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Legalism and the Legalists of Ancient China

Legalism was a philosophy of administration in ancient China. Upon first acquaintance with this system it seems no more than a rationalization by political administrators for their having total political control of their societies. And perhaps this was the way Legalism arose, but over time the Legalist administrators and advisors formulated enough tenets and principles that their ideas had at least the semblance of a philosophy of political and social administration.

The era in which administrators openly avowed Legalism was about 300 BCE to 200 BCE, the time of the conquest of the six kingdoms of the Warring States Period by the Kingdom of Qin (Ch'in); i.e., the time of the creation of the Chinese Empire. Legalist ministers were instrumental in the strengthening of Qin to enable it to conquer the other kingdoms.

Before the conquest of the other kingdoms by Qin and the creation of the Chinese Empire, what is now China consisted of a multitude of principalities wracked by chronic warfare. Not only did the seven kingdoms go to war with each other, there were feudal subdivisions within the kingdoms which fought with each other and with the rulers of their kingdom.

Warfare in this Warring States period was a definite calamity for the people but the social and economic situations were not complete misery. The Chinese civilization of the time was a thousand to two thousand years ahead of Europe and the Middle East in terms of technology. At a time when no one in Europe or the Middle East could melt even one ounce of iron, in China people were casting multi-ton objects, a feat that Britain was not able to achieve until the eighteenth century.

The fractured politics of ancient China appeared to be an unnecessary burden upon an otherwise brilliant civilization. There had been attempts to unite the feuding states before Qin Shihuang conquered the other kingdoms. But such conquests had little effect on the fragmentation because the conquering monarch had to divide up control of the conquered states among his subordinates and they, in turn, divided up control of their territory among their subordinates. This hierarchical subdivision was the essence of feudalism. After a few generations the feudal subunits emerged as autonomous states ready and willing to fight with their overlords or the lords of other feudal subunits. Thus the conquests did not lead to consolidation. What was needed by the conquering states was not just a victory in the field but a system of governance that would retain control.

There were a number of philosophies of political administration that were vying for adoption by the monarchs of the kingdoms. Confucianism, which had arisen about 500 BCE, stressed the importance of filial allegiance and ritual and probably was the dominant philosophy of the time. The Confucians asserted that humans were basically good and that evil came from the failures of the systems under which they lived. Mohism was a philosophy propounded by Mo Ti (usually referred by the name of his book Mo Tzu), a teacher who initially was a Confucian. He proposed that the problems of humans could be solved by universal love. If everyone loved everyone then disputes could not exist, at least according to the Mohists. While that proposition might be acceptable the panacea lacked a practical path for its implementation.

Some of the royal administrators averred that from their experience humans were fundamentally evil, and given the opportunity would perpetrate the most appalling acts of selfishness, including, most importantly, disloyalty to their rulers. The administrators who became known as Legalists asserted that humans could be dissuaded from acting upon their selfish impulses only if they faced a set of rigidly enforced punishments for evil, selfish behavior. This meant that the basis for a just, prosperous and contented society is a set of well-publicized laws and the punishments that are to be meted out for their violation. Thus the name that was adopted for this philosophy of political administration is Legalism.

But Legalism went beyond the proposition of the need for a comprehensive set of laws. The three elements of proper government according to Legalist theory were:

The Legalists not only asserted that humans were by nature evil but they expanded their notion of evil to include those activities which were not deemed socially productive, such as reading and scholarship. The Legalists believed that the only productive occupations were farming and weaving. This meant that reading was simply a waste of the labor resources of the society. So all books other than those on farming, weaving and divination were burned, and those scholars who refused to heed the administrators' edicts against pursuing useless activities were punished and some were even buried alive.

The dictum of Han Fei Tzu was

In the state of an intelligent ruler
there are no books,
instead the laws serve as lessons.

The Legalists sanctioned military activities as essential to the survival and expansion of the political sector. The feudal nobility were individually required to demonstrate military prowess in order to be accepted as members of that class. However the Legalists destroyed the political power of that feudal class. Administrative control was removed from the feudal nobles and put into the hands of a professional bureaucracy. The bureaucrats could come from any class and entry was to be based upon ability rather than birth.

The heyday of Legalism was in the Kingdom of Qin just before the creation of the Chinese Empire. The Legalists hammered Qin into a strong state with a strong military. That enabled its armies to defeat the other kingdoms and create the Chinese Empire. But the Qin dynasty survived only a few years after the death of the first emperor. The Han dynasty that took over control of the empire adopted the Qin innovation of a professional bureaucracy to run the empire.

The official philosophy of the Han empire was Confucianism. However, some the administrators appeared to have adopted the philosophy of Legalism without publically espousing it. So even after the fall of the Qin Empire and the rise of the Han Empire there were ministers who were ostensibly Confucian but who governed according to Legalist principles. Thus Legalism's influence continued long after its demise as school of thought. And one might observe that some of its tenets would not be foreign to modern-day conservatives in the U.S.

For more on the history of China see China.

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