The First Emperor
Legalism and the Unification of China
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]
“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]


[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]

  • 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

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.

A System of Rewards...
Those who had achievements in the army would receive an increase in rank in proportion to their accomplishments. [OE, 96]

...and Punishments
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. [OE, 95]
...and More Punishments
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. [SCT, 197]


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]

The Five Vermin
Chapter 49
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 way 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. [SCT, 199-203; cf. Han Feizi, Chapter  XLIX]
A Memorial to the Qin King
233 BCE1
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. ... Well, Qin in the war18 with the Jings (i.e. Chu) routed them by long odds and made such a surprise attack upon the city of Ying and the districts of Dongding, Wudu, and Jiangnan, that the ruler and ministers of Jing had a narrow escape and sought refuge eastward under the protection of Chen. At that moment, if with her forces Qin closely pursued the Jings, the Jing State could be taken. After the state was taken, the people would become covetable and the territory fruitful to Qin, so that in the east Qin could thereby weaken Qi and Yan and in the centre devastate the Three Jins.
If so, at one stroke she could secure the title of Hegemonic Ruler and lay all the neighbouring feudal lords under tribute. Instead, her State counsellors led the troops in retreat and, what was worse, made peace with the Jings, allowed them to recover the ruined country, gather the scattered masses, reinstate the Spirits of Land and Grain on the Altar, and rebuild their ancestral shrines, and let them lead All-underHeaven (sic) to face the west and cause Qin difficulties. This, no doubt, was the first time the way to Hegemony was lost. ...
In these days, Qin has a territory ... 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-underHeaven (sic) at her feet. 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 (i.e. Chu) 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 an ear to this memorial! Should at one effort the Perpendicular Union not be broken, Zhao not taken, Han not ruined, Jing (i.e. Chu) 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? [Han Feizi, Chapter I (note: spellings have been changed to pinyin)]



Li Si
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]

Annexing the Feudal States
Through military victories, the state of Qin has, in the time of the last six kings, brought the feudal lords into submission. And by now the feudal states yield obeisance to Qin as if they were its commanderies and prefectures. Now, with the might of Qin and the virtues of Your Highness, at one stroke, like sweeping off the dust from a kitchen stove, the feudal lords can be annihilated, imperial rule can be established, and unification of the world can be brought about. This is the one moment in ten thousand ages. If Your Highness allows it to slip away and does not press the advantage in haste, the feudal lords will revive their strength and organize themselves into an anti-Qin alliance. Then no one, even though he possess the virtues of the Yellow Emperor, would be able to annex their territories. [SCT, 208]
Abolishing Feudalism
Numerous were the sons, younger brothers, and other members of the royal family that were enfeoffed by King Wen and King Wu at the founding of the Zhou dynasty. But as time passed, these relatives became estranged and alienated one from another; they attacked each other as if they were enemies. Eventually the feudal lords started wars and sent punitive expeditions against one another, and the king could do nothing to stop them. Now, owing to the divine intelligence of Your Majesty, all the land within the seas is unified and it has been divided into commanderies and prefectures. The royal princes and the meritorious ministers have been granted titles and bountiful rewards from the government treasury, and it has proved sufficient. When the government institutions have been thus changed and there has been no contrary opinion in the empire, it is evidently the way to keep peace and quiet. To institute an enfeoffed nobility again would not be advantageous. [SCT, 209]