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In Chinese history, Legalism was a philosophy emphasizing strict obedience to the legal system. It was one of the main philosophic currents during the Warring States period. It was a utilitarian political philosophy that did not address higher questions like the purpose and nature of life. The school's most famous proponent and contributor Han Fei believed that a ruler should use the following three tools to govern his subjects:
- Fa (Chinese: 法, p fǎ, lit. "law"): The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systematically predictable. In addition, the system of law, not the ruler, ran the state, a statement of rule of law. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
- Shu (術, p shù, lit. "method"): Special tactics and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help them get ahead, other than following the laws.
- Shi (勢, p shì, lit."legitimacy"): It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself or herself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trends, the context, and the facts are essential for a real ruler.
Primarily members of the ruling class, the Legalists emphasized that the head of state was endowed with shi, the "mystery of authority", and as such his decisions must always command the respect and obedience of the people. The state (country) comes first, not the individual. The emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy. In emphasizing the power of rulership, Legalists such as Shen Dao (c. 350–275 BC) and Shen Buhai sought to devalue the importance of the charismatic ruler. Skillful rulers hid their true intentions and feigned nonchalance. To ensure that all of his words were revered, the wise ruler kept a low profile. Thus, theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, the Emperors checked sycophancy and forced his subject to heed his dictates. While Shang Yang (the Prime Minister of Duke Xiao of Qin) would allow rulers to listen to musical instruments rather than focus on foreign policy, Han Fei (the Legalistic scholar most admired by the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi) demanded more of the wise ruler. A good leader, by Han Fei's standards, must not only accept the advice of loyal ministers when shown to be in error, but must also extend courtesy to those beneath him or her and not be too avaricious. The adept ruler also understood the importance of strictness over benevolence. Although the ruler was expected to be paternalistic, the Legalists emphasized that being too kind would spoil the populace and threaten the state's internal order. Interestingly, according to the Han's Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC), while the First Qin Emperor hid himself from the rest of the world (perhaps due to a desire to attain immortality) and thus maintained a low profile, he did not necessarily follow all of the Legalists’ advice on the role of the ruler.
To aid the ruler and help prevent misgovernance, Shen Buhai – a minister from the state of Han for fifteen years – formalized the concept of shu, the bureaucratic model of administration that served to advance the ideal Legalist ruler’s program. To the Legalists, the intelligent minister was the ruler's most important aide. Whereas the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, the ruler was responsible for correctly judging ministers’ performances. Stressing that ministers and other officials too often sought favours from foreign powers by abusing their positions, Han Fei urged rulers to control these individuals by the two handles of punishment and favour. Officials were required, through fear, to ensure that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to the assigned undertaking. According to the eminent sinologist Robin Yates, newly discovered Qin Dynasty legal codes show that officials were required to correctly calculate the exact amount of labor expected of all artisans; if the artisan was ordered to perform either too much work or too little work, the official would be held accountable. Thus, in Legalist theory, ministers and other officials were prevented from performing some other official's duties and were punished if they attempted to blind the ruler with words or failed to warn the ruler of danger. One consequence of this situation was that the ministers could always be held accountable for royal misadventures while the ruler’s name was never to be tarnished. By emphasizing performance, however, over sophistry, the Legalists hoped to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and intrigues amongst the officialdom through fear of being severely punished, exiled or executed.
Purpose of law
The entire system was set up to make model citizens behave and act how the dynasty wanted. The laws supported by the Legalists were meant to support the state, the emperor, and his military. They were also reform-oriented and innovative. In theory, the Legalists believed that if the punishments were heavy and the law equally applied, neither the powerful nor the weak would be able to escape consequences. The Legalists especially emphasized pragmatism over precedence and custom as the basis of law. Guided by Legalist thought, the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, would weaken the power of the feudal lords, conquer and unify the warring states into a single empire, create thirty-six administrative provinces, and standardize the writing system. Reflecting Legalist passion for order and structure, Qin soldiers were only mobilized when both halves of tiger-shaped tallies (one held by the ruler and the other by the commanding general) were brought together. Likewise, all documents in the empire had to have recorded the year they were written, the scribe who copied them, and up to the exact hour of delivery. Accepting Shang Yang’s earlier emphasis on the standardization of weights and measures, the Qin Shi Huang would also accept Shang Yang’s philosophy that no individual in the state should be above the law (by ensuring harsh punishments for all cases of dissent) and that families should be divided into smaller households. While there is reason to doubt Sima Qian’s claim that Qin Shi Huang did in fact divide households into groups of ten, certainly the other examples of standardization and administrative organization undertaken by the First Emperor reflect the importance of Legalist thought in Qin law.
The Legalist philosophers emphasized the primacy of the state over individual autonomy. The lone individual had no legitimate civil rights and any personal freedom had to strengthen the ruler. Han Fei, in particular, would be very caustic towards the concept of individuals rights. Fundamentally, the Legalists viewed the plebeian (common people of lower class) and their actions as evil and foolish.
However, Legalism allowed the common people to gain in rank if they performed well. For example, soldiers would gain in rank according to the number of heads the soldiers collected. A soldier may even gain noble rank. In contrast, some other states allowed only the well-connected to gain higher ranks. An example of this would be Lü Buwei, who originally a merchant, was able to become Chancellor of China, an occurrence that would never happen in the other six states. He played a major role in King Zhuangxiang of Qin's rise to power.
According to Shang Yang's The Book of Lord Shang, the people themselves wanted a ruler to generate order. Social cohesion in the Legalist state mandated that the populace never escape punishment. The Qin dynasty used the people, for example, to maintain vigilant mutual surveillance over one another under threat of death.
This intrastate realpolitik would end up devouring the Legalist philosophers themselves. Shang Yang, in advocating the state’s right to punish even the heir-apparent’s tutor, would run afoul of the future King Huiwen of Qin (c. 338–311 BC). Whereas at one point, he had the power to exile his opponents (and, thus, eviscerate individual criticism) to border regions of the state, he died when torn into pieces by chariots. Similarly, Han Fei would end up being poisoned by his envious former classmate Li Si, who in turn would be killed (under the law he had introduced) by the aggressive and violent Second Qin Emperor that he had helped to take the thrones.
In later dynasties, Legalism was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern Confucian observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still play a major role in government. Qin Hui memorably glossed the reality of imperial China as "Confucian on the outside, but Legalist within" (儒表法裡, p Rú biǎo, Fǎ lǐ). In other words, Confucian values were used to sugarcoat the harsh Legalist reality that underlay the Imperial system. During the Sui and Tang dynasty, Buddhist ideas were also part of the external face of the imperial system.
There was a brief revival of Legalism during the Sui dynasty's efforts to reunify China. After the Sui dynasty was replaced by the Tang dynasty, the Tang government still used the government structure left behind by the Sui dynasty, albeit with much reduced punishments.
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