Legalism (Chinese philosophy)

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Statue of the legalist Shang Yang
Chinese 法家
Literal meaning School of law

The term "legalist" (Chinese: 法家|hp=fă jiā), posthumously applied[1] (the historians of some dynasties had simply classed them with Taoist writings before they were given their own category), is used to describe what may in the West be termed as certain autocratic [2][3] political-philosophical currents, writings, reforms, and persons emphasizing the use of law. "Legalist" writings focused on the running of the state, often with strict obedience to the legal system. In the west these are compared with political realist figures like Machiavelli.[4]

Being posthumously applied, the meaning of the term is imprecise, originating as a categorization/systematization by historians of later dynasties. Historically it would be most well known in reference to certain Warring States (475-221 BC) politicos like prominent "Legalist" writers Shang Yang and Han Fei, who were contemporary and utilized in the reform and development of Qin, to the more draconian Qin laws, and to the Qin state and its Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. But the term is also sometimes used as descriptive of earlier writers/reforms/policies of the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BC) leading up to the Warring States era and reformed Qin state, even while the term "Realist Confucian" might be a better appellation [5] (said earlier writers were less separated from Confucianism than the later Shang Yang was). On the other hand, we may note that even much earlier Zhou documents, not generally referenced as legalist, emphasize the use of reward and punishment focused on by Shang.

Although it was more "utilitarian" and did not address questions like the purpose of life,[6] "Legalist" writings drew on tenants/concepts from Taosim, Mohism and Confucianism, the latter two ideologies being largely rejected or de-emphasized by Warring States period Legalists like said Shang Yang and Han Fei,[7] and Qin "legalist" reforms drew from, or sometimes merely copied and made more Draconian, earlier reforms of other states (such as those of Chu and Wei), and these reforms too clearly have earlier originating roots even from before the era.[8]

In spite of demonisation, the currents in question, compounded into administrative tradition and necessity, continued to influence or determine Chinese political, administrative and bureaucratic structure and practice, though often masked by Confucianism.[9][10][11] Those termed as Legalists are referenced explicitly even in the modern era,[12] and modernly the term is also sometimes used to describe policy later than that of the Qin dynasty, such as that of the Han, Wei, Shu Han, or Sui Dynasties,[13][14][15][16] even while they themselves may not have self-identified with the term. Indeed, some ministers,[17] and for example some Han period texts, such as the Huananzi,[18] even use some of the same terms, and emphasize some of the same methods.[19] Thus, while originating in Chinese historians as a Qin Warring States period categorization firstly and especially, and in reference to Spring and Autumn period writers/reforms secondly, the term is also now used merely as a descriptor.


The school's best known contributor, Han Fei, synthesized the ideology of earlier proponents and believed that a ruler should use the following three tools to govern his subjects:

  • Fa (; p 'fǎ', lit. 'law'): The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systematically predictable. In addition, the system of law, not the ruler, ran the state, a statement of rule of law. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.

"The ancients who completed the principal features of legalism... never burdened their mind with avarice nor did they ever burden themselves with selfishness, but they entrusted law and tact with the settlement of order and the suppression of chaos, depended upon reward and punishment for praising the right and blaming the wrong, assigned all measures of lightness and heaviness to yard and weight."[20]

  • Shu (; p 'shù', lit. 'method'): Special tactics and 'secrets' are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help them get ahead, other than following the laws.

"If the sovereign does not compare what he sees and hears, he will never get at the real... If the ruler listens straight to one project alone, he cannot distinguish between the stupid and the intelligent. If he holds every projector responsible, ministers cannot confound their abilities."[21]

  • Shi (; p 'shì', lit.'legitimacy'): It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself or herself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trends, the context, and the facts are essential for a real ruler.

"Have you the wisdom of Yao but not the support of the masses, you cannot accomplish any great achievement; have you the physical force of Wu Huo, but no help from other people, you cannot raise yourself; have you the strength of Mêng Pên and Hsia Yü but uphold neither law nor tact, you cannot triumph for ever. Therefore, certain positions are untenable; certain tasks, unattainable."[22]

The qualities of a ruler[edit]

Primarily members of the ruling class, the Legalists emphasized that the head of state was endowed with shi, the "mystery of authority", and as such his decisions must always command the respect and obedience of the people. The state (country) comes first, not the individual. The emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy. In emphasizing the power of rulership, Legalists such as Shen Dao (c. 350–275 BC) and Shen Buhai sought to devalue the importance of the charismatic ruler. Skillful rulers hid their true intentions and feigned nonchalance. To ensure that all of his words were revered, the wise ruler kept a low profile. Thus, theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, the Emperors checked sycophancy and forced his subject to heed his dictates. While Shang Yang (the Prime Minister of Duke Xiao of Qin) would allow rulers to listen to musical instruments rather than focus on foreign policy, Han Fei (the Legalistic scholar most admired by the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi) demanded more of the wise ruler. A good leader, by Han Fei's standards, must not only accept the advice of loyal ministers when shown to be in error, but must also extend courtesy to those beneath him or her and not be too avaricious. The adept ruler also understood the importance of strictness over benevolence. Although the ruler was expected to be paternalistic, the Legalists emphasized that being too kind would spoil the populace and threaten the state's internal order. Interestingly, according to the Han's Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC), while the First Qin Emperor hid himself from the rest of the world (perhaps due to a desire to attain immortality) and thus maintained a low profile, he did not necessarily follow all of the Legalists’ advice on the role of the ruler.


To aid the ruler and help prevent misgovernance, Shen Buhai – a minister from the state of Han for fifteen years – formalized the concept of shu, the bureaucratic model of administration that served to advance the ideal Legalist ruler’s program. To the Legalists, the intelligent minister was the ruler's most important aide. Whereas the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, the ruler was responsible for correctly judging ministers’ performances. Stressing that ministers and other officials too often sought favours from foreign powers by abusing their positions, Han Fei urged rulers to control these individuals by the two handles of punishment and favour. Officials were required, through fear, to ensure that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to the assigned undertaking. According to the eminent sinologist Robin Yates, newly discovered Qin Dynasty legal codes show that officials were required to correctly calculate the exact amount of labor expected of all artisans; if the artisan was ordered to perform either too much work or too little work, the official would be held accountable. Thus, in Legalist theory, ministers and other officials were prevented from performing some other official's duties and were punished if they attempted to blind the ruler with words or failed to warn the ruler of danger. One consequence of this situation was that the ministers could always be held accountable for royal misadventures while the ruler’s name was never to be tarnished. By emphasizing performance, however, over sophistry, the Legalists hoped to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and intrigues amongst the officialdom through fear of being severely punished, exiled or executed.

Purpose of law[edit]

The entire system was set up to make people behave and act how the dynasty wanted. The laws supported by the Legalists were meant to support the state, the emperor, and his military. They were also reform-oriented and innovative. In theory, the Legalists believed that if the punishments were heavy and the law equally applied, neither the powerful nor the weak would be able to escape consequences. The Legalists especially emphasized pragmatism over precedence and custom as the basis of law. Guided by Legalist thought, the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, would weaken the power of the feudal lords, conquer and unify the warring states into a single empire, create thirty-six administrative provinces, and standardize the writing system. Reflecting Legalist passion for order and structure, Qin soldiers were only mobilized when both halves of tiger-shaped tallies (one held by the ruler and the other by the commanding general) were brought together. Likewise, all documents in the empire had to have recorded the year they were written, the scribe who copied them, and up to the exact hour of delivery. Accepting Shang Yang’s earlier emphasis on the standardization of weights and measures, the Qin Shi Huang would also accept Shang Yang’s philosophy that no individual in the state should be above the law (by ensuring harsh punishments for all cases of dissent) and that families should be divided into smaller households. While there is reason to doubt Sima Qian’s claim that Qin Shi Huang did in fact divide households into groups of ten, certainly the other examples of standardization and administrative organization undertaken by the First Emperor reflect the importance of Legalist thought in Qin law.

Individual autonomy[edit]

The Legalist philosophers emphasized the primacy of the state over individual autonomy. The lone individual had no legitimate civil rights and any personal freedom had to strengthen the ruler. Han Fei, in particular, would be very caustic towards the concept of individuals rights. Fundamentally, the Legalists viewed the plebeian (common people of lower class) and their actions as evil and foolish.

However, Legalism allowed the common people to gain in rank if they performed well. For example, soldiers would gain in rank according to the number of heads the soldiers collected. A soldier may even gain noble rank. In contrast, some other states allowed only the well-connected to gain higher ranks. An example of this would be Lü Buwei, who originally a merchant, was able to become Chancellor of China, an occurrence that would never happen in the other six states. He played a major role in King Zhuangxiang of Qin's rise to power.

According to Shang Yang's The Book of Lord Shang, the people themselves wanted a ruler to generate order. Social cohesion in the Legalist state mandated that the populace never escape punishment. The Qin dynasty used the people, for example, to maintain vigilant mutual surveillance over one another under threat of death.

This intrastate realpolitik would end up devouring the Legalist philosophers themselves. Shang Yang, in advocating the state’s right to punish even the parent’s tutor, would run afoul of the future King Huiwen of Qin (c. 338–311 BC). Whereas at one point, he had the power to exile his opponents (and, thus, eviscerate individual criticism) to border regions of the state, he was captured by a law he had introduced and died being torn into pieces by chariots. Similarly, Han Fei would end up being poisoned by his envious former classmate Li Si, who in turn would be killed (under the law he had introduced) by the aggressive and violent Second Qin Emperor that he had helped to take the thrones.


With the fall of Qin, Legalism was demonized and ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern Confucian observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still play a major role in government. Qin Hui memorably glossed the reality of imperial China as "Confucian on the outside, but Legalist within" (, p Rú biǎo, Fǎ lǐ).[23] In other words, Confucian values were used to sugarcoat the harsh Legalist reality that underlay the Imperial system. During the Sui and Tang dynasty, Buddhist ideas were also part of the external face of the imperial system.

The Sui dynasty's policies during it's efforts to reunify China were more "legalistic", and like the Han for the Qin the Tang government similarly used the government structure left behind by the Sui dynasty, albeit with much reduced punishments.

Related figures[edit]

The Confucian thinker Xun Zi is sometimes considered as being influenced by or having nourished Legalist ideas, mostly because of two of his disciples (Li Si and Han Fei).


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  5. ^ Ricket, Guanzi
  6. ^ "Legalism". Retrieved 2008-06-28. 
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  8. ^ Creel, Origins of Statecraft in China
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  17. ^ Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empiresi
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  19. ^ The Huainanzi refers to the "reigns" of goverment, much like Han Fei
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  23. ^ Qin Hui. 《传统十论》 [Ten Expositions on Tradition]. 2004. (Chinese) Op. cit. Australian Centre on China and the World. The China Story "Qin Hui 秦晖". Accessed 26 September 2013.


  • Barbieri-Low, Anthony, trans. The Standard Measure of Shang Yang (344 B.C.) (2006)
  • Creel, H.G. “The Totalitarianism of the Legalists.” Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tsê-tung. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.
  • Duyvendak, J.J.L., trans. The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of Law. London: Probsthain, 1928.
  • Graham, A.C., Disputers of the TAO: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court 1993). ISBN 0-8126-9087-7
  • Pu-hai, Shen. “Appendix C: The Shen Pu-hai Fragments.” Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C. Translated by Herrlee G. Creel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • Qian, Sima. Records of the Grand Historian, Qin Dynasty. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
  • Xinzhong,Yao, Introduction to Confucianism (2000). ISBN 978-0-521-64312-2
  • Potter, Pittman, From Leninist Discipline to Socialist Legalism : Peng Zhen on Law and Political Authority in the PRC2 (2003). ISBN 978-0-8047-4500-0

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