Legalism (Chinese philosophy)

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Statue of pivotal reformer Shang Yang
Chinese 法家
Literal meaning The two basic meanings of fa are “method” and “standard.” Jia can mean “school of thought,” but also “specialist" or "expert”, this being the usage that has survived in modern Chinese.[1][2]

Fa-Jia, usually (although inaccurately[1][3]) translated as Legalism is a classical school of Chinese philosophy. Its reformers focused on the centralized management of personnel and state through the manipulation of protocol or interests like greed.[4][5] The developments representative of the term were important in Chinese history, forming guiding principles for the First Emperor and imperial administration. Sometimes compared with modern social sciences,[2][6] they rejected their Confucian contemporaries espousal of a rule based solely on the charisma of the aristocrats as undermining to their ruling patrons.[7][8] Highly effective in the short run, the "legalists" dismissiveness of traditional culture, morality and "anti-ministerial" approach earned them enmity. Continued use of their methods and the administrative developments that culminated during the Warring States period[3] would be often overlaid with Confucian ideology and customs.[9]

The term fa-jia was introduced by the Chinese historian Sima Tan[10] (c. 165 BC – 110 BC) in his essay, “The Essential Implications of the Six Houses of Thought." (The other five schools being Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, the School of Names, and the School of Naturalists.) The originating Canon of the Mohists, who were given their own school,[11] explain fa as ideas, compasses, or circles. Sima Tan’s criteria held that Fa philosophers disregarded kinship, treating everyone equally according to administrative protocol.[1] His description, perhaps accurate for Qin reformer 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."[12]

Although usually referring to reformative philosophers of the Warring States period, Fa-Jia come to often be used, sometimes derogatorily, as the term for what has been referred to modernly as the Realist[3] or Realpolitikal[13] thought of the ancient Chinese more generally, including Shen Dao and Shen-Buhai, and others disliked by the Confucian orthodoxy like the otherwise Confucianistic reformers Guan Zhong and Xunzi,[14] and Huang-Lao Taoists.[15]


Ten texts are listed in the Han imperial catalogue as belonging to the Fa school, but only two have survived to modern day intact, namely the Book of Lord Shang, and the more widely read and "philosophically engaging" Han Fei Zi, which attempted to synthesize earlier "Legalist" philosophy. Fragments of the two Shenzi books of foundational philosophers Shen Buhai and Shen Dao have been recovered, while the other six books stopped being circulated more than a millennia ago.

Though each of the competing schools sought to provide an answer for the attainment of "sociopolitical stability", "Legalist" thinkers were, Yuri Pines states, at the "forefront of administrative and sociopolitical innovation", and some, namely Shang Yang (the Prime Minister of Duke Xiao of Qin), were "leading reformers of their age". Following his reforms the Qin polity allowed the common people to gain in rank if they performed well, in contrast to states that allowed only the well-connected to gain higher ranks.

Xunzi and parts of the Lüshi Chunqiu may also be considered relevant,[2] and some of the recently translated Mawangdui Silk Texts are quite Legalistic.[16]


Written around 240 BC, the Han Feizi is commonly thought of as the greatest of all Legalist texts, bringing together his predecessors ideas into a coherent ideology.[17] By Han Fei's standards a good leader must not only accept the advice of loyal ministers when shown to be in error, but also extend courtesy to those beneath him or her and not be too avaricious. Stressing that ministers and other officials too often sought favours from foreign powers by abusing their positions, he urged rulers to control these individuals using the two handles of punishment and favour through Fa (methods, standards),[2] preventing ministers and other officials from performing some other official's duties and punishing them if they attempted to blind the ruler with words or failed to warn them.

In his History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu-lan divided the Legalists into three groups, one laying stress on the concept of shi (circumstantial advantage, power, or authority) popularized by Shen Dao; the second on fa 法 (law, regulation or, standard) of Shang Yang; and the third on the shu 術 (methods or strategy) of Shen Buhai.[18][19]

  • 'Shi' (, p 'shì', lit."situational advantage"): 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.
  • 'Fa' (Chinese, p 'fǎ', lit. "method" or "standard"): The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systematically predictable. In addition, the system of law, not the ruler, ran the state, a statement of rule of law. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
  • 'Shu' (, p 'shù', lit. "technique" or "procedure"): Special tactics and 'secrets' are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help them get ahead, other than following the laws.


To aid his patron in preventing misgovernance, Shen Buhai (c. 400 BC – c. 337 BC), a minister of the state of Han, formalized the concept of shu, the bureaucratic model of administration. Shen Buhai argued that the ruler's most important asset was an intelligent minister. He advised that rulers should keep a low profile, hide their true intentions and feign nonchalance, limiting themselves to judging ministers’ performances. It was the minister’s duty to understand specific affairs, which the ruler did not involve himself in. Theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, the Emperors checked sycophancy and forced his subject to heed his dictates. Interestingly, according to the Han's Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC), while the First Qin Emperor hid himself from the rest of the world (perhaps due to a desire to attain immortality) and thus maintained a low profile, he did not necessarily follow all of the philosopher's advice on the role of the ruler.

Pivotal Qin reformer Shang Yang[20] (390–338 BC) emphasized strict obedience to what had become a legal system (fa), abolishing direct primogeniture and weakening the power of the feudal lords[21] and developing the industry and resources of the peripheral Qin state, transforming it into a militarily powerful kingdom. With Shang Yang's establishment of a legal system, Qin became strongly centralized, reforming the aristocracy into an open officialdom ranked by merit.

The Han Feizi credits Shang Yang with the theory of ding fa (fixing the standards) and yi min (treating the people as one). The polity created by Shang Yang aimed for economic wealth, large population and, and as a result, state power. Shang Yang enacted measures to stimulate economic growth and immigration, rewarding farmers who cultivated wasteland.[21] Shang Yang's reforms allowed the common people to gain in rank if they performed well. Soldiers could gain in rank according to the number of heads the soldiers collected (Lu Buwei reversed the policy of head collecting as Qin gained in strength). 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.

Jixia Academy's Shen Dao (350 – c. 275 BC) emphasized that the head of state was endowed with shi, the "mystery of authority", commanding the respect and obedience of the people. The emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy. In the philosophy of Shen Dao and other such philosophers, the establishment of order and the Sovereign's restraining hold on the state generates the stability necessary for any rule at all. Shen Dao advised the ruler to monopolize authority in-order to prevent its abuse by feudal magnates.[22] Shen Dao enjoined the ruler to make no judgements,[23] instead relying on protocol to reward or penalize ministers according to their performance.[1]

Qin dynasty

This intrastate realpolitik would end up devouring the philosophers themselves. Holding that, if punishments were heavy and the law equally applied, neither the powerful nor the weak would be able to escape consequences, Shang Yang advocated the state’s right to punish even the parent’s tutor, and run afoul of the future King Huiwen of Qin (c. 338–311 BC). Whereas at one point, he had the power to exile his opponents (and, thus, eviscerate individual criticism) to border regions of the state, he was captured by a law he had introduced and died being torn into pieces by chariots. Similarly, Han Fei would end up being poisoned by his envious former classmate Li Si, who in turn would be killed (under the law he had introduced) by the aggressive and violent Second Qin Emperor that he had helped to take the thrones.

However, guided by their thought, the First Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang conquered and unified 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. Though the dynasty fell with the death of its emperor, the political theory developed during the formative Warring States period would still influence every dynasty thereafter, as well as the confucian philosophy that still underlie Chinese political and juridical institutions.[24] Reflecting the philosopher's passion for order and structure, Qin soldiers were only mobilized when both halves of tiger-shaped tallies (one held by the ruler and the other by the commanding general) were brought together. Likewise, all documents in the empire had to have recorded the year they were written, the scribe who copied them, and up to the exact hour of delivery.

Accepting Shang Yang’s earlier emphasis on the standardization of weights and measures, the Qin Shi Huang would also accept Shang Yang’s philosophy that no individual in the state should be above the law (by ensuring harsh punishments for all cases of dissent) and that families should be divided into smaller households. While there is reason to doubt Sima Qian’s claim that Qin Shi Huang did in fact divide households into groups of ten, certainly the other examples of standardization and administrative organization undertaken by the First Emperor reflect the importance of philosopher's thought in Qin law.

Later influence

With the coming of the Han dynasty, the reputation of Legalism suffered from its association with the former Qin dynasty. But although Confucianism was promoted by the new emperors, the government continued to be run by Legalists. Emperor Wu of Han (140–87 BC) barred Legalist scholars from official positions and established a university for the study of the Confucian classics.[25] Although the emperor acted as a patron of Confucianism, his policies and his most trusted advisers were Legalist.[26] An official ideology cloaking Legalist practice with Confucian rhetoric would endure throughout the imperial period, a tradition commonly described as wàirú nèifǎ (Chinese: 外儒内法; literally: "outside Confucian, inside Legalist").[27] During the Sui and Tang dynasty, Buddhist ideas were also part of the external face of the imperial system.

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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Paul R. Goldin. "Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese Legalism" (PDF). Retrieved 10 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  4. LEGALISM AND HUANG-LAO THOUGHT Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought [B/E/P374] – Fall 2010 (R.Eno)." p.3 and p.7
  5. p.7 Even in imperial China, fa tended to mean something more like “government program” or “institution” than “law”
  6. Origins of Statecraft in China. Herrlee Glessner Creel
  7. LEGALISM AND HUANG-LAO THOUGHT Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought [B/E/P374] – Fall 2010 (R.Eno)." p.2-3 "Guan Zhong may be seen as the source of the notion that good government involved skilled system s design... acknowledging that efficient rule could not depend solely on the morally transformative powers of a virtuous ruler, but must involve some degree of positive law... This 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.. Prior to Guan Zhong, we may assume that the common notion was that the promulgation of a law code amounted to a confession of deficient virtue on the part of the ruler."
  8. LEGALISM AND HUANG-LAO THOUGHT Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought [B/E/P374] – Fall 2010 (R.Eno)." p.4 Shang Yang relied on the legitimacy of the Zhou appointed ducal house though otherwise sanctioning only criteria of merit rather than birth.
  9. Herrlee G. Creel, Shen Pu-Hai: A Secular Philosopher of Administration, Journal of Chinese Philosophy Volume 1.
  10. The Frustration of the Second Confucius.
  12. Goldin (2011), p. 89.
  13. China's Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling
  14. Rickett, Guanzi. p3 " 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"
  15. HUANG - LAO IDEOLOGY. Indiana University, History G380 – class text readings – Spring 20 10 – R. Eno. "When Sima Qian and other early historians discuss the intellectual trends of the early Han, they frequently refer to a school of thought known as “Huang-Lao"... As any quick survey of the texts will indicate, these documents are deeply syncretic, that is to say they draw together selected ideas from many different schools and attempt to present them in a harmonious arrangement. Among these schools, Laozi-style Daoism is clearly foremost. However, Legalism and certain militarist schools contribute a very significant portion of these ideas as well. Mohist and Confucian influences can also be detected, but their contributions are generally scattered and do not shape the overall structure of the texts."
  17. LEGALISM AND HUANG-LAO THOUGHT. Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought R. Eno.
  18. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. Soon-ja Yang
  19. (Fung 1952: 1.318)
  20. LEGALISM AND HUANG-LAO THOUGHT. Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought R. Eno. Legalism was principally the development of certain ideas that lay behind a set of political reforms introduced in the state of Qin秦 during the period 360-338 by its prime minister Shang Yang. These reforms were what led most materially to Qin’s ultimate conquest over the other states of Eastern Zhou China in 221.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Lord Shang. Chad Hensen, University of Hong Kong.
  22. "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Retrieved 10 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Shen Dao. Chad Hensen, University of Hong Kong.
  24. Paolo D. Farah. "The Influence of Confucianism on the Construction of the Chinese Political and Juridical System". Retrieved 2015-10-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Creel (1953), p. 159.
  26. Creel (1953), pp. 166–171.
  27. Fu (1996), p. 8.


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    • Cheng, Chung-ying (2011), "Editor's discussion", Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 38 (2): 330, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6253.2011.01655.x.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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External links