The First Empire
Legalism and the Unification of China
The Nine Tripods
Qin Shihuang: The First Emperor
Edict from the Second Qin Emperor
Bamboo Page Divider
Map: Qin Unification
The Creation of an Empire
In 221 B.C., the Warring States period came to a sudden end when the kingdom of Qin defeated all its competitor kingdoms and unified the empire — roughly two-thirds of the area of modern China — for the first time. The Qin ruler then crowned himself China’s first emperor. Indeed, the English word for China (which came via Latin and Sanskrit) derives from the name of the uniting dynasty, the Qin. The Qin were able to conquer their rivals not because of any new technologies but because they found a new way to organize their state. To draw a modern analogy, one could say that the armies of the regional kingdoms all fought with the same hardware — crossbows, bronze weapons, and armor — but that the Qin had the advantage of new software — namely a bureaucracy organized on the basis of merit. The Qin founder followed the teachings of Legalist ministers who advocated the abolition of all privileges of the nobility. (OE, 91)
Fa: Legalism
Human Nature is Fundamentally Evil, So Use Evil to Control Evil
“Legalism” (fajia) is a name that came to be applied to a set of ideas and practices associated with the rise of the Chinese imperial bureaucratic state in the third and second centuries B.C.E. The key term in the name, fa, refers to several ways in which state power could be organized and exercised: through laws and punishments, administrative and military systems, policy planning, statecraft, or methods of personnel management. Although comparatively late in developing a systematic doctrine, the Legalists — as they would come to be known — while not actually a formal school, had unquestionably the greatest influence of any upon the political life of the time. Typically proponents of these ideas were practicing statesmen more concerned with immediate problems and specific mechanisms of control than with theories of government. Indeed, some of them were strongly anti-intellectual and evidenced a special hostility toward the “vain” talk of philosophers. (SCT, 190)
Fa: Legalism
Shang Yang: Enrich the State and Strengthen the Army
[Shang Yang] is associated with a series of great reforms in the mid-300s that set Qin on its road to supreme power and anticipated many of the features of the regime it would impose on the entire empire. A closer look at the records of Qin in the early 300s reveals many anticipations of Shang Yang’s reforms, but the whole pattern of the new order is best seen as it was brought to completion under him. (MOF, 39)
The Book of Lord Shang
  • 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
    • Eliminating the land-consuming paths and banks marking the boundaries of farm land
    • Creating subdivisions of the kingdom (prefectures)
    • 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 Being Dismembered

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.

The Two Handles: Punishment and Reward
The Two Handles of Enlightened Government
Reward & Punishment

He commanded that [the groups of ten and five households] ... supervise each other and be mutually liable. Anyone who failed to report criminal activity would be chopped in two at the waist, while those who reported it would receive the same reward as that for obtaining the head of an enemy. ... Those who had achievements in the army would receive an increase in rank in proportion to their accomplishments. (OE, 95-6)
... and More Punishments
Lord ShangPunishments 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. (SCT, 197)
Fa: Legalism
Han Feizi
Han Fei (d. 233 B.C.E.) was said to have been a student of Xunzi but turned away from the latter’s emphasis on Confucian self-cultivation and practice of rites to become a synthesizer of several strains of Daoist and Legalist thought. This synthesis involved a Daoist-type mystique of the ruler, now envisioned as presiding over a perfectly defined system of laws and institutions, using techniques of statecraft developed by another Legalist thinker, Shen Buhai (d. 337 B.C.E.). For a time Han Fei enjoyed the favor of the Qin state, but he eventually met a violent death through the machinations of the prime minister of the Qin, Li Si (d. 208 B.C.E.), a former fellow student under Xunzi [see The Biography of Han Feizi]. A quarter century later, Li Si himself met a similar fate. (SCT, 199)
Fa: Legalism
Thy servant has heard: “Who knows not but speaks, is not wise. Who knows but speaks not, is not loyal. Any minister, if not loyal, must be condemned to death. If what he speaks be not true, he must be condemned to death, too.” However, thy servant begs to speak all he has heard and entreats Your Majesty to convict him of whatever crime. ...
The Hangu Pass
In these days, Qin has a territory, which, if the wider places are cut off to fill up the narrower places, extends over several thousand square li, plus a famous army counting by hundreds of thousands. In regard to the rewards and punishments carried out by her commands and orders as well as the advantages and disadvantages presented by her topographical features, no other country in All-under-Heaven can be compared to her. On coping with the world in the light of such gains, she can conquer and hold All-under-Heaven at her feet.
Vertical vs. Horizontal Alliance
Therefore thy servant has in the face of the death-penalty prayed to have an audience of Your Majesty and speak of the right way whereby to break up the Perpendicular Union of All-under-Heaven, to take Zhao and ruin Han, to subject Jing and Wei, to befriend Qi and Yan, in order thereby to secure the title of Hegemonic Ruler and lay all the neighbouring feudal lords under tribute. May Your Majesty therefore lend ear to this memorial! Should at one effort the Perpendicular Union not be broken, Zhao not taken, Han not ruined, Jing and Wei not subjected, Qi and Yan not befriended, the title of Hegemonic Ruler not secured, and all the neighbouring feudal lords not laid under tribute, would Your Majesty behead thy servant as a warning to the whole country on a charge of disloyal counsel to the sovereign? (The First Interview with the King of Qin: A Memorial [transliterations changed to pinyin])
Fa: Legalism
Han Fei on Law
Han Fei (Cartoon)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])
Fa: Legalism
Han Fei Takes Poison
Han Fei’s Death
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. But since his attitude had singularly failed to win him any friends in Qin, it was too difficult to allow him to stay. 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 he never got the chance. By the time Ying Zheng reconsidered, Han Fei was already dead. The Historian himself, Sima Qian, later wrote that he was ‘saddened that Han could write The Difficult of Advice, but could not extract himself from his own plight.’ (
First Emperor of China, 67)
Fa: Legalism
Li Si
Li Si (c. 280-208 BCE)
Legalism in Practice
The feudal state of Qin, utilizing Legalist practices of strong centralization of power, regimentation of its people, and aggressive warfare, had built itself up to a position of formidable strength in the late years of the Zhou dynasty. Finally, under the vigorous leadership of King Cheng, it succeeded in swallowing up the last of its rivals and uniting all of China under its rule. In 221 B.C.E. King Cheng 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. (
SCT, 206)
Fa: Legalism
Map of the Late Warring States
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. (MOF, 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)
Fa: Legalism
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. (First Emperor of China, 153-4)