Legalism
& the Unification of China

 
“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 this 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 become known — while not actually a formal school, had unquestionably the greatest influence of any upon the political life of the time. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 190]
 

I. Law

 

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]

If the ruler of men wishes to put an end to evil-doing, then he must be careful to match up names and results, that is to say, words and deeds. The ministers come forward to present their proposals; the ruler assigns them tasks on the basis of their words, and then concentrates on demanding the accomplishment of the task. If the accomplishment fits the task, and the task fits the words, then he bestows reward; but if they do not match, he doles out punishment. Hence, if one of the ministers comes forward with big words but produces only small accomplishments, the ruler punishes him, not because the accomplishments are small, but because they do not match the name that was given to the undertaking. Likewise, if one of the ministers comes forward with small words but produces great accomplishments, he too is punished, not because the ruler is displeased at great accomplishments, but because he considers the discrepancy in the name given to the undertaking to be a fault too serious to be outweighed by great accomplishments.
       Once in the past Marquis Chao of Han got drunk and fell asleep. The keeper of the royal hat, seeing that the marquis was cold, laid a robe over him. When the marquis awoke, he was pleased and asked his attendants, “Who covered me with a robe?” “The keeper of the hat,” they replied. The marquis thereupon punished both the keeper of the royal hat and the keeper of the royal robe. He punished the keeper of the robe for failing to do his duty, and the keeper of the hat for overstepping his office. It was not that he did not dislike the cold, but he considered the trespass of one official upon the duties of another to be a greater danger than cold. [Han Fei Tzu, 32]

 

Shen Tao says: “If the flying dragon rides the clouds and the soaring serpent floats in the mist, yet when cloud or mist dissolves they might as well be earthworms or ants, it is because they have lost what they were riding. ... When Yao was teaching among menials the people would not listen; when the time came that he reigned over the world from the south-facing throne his orders were executed, his prohibitions deterred. Judging by this, worthiness and wisdom are not enough to win submission from the multitude, while power and position are all you need to crush the worthy.” [Disputers of the Tao, 279]

 

The Legalist Synthesis
 

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)]

 
Legalism in Practice
 

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. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 208; cf. Shiji 87]


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. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 209]

Your servant suggests that all books in the imperial archives, save the memoirs of Qin, be burned. All persons in the empire, except members of the Academy of Learned Scholars, in possession of the Classic of Odes, the Classic of Documents, and discourses of the hundred philosophers should take them to the local governors and have them indiscriminately burned. Those who dare to talk to each other about the Odes and Documents should be executed and their bodies exposed in the marketplace. Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death. Officials who fail to report cases that have come under their attention are equally guilty. After thirty days from the time of issuing the decree, those who have not destroyed their books are to be branded and sent to build the Great Wall. Books not to be destroyed will be those on medicine and pharmacy, divination by the turtle and milfoil, and agriculture and arboriculture. People wishing to pursue learning should take the officials as their teachers. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 209-10; cf. Shiji 87]