Legalism (Chinese philosophy)

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

In ancient China, Legalism (Chinese: 法家; pinyin: fă jiā)[1] refers to a current in administrative[2] philosophy that culminated in an emphasis of rule by law. During the Spring and Autumn Period, ministers began reforms in-order to support the authority, state and military of the kings.[3] Reform accelerated during the Warring States period, including the beginnings of a legal code. Wishing to end the disorder of the period and complete the establishment of a new dynasty in a renewed era of unity,[4] Qin kings and reformers imported and developed the innovations of other states, establishing a draconian legal system and reforming the aristocracy into an officialdom ranked by merit, generally defining the trend.[5][6]

Guided by Lord Shang's thought, Qin developed the industriousness of the people and the state's resources, weakened the power of the feudal lords and unified China's warring states into a single empire under thirty-six administrative provinces with a standardized writing system. In theory, if penalties were heavy and the law was equally and impartially applied, neither the weak nor the powerful would be able to escape consequences, and by emphasizing performance over sophistry legalists hoped to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and intrigues.

The work of the most famous legalist thinker, Han Fei (韓非), synthesized the three central concepts of his predecessors for practice under the aegis of the figure of the autocrat:

  1. Fa (Chinese: 法; pinyin: fǎ; literally "law or principle"): The legal code should be written clearly and should be made public. All persons under the jurisdiction of the ruler are equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and penalize accordingly those who do not. This ensures that actions taken are predictable. In addition, the legal system controls the state, not the ruler. If the law is guaranteed effectively, even a weak ruler will be strong.
  2. Shu (Chinese: 術; pinyin: shù; literally "method, tactic or art"): Special tactics or "secrets" should be taken by the ruler to ensure that others do not take state control. Thus, no one can predict the ruler's motivations, and therefore can not know what action can please him, except by following the law.
  3. Shi (Chinese: 勢; literally "legitimacy, power or charisma"): It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, which holds the power.


The reform-trend of the era was classed by later Historians looking to systematize history as Legalism, one of the four main schools of the Hundred Schools of Thought (along with Confucianism, Taoism, and Mohism), and like them continued to influence Chinese politics, but the term itself is applied posthumously.[7] Unlike the other ideologies of the era, there was not generally any organized school of "Legalism"; when in the Warring States period Qin made the Book of Lord Shang official and distributed it to the households, later "Legalists" would account this method of teaching as having been useless for the implementation of reform in improving agriculture.

Anciently, moral and legal code were not thought of separately, but were implicit if not looser, only tightening with the tracking of patrilineal descent; talk of virtue only emerges with the Zhou "mandate of heaven". In the primacy of the Zhou itself, blood-tied vassal relations needed not be more than informal, "chivalry" only emerging in the conflict of the Spring and Autumn Period.[8] Along with the Chinese belief in the origins of the world in simplicity via the creative power of Heaven a la long-existing Wu Xing and Iching, it is not surprising that the The Book of Lord Shang relates order with simplicity and disorder with complexity, teaching that in an orderly state, "laws abolish laws" and "words abolish words";[9] stillness being attained and the creative purpose of law being accomplished, it goes unused, a "Taoist" vision. Thus, together with the tradition of sage-kings, law is regarded as an intermediary tool initiated and used by the ruler for the attainment of supremacy and rectification of the world.[10] though using rarer methods Qin still regarded itself as corrector if not rehabilitater of Chinese civilization, referring to its coming era as the "water" phase of Wu Xing to Zhou's "fire" phase.[4]

Far from being discrete, "Legalist" writings and reforms were very much syncretic, drawing on intellectual activity such as Daoism, Mohism and Confucianism. Though later Legalists sometimes rejected or even vilified Confucianism's private morality or Mohism's watchful justice of ghosts, the aims and similiar methods of both Mohism and Legalism were antithetical to tradition, emphasizing authority outside the family. Ministers Li Si and Han Fei Zi were taught by heterodox Confucian Xunzi who, rejecting the innate human goodness or morality of Mencius, emphasized the importance of education and ritual, which the Legalists simplified into law.

Despite this background, and though some Legalists may even be said to have grounded upon the emerging philosophy of Taoism, by and large their concerns may be called purely administrative if not areligious,[2] and these dialectical methods, despite espousing Taost utopiasalong with supremacy, are criticized by Taoist documents like the Zhuangzi as not resting in "prefect natural action". Consisting of methodologies for the ruler, "Fa-Chia" is often termed in the west as "political realist" and compared with Machiavelli[11] and law is considered more in the context of fidelity to the monarch than any moral question of the Confucians; indeed, Shen Buhai does not mention virtue.[12]

The need for greater efficiency in state and economic affairs and the currents defining the Qin transformation had been long in development, with less-common hostility between the Chinese states present since the Spring and Autumn period. The reformers of the Qin state drew on earlier reforms of the Chu and Wei states, and much earlier Zhou dynasty documents, not generally referenced as Legalist, also emphasize the use of reward and penalty characteristically associated with Lord Shang and Qin.

The Old Methods in Position and Tact[edit]

The Legalists emphasized that the head of state was endowed with shi, the "mystery of authority". The emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy. But 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. 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 labour 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.

Han Fei wrote that the ruler should hold the powers of reward and penalty, and that these should not be executed except by the ruler's legal code; if anyone freely exercised one or the other, they would usurp the state. Special tactics and 'secrets' are employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. To ensure that all of his words were revered, a wise was to keep a low profile. Advising that skilful rulers hide their true intentions by feigning nonchalance and identifying their position with the words of inferiors, and later by the use of law instead of acting directly, Legalism ultimately devalued the importance of charisma, thereby reducing the burden on the ruler. Theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, Emperors could force reliance upon their dictates and thereby check sycophancy. If no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, no one can know which behaviour might help them get ahead other than following the law and trying to perform meritoriously.[10]

Sinologists like Creel have criticized the use of the term "Legalist", preferring "Realist", law only having been developed as a significant tool late in the era. As Allyn Ricket in Guanzi points out, the term "Legalist" has been used as descriptive of the writings and policies of earlier Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE) ministers even where "Realist Confucian" might make a better appellation. Early Realists did not have always have a standardized or comprehensive legal code to rely upon, instead emphasizing the importance of the "five classes" or the orders of the Sovereign;[7] the long-lasting Zhou dynasty had long successfully relied on a system of less methodical personal interactions based on the Emperor and the then-familial and trustworthy aristocracy.[15]

With the decay of the Zhou, officials became more important in the Spring and Autumn period, attracted by rulers seeking reforms to strengthen their states for the recurring conflict. Early "Legalist" Shen Buhai – a minister from the state of Han sometimes called the "founder" of "Legalism", formalized the concept of shu, the bureaucratic model of administration, without even mentioning law.[16] For Shen Buhai, the primary good of the ruler is technique.[17] In is program, intelligent ministers were the ruler's most important aid; but while the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, the ruler was still responsible for correctly judging the performance of ministers, something the later Han Fei recommended be systematized.

While the later Shang Yang (Prime Minister of Duke Xiao of Qin), relying on law, 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), returning to the thought of earlier reformers, demanded more of the wise ruler, and 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 avaricious. Stressing that ministers and other officials too often sought favours from foreign powers by abusing their positions, he urged rulers to control Ministers by a combination of favours and penalties, and ensuring that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to their requested undertaking.

The Development of Legalism Proper[edit]

  • Fa (; p 'fǎ', lit. 'law'):

Shang Yang held that if the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong. Intending that actions taken in Qin become systematically predictable, Yang imported and elaborated a legal code of penalty and reward to develop the resources of the state. A basic tenet of the Book of Lord Shang being that law be made public, well-known and easy to understand, it emphasized "letting the law teach". While Confucianism emphasizes ritual and considers morality in a context of cultivating "virtue" quite apart from law, the Book of Lord Shang, often considering morality even useless or harmful and serving to promote people for reasons other than merit, instead prescribes a legal code to settle moral disputes, recommending that it be clearly written and public.[18]

The doctrine of strict legal application in the Book of Lord Shang stresses that people under the ruler become equal before the law, if not for proposed benefits to the state immediately than at least eventually to enhance the authority of the sovereign. Accepting Yang’s emphasis on the standardization of weights and measures, Qin rulers divided families into smaller households, and adopted, in varying degrees, the practice that no individual in the state should be above the law (and ensuring harsh penalties for all cases of dissent).

Following the Book's doctrine of reward and penalty, people in Qin ultimately had different rights according to their rank. However, this was reform oriented; Yang's legal code 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 practice abandoned as Qin became more successful). A soldier may even gain noble rank. A farmer could gain rank according to his grain. In contrast, some other states allowed only the well-connected to gain higher ranks. Lü Buwei, who originally a merchant, was able to become Chancellor of Qin, an occurrence that would never happen in the other six states.


Though the Emperor endorsed as a favourite the compilation of Han Fei, any positive effects it's reiteration might have had came late to Qin history, and the government's base rested more on the innovation of law a la Shang Yang. At the same time, though incorporating other methods, Han Fei nonetheless further magnifies the importance of law. The Book of Lord Shang itself does not consider the practice of an exacting system of law as suitable for a large state, holding that matters benefiting from an overarching presence ought already be dealt with in the course of the state's development (attaining a natural mode a la Chinese Philosophy). Only considering law a tool, it never envisioned the extent to which Qin would attempt to make it a permanent feature if not revolutionary project, it's application to a larger state described only as having a shrinking effect.

Han Fei wrote, regarding the differing methods of his predecessors,

Whether a return to the aristocratic ways of the Zhou would have worked or not, the first Emperor believed it to be the cause of disintegration, and opted to maintain the unitarian, bureaucratic legal application over its area. Though suitable for managing the development and corruption of a smaller state, using the same rigid, impersonal legal system to rule over the vast tracts of land during peace is generally regarded as the cause of Qin's downfall, lacking any discretion that might be needed in the gaps.

No admixture or alternative was secured before the fall of the dynasty. According to the Han's Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE), 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. But he did not follow all of the Legalists’ advice on the role of the ruler, continuing this line even to the point of not interacting with his own ministers, leaving this to the Prime Minister who consequently altered the royal succession after the Emperor's death to enthrone an incompetent. In a certain sense following one of the philosophical premises for the purpose of law, this heir tried to cause the system to run itself by punishing bad news.


In their time, Qin and the tendency toward legalism were demonized by Confucian scholars for "dangerously lacking in Confucian scholars;"[20] later, because of actions by the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and conflict with some, probably non-Confucian scholars;[21][22][23] and later again by then-endorsed post-Qin Confucian scholars for the conflict of legal emphasis with the then-Confucian interests regarding social norms, organic classism and emphasis on ritual regarded as extraneous by legalistic philosophy.

With the fall of Qin, associated legalism ceased to be an independent trend of thought. But legalistic practice had compounded into necessity, and continued to influence or determine Chinese administration thereafter, though often masked by Confucianism.[24][25][26] Both ancient and modern observers of Chinese politics have argued that Legalism still plays a major role in government. Post-Qin historians marginalized realist philosophy, giving it a superficial categorization to distinguish it from the also sometimes maligned Taoism and resigning it to the past, while Chinese politics demonized but overlooked the use of both in the benign administrative developments needed for the government of a unified China, though Taoism made a return in the Tang.

Qin Hui memorably glossed the reality of imperial China as "Confucian on the outside, but Legalist within" (, p Rú biǎo, Fǎ lǐ).[27] In the decay of the Han, reformers talked of a return to more legalistic ways, with Liu Bei described in this manner. Confucian values, and, During the Sui and Tang dynasty, Buddhist ideas, were used to sugarcoat the external face of the Imperial system's Legalist method. The Sui dynasty's policies during its efforts to reunify China might called "legalistic" and resemble the Qin in some ways, carrying out mass-labour projects in agriculture, said tendency being a likely inspiration for latter attempts at the same by Maoism. Like the Han with the Qin, the Tang government used the government structure left behind by the Sui dynasty, albeit with much reduced punishments.

Those termed as Legalists are referenced explicitly even in the modern era,[28] with Legalism and Confucianism having been a subject for debate and discussion by Chinese Communists, and the term is now sometimes used by modern scholars to describe policy later than that of the Qin dynasty, such as that of the Han, Wei, Shu Han, or Sui Dynasties,[29][30][31] even while they themselves may not have self-identified with the term. Indeed, some often high ranking ministers,[32] and for example some Han period texts, such as the Huainanzi,[33] even use some of the same terms and emphasized some of the same methods.[34] Thus, while it has been used primarily by Chinese historians as a categorizer for Qin Warring States period and secondly Spring and Autumn policy, the use of the term as a descriptor has significantly broadened.


  1. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b Herrlee G. Creel, Shen Pu-Hai: A Secular Philosopher of Administration
  3. ^ Rickett, Guanzi
  4. ^ a b Early Chinese Empires
  5. ^ "Legalism and Huang-Lao Thought". Indiana University. Indiana University. 
  6. ^ Pines, Yuri. "Submerged by Absolute Power: The Ruler’s Predicament in the Han Feizi". 
  7. ^ a b Ricket, Guanzi
  8. ^ Origins of Statecraft in China, Creel
  9. ^ "Shang Jun Shu : Making Orders Strict - Chinese Text Project". Chinese Text Project. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Jeki. "China : Legalism". {$pageCopy}. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  11. ^ "Han Fei-tzu (d. 233 BCE): Legalist Views on Good Government". 
  12. ^ Creel, Shen Pu Hai, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 1
  13. ^ a b "XWomen CONTENT". Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  14. ^ "Shang Jun Shu : Interdicts and Encouragements - Chinese Text Project". Chinese Text Project. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  15. ^ Origins of Statecraft in China
  16. ^ Creel, Shen Pu Hai, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 1
  17. ^ Creel, Shen Buhai, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 1
  18. ^ "Shang Jun Shu : Cultivation of the Right Standard - Chinese Text Project". Chinese Text Project. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  19. ^ Deciding Between Two Legalistic Doctrines
  20. ^ John Knoblock Xunzi p.29 ("Qiangguo," 16.6).
  21. ^ Goldin 2005 p.151
  22. ^ Nylan 2001 p.29-30
  23. ^ Kern 2010 111-112
  24. ^ Hooker, Richard. "Legalism". 
  25. ^ "The Han Dynasty". Indiana University. Indiana University. 
  26. ^ Watkins, Thayer. "Legalism and the Legalists of Ancient China". San José State University. 
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ "Mao Tse-Tung on Legalism and Lord Shang: How China's ancient past influenced its future". 
  29. ^ "Legalism, Qin Empire and Han Dynasty". 
  30. ^ "Decline of Legalism". Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  31. ^ "The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin, Rafe de Crespigny Publications, Faculty of Asian Studies, ANU". Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  32. ^ Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empiresi
  33. ^ Ulrich Theobald (2010-07-24). "Chinese Literature - Huainanzi 淮南子". Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  34. ^ The Huainanzi refers to the "reigns" of government, much like Han Fei.


  • 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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