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Han Fei

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Han Fei
Bornc. 280 BC
Died233 BC
Cause of deathSuicide by drinking poison
Notable workHan Feizi
EraAncient philosophy
RegionChinese philosophy
Main interests
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Literal meaningMaster Han
Second alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Literal meaningMaster Han Fei

Han Fei (c. 280 – 233 BC), also known as Han Feizi, was a Chinese Legalist philosopher and statesman[1] during the Warring States period. He was a prince of the state of Han.[2]

Han Fei is often considered the greatest representative of Legalism for the Han Feizi, a later anthology of writings traditionally attributed to him,[3] which synthesized the methods of his predecessors.[4] Han Fei's ideas are sometimes compared with those of Niccolò Machiavelli,[5] author of The Prince.[6] Zhuge Liang is said to have attached great importance to the Han Feizi, as well as Shen Buhai.[7]

Sima Qian recounts that Qin Shi Huang went to war with the state of Han to obtain an audience with Han Fei, but was ultimately convinced to imprison him, whereupon he commits suicide.[8] After the early demise of the Qin dynasty, the school was officially vilified by the Han dynasty that succeeded it. Despite its outcast status throughout the history of imperial China, Han Fei's political theory and the Legalist school continued to heavily influence every dynasty thereafter, and the Confucian ideal of rule without laws was never to be realized.[4]

Han Fei borrowed Shang Yang's emphasis on laws, Shen Buhai's emphasis on administrative technique, and Shen Dao's ideas on authority and prophecy, emphasizing that the autocrat will be able to achieve firm control over the state with the mastering of his predecessors' methodologies: his position of 'power' ( shì), 'technique' ( shù), and 'law' (fa). He stressed the importance of the concept of holding actual outcome accountable to speech (刑名 xingming), coupled with the "two handles" system of punishment and reward, as well as wu wei ('non-exertion').


Han Fei is also known respectfully as Hanzi ('Master Han') or as Han Feizi ('Master Han Fei'). In Wade–Giles transcription, his same name is written Han Tzu, Han-tzu, Han Fei Tzu, or Han Fei-tzu. The same name—sometimes as "Hanfeizi" or "Han-fei-tzu"—is used to denote the later anthology traditionally attributed to him.


The exact year of Han Fei's birth remains unknown, however, scholars have placed it at c. 280 BC.[2]

Unlike the other famed philosophers of the time, Han Fei was a member of the ruling aristocracy, having been born into the ruling family of Han during the end phase of the Warring States period. In this context, his works have been interpreted by some scholars as being directed to his cousin, the King of Han.[1] The Records of the Grand Historian say that Han Fei studied together with future Qin chancellor Li Si under the Confucian philosopher Xun Kuang. It is said that because of his stutter, Han Fei could not properly present his ideas in court, but Sima regards him as having been very intelligent. His advice otherwise being ignored, but observing the slow decline of his Han state, he developed "one of the most brilliant (writing) styles in ancient China."

Sima Qian's biography of Han Fei is as follows:

Han Fei was a prince of Han, in favor of the study of name/form and law/art, which Sima Qian dubiously espoused as taking root in the Huang-Lao philosophy. He was born a stutterer and was not able to dispute well, but he was good at writing papers. Together with his friend, Li Si, he served Xun Qing, and Si himself admitted that he was not as competent as Fei. Seeing Han was on the decline, he often remonstrated with the king of Han by submitting papers, but the king did not agree to employ him. At this, Han Fei was frustrated with the reality that, in governing a state, the king did not endeavor to refine and clarify the juridical system of the state, to control his subjects by taking over power, to enhance state property and defense, or to call and employ the wise by enhancing the state.

Rather, the king employed the corrupted and treacherous and put them in higher positions over the wise. He regarded the intellectuals as a disturbance to the law by employing their literature and thought that knights violate the prohibition of the state by using armed forces. While the state was in peace, the king liked to patronize the honored; while in need, he employed warriors with armor and helmet. So the cultivated men could not be employed and the men employed could not be cultivated. Severely distressed over the reality that men of high integrity and uprightness were not embraced by the subjects with immorality and corruption, he observed the changes in the gaining and losing of the past. Therefore, he wrote several papers like "Solitary Indignation", "Five Vermin", "Inner and Outer Congeries of Sayings", "Collected Persuasions", and "Difficulties in the Way of Persuasion", which amount to one hundred thousand words. However, while Han Fei himself knew well of the difficulty of persuasion for his work on the difficulties in the way of persuasion was very comprehensive, he eventually met an untimely death in Qin. He could not escape the trap of words for himself.[9]

His works ultimately ended up in the hands of King Ying Zheng of Qin, who commented, "If I can make friends with this person [Han Fei], I may die without regrets." and invited Han Fei to the Qin court. Han Fei presented the essay "Preserving the Han" to ask the king not to attack his homeland, but his ex-friend and rival Li Si used that essay to have Han Fei imprisoned on account of his likely loyalty to Han. Han Fei responded by writing another essay named "In the first time of meeting Qin king", hoping to use his writing talent to win the king's heart. Han Fei did win the king's heart, but not before Li Si forced him to commit suicide by drinking poison. The Qin king afterward regretted Han Fei's death.

Xunzi formed the hypothesis that human nature is evil and virtueless, therefore suggesting that human infants must be brought to their virtuous form through social-class-oriented Confucian moral education. Without such, Xunzi argued, man would act virtueless and be steered by his own human nature to commit immoral acts. Han Fei's education and life experience during the Warring States period, and in his own Han state, contributed his synthesis of a philosophy for the management of an amoral and interest-driven administration, to which morality seemed a loose and inefficient tool. Han agreed with his teacher's theory of "virtueless by birth", but as in previous Legalist philosophy, pragmatically proposed to steer people by their own interest-driven nature.[10][3][4]


  1. ^ Watson, Burton, Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. 1964, p. 2. The king in question is believed to be either King An of Han (238–230 BC) or his predecessor, King Huanhui (272–239 BC).


  1. ^ 2018 Henrique Schneider. p.1. An Introduction to Hanfei's Political Philosophy: The Way of the Ruler.
  2. ^ a b Watson, Burton (2003). Han Feizi – Basic Writings. Columbia University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-231-52132-1.
  3. ^ a b "Han Feizi". Archived from the original on 2015-08-08. Retrieved 2015-07-25.
  4. ^ a b c Hàn Phi Tử, Vietnamese translation by Phan Ngọc, Nhà xuất bản Văn học, HCMC 2011
  5. ^ Nguyển Hiến Lê, Giản Chi (1995). Hàn Phi Tử. NXB Văn hóa thông tin.
  6. ^ "PGS – TS Trần Ngọc Vương: Ngụy thiện cũng vừa phải thôi, không thì ai chịu được!".
  7. ^ Zhuge Liang
  8. ^ The biography by Sima Qian is presented in "The Biography of Han Fei Tzŭ By Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien" chapter of The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, translated by W.K. Liao, 1939, reprinted by Arthur Probsthain, 1959. https://books.google.com/books?id=op8KAQAAIAAJ http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=xwomen/texts/hanfei.xml&style=xwomen/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=d1.4&toc.depth=1&toc.id=0&doc.lang=bilingual
  9. ^ Tae Hyun KIM 2010 p.15, Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi
  10. ^ Hanfeizi By: Luo, Wei, World Philosophers & Their Works,

Further reading[edit]

  • Burton Watson (1964). Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-08609-7.
  • Hàn Phi Tử, Vietnamese translation by Phan Ngọc, Nhà xuất bản Văn học, HCMC 2011.
  • Mingyuan Hu (2023). Realpolitik: Han Fei on mighty reign. London and Paris: Hermits United. ISBN 978-1-7391156-3-0.

External links[edit]