The Book of Lord Shang

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The Book of Lord Shang
Traditional Chinese商君書
Simplified Chinese商君书

The Book of Lord Shang (Chinese: 商君書; pinyin: Shāng jūn shū) is an ancient Chinese text from the 3rd century BC, regarded as a foundational work of "Chinese Legalism". The earliest surviving of such texts (the second being the Han Feizi, which is generally considered more philosophically engaging),[1] it is named for and to some extent attributed to major Qin reformer Shang Yang, who served as minister to Duke Xiao of Qin (r. 361 – 338 BC) from 359 BC until his death in 338 BC and is generally considered to be the father of that state's "legalism".[2]

The Book of Lord Shang includes a large number of ordinances, essays, and courtly petitions attributed to Shang Yang, as well as discourses delivered at the Qin court. The book focuses mainly on maintaining societal order through a system of impartial laws that strictly mete out rewards and punishments for citizens' actions. The first chapters advise promoting agriculture and suppressing other low-priority secondary activities, as well as encouraging martial virtues for use in creating and maintaining a state army for wars of conquest.[3]

Textual tradition[edit]

With some chapters written decades or even more than a century after his death, no critical scholar supposes the text to have been written by Shang Yang, though "some chapters were almost certainly penned by Shang Yang himself; others may come from the hand of his immediate disciples and followers." Highly composite, it nonetheless forms a "relatively coherent ideological vision", likely reflecting the evolution of what Zheng Liangshu (1989) dubbed Shang Yang's 'intellectual current' (xuepai 學派).[4]

Like the later Han Feizi, the Book of Lord Shang insists on the anachronism of the policies of the distant past, drawing on more recent history.[5] In comparison with it, though considering them to be "digressions of minor importance", Yuri Pines notes in Legalism in Chinese Philosophy that The Book of Lord Shang "allowed for the possibility that the need for excessive reliance on coercion would end and a milder, morality-driven political structure would evolve." The Han Feizi does not.[6]

Michael Puett and Mark Edward Lewis compare the Rites of Zhou to the "Legalism" of Shang Yang.[7]


The Book of Lord Shang teaches that "The law is an expression of love for the people... The sage, if he is able to strengthen the state thereby, does not model himself on antiquity, and if he is able to benefit the people thereby, does not adhere to the established rites."[8] As such, the philosophy espoused is quite explicitly anti-Confucian:

Sophistry and cleverness are an aid to lawlessness; rites and music are symptoms of dissipations and licence; kindness and benevolence are the foster‑mother of transgressions; employment and promotion are opportunities for the rapacity of the wicked. If lawlessness is aided, it becomes current; if there are symptoms of dissipation and licence, they will become the practice; if there is a foster‑mother for transgressions, they will arise; if there are opportunities for the rapacity of the wicked, they will never cease. If these eight things come together, the people will be stronger than the government; but if these eight things are non‑existent in a state, the government will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the government, the state is weak; if the government is stronger than the people, the army is strong. For if these eight things exist, the ruler has no one to use for defence and war, with the result that the state will be dismembered and will come to ruin; but if there are not these eight things, the ruler has the wherewithal for defence and war, with the result that the state will flourish and attain supremacy.

— Chapter 2, Paragraph 5 of The Book of Lord Shang, pg 109 of J.J.-L. Duyvendak, 1928


  • Duyvendak, J. J. L. (1928). The Book of Lord Shang. London: Arthur Probsthain; reprinted (1963), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • (in Japanese) Shimizu, Kiyoshi 清水潔 (1970). Shōshi 商子 [Shangzi]. Tokyo: Meitoku shuppansha.
  • (in French) Levi, Jean (1981). Le Livre du prince Shang [The Book of Prince Shang]. Paris: Flammarion.
  • Pines, Yuri (2017). The Book of Lord Shang - Apologetics of State Power in Early China (Translations from the Asian Classics). New York: Columbia University Press.


  1. ^ Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 1.1 Major Legalist Texts,
  2. ^ Levi (1993), p. 368.
  3. ^ Knechtges & Shi (2014), p. 810.
  4. ^ Creel,What Is Taoism?, 101
  5. ^ Mark Edward Lewis 1999 p.122. Writing and Authority in Early China.
  6. ^ Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 2.1 Evolutionary view of History,
  7. ^ Benjamin Elman, Martin Kern 2010 p.17,41. Statecraft and Classical Learning: The Rituals of Zhou in East Asian History.
  8. ^
Works cited
  • Knechtges, David R.; Shi, Hsiang-lin (2014). "Shang jun shu 商君書". In Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping (eds.). Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Part Two. Leiden: Brill. pp. 810–4. ISBN 978-90-04-19240-9.
  • Levi, Jean (1993). "Shang chün shu 商君書". In Loewe, Michael (ed.). Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China; Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley. pp. 368–75. ISBN 978-1-55729-043-4.

External links[edit]

Text of the work[edit]