Legalism (Chinese philosophy)

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Statue of pivotal reformer Shang Yang
Chinese 法家
Literal meaning "School of laws"

Dating back to early China, the Chinese term Legalism (Chinese: 法家; pinyin: fă jiā) in its broad usage refers to the historical Realpolitik[1][2] of the Chinese, also termed by scholars as Chinese Realism.[3][4] Its content may be readily recognized by western viewers through the Warring States period's Art of War.[5] The academic term Realist is used more broadly to refer to any reformer or politico of Chinese history with a politically realistic, rather than only idealist Confucian bent. In the broader Confucian-dominated history most Realists could naturally be expected to be both, but during the Warring States period some such texts would be almost purely Realpolitikal. The old Realpolitik is viewed today as having worked to advance China's historically unitary state beyond feudalism.

Starting in the Spring and Autumn period (771-476/403 BCE), a trend of "realistic" reformers were taken on to advance the material interest of their respective states, with the Qin state founding what is commonly thought of as the first Chinese Empire, the Qin dynasty, in 221 BCE, ending China's Warring States period. With the ascendancy and toppling of the Qin dynasty, whose legalistic administration and military capability often developed at the expense of the traditional order, "fa-jia" (translated as "school of law" or Legalism but actually having a broader possible semantic range) developed as the term for Realpolitik, having specific connotations.

Most reformers of the period took little interest in the schools per se, but Qin's reformer Shang Yang was quite explicitly anti-Confucian, and famous synthesizer Han Fei not much less.[6] Though Chinese Emperors would make use of Realkpolitik throughout history, with the historical dominance of the Confucians, who emphasized a philosophy of filial piety and rule by virtue, politic leaning toward the administrative sciences would often be obscured under the term Legalism. But the political theory developed during that formative era would still influence every dynasty thereafter.[7]


Who utters a word creates himself a name; who has an affair creates himself a form. Compare forms and names and see if they are identical. Then the ruler will find nothing to worry about as everything is reduced to its reality.

Han Fei Zi "Chapter V. The Tao of the Sovereign"[8]

The Chinese state was derived from what may be termed as "Chinese administrative philosophy". Its primary aspects formed in the Warring States period, that being the moralist Confucianism, and a later often masked and unspoken administrative Realpolitik, long ago posthumously termed "Legalism". Both played important roles in advocating for a unified China.[9] Consisting of methodologies for the ruler, in the west "Legalist" philosophy has often been compared with Machiavelli[10] and termed thusly by academics as Chinese Realist.[11]

For the characters Fa(jia) "fa-school", R. Goldin points out that "the translation 'legalism' (supposes) that fa only means “law.” But this is a grave error... it covers a much larger semantic range. The Mohist Canons explain fa as instruments, including 'such three things as ideas, compasses, and circles'. Even in imperial China, fa tended to mean something more like 'government program' or 'institution' than 'law'—as in, for example, the failed Song Dynasty 'Green Sprouts Policy', Wang Anshi’s 王安石 (1021-1086) attempt to establish a government credit bureau." Han Fei says: "an enlightened ruler employs fa to pick his men; he does not select them himself. He employs fa to weigh their merit; he does not fathom it himself." This being said, in its more general use, Fa is broader any ordinary understanding of the word 'law'."[12]

With the success of the legalistic Qin state, by the late end of the period synthesizer Han Fei of Han combined earlier Realpolitik in his book, the Han Fei Zi, using the Qin emphasis of law as a base.[13] In an early pro-Taoist, Han dynasty comparison of ideologies, pro-feudal historians would coin the term Legalism, defining pre-Han Realpolitikal developments as a Warring States period "school." In reality most Realist reformers took little interest in the moral and philosophical questions of the schools, and there was no "school" as such (other than the multifarious Jixia Academy). Reformer's rhetoric was formulated for their patrons, not literary distribution. Actually, when the agriculturally-centred Book of Lord Shang was later made official and distributed to the households, Qin reformers would memorialise this as being useless in teaching agriculture. The Book states that agriculture should be taught through systematic legal reward, not proselytism. As the saying in the book runs: "People find it easy to talk, but difficult to serve."

Regarding the origin of the term Legalism, R. Goldin writes that, "as far as one can tell fa-jia (i.e., the "legalist school") was invented by Sima Tan in his essay, “The Essential Implications of the Six Houses of Thought... Sima Tan’s aim was to sketch what he took to be the six main schools of pre-imperial philosophy, and then to show how the group that he called daojia (i.e. school of dao) incorporated the strengths of each of the other five, but without succumbing to any of their weaknesses.” Sima Tan's definition, perhaps accurate for Shang Yang reads that they "are strict and have little kindness, but their alignment of the divisions between lord and subject, superior and inferior, cannot be improved upon... Fajia do not distinguish between kin and stranger or differentiate between noble and base; all are judged as one by fa."

The anachronistic term still sees some use, but has a dubious academic reputation for only really being an accurate descriptor of Han Fei and Shang Yang. Famous Sinologist Creel states that it makes an odd term for foundational Realists of similar style whose methods make little to no mention of law as such, but whose contributions might be considered equally important. As Allyn Rickett in Guanzi, says, that term "Legalist" has been used as descriptive of the writings and policies of earlier Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE) reformers even where "Realist" or "realistic Confucian" might make a better appellation.[14]

Emperor Wu of Han would establish Confucianism as an alternative to the feudalizing tendencies of the ideologically Taoistic court aligned with a very real semi-autonomous realm, one of whose more famous ideologians was accused of treason. Confucianism, advocating a "rule by virtue", was established as the remaining official ideology whose bureaucracy shunned "Legalism". "Legalist" philosophy, caterogrizd as having the aim of "wealth and power" would be generally considered less cultured than pursuit of the classics. Until the modern era open discussion of Realpolitik would be generally resigned to the past, other than in times of crisis; during the Qing's Taiping civil war, writings by Realist Confucian Feng Guifen would convince the dynasty to establish its first modern shipyards.[15]


The Chinese developed a "vast, complex and highly centralized bureaucratic state hundreds of years before Europe's Christian era", with a united realm in the form of the Zhou Dynasty stretching back long before that. Chinese administrative organization, and to an extent technology like metallurgy, was "far in advance of the rest of the world" until "nearly the end of the eighteenth century", influencing western administrative practices not later than the twelfth century and playing a significant role in the development of the modern state, including use of the examination.[16][17]

Each of the era's ideologies contributed to, but also criticized the others. The Confucians would look to the past. Yongjin Zhang in International Affairs writes, "Among the Axial Age civilizations, ancient China is said to be the only one that ‘has the sense of looking back from present disruption towards an empire and culture which flourished in the immediate past’ (the Zhou dynasty and it's propaganda) in search of the solution for its contemporary problems."[18]

A developing Realpolitik, such as that from the Spring and Autumn period onward, ultimately won out as China's administrative background, though not official ideology, because the naturalism of Taoism and the benevolence and virtue of Confucianism lacked sufficiently active program for political reform based upon the present. Warring States period Realists criticized reliance upon the past[19] while offering offering modern, rationalized political formulas.[20] For them, the only "Way" was that of the present. Pre-Qin Confucianism, and Mohism with it, also advocated political autonomy for their followers, something which ran counter to any attempts to actually run an administration. Though post-Qin Confucianism was somewhat more integrated, it still often ran counter to the monarchy, public administration and military capability.[21]

Late Qin reformers would adopt an openly avowed, expansive "rule by law",[22] founding the Chinese Imperial State. Both would remain a matter of contention until the era of modern national identity and reform, following such impetus as the nomad dynasties and the Opium Wars.[23] Constituting the defining characteristic of the conquering Qin empire, an actually Legalistic administration was adopted almost intact by the succeeding Han dynasty, though professing hatred thereof, as necessary in running the large and complex territory, and the administrative developments of the period continued to influence every dynasty thereafter.

The Legalism of Shang Yang developed the industry and resources of the peripheral Qin state, transforming it into a militarily powerful kingdom. Weakening the power of the feudal lords, Qin became a strongly centralized kingdom, reforming the aristocracy into an open officialdom ranked by merit according to performance, especial talent and military accomplishment, and ending with the unification of the China's warring states into thirty-six administrative provinces with a standardized writing system under what is commonly thought of as the first Chinese Empire, the Qin dynasty, all based upon law.


There is more than one way to govern the world and there is no necessity to imitate antiquity, in order to take appropriate measures for the state... One should, in one's plans, be directed by the needs of the times - I have no doubts about it.

The Book of Lord Shang "Reform of the Law"[24]

When adopting words and observing deeds, if someone does not take function and utility for mark and target, he will be doing the same as wild shooting, however profound the words may be and however thorough the deeds may be.

Han Fei Zi "Chapter XLI. Inquiring into the Origin of Dialectic"[25]

Chinese Realpolitik is a syncretism of lengthy breadth and origin. Through late Warring States synthesizer (Han Fei, 韩非, 280-236BCE, the most famous Legalistic scholar, contemporary of and most admired by the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi), the study of philosophy like that of Shen Pu-hai would come to define Realpolitik for post-Qin Emperors.[26] Shen Pu-hai's political technique charges the ruler engage in passive observation to determine facts rather than take on too much himself. Sinologist Creel writes: "If one wishes to exaggerate, it would no doubt be possible to translate (foundational Realist) Shen Buhai's term Shu, or technique, as 'science', and argue that Pu-hai was the first political scientist," though Creel does "not care to go this far".[27]

In Han Fei's schemata, the ruler monopolized power to prevent civil war and abuse by the feudal lords, but otherwise allowed ministers and labourers rank and office, reward or penalty, comparing their statements with the results of their proposed projects. Intending the establishment of a system that needed little interference from the ruler, legalistic Realists held that this could be handled according to procedure and commision.[28] By such means the political dispute and misrule of the era might be resolved to the past.

Stressing that ministers and other officials too often abused their positions and sought favours from foreign powers, Han Fei urged rulers to observe that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to their undertaking, handling them by a combination of favours and penalties.[29] Using his monopoly, the wise ruler could extend courtesy to those beneath him and indulge the advice of ministers without danger to himself or the state.

Basing himself upon the administrative successes and of his own Han state and borrowing the Qin's innovation of law, Fei depicts his work as synthesizing in the Han Feizi (book) the administrative methodologies particular to his predecessors for practice under the aegis of the figure of a watchful sovereign autocrat:[30] In reality, any of the given figures were synthesizers themselves.[31]

Han state Candle Holder
  1. Shi (Chinese: 势; pinyin: shì; literally "legitimacy, power or charisma"): Reflecting the preceding Zhou Dynasty's stability and means, this masculine character represents force or military strength, the appearances or influence of the ruler ("virtue", or fame), and the state's situation or trend.[32] In the philosophy of Shen Dao and other realist philosophers, the establishment of order and the Sovereign's restraining hold on the state generates the stability necessary for any rule at all. The monopolizes authority in-order to prevent its abuse by feudal magnates.[33] In the Book of Lord Shang, a strong inherited position supports even an ineffectual ruler, while a competent ruler without position effects nothing.[34] That being done, using his position the ruler could make use of intelligence like measurement and statistic to grant reward or penalty impartially. Chinese references to the square and compass actually go back to mythology, like that of Fuxi and Nuwa.
  2. Shu (Chinese: 术; pinyin: shù; literally "method, tactic or art"): Withdrawing from affairs except to survey the course of ministers, the ruler following the philosophy of Shen Buhai uses "technique", or special tactics or "secrets" to ensure that others do not gain control of the state, and obscures their motivations. Shen Buhai's technique did not use threatening or force, law, reward or penalty, all of which may be unsuitable for the exercise of one man.[35] Under the later Han Fei, obscuration of motivations translates into law enacted as the proposed policies of the ministers, then observed for outcome. By such means no can subvert the state through sycophancy toward the ruler, but may only try to advance by heeding orders and performing meritoriously. Shu is the aspect of Chinese Realpolitik most frequently related with Taoism through one of its associates wu-wei, or non-active action.
  3. Fa (Chinese: 法; pinyin: fǎ; literally "law or principle"): Fa has a historically broader meaning than law, including standards and tools (the latter being the way which Shen Dao used it), but its most revolutionary application was by Shang Yang. The Book of Lord Shang emphasizes the use of laws to reward those who obey them and penalize accordingly those who do not, institutionalizing the standards set by the ruler and acting as a guarantor for actions taken. The late Warring States Realists advised the ruler to generally use, if not hide behind the legal system to control the state. If the law is applied effectively, even a weak ruler will be strong, effectively regenerating the preceding principles. In the development of administrative methodology, Han Fei credits Yang with Ding Fa(定法), or fixing the standards, which were to be written clearly, made public and applied throughout the state. All persons under the jurisdiction of the ruler were equal before the law, referred to as Yi Min(一民), or treating the people as one.[36]

Philosophical background[edit]

The syncretism of Neo-Confucian figures like Zhou Dunyi, in drawing on diverse sources and representing a totalizing synthesis of cosmos, humanity, conduct, ethic, and nature, is commonplace in Chinese philosophy more generally.

Inspired by the Zhou-innovated Mandate of Heaven, some, like the Confucians, would come to see the decay as one pertaining to "virtue", and advocate its practice among the disparate lords. The later Mohists would advocate a universal fraternity. Looking back to a period of long, united stability, none of the major schools, the Chinese political body itself, or the Chinese more generally, viewed the political fragmentation as a positive development. Believing that a sage or other restoration of order would result in the supremacy of their ideology (or state), neither did any really believe in disputation.[37]

Rickett writes that "all early Chinese political thinkers were basically committed to a reesteablishment of the golden age of the past as early Zhou propoganda described it."[38] In trying to advance innovative solutions, some later Legalists like Shang Yang of Qin would disavow the usefulness of the past. But though aiming at a new dynasty Qin still practised Zhou ritual and considered itself a rehabilitater as such.[39][40]

Main article: Chinese Philosophy

Chinese philosophy more generally may be considered syncretic; more than any particular distinction, adherents considered their ideology to be the one that ought be adopted by the state because they considered their "way" to be higher or more universal in perspective. The defining Zhou ideation, heaven, represents represents such a unity.

Pre-Han ideologies would make some comparison between eachother during the turmoil of the Warring States period, but only really tried to demarcate themselves as distinct with the later arrival of Buddhism. Though not their focus, the early Spring and Autumn Realists often related with morality, and administration with it, and did not quarrel with Confucianism. Warring States ministers Li Si and Han Fei Zi were taught by heterodox Confucian Xunzi[41] who, rejecting the innate human goodness or morality of Mencius, emphasized the importance of education and ritual, which the Legalists re-simplified into Fa (code). Like Confucianism, the later Han Fei also emphasized the importance of loyalty, though more in relation the sovereign than the family.[42]

It is a mistake to regard Chinese philosophies as constituting doctrines or dogma. Chinese ideologians held single-mindedness between knowledge, action, nature (or heaven, or just circumstances), and administration as their aim. The Chinese philosophies in general are properly understood as "Ways", and do not grant a distinction between knowledge and practice, often referred to as medicine. Though the works of Realists achieve a high level of abstraction, their practices contradict each-other if thought of as a doctrine, and must be understood as situational Taos, or "ways" to run the state. Ultimately, as the first chapter of Book of Lord Shang says, there is more than one method(fǎ) to govern the world, and one should, in one's plans, be directed by the needs of the times.

Early History[edit]

Shang pre-history[edit]

A late Shang dynasty bronze ding vessel with taotie motif

The terrain of China limited technological developments in agriculture, but on other hand offered potential fertility much higher than that of Rome.[43] However, the severe climate of the north China plain required careful timing. Through the king, Imperial authorities declared when it was time to plant the crops, developing a calendar of 12 months of 30 days, adjusted from the older lunar calendar.

Though not being more developed in agricultural technology, the agriculture of the Shang dynasty differentiated itself from preceding ages by it's highly productive organization, contributing to the dynasty's power. The king appointed the governors of the sections of the state[44] and owned all land, directly controlling many large farms that were worked and cleared by royal labour gangs, combining this grain income with that of tributaries.

A rudimentary military bureaucracy was needed in order to muster forces ranging from three to five thousand troops for border campaigns to thirteen thousand troops for suppressing rebellions against Shang dynasty. The well organized agricultural sector supported an otherwise technologically innovative ruling elite, and besides their impressive bronze ware, which constantly imparted its influence on the Zhou, the Shang's writing system allowed for the organization of a bureaucratic government.[45]

Although the Shang depended upon the military skills of their nobility, Shang rulers could mobilize the masses of town-dwelling and rural commoners as conscript laborers and soldiers for both campaigns of defense and conquest.[46] Aristocrats and other state rulers were obligated to furnish their local garrisons with all necessary equipment, armor, and armaments. The Shang king maintained a force of about a thousand troops at his capital and would personally lead this force into battle.[47]

Though Zhou territory would be established as larger on the whole, in consideration of military defeats LI XUEQIN of "Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations" writes that, when compared with the rule of the Shang, the later Zhou rule actually was not particularly successful.[48] But it succeeded in the innovation of the enormously popular Mandate of heaven, basing their legitimacy on a proclamation of virtue. Zhou rule would carry a long-stable feudalism, which together with it's propaganda would be remembered as a golden-age.

Rule by Law[edit]

If a people are not orderly, it is because their prince follows inferior ways; and if the laws are not clear, it means that the prince causes disorder to grow. Therefore, an intelligent prince is one, who does not follow an inferior way, nor causes disorder to grow, but he establishes himself, by maintaining his authority and creates order, by giving laws; so that he gains possession of those, who are treacherous towards their ruler.

Shang Jun Shu "Unification of Words"[49]

The defining of everybody's rights and duties is the road that leads to orderly government, but the not defining of everybody's rights and duties is the road that leads to disorder. Where there is a tendency towards disorder and one governs it, the disorder will only increase, but where there is a tendency towards order and one governs it, there will be order. Therefore, the sage kings governed order and did not govern disorder.

Shang Jun Shu "Fixing of Rights and Duties"[50]

Sinologists sometimes make comparisons between the "rule of law" said to be practised today in the west, and the "rule by law" which is said to have developed in early China. Like Confucianism or Libertarianism, western rule of law is typically portrayed as being based on ethical concerns, but also on the restriction of ministerial powers. By contrast, Legalist "rule by law" is said to be basically oriented toward the establishment of order, and more lacking in such restriction.

Neither ancestor worship, nor the development of complex societies therewith are historically unusual, and Chinese customary law did not develop out of any late, complex Confucian concern for virtue or morality, but out said much older ancestor worship.[51] The ancient Chinese regarded law as having been carried out by their rulers to establish order, more than any ethical question.[52]

In ancient China, civil procedure, being originally a royal prerogative, was based upon a royal tradition of trying to make punishments that fit the crime. The broaching of such penal moderacy by Shang Yang for utilitarian purpose, enacting harsher penalty, is traditionally considered one of the reasons for the Qin dynasty's fall after victory. More traditional texts such as the early Zhou Book of Documents advised "carefulness and enlightenment".[53] Still, one would not call this a restriction of ministerial power, as in the later west.[54]

Han Dynasty law (which is better preserved than Qin law) did put procedure on such thing as criminal investigation,[55] but in the Han Fei tradition or Tianxia more generally this may be understood as ordination that power be derived from the Emperor through the legal code, rather than restriction as such. Ancient Chinese "rule by law" developed out of the codification of general royal promulgations backed up by force in-order to achieve social order,[54] (whose concern does make an appearance in the Book of Lord Shang) and was ultimately not based upon any justification. Being more basically oriented toward crime and fines, the later Han Fei did criticize Yang's method for its lack of ministerial technique, which Fei's legal philosophy based upon the Han (state)'s Shen Buhai.

Han Fei's philosophy allows that distant exercises of power outside the law, if profitable, be considered rewardable innovations, warranting promotion for the intelligent; after all, the Emperor cannot very well expect to flexibly manage for circumstances on the far side of the empire at any reasonable rate. In the Qin era the legal code was very strict where it could be applied (it did not succeed in uniformly applying it, for instance, upon the Chu (state)). But later Chinese generals sometimes abrogated orders (of which Han Fei did not approve) for their own judgements and could not very well be replaced for lack of anyone better suited to the job. In fact, despite the large numbers of applicants to the administration more generally, ministers or generals sometimes had to be drafted for what were otherwise considered unenviable positions, which the Han Feizi urges loyal ministers to accept.

Alternative to such arguments, the Han Feizi advocates not allowing ministers to over-ride their posts, and making penalty a monopoly of the law. Legalist texts like the Book of Lord Shang advocate the advancement of law to such a point as not to require middle men, having villagers (or their representative) enact it, though such might just be considered "rule by law" at a lower level.

Zhou origins[edit]

The Cultural Grandeur of the Western Zhou Dynasty
Main article: Zhou Dynasty

Chinese political development began long before the formalized order Qin. Early Zhou dynasty documents, not generally referenced as Legalist, also emphasized the use of reward and penalty characteristically associated with the Legalism of Lord Shang and Qin of the later, bureaucratizing Warring States Period.[56][57] Mark Edward Lewis writes in Early Chinese Empires, "(A) basic innovation in classical China was the invention of the figure of the emperor. He was not merely the supreme ruler, chief judge, and high priest but the very embodiment of the political realm."[58]

Wu countered Zhou's crisis of legitimacy by expounding the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, which admonished the Zhou clan not to be negligent, while accommodating important Shang rituals at Wangcheng and Chengzhou.[59] Though beginning to lose power to it's vassals within seventy-five years of it's foundation, the "feudalistic" Zhou dynasty, renowned for its prosperous stability, long and successfully relied on a system of less methodical interactions between the Emperor and the then-familial aristocracy, establishing the beginnings of a political methodology that could be built upon by later reformers.[60]

Main article: Western Zhou
Further information: Four occupations

King Wu maintained the old capital for ceremonial purposes but constructed a new one for his palace and administration nearby at Hao. To maintain Zhou authority over its greatly expanded territory and prevent other revolts, he set up the "feudalistic" fengjian system, posthumously termed as a "combination of Confucianism and Legalism."[61][62] The fengjian system enfeoffed royal relatives and generals in the east,[62] including Luoyang, Jin, Ying, Lu, Qi and Yan. Many of these became major states when the dynasty weakened.

It's "four occupations" were the shì (士) the class of "knightly" scholars, mostly from lower aristocratic orders, the gōng (工) who were the artisans and craftsmen of the kingdom and who, like the farmers, produced essential goods needed by themselves and the rest of society, the nóng (农/農) who were the peasant farmers who cultivated the land which provided the essential food for the people and tributes to the king, and the shāng (商) who were the merchants and traders of the kingdom. People were not born into the specific classes, such that, for example, a son born to a gong craftsman was able to become a part of the shang merchant class, and so on.

The Shang Shu credits the fifth King Mu of Zhou (r. 956-918 BCE) with establishing the first systematic legal code.[63] But though the Zhou initiated such things, with the decay of the Zhou line five hundred years later during the time of the Spring and Autumn period's Confucius (551–479 BCE), there was still little actual statutory legal development outside central Zhou territory.[64] In the Spring and Autumn period, a Qin king would still memorialise to heaven penalty as a ritual function benefiting the people.[65]

If land is not distributed in an orderly fashion, government offices will not be well managed. If offices are not well managed, production will be poorly organized. If production is poorly organized, goods will not be plentiful. There is a proper way.

Guanzi "Military Taxes"

"Realist Confucianism"[edit]

In the Spring and Autumn period officials began reforms in order to support the authority, states, and militaries of the kings,[66] who began to solidify the sprawling Zhou realm into their own centralizing states. R. Eno of Indiana university writes, "If one were to trace the origins of Legalism as far back as possible, it might be appropriate to date its beginnings to the prime ministership of Guan Zhong, chief aide to the first of the hegemonic lords of the Spring Autumn period, Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685 - 643)",[67] though like the more famous Sinologist Creel, Rickett, writer of an English translation of the text prefers "Realist" or "realistic Confucian"[68] and the text includes arguments favouring the inculcation of Confucian virtues over rule by law.[69]

Though the Guanzi actually preceded Confucius, Confucius only considered himself a transmitter of older values, of which the Guanzi partakes. The Guanzi suggests that much of the early Spring and Autumn reformers were more moralistic than later reformers, and did not have as much of a standardized or comprehensive code to rely upon, instead emphasizing things like the less systematized orders of the Sovereign (who became increasingly important), or, for instance, the importance of the "five classes" as a basis for order.[70] But the reforms of Guan Zhong of Qi (720-645 BCE) nonetheless applied levies and economic specializations at the village level instead of the aristocracy, and shifted administrative responsibility to professional bureaucrats.

Administrative expansion and feudal disintegration[edit]

The Qi city of Linzi was one of the largest and richest of the Spring and Autumn Period, and home to the Jixia Academy.
Bronze from the Tomb of Chu in Xichuan.

During its expansionist phase (600 BCE), the hegemonic southern Chu dynasty appointed officials to manage the territories rather than merely create fiefdoms,[71] much to the opposition of its aristocracy. Though Chu would gain a reputation as an unruly and chaotic state, it was actually one of the stronger kingdoms, with an ancient respect for its centralizing royalty. The culture of the enormous state would play a major cultural influence in the succeeding Han dynasty, with figures playing key roles in the post-Qin civil war, the Dazexiang Uprising and Chu–Han Contention, hailing from it, including the future Han Emperor Gaozu and the rebel leader Xiang Yu.

In 543 BCE, like Shang Yang two hundred years later, the Realist Zichan reformed the central Zhou state Zheng on a legal basis, enacting a harsh criminal code. He cast the state's code of law in bronze vessel to be displayed in public as a demonstration of permanence and incorruptibility, a first among the Zhou states. Shang Yang would make similar such gestures, and like him Zhichan reformed agricultural and commercial laws and changed social norms, and discouraged superstition.[72][73]

Main article: Partition of Jin

During most of the seventh and sixth centuries, the northern border state of Jin, a large, mainstay vassal of Zhou, was composed of an assortment of semi-independent city-states. While Chu was centralizing power through a rising bureaucracy, Jin continued to have a feudal power structure, with aristocratic families ruling individual counties. Succession issues were constant in Jin as far back as seventh century. Over the course of a few generations, the major aristocratic families gained enough power to undermine the ruling duke's authority, and fought each other and the Jin Duke as much as they fought other states. In 546 BCE conflicts between aristocrats and with the Duke escalated and a civil war (497-453 BCE) commenced. In 376 BCE, the states of Han, Wei and Zhao deposed Duke Jing of Jin and divided the last remaining Jin territory between themselves, which marked the final end of the Jin state.

The Huang-Lao faction was affiliated with rich and independent families with a power-base far from the capital.

Emergence of pro-feudal schools[edit]

In the purely theoretical sense, Goldin explains Sima Tan's definition of Legalism as "the view that kinship and social status should be disregarded by administratfive protocols, which treat everyone equally and thereby elevate the sovereign over the rest of humanity."[74]

As in Chu, Chinese aristocrats more generally would bitterly oppose the promulgation of institutions (fa). Besides Confucianism and its Realpolitikal variations, Realpolitikal "schools" like Mohism and factions of Taoistic Huang-Lao would develop in opposition to centralization. R. Eno of Indiana University writes, "(Fa) ran counter to basic beliefs of the Zhou feudal structure, which aspired to produce orderly rule solely through the charismatic excellence of the aristocratic leaders of the state, in the manner of Yao and Shun."[75]

Huang-Lao texts like that of the Taoistic Huainanzi would emerge as the ideological backdrop to the early Han Dynasty feudal court, combining Realpolitikal commentary, including legalistic variations, with an even more hands-off approach, espousing their laissez-faire as avoiding the faults of the other "schools". Following the Rebellion of the Seven States, Emperor Wu of Han tired of them, favouring the Confucians.

Huangshan is commonly thought to have been named in honor of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, mythological ancestor of the Han Chinese. One legend states that Huangshan was the location from which the Yellow Emperor ascended to Heaven. Another states that the Yellow Emperor "cultivated moral character and refined Pills of Immortality in the mountains", and in so doing gave the mountains his name.

Cosmological developments[edit]

If anybody, not authorized by laws and orders, attempts to cope with foreign intrigues, guard against civil disturbances, produce public benefit, or manage state affairs, his superior should heed his word and hold it accountable for an equivalent fact. If the word turns out true, he should receive a big reward: if not true, he should suffer a heavy penalty. Such is the reason why in the state of an enlightened sovereign there is neither dispute nor controversy.

Han Fei Zi "Chapter XLI. Inquiring into the Origin of Dialectic"

The legitimization of regimes through cosmological narrative is very old, if not universal; in the European Middle Ages, Thoma Aquinas described a "Great Chain of Being" that can be compared with the feudal order, stating that nature itself depended upon a "labyrinth of obligations."[76] Reformers departing from traditional morality fell back on cosmology to buffer their arguments. Though the Chinese Realist's use of Taoism, metaphysics and utopias are generally only considered to have been supplementary to those of immediate practicality, much of Han Fei's writing does use Taoistic and naturalist phraseology. In one instance Fei espouses Taoist utopia as the product of Legalism.[77]

Like others, the Chinese state claimed divine and moral authority. But this was not always the case. Discourse on virtue only emerged with the Zhou "Mandate of Heaven", and as late as the early Zhou morality had been implicit if not looser, only tightening with the tracking of patrilineal descent. In the primacy of the Zhou, blood-tied vassal relations needed not be more than informal, and "chivalry" only emerged in the conflict of the Spring and Autumn period.[78]

Observing the developments of the period as juxtaposed to the earlier eras, Taoists, Mohists and the rhetoric of some political realists would come to define the development of morality as decay from a higher order, if not the beginning of disorder (from "Tao" emerges "Teh", or virtue, a semblance of order, and from there only disorder).[79] In Contrast with Confucianism, Taoism and Realist reformers would draw upon beliefs in the origins of the world in simplicity a la the creative power of Heaven, as in the Wu Xing and Iching, and suggest a return to stability or stillness.[42]

Realists flouting traditional morality related with Taoism in differing degrees as background for their arguments. The later Han Fei makes the Taoist argument against the ultimate veracity of complex moral systems, on the basis of no such complexity existing, for example, in congenial family relations.[80] As in Taoism, the Book of Lord Shang often considers private morality useless or even harmful, though for Shang because it serves to promote people for reasons other than merit, and as in Mohism for the multiplicity of moral opinion. The book instead prescribes that a legal code settle moral disputes, recommending that it be clearly written and public[81] (criticized by the Zhuangzhi as uninspiring). As in Taoism, much of Shang Yang's philosophy grants a central place to the discussion of "essentials" or "fundamentals", but with a focus on the state, and like Shen Buhai does not discuss Taoism or its metaphyiscs.

Unlike the Taoists, which emphasizes inactivity without reservation, reformers based themselves on active political reform to attain its end (which is criticized by the Taoists as descending into the same non-natural derailment). Ultimately, for Realist reformers, the correct political order could be based on the measurement, or statistical result of any program. Therefore, no dispute is necessary. For Chinese philosophers in general, the Warring States period was considered one of decline in unity or authority. But through application, the Legalists suggest an ultimate end to the problems targeted by laws and institutions, if not the institutions themselves.

Though, like the other reformative states, on the periphery and using more rarefied methods, Qin regarded itself as a rehabilitator of Chinese civilization, referring to its coming era as the "water" phase of Wu Xing to Zhou's "fire" phase.[82][83] The Warring States Book of Lord Shang explicitly relates order with simplicity and disorder with complexity, teaching that in an orderly state, "laws abolish laws" and "words abolish words".[84] Stillness being attained and the creative purpose of law being accomplished, it goes unused. Thus, together with the tradition of sage-kings, the book regards law as an intermediary tool in a cosmological narrative used by the ruler for the attainment of supremacy (restoration of the mandate) and rectification of the world, not civil progress or reform as such.

Much of the syncreticism is just a case of using the same language. Besides subtle ideological differences in his Taoistic expositions, realists like Han Fei may not have believed at all in Taoism, just using Taoistic rhetoric. Ultimately, though some Warring States Realists 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.[85] Taoist documents like the Zhuangzi also criticize administrative methodology as not resting in "prefect natural action", and therefore not succeeding.

Warring States period[edit]

Terracotta Army

With the decay of the Zhou line the aristocracy would no longer formed a harmonizing interest. Schismatic hostility occurred between the Chinese states, and between the aristocracy within the states themselves. With the decay of what had been the fundamental basis for order, reformers would have to start engaging in wholesale, rather than piecemeal reform, which accelerated with the Warring States Period demarcated by the partition of Jin.

Warring States Chu state had become corrupt, but remained expansionist and reformative. Many disenfranchised or opportunist aristocrats were increasingly attracted by the reform-oriented rulers, establishing political methodology for the management of bureaucracies. The trend of earlier Zhou decentralization was on the reverse.[42] Shang Yang of the outlying Qin state began reforms in 356 BCE, importing and reforming the legal code of later Chu reformer Wu Qi, applying it more thoroughly.

In the sophisticated Warring States period Han, the already well developed officialdom presented its own problems. Shen Buhai – a minister from the Han state from 351 BCE to 337 BCE, sometimes called the "founder" of "Legalism" (though he did not use law), reframed for his own state the role of the old Zhou sovereign as interpersonal surveyor of the feudal realm in the direction of the officialdom.[42] The "outstandingly important" "foundational" Shen Buhai makes little to no reference to divine authority or ethics.[86] Shen did use Taoist terms like Tao (which, like Fa, Confucianism also uses) and Wu-Wei, but he uses them differently and was concerned neither with religion nor metaphysics. Shen was concerned almost exclusively with administration, and may have been one of the first to become aware of the centuries-long replacement of the feudal order by methodology for the control of what would become a bureaucracy.

"Chinese Legalism"[edit]

Warring States Realpolitik might be most accurately understood as a fruition. Though there were exchanges between them, later Realists ("Legalists") tended to either lack Confucianism, or in the case of Shang Yang and Han Fei rejected or even vilified Confucianism's private morality (or Mohism's watchful justice of ghosts). Though the bulk of Warring States Realpolitik proceeding Shang Yang and Han Fei was not legalistic, the two would nonetheless long serve as the face of the trend. The success of Qin legalism during the Warring States period and subsequent inheritance of its administration by the Han Dynasty would constitute a fundamental turning point toward a unitary state,[87] with the inclusive cultural and ethnic unity of the Han Chinese rendering future developments of separate nations as lacking any sufficient reason.[88]

Far from being discrete, the Warring States Realists were very much syncretic, drawing on earlier reforms of the Han, Chu and Wei states, and the intellectual activity like that of the other three "schools". Qin's emphasis on the definition of ranks and offices contrasts with the earlier Chu dissipation for lackthereof, having used officials to establish its state but failing to define or otherwise establish roles for them. Much of Mohism was concerned with political philosophy. The hierarchical methods of the international Mohist school and Legalism related, both being antithetical to tradition[89] and arguing the primacy of authority outside the family, emphasizing the meritocratic rather than aristocratic form of government that would be more likely get them into the offices of foreign states.

Hearing virtuous words, one takes them to be capable, and on asking their partisans, one thinks that they are indeed so. Therefore, one prizes them without waiting for them to acquire actual merit, or one punishes them without waiting for them to commit crimes. How can one manage the people of an entire country in this way?

Shang Jun Shu, "Attention to Law"[90]

Legalist law is also considered more in the context of fidelity to the monarch than any moral question of the Confucians; indeed, Shen Buhai does not mention virtue. Confucianism emphasized family alliances,[22] ritual and considers morality in a context of cultivating "virtue" quite apart from law, or otherwise tried to extract its service thereto. Warring State's period Realists, especially Shang Yang legalism, flouted traditional the conservative order and Confucian moralities in-order to advance reform. Sometimes considered foolish or unacceptable to state interests, Legalist's like Shang Yang restricted patrilineal descent to render such things utilitarian to the state, stilling using it in their reward schemata, particularly in the military.

Shen Buhai: Tact and Ministerial Management[edit]

Main article: wu-wei

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.

Han Fei Zi "Chapter XXX. Inner Congeries of Sayings, The Upper Series: Seven Tacts"[91]

R. Golding writes that "Creel rightly emphasized that Shen Buhai’s most important administrative recommendation was xingming 刑名/形名, or comparing an official’s “performance” (xing) to the duties implied by his “title” (ming), and then rewarding or punishing him accordingly..." Though considered by Creel a foundational Realist, "This idea does not presuppose a legal code—or any legal consciousness whatsoever."[92]

As opening chapter[93] of the Han Feizi reads: "the territorial expansion of the feudal lords leads to the damnation of the Son of Heaven and the extraordinary wealth of ministers leads to the downfall of the ruler... The same reasons never fail to hold true." In-order to advance the realpolitikal administration of his patron, ruler of the Han state, the foundational reformer Shen Buhai formalized the concept of shu, or technique, which he considered to be the primary good of the ruler for the management of an autocratic-bureaucratic model of administration.[42]

As part of his technique Shen Buhai (Marquis Zhao of Han from 351 BCE to 337 BCE) advised that, inorder to ensure that all of his words be revered, a wise ruler should keep a low profile and hide their true intentions by feigning nonchalance and identify their position with the words of inferiors; theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, rulers could force reliance upon their dictates and check sycophancy. If no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, no one can know what behaviour might help them manipulate the ruler and get ahead other than to heed orders and perform meritoriously. More Legalistic philosophy the use law as part of a program for indirect action.

Realists ultimately reduced the importance of charisma, and thus the burden on the ruler. In Shen Buhai and Han Fei's programs, intelligent ministers were the ruler's most important aid; the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, and the ruler was responsible for correctly judging the performance of ministers, something Han Fei recommended be legally systematized. Rather than rely too much on his own judgement, plans could be judged by their results, and rewarded or penalized systematically. Officials could judged by their concurrence or rejection of proposed programs.

Shen Dao and Power[edit]

Further information: Rectification of names

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. A floating seed, 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 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. 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.

Shang Jun Shu, "Interdicts and Encouragements"[94]

Around the same time as Shen Buhai, Warring States realist Shen Dao (350-275BCE) emphasized that the head of state was endowed with shi, the "mystery of authority". Chinese Realists recognized that the Emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy, but it is the position of rulers that is powerful, not the rulers themselves. Shen Dao and later Han Fei wrote that the ruler alone should hold the powers of reward and penalty; if anyone freely exercised one or the other, they would usurp if not ruin the state for private benefit. Under the later Han Fei, these should not be executed except by the ruler's legal code.

Shen Dao was referred to by the Confucian Xun Kuang as "beclouded by fa", but this is more fa in its pre-legal meaning of protocols and method than the expansive legal system of Shang Yang, and like Shen Buhai, Shen Dao deals more in the management of a bureaucracy. Shen Dao stated: "If the lord of men abandons fa and governs with his own person, then penalties and rewards, seizures and grants, will all emerge from the lord’s mind. If this is the case, then those who receive rewards, even if these are commensurate, will ceaselessly expect more; those who receive punishment, even if these are commensurate, will endlessly expect more lenient treatment. If the lord of men abandons fa and decides between lenient and harsh treatment on the basis of his own mind, then people will be rewarded differently for the same merit and punished differently for the same fault. Resentment arises from this.

The reason why those who apportion horses use ce-lots, and those who apportion fields use gou-lots, is not that they take ce and gou-lots to be superior to human wisdom, but that one may eliminate private interest and stop resentment by these means. Thus it is said: 'When the great lord relies on fa and does not act personally, affairs are judged in accordance with fa.' The benefit of fa is that each person meets his reward or punishment according to his due, and there are no further expectations of the lord. Thus resentment does not arise and superiors and inferiors are in harmony."[95]

In Shen Dao's context much of his philosophy still meant military despotism relating with a feudal aristocracy, as was the case earlier. But in this he applied the use of statistical analysis of the trends, context, and facts inorder to do so impartially. The ascertaining of such facts in congruence with the use of law and technique runs a common theme in Realist texts.

Shang Yang emphasizes that the ability to bestow reward and penalty depended upon the material development of the state, and that of the security apparatus. In "Interdicts and Encouragements"[34] the Book of Lord Shang states that the correct method for obtaining knowledge for reward or penalty is power and figures, the obtaining of figures being dependent upon the power of things, such as measuring tools. Reward and penalty require consistency. If no measurement is mandatory, no figure is obtained. Yang emphasized that at the height of Shi, the need for rewards is minimized, and things are made fitting by expounding upon the system, or penalty. With a solid system one might accumulate capital even without having acquired any particular talent, who could pose their own problems.

Han Fei's "The Two Handles"[edit]

A modern statue of the First Emperor and his attendants, as though they were on horseback.

More than metaphor, many characters in Chinese have multiple meanings. One character for managers or governing, 御 yù, also refers to Chariot driving. Pre-Han nobles used chariots to move about the then primarily infantry-based battlefield. The Zhou kings were known for surveying their realm by carriage, giving the term a connotation of Shi 势, or power and information gathering, which Han Fei and his predecessor Shen Dao recommend the ruler monopolize and which would be bureaucratized in the coming era.[96]

Phrases the like the "reigns" or "handles of the state" are ancient in Chinese terminology for rule. As "the Two Handles" it is most famously used in the Han Fei Zi for penalty and reward, but similar terminology also occurs in other texts, for example the Rites of Zhou and in the Huainanzi. The Han Fei term 柄bǐng is interpreted in the English translation as the handle. But it may be more specifically translated as referring to the handle of one particular royal implement, the sword, or as a "classifier for knives or blades", that being that which "affords an advantage."[97] Han Fei and the Daodejing both warn about the dangers of such implements, and Han Fei cautions against their open transport.[98]

Regarding the Handles, Hulsewe writes "(Shang Yang and Han Fei) were not so interested in the contents of the laws as in their use as a political tool... the predominantly penal laws and a system of rewards were the two 'handles'".[99] As an opening chapter[100] of the Han Feizi says: "The ruler of one thousand chariots, if not on his guard, would find close by him vassals aiming to shake his authority and upset his country." Han Fei writes "The means whereby the intelligent ruler controls his ministers are two handles only. The two handles are chastisement and commendation...

As illustration, that which enables the tiger to subject the dog, is his claws and fangs. Supposing the tiger cast aside its claws and fangs and let the dog use them, the tiger would in turn be subjected by the dog. The lord of men controls his ministers by means of chastisement and commendation. Now supposing the ruler of men cast aside the handles of chastisement and commendation and let the ministers use them, the ruler would in turn be controlled by the ministers."[101]

Shang Yang and the advent of Qin legalism[edit]

  • Fa (; p 'fǎ', lit. 'law'):

The law does not fawn on the noble; the string does not yield to the crooked. Whatever the law applies to, the wise cannot reject nor can the brave defy. Punishment for fault never skips ministers, reward for good never misses commoners. Therefore, to correct the faults of the high, to rebuke the vices of the low, to suppress disorders, to decide against mistakes, to subdue the arrogant, to straighten the crooked, and to unify the folkways of the masses, nothing could match the law.[102]

With the expansion of the Chu state and its Jin ally having betrayed it, Qin's Shang Yang would eschew politic of moral development for a more "realistic" policy of developing Qin's capabilities in agricultural and warfare, applying reform more thoroughly than his predecessors.[103] Contrary to tradition, Shang Yang would hold the aristocracy to some level of equal penalty under the law.[104]

Following an order inviting capable men to the court in-order to recover territory to the east and restore the heritage of Duke Mu of Qin,[105] the Qin king established Shang Yang as a reformer. Contemporary of other Warring States reformers, Yang imported and developed the innovations of other states, including the already developed legal code of Wu Qi of Chu, establishing a more draconian version with the expressed intent of ending crime and facilitating agriculture. 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".

The law was intended to run the state, make actions taken systematically predictable, and develop the resources of the state through penalty and reward. To avoid conspiracy, Shang Yang recommended the administration and the realm generally be divided into mutually observant realms of differing interests. Yang held that if the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong. To provide this benefit to the state, the doctrine of strict legal application in the Book of Lord Shang stresses that people under the ruler be made equal under the law, if not immediately than at least ultimately if for no other reason than to enhance the authority of the sovereign.

Following the Book's doctrine of reward and penalty, people in Qin were granted rights according to rank. 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 (more so in peacetime than wartime). Lü Buwei, originally a merchant, was able to become Chancellor of Qin, something that would never occur in the other six states which generally only gave higher posts to the well-connected.

To encourage the development uncultivated lands, Qin being underpopulated, the book written after his policies proscribes the temporary abolition of taxes on new immigrants and the determination of land qualities for taxation, stating that even the lazy, the merchants, the criminals and innkeepers would turn farmers under the right conditions. Yang is said to have instituted generally the ability to buy and sell land. Such practices did not, during the time of the Qin, interfere with the system of title grants used in the government's merit-oriented officialdom. These could be sold, and money or grain more generally could used to purchase ranks, and thus posts and responsibilities. But the maintenance of higher aristocratic ranks and titles required military service if none other significant enough was performed.

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). 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 hoped to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and intrigues. Qin Dynasty legal codes required officials to correctly calculate the exact amount of labour expected of all artisans;[106] if the artisan was ordered to perform either too much work or too little work, the official would be held accountable. In 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.

Realist Confucian Xunzi[edit]

Main article: Xun Kuang

Witnessing the chaos surrounding the fall of the Zhou dynasty and rise of the Legalistic Qin state, counter to Mencius's view that man is innately good Xunzi believed man's inborn tendencies were evil, but could be refined through education and ritual. Because of this, he is sometimes associated with Legalism. Though his focus is on Confucian ritual, like Shang Yang he believed that ethical norms had been invented to rectify mankind. Xunzi would be the teacher of Qin Chancellor Li Si and Realpolitikal synthesizer Han Fei Zi, proponents of Legalism believing in control of the state by law and penalty.

Fall and reflections[edit]

There is no ruler of men who can give order to his people for all time, nor is there a country in the world that has not known disorder. Raising virtuous and capable men is the cause of bringing order into the world, but it is also the cause of order becoming disorder.

Shang Jun Shu "Attention to Law"[90]

In their time, Qin and the tendency toward legalism were demonized by Confucian scholars for "dangerously lacking in Confucian scholars;"[107] later, because of conflict between Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi an some probably non-Confucian scholars;[108][109][110] 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 ritual regarded as extraneous by legalistic philosophy. Taoist texts like the Zhuangzhi had also criticized such things as the monarchist-legalist administrative settling of morality as "a mantis trying to restrain a wagon-wheel."

Whether a return to the aristocratic distribution 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. The Han Dynasty did just such a redistribution, gradually parring it away through Realpolitik. Though lending itself to the development of a smaller state, incidences resultant of the rigid impersonality of the legal system mounted and resistance to it began soon after the Emperor's death. Chu openly flouted the laws. No alternative or admixture was secured before the fall of the dynasty.[111]

The later Sima Tan, though hailing "fa jia" for “honoring rulers and derogating subjects, and clearly distinguishing offices so that no one can overstep [his responsibilities]”, criticized the Legalist approach as “a one-time policy that could not be constantly applied”.[112]

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

It is impossible to compare them. Man, not eating for ten days, would die, and, wearing no clothes in the midst of great cold, would also die. As to which is more urgently needful to man, clothing or eating, it goes without saying that neither can be dispensed with, for both are means to nourish life. Now Shên Pu-hai spoke about the need of tact and Kung-sun Yang insisted on the use of law. Tact is the means whereby to create posts according to responsibilities, hold actual services accountable according to official titles, exercise the power over life and death, and examine the officials' abilities. It is what the lord of men has in his grip. Law includes mandates and ordinances that are manifest in the official bureaus, penalties that are definite in the mind of the people, rewards that are due to the careful observers of laws, and punishments that are inflicted on the offenders against orders. It is what the subjects and ministers take as model. If the ruler is tactless, delusion will come to the superior; if the subjects and ministers are lawless, disorder will appear among the inferiors. Thus, neither can be dispensed with: both are implements of emperors and kings.[113]

Conflict between the traditional aristocracy and the ministerial class, much of which came from the aristocracy, was characteristic of the period. But though desiring to achieve order through the universal application of law, Legalists like Shang Yang likely did not intend harm to their class; Yang was arguably an absolutist, merely considering law one tool among others.[114] The meritocratic officialdom was connected with a ranking system considered aristocratic, acquirable through the military.

The Book of Lord Shang did not hold the principle of law as a suitable base for a large state, describing its application as having a shrinking effect. Yang likely did not envision the extent to which later reformers would attempt to make law a permanent feature if not revolutionary project; the book holds that matters benefiting from an overarching presence ought already be dealt with in the course of the state's development, attaining, as Taoism would say, a natural mode. Yang's book suggested post-conquest enfeoffment (as necessary), mutual responsibility, and decentralization down to the village level referring back to legal authority. The latter would exist in the form of systems like the baojia, though problematic when applied universally.

But the Qin government's base rested on the innovation of law as overseen by central officials. Han Fei's philosophy also magnifies the importance of law and centralization. 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 to the point of not even interacting with his own ministers, leaving this to the Prime Minister, Li Si. Li subsequently 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.

Legacy and continuity[edit]

Marble statue of Emperor Cin Shihhuang

With the fall of Qin, Legalism ceased to be an independent "school" of thought. Post-Qin historians marginalized realist philosophy, giving it a superficial categorization or school and resigning it as a past occurrence in the Warring States period. But though demonized together the Qin dynasty as at odds with Confucian ethics, the benign administrative developments needed in the government of a unified China were overlooked. The general trend of Chinese dynasties was the adoption of Confucianism as the official ideology, but both ancient and modern observers of Chinese politics have argued that Legalism still plays 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).[115]

Before the adoption of Confucianism as an ideology, the early Han Dynasty included Legalist rhetoric together with Taoism under its Huang-Lao ideology, often with differing priorities between the two. The Huangdi Neijing makes the usual realist's reference to calculations within its first few pages. As in the Han Feizi, high ranking ministers often made realist references, such as to the handles. Such continued after the adoption of Confucianism though with more subtlety.[116]

In the decay of the Han, reformers talked of a return to more legalistic methods, with Liu Bei modernly described, like the Chinese state, as inwardly Legalist while Confucian in appearance. 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. Political Taoism too made a temporary return in the Tang court alongside Buddhism. Like the Han with the Qin, the Tang government used the government structure left behind by the Sui dynasty, albeit with much reduced punishments

Modern revival[edit]

Those termed as Legalists are referenced explicitly even in the modern era,[117] with Legalism and Confucianism having been a subject for contrast, debate and discussion by Chinese Communists. 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,[118][119][120] even while they themselves may not have self-identified with the term. Use of the term as a descriptor has significantly broadened, and is no longer considered so taboo.

Maoists criticized Confucianism, detaching Confucian ideology from the state. As Communist ideology plays a less central role in the lives of the masses in the People's Republic of China, top political leaders of the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China such as Xi Jinping articulate institutional supports and continue the rehabilitation of Legalist philosophy and technique into the mainstream of Chinese administration alongside Confucianism, both of which Xi sees as relevant. Scholars say his new laws provide a firmer legal framework for civil society and foreign NGOs. By comparison, contemporary India, also faced with issues regarding NGOs, simply revoked the licenses of 8975 non-governmental organizations for accounting violations as being harmful to the economy.[121] Xi vowed to "overhaul the economy, promote social equality, and build a fairer, cleaner legal system."[122][123]

Xi states: "To realize the goals [of ruling in accord with the law], [we] must uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, uphold the principle position of the people, uphold equality of all people before the law, uphold the combination of ruling the nation in accord with the law and ruling the nation with virtue (以德治国), upholding the [principle of] proceeding on the basis of China’s realities."[124]

On February 25, China's state media began the widespread rollout of President Xi Jinping's new ideological directive, the "Four Comprehensives."

   Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society (全面建成小康社会)
   Comprehensively deepen reform (全面深化改革)
   Comprehensively govern the nation according to law (全面依法治国)
   Comprehensively strictly govern the Party (全面从严治党)[125]

"According to a previous report by the International Business Times, this means divesting total, overarching disciplinary power from the central government, and allowing local courts to be supervised by local officials, establishing semi-independent courts to promote judicial independence and reduce interference by local party officials."[126]


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  3. ^ " The idea of order in ancient Chinese political thought: a Wightian exploration. Martin Wight Memorial Lecture, International Affairs. YONGJIN ZHANG. In his pioneering attempts at outlining a historical sociology of states-systems in ‘De systematibus civitatum', Martin Wight posited that the Chinese suzerain system was similar to the Byzantine basileus. Wight discussed, though only tentatively and in exploratory fashion, ‘a triad of philosophical traditions’ in ancient China: Confucian as rationalist, Daoist as revolutionist, and the Legalist as realist."
  4. ^ Rickett, Guanzi. p3 "(Regarding Spring and Autumn Realists) The political writings are usually described as Legalist, but 'Realist' might make a description. For the most part they tend to present a point of view much closer to that of the realistic Confucian, Xunzi than either the highly idealistic Confucianism of Mencius or the Draconian Legalism advocated by Shang Yang"
  5. ^ Wealth and Power. Orville Schell
  6. ^
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  11. ^ "Rickett, Guanzi. p. 3
  12. ^ "Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese Legalism. Paul R. Goldin"
  13. ^ R. Eno, Indiana University
  14. ^ "Rickett, Guanzi. p. 3
  15. ^ Wealth and Power. Orville Schell
  16. ^ Herrlee G. Creel, Shen Pu-Hai: A Secular Philosopher of Administration, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 1.
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  • W. Allyn Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China
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  • 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

External links[edit]