Shen Dao

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Shen Dao
Born c. 350 BC
Died c. 275 BC
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Chinese philosophy
School Legalism or Huang-Lao
Main interests
Fa (concept)
Shen Dao
Chinese 慎到
Alternative Chinese name
Chinese 慎子
Literal meaning "Master Shen"

Shen Dao (Chinese: 慎到; c. 350 – c. 275 BC) was a "Chinese Legalist" political philosopher most remembered for his influence on Han Fei with regards to the concept of shi 勢 (circumstantial advantage, power, or authority), though most of his book concerns fa 法 (methods, standards).[1] Usually referred to as "Master Shen" ("Shenzi" 慎子) for his writings, very little is known of Shen Dao's life. An itinerant Chinese philosopher from Zhao, he was probably born about 350 BC, traveling to the city of Linzi (modern Zibo, Shandong) in 300 BC to become a member of the Jixia Academy. Shen probably left Linzi after its capture by the state of Yan in 285 BC, and died roughly 10 years later.[2]

Shen Dao's own original 42 essays have been lost. With only 7 fragments still extant, he is known largely through short references and the writings of others, notably Han Fei and Zhuang Zi. A critical reconstruction of the lost book of Shenzi was made by Paul Thompson, and published in 1979 as The Shen Tzu Fragments.[citation needed] Thompson states that the Shenzi was available until the fall of the Tang dynasty, though not in it's original edition.[3]

In 2007, the Shanghai Museum published a collection of texts written on bamboo slips from the State of Chu dating to the Warring States period, including six bamboo slips with sayings of Shenzi.[4] These are the only known examples of the text of Shenzi that are contemporaneous with its composition.

Comparison with other schools

Making no cosmological or metaphysical usages of the term dao,[5] the Shenzi serves as noteworthy precursor to both Taoist and Legalist thought. While these two schools may seem quite opposed to each other in some regards, they both share a view of nature as a fundamentally amoral force, and by extension, reality as an arena without set moral imperative – a stance that differentiates both schools from Confucianism.

In Confucianism, power is legitimized through superior moral character and wisdom. According to Shen Dao, there is no natural basis for moral judgement and authority arises and is sustained due to the nature of actual circumstances, rather than in accordance with human or linguistically formulated moral values. We should abandon such judgements and simply flow on the natural course of the Great Way (Great Tao). Through this idea, it is possible to see a bridge between the mystical simplicity of Taoism and the cynical realism of Legalism.[citation needed]

Soon-ja Yang writes that Shen Dao considered laws that are not good "still preferable to having no laws at all...", running counter to a fundamental tenet of natural law legal theory, that an unjust law is no law at all. He thus seems to accept the “separation thesis" of positivism, law itself contributing to social harmony regardless of it's merit or demerit.[6]


  1. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. p49. Soon-ja Yang.
  2. Knechtges (2014), p. 871.
  3. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. p48. Soon-ja Yang
  5. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. Soon-ja Yang
  6. Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. p52. Soon-ja Yang.


  • Knechtges, David R. (2014). "Shenzi 慎子". In Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping. Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Part Two. Leiden: Brill. pp. 871–874. ISBN 978-90-04-19240-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links