Legalism and the Unification of China
Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China
Map: Qin Unification
Edict from the Second Qin Emperor
Icon of the Chinese character for Legalism (fa)
Shang Yang: Enrich the State and Strengthen the Army
In 361 BC, the young nation of Qin gained the philosopher it deserved, a fugitive noble [from Wei] called Lord Shang. ... In his audience with Qin’s Educated Duke (r. 361-338 BC), he began by trolling out Confucian platitudes, in which the Duke had no real interest. It was only when Lord Shang dropped the pretense and began discussing harsh realities that the Duke perked up. By 359 BC, Lord Shang was not only a member of the Qin government, but had drawn up sweeping plans to improve the state with legal reform. Most of Lord Shang’s ideas ran in opposition to Confucian orthodoxy, and the duke was afraid that his country would once again be ridiculed as an ignorant upstart. But Lord Shang told his ruler that he could do it the Confucian way and get nowhere, or do it Lord Shang’s way and actually achieve something. ... Confucius worked on the principle that laws and rituals from bygone ages represented received wisdom, and that a wise man would not attempt to argue with such rules. The Educated Duke [Duke Xiao], however, was ready to hear a different idea — that ‘tradition’ was nothing more than a lie to keep the ignorant in check, and that the truly wise would do whatever was required. (The First Emperor of China, 9-10)
Warring States map showing Shang Yang's timeline
Lord Shang’s Timeline
  • 361: During the first year of the reign of Duke Xiao, Shang Yang arrives in the kingdom of Qin
  • 359: In a court debate, Shang Yang impresses the duke and is put in charge of reforming the Qin administration
  • 356: Shang Yang is put in charge of military and political affairs. He undertakes a set of reforms which include:
    • Abolishing the hereditary privileges of the old aristocracy
    • Encouraging agriculture and restricting trade
    • Establishing laws for military awards
    • Organizing households into groups of five or ten and making all members responsible for the other members’ actions
    • Creating prefectures (administrative subdivisions)
    • Standardizing weights and measures
  • 352: Shang Yang becomes the prime minister in addition to serving as military commander
  • 338: Duke Xiao dies and Shang Yang is dismembered by being tied to five chariots pulling in different directions — ironically a punishment that Shang himself had established in Qin law
Shang Yang having head and limbs pulled apart by horses pulling in five directions
Adapted from Li Yu-Ning (ed.), The First Emperor of China: The Politics of Historiography (White Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1975) and The Rise and Fall of the Qin (Ch’in) Empire. Cf. Jonathan Clements, The First Emperor of China (Albert Bridge Books, 2015), 9-13.
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The Book of Lord Shang
The Book of Lord Shang
Legalists eschew the discussion of whether or not human badness or goodness are inborn, or whether or not all humans possess fundamentally similar qualities. What matters for them is, first, that the overwhelming majority of human beings are selfish and covetous; second, that this situation cannot be changed through education or self-cultivation; and, third, that human beings’ selfishness can become an asset to the ruler rather than a threat. That “the people follow after benefit as water flows downward” (Shang jun shu 23:131; Book of Lord Shang 23.2) is a given: the task is to allow the people to satisfy their desire for glory and riches in a way that will accord with, rather than contradict, the state’s needs. ...
The Influence of Legalism on China
Human Nature is Fundamentally Evil, So Use Evil to Control Evil
"Human nature is fundamentally evil (selfish), so use evil to control evil"
The people covet wealth and fame; they are afraid of punishments: this is their basic disposition (qing ). This disposition is not to be altered but to be properly understood and then manipulated: “When a law is established without investigating the people’s disposition, it will not succeed” (Shang jun shu 8: 63; Book of Lord Shang 8.3). To direct the populace toward the pursuits which benefit the state, namely agriculture and warfare, even though they consider these “bitter and dangerous,” one should establish a combination of positive and negative incentives. The entire sociopolitical system advocated by Shang Yang can be seen as the realization of this recommendation (Pines 2016b). (Legalism)
The Two Handles: Punishment and Reward
The Two Handles of Enlightened Government
Reward & Punishment
What is called ‘unifying rewards’ means that benefits, emoluments, official position, and rank uniformly derive from military [attainments] and that there are no other ways to dispense them. Therefore, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the noble and the base, the courageous and cowardly, the worthy and unworthy — all fully utilize their innermost wisdom and fully exhaust the power of their limbs, going forth to die in the service of their superiors. The bravos and the worthies from All-under-Heaven will follow [the ruler] just as water flows downward. Hence, his troops will have no rivals, and his orders will be implemented throughout All-under-Heaven. (The Book of Lord Shang, 208 [Shangjunshu 17.2])
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[The true ruler] causes those among the people who seek benefits to gain them nowhere else but in tilling and those who want to avoid harm to escape nowhere but to war. Within the borders, everyone among the people first devotes himself to tilling and warfare and only then obtains whatever pleases him. Hence, though the territory is small, grain is plenty, and though the people are few, the army is powerful. He who is able to implement these two within the borders will accomplish the way of Hegemon and Monarch. (The Book of Lord Shang, 242 [Shangjunshu 25.5])
Icon for "punishement" (xing)
Punishments should know no degree or grade, but from ministers of state and generals down to great officers and ordinary folk, whoever does not obey the king’s commands, violates the interdicts of the state, or rebels against the statutes fixed by the ruler should be guilty of death and should not be pardoned. Merit acquired in the past should not cause a decrease in the punishment for demerit later, nor should good behavior in the past cause any derogation of the law for wrong done later. If loyal ministers and filial sons do wrong, they should be judged according to the full measure of their guilt, and if among the officials who have to maintain the law and to uphold an office, there are those who do not carry out the king’s law, they are guilty of death and should not be pardoned, but their punishment should be extended to their family for three generations. Colleagues who, knowing their offense, inform their superiors will themselves escape punishment. In neither high nor low offices should there be automatic hereditary succession to the office, rank, lands, or emoluments of officials. Therefore I say that if there are severe penalties that extend to the whole family, people will not dare to try [how far they can go], and as they dare not try, no punishments will be necessary. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 197)
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Han Fei with map showing location of the state of Han
Han Fei took his surname from the Han state, of whose royal family he was a member. In the previous centuries jockeying for power and influence, most other small states had been incorporated within the larger players. Han, a relatively minor land, probably only survived so long because of its relative insignificance. ... There were now two main power blocks among the six kingdoms. One was the so-called Horizontal Alliance, an east-west axis dominated by Qin. This was opposed by the north-south Vertical Alliance, which included Yan, the Land of Swallows, and Qi, the Land of the Devout. Much of the Han political debate of the time centered on which of these groups the people of Han should join — the Qin-appeasers of the Horizontals, or the brave resistance of the Verticals. ... The transcript of Han Fei’s memorial to Ying Zheng, On Preserving Han, shows a cunning mind at work as the philosopher pleads his case, outlining a series of reasons why an attack on Han would be a bad idea. (The First Emperor of China, 59-62)
Cover of Burton Watson's translation of the Han Feizi
Han Fei (Cartoon)There was a farmer of Song who tilled the land, and in his field was a stump. One day a rabbit, racing across the field, bumped into the stump, broke its neck, and died. Thereupon the farmer laid aside his plow and took up watch beside the stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way. But he got no more rabbits, and instead became the laughingstock of Song. Those who think they can take the ways of the ancient kings and use them to govern the people of today all belong in the category of stump-watchers! ... Past and present have different customs; new and old adopt different measures. To try to use the ways of a generous and lenient government to rule the people of a critical age is like trying to drive a runaway horse without using reins or whip. This is the misfortune that ignorance invites. Now the Confucians and the Mohists all praise the ancient kings for their universal love of the world, saying that they looked after the people as parents look after a beloved child. ... Now here is a young man of bad character. His parents rail at him, but he does not reform; the neighbors scold, but he is unmoved; his teachers instruct him, but he refuses to change his ways. ... But let the district magistrate send out the government soldiers to enforce the law and search for evildoers, and then he is filled with terror, reforms his conduct, and changes his ways. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 199-201 [Hanfeizi, Chapter 49: The Five Vermin])
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If we had to depend on an arrow being absolutely straight by nature, there would be no arrow in a hundred generations. If we had to depend on a piece of wood being perfectly round by nature, there would not be any wheel in a thousand generations. There is not one naturally straight arrow or naturally round piece of wood in a hundred generations, and yet in every generation people ride carriages and shoot birds. Why? Because of the application of the methods of straightening and bending. Although there is a naturally straight arrow or a naturally round piece of wood [once in a hundred generations] which does not depend on any straightening or bending, the skilled workman does not value it. Why? Because it is not just one person who wishes to ride and not just one shot that the archer wishes to shoot. Similarly, the enlightened ruler does not value people who are naturally good and who do not depend on reward and punishment. Why? Because the laws of the state must not be neglected and government is not for only one man. Therefore the ruler who has the technique does not follow the good that happens by chance but practices the way of necessity. ... (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 253-4 [Hanfeizi, Chapter 50: Eminence in Learning])
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Li Si
Li Si
c. 280-208 BCE
Li Si was one of Xunzi’s greatest pupils, although also one of his greatest disappointments. Whereas Xunzi saw imminent disaster in the advance of Qin, Li Si saw a golden opportunity. In his farewell address to his tutor, he told him that the skills he had learned made him highly desirable to any ruler, but that it was in his own interest to seek a master who had the best resources and the highest aspirations. It was, argued Li Si, completely futile for him to while away his days in an also-ran state like Chu, concocting great ideas that the state would be too fearful or too impecunious to implement. Li Si refused to let his potential go to waste by staying in Chu .... ‘The King of Qin,’ said Li Si to his fuming tutor, ‘now desires to swallow up the world and rule with the title of Emperor.’ Rather than fight it like the noble Confucians of the other states, Li Si was ready to become part of it. He followed the money. (The First Emperor of China, 38)
Li Si and Han Fei
[Li Si] was put in charge of the Qin state’s not-so-secret project to completely subjugate the neighboring land of Han. This would involve the commission of intrigues, assassins and bribes, the preparation of soldiers and materials for a conquest, and the manufacture of any excuses that might be required for it. It would also pit Li Si against his greatest living rival, a thinker against whose talent he nursed a lifelong resentment. For the state of Han was also the homeland of Prince Han Fei, Li Si’s former classmate from Xunzi’s academy. (The First Emperor of China, 59)
Han Fei in audience with the King Zheng of Qin
Ironically, it was Li Si’s resentment that was to lead to Han Fei’s brief success in his homeland. As Qin’s project to dominate Han entered a period of open assault, the king of Han needed a diplomat as a last-ditch attempt to hold off invasion. Perhaps hearing of Ying Zheng’s unexpected love of Han Fei’s writings, the king of Han sent Han Fei himself.
          Ying Zheng was delighted. Much to Li Si’s disapproval, he genuinely seemed to be looking forward to a visit from the famous scholar. The transcript of Han Fei’s memorial to Ying Zheng, On Preserving Han, shows a cunning mind at work as the philosopher pleads his case, outlining a series of reasons why an attack on Han would be a bad idea. Since the planned invasion was the responsibility of Li Si himself, we can only imagine the icy atmosphere in Li Si’s part of the throne room, as his sovereign listened with obvious glee to a personal performance by the great Han Fei, much of the content of which was aimed at discrediting Li Si’s own work of the last few months.
(The First Emperor of China, 62-3)
Vertical vs. Horizontal Alliance
Li Si was livid, but in his reply, he made sure to mention that Han Fei was a foreigner and a late arrival. ... Said Li Si:
[His] coming here can have no other purpose than, by succeeding in preserving Han, to gain an important position in Han [for himself]. He makes dialectical speeches and well rounded phrases, and utters falsehoods and invents cunning plots, all [supposedly] for Qin’s great benefit, while [actually] he spies on Your Majesty for Han. ... This is a plan for his own profit. I have observed [his] words and writings. His vicious speech and extravagant arguments show extreme cunning. I fear lest Your Majesty may become infected by [his] arguments and listen to his harmful mind, and therefore not examine matters clearly.
Li Si had a counter proposal, that Han Fei should be retained as a hostage, so Li Si himself could pay a visit to the Han court. ... With Han Fei under house arrest in Qin, Li Si undertook his mission. However, he was refused an audience with the king of Han, and forced to submit his own arguments in writing. With nothing to show for his mission, Li Si returned to Qin, where his hated rival Han Fei was now enjoying the ear of the king himself. (The First Emperor of China, 64-5)
Han Fei Takes Poison
If Han Fei was only going to return home to benefit the state of Han in its struggle, then it was too dangerous to allow him to leave. ... And now that Li Si was back from his mission, Qin had no need of this particular noble hostage.
          Li Si took his chance and sent agents to Han Fei bearing poison. Han Fei begged for an audience with the king to explain himself, but Li Si made sure that he never got the chance. By the time Ying Zheng reconsidered, Han Fei was already dead.
(The First Emperor of China, 67)
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[U]nder the vigorous leadership of King [Zheng], [Qin] succeeded in swallowing up the last of its rivals and uniting all of China under its rule. In 221 B.C.E. King [Zheng] assumed the title of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Exalted Emperor of the Qin.
          He had been aided in his efforts toward unification by a group of astute and ruthless statesmen identified with Legalist doctrines, the most important of whom was Li Si, who became prime minister of the new empire. Thus, for the first time, one of the schools of classical thought had its teachings adopted as the official doctrine of a regime ruling all of China. (
Sources of Chinese Tradition, 206)
Map of the Warring States and Qin Conquest
Abolishing Feudalism
The chancellor Wang Wan and others stated the opinion that, since the feudal rulers had just recently been defeated and the regions of Yan, Qi, and Jing were situated far from the capital, unless kings were set up in such regions it would be impossible to control them. They therefore requested that sons of the ruler be set up, if the emperor would be so kind as to give his approval.
       The First Emperor referred the proposal to the ministers for deliberation. The ministers all indicated their approval. But the commandant of justice Li Si voiced his opinion: “Kings Wen and Wu of the Zhou dynasty enfeoffed a great many of their sons, younger brothers, and other members of their own surname. Later, however, these men became increasingly estranged and even fell on one another like sworn enemies, and when the feudal rulers attacked each other in this manner, the Zhou Son of Heaven was helpless to restrain them. Now, thanks to the spiritual might of the sovereign, all the area within the seas has been united under a single rule and made into provinces and districts. If the sons of the ruler and the ministers who have won merit are rewarded with generous gifts from the public taxes, that will be quite sufficient. They can be easily controlled, and the world will be without dissension. This is the correct method for insuring peace. To establish feudal rulers would not be expedient.
       The First Emperor said, “It was because of the marquises and kings that the world suffered so long from unending strife and warfare. Now thanks to the aid of the ancestral spirits, the world has at last been pacified. If the feudal states are re-established, this will encourage the use of arms. To hope for peace and tranquility under such circumstances will be difficult indeed! The view of the commandant of justice is correct.”
Map of the Qin Empire
Thus the empire was divided into thirty-six provinces [a.k.a. commanderies], each province provided with a governor, a military commandant, and a superintendent. The common people were renamed “black-headed ones”. There was great feasting. Weapons from all over the empire were confiscated, brought to Xianyang, and melted down to be used in casting bells, bell stands, and twelve men made of metal. These last weighed 1,000 piculs each and were set up in the palace. All weights and measures were standardized, the gauge of wheeled vehicles was made uniform, and the writing system was standardized. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 44-5)
In former times when the world, torn by chaos and disorder, could not be united, different states arose and argued from the past to condemn the present, using empty rhetoric to cover up and confuse the real issues, and employing their learning to oppose what was established by authority. Now Your Majesty has conquered the whole world, distinguished between black and white, set unified standards. Yet these opinionated scholars get together to slander the laws and judge each new decree according to their own school of thought, opposing it secretly in their hearts while discussing it openly in the streets. They brag to the sovereign to win fame, put forward strange arguments to gain distinction, and incite the mob to spread rumors. If this is not prohibited, the sovereign’s prestige will suffer and factions will be formed amongst his subjects. Far better put a stop to it!
          I humbly propose that all historical records but those of Qin be burned. If anyone who is not a court scholar dares to keep the ancient songs, historical records, or writings of the hundred schools, these should be confiscated and burned by the provincial governor and army commander. Those who in conversation dare to quote the old songs and records should be publicly executed; those who use old precedents to oppose the new order should have their families wiped out; and officers who know of such cases but fail to report them should be punished in the same way.
          If thirty days after the issuing of this order the owners of these books have still not had them destroyed, they should have their faces tattooed and be condemned to hard labor at the Great Wall. The only books which should not be destroyed are those dealing with medicine, divination, and agriculture. Those who want to study the law can learn it from the officers. (Mountain of Fame, 47-8)
[The First Emperor said:] “I confiscated all the books from the empire and got rid of all those that were of no use. ... I have also directed people to question the various scholars residing in Xianyang, and it appears that some are spreading dubious stories in order to mislead the black-headed people!” He then ordered the imperial secretary to subject all the scholars to investigation. The scholars reported on one another in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Over 460 persons were convicted of violating the prohibitions, and were executed [note:  the word translated here as “executed” is sometimes interpreted as “buried alive”] at Xianyang, word of it being publicized throughout the empire so as to act as a warning to later ages. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 58)
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Li Si's Death
Li Si’s Death
Zhao Gao used the false confession to secure Li Si’s dismissal, and his own promotion to Grand Councillor. Li Si was sentenced to endure the Five Punishments, a cocktail of tortures that would find him tattooed, mutilated, maimed, castrated, and eventually beheaded. ... Li Si’s sentence was carried out in a slightly altered form; it was ordered that he, his wife and children should be hacked in half at the waist, in full public view in the marketplace of the Qin capital. (The First Emperor of China, 153-4)
Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China