order. The punishments should be severe: imposing harsh penalties for the slightest violations of the law can prevent the appearance of capital offences. Only by frightening the people, establishing a system of collective responsibility and mutual surveillance, can the ruler eliminate crimes and achieve peace for the citizens. This ultimately moral goal should be attained therefore through overtly immoral means.

Shang Yang ridiculed traditional culture, moral values, and beliefs in harmonic relations between the ruler and his subjects. All these are bygone ways, appropriate perhaps in the remote past but meaningless in the current age of constant warfare and internal struggles. The only meaningful lesson from the past is that wise rulers changed their laws and regulations to accord with changing circumstances. Shang Yang constructed an evolutionary model of social development, from a kin-based order toward a legal-based one; later Legalist thinkers adopted and further modified this model.

Shang Yang succeeded in creating a harsh and intrusive state that deeply penetrated society and eliminated or weakened previously autonomous social units, such as lineage and the agricultural commune. His success, admitted even by his rivals, explains his appeal, despite his overt attacks against the intellectuals, whom he called parasites and whose moral and intellectual credentials he constantly sought to undermine. In the long run, however, these anti-intellectual philippics backfired against Shang Yang and his followers, turning Legalism into an overtly negative label among the members of educated elite.

Shen Buhai

Shen Buhai, Shang Yang's contemporary, was a chancellor in the state of Han. Reportedly his administrative reforms restored stability in this state and made it a model of efficiency for the rest of the Chinese world. Indeed where Shang Yang is associated with the law (fa ), Shen Buhai's hallmark was the development of technique of rule (shu ). Shen Buhai's book was lost and partly reconstructed from remaining quotations in the nineteenth century.

Shen ridiculed the traditional emphasis on harmonious relations within the ruling apparatus and warned the ruler that his worst enemy would not "batter in barred doors and gates" but would rather be one of the ministers "who by limiting what the ruler sees and restricting what the ruler hears, seizes his government and monopolizes his commands, possesses his people and takes his state." Rather than trusting his deceitful aides, the ruler should establish a strict system of surveillance over his ministers. He should divide the tasks between the officials, inspect their performance, and prevent a horizontal flow of information between them. To maximize his power, the sovereign must strictly preserve his prerogatives as a chief decision maker but should never interfere in the everyday administrative routine that is the task of the ruled. Shen's system, perfected and modified by others, contributed greatly toward the establishment of an efficient bureaucracy on Chinese soil.

Han Feizi

Han Feizi, the last and most sophisticated of the Warring States' Legalist thinkers, is credited with synthesizing Shang Yang's and Shen Buhai's achievements. He furthermore based his philosophy of law on solid metaphysical foundations, borrowing ideas from the Daoist classic the Laozi (or Dao de jing ). The monistic transcendent power of Dao ("Tao," the Way) is embodied in the ruler, whose authority is hence limitless and unquestionable. The principles (li ) of Dao are manifested in the law, which thus becomes the constant and unshakable foundation of human society. Social hierarchy also reflects cosmic principles and so is similarly unassailable.

Philosophical sophistication notwithstanding, Han Feizi's fame derives from his astute and cynical analyses of political and social laws and practices. Politics are a battlefield in which deceit and treachery are common, and mutual trust and morality are an anomaly. The ruler should trust neither the people nor his aides, neither his kin nor his closest friends. This candor is revealing because, being a minister himself, Han Feizi actually claimed that he also cannot be trusted. This contradiction between Han Feizi's ideas and his personal aspirations ultimately led to a personal tragedy: after he arrived at the state of Qin, Han Feizi was imprisoned and executed as a potential spy for his Han homeland. Later the king of Qin reportedly admired Han Feizi's teachings and regretted his decision. Han Feizi thus did not witness the ultimate triumph of his ideology, which came shortly after his death with the imperial unification of 221 b.c.e.

Later Legalism

The triumph of Legalism in the Qin empire (221207 b.c.e.) was to a certain extent a Pyrrhic victory. Qin's harsh treatment of independent thinkers, which culminated in the burning of privately held book collections, backfired against the Legalist ideology, which lost its popularity among the educated elite. Although Legalist methods and ideas remained influential throughout the imperial millennia, the rulers overtly rejected Legalists' cynicism and anti-intellectualism and their emphasis on constant innovation. In the twentieth century the Legalists' ideas of the powerful state strongly appealed to modern intellectuals, and the school's fame reached its peak during the pro-Legalist campaign in the People's Republic of China in the early to mid-1970s. After Mao Zedong's death in 1976, however, the tide reversed again, and the Legalist contribution to traditional China's polity was again deemphasized.

See also Chinese Thought ; Confucianism ; Machiavellism ; Mohism .


Creel, Herrlee G. Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century b.c. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Fu, Zhengyuan. China's Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1996.

Han Feizi jijie. Compiled by Wang Xianshen. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998. Collected commentaries on Han Feizi.

Han Fei-tzu: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Shang jun shu zhui zhi. Edited by Jiang Lihong. Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju, 1986.

Wang, Hsiao-po, and Leo S. Chang. The Philosophical Foundations of Han Fei's Political Theory. Monograph no. 7 of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1986.

Zheng, Liangshu. Shang Yang ji qi xuepai. Shanghai: Gu ji chu ban she, 1989.

Yuri Pines