Legalism (Chinese philosophy)

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

Legalism (Chinese: 法家; pinyin: fă jiā)[1] is a term used to categorize a current in the political philosophy of the Warring States and sometimes preceding Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE). Culminating out of the reforms of earlier, more traditional rulers, and in particular under the later Qin, political philosophy came to emphasize the development and precise, inflexible application of the institution of law under the aegis of the figure of the autocrat.[2][3]


When Qin made the Book of Lord Shang made official and distributed to the households, later "Legalists" would account this distribution as useless for not having improved agriculture, being addressed as it were to the ruler with the intent of implementation.[4] 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"; unlike the other ideologies of the era, there was not generally any organized school of "Legalism" other than ministers building upon the work of earlier reformers.

Some simply classed "Legalistic" writings with the Taoist ideas that they sometimes relate with, Legalism only being made a discrete categorical "school" by historians looking to systematize history, and thus the term Legalist is applied posthumously;[5] the reformers of the Qin state drew on earlier reforms of the Chu and Wei states, and the term has sometimes been used as descriptive of the writings and policies of earlier Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE) ministers even while "Realist Confucian" might sometimes be a better appellation.

"Legalist" writings and reforms were very much syncretic, drawing on earlier intellectual activity like Daoism, Mohism and Confucianism. Though later Legalists sometimes rejected or even vilified the latter two, Mohism like Legalism includes authoritarian precepts and organization antithetical to those of 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 system (ritual). Comparing with Confucianism, Legalism transfers emphasis on moral and ritual code over to legal code;[6] while Legalism considers law more in the context of fidelity to the monarch, prior to this law and morality were not considered separable.[7] The Book of Lord Shang sometimes even considers morality useless or harmful, serving to promote people for reasons other than merit.

The need for greater efficiency in state and economic affairs and the currents defining the Qin transformation had been long in development, with perhaps less-intense activity between the Chinese states being present since the Spring and Autumn period. Much earlier Zhou documents, not generally referenced as Legalist, also emphasize the use of reward and penalty characteristically associated with Lord Shang and Qin.


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 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.

Han Fei synthesized the teachings of earlier proponents. His philosophy may be defined as using the following three tools to govern subjects:


  • Fa (; p 'fǎ', lit. 'law'):

In the West, "Legalism" and it's figures are often compared with political realist figures like Machiavelli,[9] or with the western rule of law concept; and while Legalist philosophy may intend the development of a comprehensive legal system, law is regarded in its infancy as a tool initiated and used by the ruler.[10] In the philosophy of The Book of Lord Shang, the idea is held that, in an orderly state, "law abolishes law" and "words abolish words";[11] the purpose of law being accomplished it even falls into disuse, a Taoist vision.

The book of Lord Shang states that the legal code should be clearly written and made public. 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. Though, for utilitarian purposes, people in Qin had in different rights according to their rank, Shang Yang stressed that people under the ruler be made equal before the law. The sysem of law was used to run the state, the idea being held that, if the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.

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. 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.

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.

The laws supported by the Legalists were meant to support the state, the emperor, and his military. But these laws were intended, by the Legalists, to be reform-oriented and innovative. In theory, if punishments were sufficiently heavy and the law was equally and impartially applied, neither the weak nor the powerful 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, weakened the power of the feudal lords, conquered and unified China's warring states into a single empire, created thirty-six administrative provinces, and standardized 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.

Shang 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. 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.


  • Shu (; p 'shù', lit. 'method'):

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, intelligent ministers were the ruler's most important aide. While the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, the ruler was responsible for correctly judging the performance of ministers. 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 a combination of favours and punishments. Officials ought to be required, through fear, to ensure that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to the assigned undertaking.

As would later be included in the synthesis of Han Fei, the programs of Legalists such as Shen Dao (c. 350–275 BCE) and Shen Buhai devalued the importance of the charismatic ruler by advising that skilful rulers hide their true intentions and feign nonchalance; to ensure that all of his words were revered, the wise ruler kept a low profile. Special tactics and 'secrets' are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, Emperors could force reliance upon their dictates and thereby check sycophancy. 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.[10]


  • Shi (; p 'shì', lit.'legitimacy'):

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.

The Book of Lord Shang reads: "The early kings did not rely on their strength but on their power (shi); they did not rely on their belief but on their figures. Now, for example, a floating seed of the p'eng plant, meeting a whirlwind, may be carried a thousand li, because it rides on the power (shi) of the wind. If, in measuring an abyss, you know that it is a thousand fathoms deep, it is owing to the figures which you find by dropping a string. So by depending on the power (shi) of a thing, you will reach a point, however distant it may be, and by keeping the proper figures, you will find out the depth, however deep it may be. Now, for example, in the darkness of the night, even a Li Lou cannot see a great mountain forest, but in the clear morning light, with the brilliant sun, he can distinguish the flying birds above, and below he can see an autumn hair, for the vision of the eye is dependent on the power of the sun. When the highest condition of power (shi) is reached, things are arranged without a multitude of officials and are made fitting by expounding the system."

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

Interestingly, according to the Han's Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE), 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.


In their time, Qin and the tendency toward legalism were demonized by Confucian scholars for "dangerously lacking in Confucian scholars;"[14] later, because of actions by the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and conflict with some, probably non-Confucian scholars;[15][16][17] 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.[18][19][20] Both ancient and modern observers of Chinese politics have argued that Legalism still play a major role in government. Post-Qin historians, in systematizing history, distinguished philosophy emphasizing law from the also sometimes maligned Taoism, while Chinese politics overlooked the use of more benign administrative developments needed in the government of a unified China. Qin Hui memorably glossed the reality of imperial China as "Confucian on the outside, but Legalist within" (, p Rú biǎo, Fǎ lǐ).[21] Confucian values, and, During the Sui and Tang dynasty, Buddhist ideas, were used to sugarcoat the external face of the 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,[22] 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,[23][24][25][26] even while they themselves may not have self-identified with the term. Indeed, some often high ranking ministers,[27] and for example some Han period texts, such as the Huainanzi,[28] even use some of the same terms and emphasized some of the same methods.[29] 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. ^ "Legalism and Huang-Lao Thought". Indiana University. Indiana University. 
  3. ^ Pines, Yuri. "Submerged by Absolute Power: The Ruler’s Predicament in the Han Feizi". 
  4. ^ John Emerson, A STUDY OF SHEN DAO. There are more sources that could be added.
  5. ^ Ricket, Guanzi
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ "Han Fei-tzu (d. 233 BCE): Legalist Views on Good Government". 
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Deciding Between Two Legalistic Doctrines
  14. ^ John Knoblock Xunzi p.29 ("Qiangguo," 16.6).
  15. ^ Goldin 2005 p.151
  16. ^ Nylan 2001 p.29-30
  17. ^ Kern 2010 111-112
  18. ^ Hooker, Richard. "Legalism". 
  19. ^ "The Han Dynasty". Indiana University. Indiana University. 
  20. ^ Watkins, Thayer. "Legalism and the Legalists of Ancient China". San José State University. 
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "Mao Tse-Tung on Legalism and Lord Shang: How China's ancient past influenced its future". 
  23. ^ "Legalism, Qin Empire and Han Dynasty". 
  24. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  27. ^ Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empiresi
  28. ^ Ulrich Theobald (2010-07-24). "Chinese Literature - Huainanzi 淮南子". Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  29. ^ 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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