Emperor Qin Shihuang, the great implementer of Legalism of Legalism

The School of Law (fa), or Legalism was an unsentimental and authoritarian doctrine formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 B.C. - A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century. Legalism was diametrically opposed to Mencius. Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.), a Confucian follower that influenced the Legalists, preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Legalism is a network of ideas concerning the art of statecraft. It looks at the problems of the Warring States period entirely from the perspective of rulers (although the authors of Legalist texts were not themselves rulers, but rather men who wished to be employed by rulers as their counselors and ministers). Legalism provides answers to the question, how can a ruler effectively organize and control his government so as to yield the greatest possible increase in state wealth and territory. Legalist arguments assume that these goods are only meaningful when they are under the absolute control of an autocrat, that is, a ruler whose personal power within his realm is absolute and unconstrained. If among all the ideologies of personal and political governance that flourished in contention during the Warring States period there was a winner, it was Legalism. Legalism was principally the development of the ideas that lay behind Shang Yang’s reforms, and these reforms were what led most materially to Qin’s ultimate conquest over the other states of Eastern Zhou China in 221 B.C. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religious Tolerance ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Origins of Legalism

Duke Huan of Qi and Guan Zhong

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “If one were to trace the origins of Legalism as far back as possible, it might be appropriate to date its beginnings to the prime ministership of Guan Zhong, chief aide to the first of the hegemonic lords of the Spring.Autumn period, Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685-643 B.C). Among the other services that Guan Zhong performed for his lord, he instituted certain reforms in domestic administration, including the registration of households, the demarcation of administrative sub.units within the state, and the promulgation of a law code that was made copied out and posted for the information of all the duke’s subjects. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Two key features may be discerned in Guan Zhong’s activities. The first was the basic notion that to raise the quality of government to a new scale in order to accommodate the hegemonic aspirations of the duke, a certain degree of technocratic expertise would be required. Guan Zhong may be seen as the source of the notion that good government involved skilled systems design. This idea became widely accepted by many schools of thought, but Legalism adopted it most strongly. /+/

“The second aspect was a more radical departure from traditional norms. It was the acknowledgment that efficient rule could not depend solely on the morally transformative powers of a virtuous ruler, but must involve some degree of positive law – rules for public conduct backed by coercive sanctions. This ran counter to basic beliefs of the Zhou feudal 3 structure, which aspired to produce orderly rule solely through the charismatic excellence of the aristocratic leaders of the state, in the manner of Yao and Shun. Prior to Guan Zhong, we may assume that the common notion was that the promulgation of a law code amounted to a confession of deficient virtue on the part of the ruler. Such a confession implicitly undermined the legitimacy of the ruler and of his class. Guan Zhong code, and, more important, the outstanding success of the state of Qi subsequent to its adoption, went far towards legitimizing a role for law in society, and this was an essential pillar of Legalism. Guan Zhong, however, was not consciously a theoretician or philosopher, and he can be termed no more than a proto-Legalist. In tracing the origins of Legalism as a systematic school of thought, four later thinkers are usually cited as its most important founders. /+/

Legalism Versus Confucianism

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “Legalism has for centuries been the center of gravity of Chinese political culture. Even Confucianism, commonly believed to be China’s ruling ethos, was first articulated in the sixth through third centuries B.C. in opposition to the practice of establishing legal codes. The earliest of these were inscribed on bronze vessels in the sixth century B.C. in the states of Zheng and Jin. Confucius’s (551–479 B.C.) classic argument against this use of law as a tool of statecraft is recorded in the Analects: “When you govern them by means of administration and punishments, the people evade these measures and are without shame. When you govern them by means of virtue and ritual, they have shame and reform themselves.” [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016. David K. Schneider is associate professor of Chinese at University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of Confucian Prophet: Political Thought in Du Fu’s Poetry (752–57) (Cambria Press, 2012), and a Wikistrat senior analyst. His present research is on war and diplomacy in Chinese political thought and culture]

Confucius, the scholar

“Confucius advocates royal power based in morality and tradition. Moral education and self-cultivation would bring a restoration of the good society. These ideas are framed in direct opposition to the Legalist measures of bureaucratic administration and punishment, the political instruments most favored by the rulers of Confucius’s time. The Legalist answer to this argument is powerful. Han Fei (280–33 B.C.), one of Legalism’s foremost voices, posed the example of a recalcitrant boy. All the admonitions toward goodness by his parents, neighbors and teachers fail. But, once the district magistrate sends soldiers to enforce the law, he is brought by the sheer force of terror to reform his conduct. What all the moral suasion of a loving family and tradition could not achieve, the bureaucratic state brings about at a stroke.

“The vigorous debate between advocates of legal codes and followers of Confucius brought forth both the Confucian and Legalist schools of philosophy during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.). Legalist thought received a full philosophical articulation in the writings of statesmen such as Shang Yang (fourth century B.C.) and Han Fei, both associated with the state of Qin, which succeeded in the military conquest of all the Warring States and the founding of the first Chinese empire in 221 B.C.. It was Legalist thought and practice that propelled the centralization of power in the hands of a single monarch, laid the foundations for the state bureaucracy and established the efficient and effective legal codes that became the pattern for Chinese politics for the next two millennia.

“No subsequent dynasty ever dismantled the Qin bureaucratic-Legalist state. In the second century B.C., Legalist methods were used by the succeeding Han dynasty Emperor Wu to consolidate the power and authority of the Han government, which lasted from the third century B.C. to the third century AD. The Tang dynasty (618–907) implemented Legalist ideas again in the early seventh century with the promulgation of the Great Tang Legal Code, which served as the foundation of Chinese law through the rest of its dynastic history, into the twentieth century. Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty (1368–644), and known to posterity as Ming Taizu, left detailed instructions to his successors that attempted to make permanent for all time his code of laws and regulations. He also famously abolished the office of the prime minister in a move to concentrate all power in the hands of the emperor himself and a secretariat that worked closely with him, a reenactment of the centralization of the Qin state and an anticipation of Xi Jinping’s successful accumulation of political and military authority with the establishment of the National Security Committee.

Xunzi, Li Si and the Founders of Legalism


Legalism was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.) And deeply influenced by Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.). Dr. Eno wrote: “The political administrator who oversaw the triumphant march of Qin power” in 211 B.C., establishing China’s first true state, “ was a self-avowed Legalist. Li Si, a high minister of pre-Imperial Qin who became prime minister after the conquest, and who was in many ways the first architect of Imperial China, had initially studied at the Jixia Academy in Qi, where he was known as a student of the Confucian master Xunzi.Xunzi, unlike previous Confucians, allowed that laws and punishments could play a legitimate role in the state, but only as adjunct tools for rulers who had demonstrated moral self-perfection, and only as a means of motivating the people towards ethical self-improvement. His pupil Li Si, perhaps observing that Confucians who stressed to rulers the priority of moral excellence were never granted positions of governmental significance, discarded the ethical dimensions of Xunzi’s teachings and retained only the Legalistically inclined pragmatic elements. Although a native of Chu, he recognized that political opportunities were greatest in Qin and migrated there, in time becoming the most successful political figure of the century. /+/

“The Legalism of Li Si’s age was a growing complex of ideas. It is unclear just when Legalism came to be regarded as an intellectual faction, comparable to well defined schools such as Confucianism and Mohism, but it is most likely that only in the mid-third century did individuals bring together the various strands that came to be recognized as Legalist thought. It may be the case that it was not until the greatest of all Legalist texts was written in the years surrounding 240 B.C. that this group of ideas came to be thought of as a coherent ideology. That work was written by a prince of the state of Han, a man known as Han Feizi. /+/

Shang Yang

The first of the fathers of Legalism was Shang Yang (c. 390 – 338 BC),, who became the actual organizer of the state of Qin. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Shang Yang's policies in Qin transformed the shape of Warring States society, and who may be regarded as the true “father” of the Legalist school. If we rely on the historical texts that have been left to us to determine the greatest turning point of Classical Chinese history, it would be the ministry of Shang Yang in the state of Qin. While it is undoubtedly true that the histories exaggerate his achievements, it is still likely that the reality was extraordinary. Shang Yang was a political thinker who reflected his times, and it may be that without his efforts, the same general outcome of Warring States chaos would have, in time, been brought about – another Shang Yang would have eventually arisen. But Shang Yang’s career is no less remarkable for that. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Because of Shang Yang’s historical importance, it is appropriate to discuss his career and his ideas in some detail here. Although there is an extant text that bears Shang Yang’s name (translated into English as The Book of Lord Shang), it is actually a post-Zhou forgery and cannot be used to elucidate Shang Yang’s original ideas. Our best sources from these actually come from historical texts, such as the Han period “Shiji” (Records of the Grand Historian). The following account is based on such sources. /+/

“Shang Yang’s exploits in Qin crystallized earlier tendencies that had arisen to create centralized states whose governments were managed both by the officers of a central court and by district officers whose appointments were made without reference to birth. Shang Yang also recognized that the benefits of such a system to the central government would only accrue if there were fashioned sophisticated systems of social control that would have the same effects as by the ducal court without requiring great additional 4 manpower and expense. In Qin, the law code and its enforcement became just such a tool of social control. /+/


Han Feizi

Han Feizi (died 233 B.C.) developed the Legalist ideas of was Shang Yang. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Han Feizi was a student of the philosopher Xunzi (c. 310.c. 219 B.C.), but abandoned Confucian philosophy in favor of the more pragmatic and hardheaded approach of men like Lord Shang (Shang Yang or Gongsun Yang, d. 338 B.C.), whom we collectively label as “Legalists.” Han Fei worked as an official for the state of Qin until he was executed in 233 B.C., allegedly on charges manipulated by a fellow official, Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who was also formerly a fellow student under Xunzi. Han Fei is most famous, however, for having developed a thorough and systematic synthesis of Legalist and Daoist philosophy, which we see in the book which bears his name.. a book of which he is possibly the real author, but which at any rate is accepted as a reasonably accurate representation of his thinking. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Han Feizi gave Legalism a metaphysical worldview by introducing into it Daoist ideas, many borrowed directly from the “Dao de jing” (several chapters in his book – probably posthumous additions – are titled “Explications of Lao Zi”). Han Feizi incorporated the idea of non-action, wuwei, into Legalism. For him, the perfect ruler of the ideal state was a man who sat at the center of a vast web of laws, offices, and procedures, and did nothing whatever – nothing but allow the system to regulate itself. Such a ruler would exemplify the spontaneity of nature by neither adjusting nor interfering with the balanced system over which he presided. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Unlike many highborn patricians, Han Feizi was an intellectually ambitious man. Born to a cadet branch of the ruling lineage of Han, he saw as a young man that his influence at the Han 2 court might be limited by the fact that he was handicapped in the arts of persuasion – he spoke with an enormous stammer. In order to better himself, therefore, he traveled to Jixia, where, like Li Si, he gravitated to the company of Xunzi.What he learned from Xunzi is little evident in the spirit of his later works and career, and after a few years at Jixia, Han Feizi returned to Han and began to compose the text that bears his name. /+/

Legalism and Government

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The supporters” of the Legalist “school came principally from old princely families that had lost their feudal possessions, and not from among the so-called scholars. They were people belonging to the upper class who possessed political experience and now offered their knowledge to other princes who still reigned. These men had entirely given up the old conservative traditions of Confucianism; they were the first to make their peace with the new social order. They recognized that little or nothing remained of the old upper class of feudal lords and their following. The last of the feudal lords collected around the heads of the last remaining princely courts, or lived quietly on the estates that still remained to them. Such a class, with its moral and economic strength broken, could no longer lead. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The Legalists recognized, therefore, only the ruler and next to him, as the really active and responsible man, the chancellor; under these there were to be only the common people, consisting of the richer and poorer peasants; the people's duty was to live and work for the ruler, and to carry out without question whatever orders they received. They were not to discuss or think, but to obey. The chancellor was to draft laws which came automatically into operation. The ruler himself was to have nothing to do with the government or with the application of the laws. He was only a symbol, a representative of the equally inactive Heaven. Clearly these theories were much the best suited to the conditions of the break-up of feudalism about 300 B.C. Thus they were first adopted by the state in which the old idea of the feudal state had been least developed, the state of Qin, in which alien peoples were most strongly represented.

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “In Legalist thought, the purpose of government is twofold: on the positive side it is the accumulation of wealth and power to ensure that the king rules supreme both at home and abroad; on the negative side it is to avoid internal weakness and instability and to prevent annexation and dismemberment by other states in the system. The Confucian argument is that history exhibits certain moral patterns stemming from heaven and human nature. If the king would only cleave the political order to these eternal patterns, the natural order of man and nature would thrive. The Legalists mocked this idea. History for Shang Yang and Han Fei was a never-ending progression of changing circumstances to which kings had to respond correctly in order to survive. Each age has its own dynamic that must be clearly understood and dealt with. No abstract, metaphysical notions of a transcendent morality or constant pattern of history could or should act as a guide to statecraft. In the time of Shang Yang and Han Fei, Legalism opposed the Confucians’ moral assumptions. Legalism in the present opposes the Maoist emphasis on ideological purity and the ideological mass campaigns used by Mao as an instrument of rule in the early years of the People’s Republic. Deng’s famous slogan, “seek truth from facts,” and his notorious justification of capitalist political economy in socialist China, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice it is a good cat,” are modern expressions of very ancient Legalist ideas about the uniqueness of historical moment and circumstance. [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016]

“As a consequence of this philosophy of history, Legalism is very adept at coopting other philosophical and political ideas, redefining itself in various historical and social circumstances. The great crisis of Legalism was the fall of the Qin Empire after only fifteen years. Many assume that Legalism, at that point, was discredited and replaced in Han political thought with Confucianism. But this is a distorted reading of history. The major architect of a new Legalism was a scholar named Jia Yi (200–168 B.C.), who wrote a very influential essay called “Criticizing Qin.” His critique was not that the use of law or administrative bureaucracy was wrong. It was that the law as conceived by Qin Legalists had been amoral. He argued that if Qin had enforced the social values that the Confucians were advocating, without a return to ancient feudal rule, the Qin would have been far less harsh in its methods and might have lasted much longer. Subsequent Han scholars then forged a political synthesis that blended Legalist methods of statecraft with Confucian moral education. This synthesis continued through later dynasties and found one of its most influential expressions in the Tang dynasty Legal Code. The Preface to the Code asserts that legal punishments were used by the sage kings of antiquity and that no state may dispense with them. Listed among the “ten abominations” that warrant punishment is the failure to practice filial piety and righteousness, two of the cardinal Confucian virtues.

“In its modern form, the Legalist philosophy of history is the intellectual ground upon which the CCP is presently redefining itself as a socialist party with Chinese characteristics, a marvelously open term that allows for the flexible adaptation of capitalist economics, the formation of a legal and constitutional system that contrasts sharply with the Enlightenment ideas that underlie Western notions of these same terms, and the promotion in recent years of Confucian moral values. In a move strongly reminiscent of the Han Emperor Wu and the Ming Emperor Taizu, the language of Jia Yi and the Tang Code are clearly echoed in the Fourth Plenum Communiqué’s admonition to “strengthen the combination of governing the country by law and by virtue.”

Legalism, Punishment and Threats

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “The Second guiding philosophical idea of Legalism concerns human nature. Confucius argued that human goodness is achieved by moral self-cultivation, internal transformation of the mind in the context of family and social tradition. The Legalist Shang Yang maintained that “the reality of human beings is that they have things they love and things they hate; therefore they can be governed.” Human behavior is to be transformed not by inner cultivation but by external manipulation by political authority of love and fear, pleasure and pain. These are the political tools of the ruler, not restrictions on the ruler himself. Law is applied first to the king’s own ministers. [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016 ]

“The Qin Legal Code was devoted largely to laws that govern the conduct of government officials. Han Fei argued that the monarch must exercise his powers of reward and punishment himself—he must not delegate such authority to his ministers because they will end up ruling over the monarch. Thus, one of the most important functions of Chinese law is to give the ruler the instruments of power to keep his ministers loyal to him and to control the corrosive effects of corruption. The exercise of such personal power leads to two results. The first is the suppression of factional powers with economic resources that can challenge or diminish the power of the ruler. The second is the elimination of corrupt officials who enrich themselves and stir the resentments of the people, thereby destroying the loyalty of the population to the state and leading to rebellion and the possible overthrow of the king.

“The manipulation of rewards and punishments alone is not sufficient for the necessary control of both government officials and the population. This mode of rule must work in concert with a second essential measure: the elimination of political ideas and groups of people not consistent with Legalist methods and objectives. Shang Yang advocated purging the political system of all superfluous activities that divert individuals from the pursuit of agriculture and war, the government’s core objectives. This applies particularly to the fostering of literary and philosophical pursuits; the cultivation of the Confucian practices of the rites and music; and the promotion of virtues such as filial and fraternal piety. Should these be the main pursuits of the government, the result would be defeat in war and poverty in peace. Chief among the five “vermin” that Han Fei identified as forces that undermine the state are scholars and speechmakers. They are insidious in that they introduce a multiplicity of subversive ideas into political discourse and promote the notion that the path to social advancement is through the clever use of arguments. Both undermine the ruler’s ability to maintain single-minded devotion to the state and to productive work that advances its interests.”

Similarities Between Legalism and Confucianism

Dr. Eno wrote: “As mentioned earlier, both Han Feizi and Li Si studied under the Confucian Xunzi, and there are some important ways in which Confucianism does actually resonate with Legalism. The Legalist vision of positive law as a self-regulating state system governing social conduct is in many ways parallel to the Confucian concept of “li” as a holistic code of ceremony and daily etiquette. Confucians stressed, however, that “li” could not be coercively imposed: the efficacy of ritual forms depended upon their internalization by all members of society, and this is why the key to government was education and processes of self-cultivation, rather than the design of a positive law code. Moreover, the Confucians denied that effective constraints on people’s behavior could be legislatively engineered as the Legalists envisioned. Rather, the “li” were seen as slowly evolving codes that reflected a historical process of sages mediating between the enduring structures of human nature and the ever.changing configurations of society. No single generation could undertake so complex a task. For Confucians, the precedents of history were the guidelines of the present. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“A second area of apparent similarity between Confucians and Legalists was expressed in a doctrine called “the rectification of names,” which was actually a Confucian term. The concept, which was very much discussed in early debates on government, actually involved three rather different aspects. Originally, Confucius had claimed that a key barometer of success in government lay in ensuring that officials were both fully devoted to the tasks that fell under their responsibility and also careful not to interfere with the duties of other officers. This notion actually belonged to the ritual portrait of government, in which the entire “ceremony” of administration could only be executed in harmony if every political actor perfectly performed his own part and no other. As you will see below in the story of Marquis Zhao of Han and his Keepers of the Hat and Coat, Legalism borrowed this idea, and transformed it into a draconian and coercive code best called “matching deeds to words.” While this element of the rectification of names doctrine is often cited as significant common ground between Confucianism and Legalism, it is important to bear in mind the different approaches to the concept that each school took, and also to note that this was the only aspect of this complex notion shared by the schools. /+/

“In one other respect, Legalism and Confucianism share common ground. This was in the anti-aristocratic thrust of the policies of Shang Yang and Han Feizi’s theoretical formulation of them. The Legalism of Shang Yang was the greatest of all intellectual forces contributing to the one revolutionary change that “all “philosophical schools agreed was desirable: the destruction of the aristocratic system that had assigned power and prestige to people on the basis of birth throughout the Shang and Zhou eras. Shang Yang, though himself of noble birth, was the aristocratic class’s greatest and most effective enemy. His reforms in Qin crippled the nobility there and strengthened the growing belief that with the sole exception of the need for a powerful hereditary ruler, the role people should play in society should be determined solely by merit and not by birth. (This is a belief that is now so well established throughout much of the modern world that we sometimes lose track of how hard and long was the process of overturning the belief in the hereditary nature of personal worth.) What the other schools hated about Shang Yang was not his “meritocratic” principles, but rather the Legalist definition of what constituted “merit.” For Shang Yang, merit meant simply a combination of absolute obedience to the dictates of the state and the competence to perform those task assigned by the state for its benefit. This notion of merit was sharply different from those envisioned by the other three schools. The crudeness of the concept and its view of individuals as organically linked only to the state rather than to family and community as well, has made Legalism a system of thought repellent to most later thinkers.” /+/

Differences Between Legalism and Confucianism


Dr. Eno wrote: “The Legalists saw the historical changes of history not as evolution but as disjunction – the past and the present were radically different in kind. They ridiculed the Confucians with an anecdote that told of a farmer who, while ploughing one day, saw a rabbit run into a tree stump and knock itself dead. Delighted, the farmer put aside his plough and determined to live at ease by the stump waiting for rabbits to pile up beside the stump, ready for sale at the market. Rituals may have worked well in the eras for which they were designed, Legalists said, but to wait for the same rituals to work again when the old times were forever vanished was to be as deluded as this farmer. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Two...elements of the Confucian rectification of names doctrine were not adopted by Legalists. Mencius stretched the doctrine into the area of political legitimacy. In answer to a question concerning whether King Wu of the Zhou had not been guilty of the high crime of regicide by killing his lord, the Shang king Zhòu, Mencius pointed out that by his unkingly behavior, Zhòu had totally alienated the people and his ministers – he was, in effect, no longer the king when he was slain. “I have heard of the solitary man Zhòu,” Mencius pontificated, “but never of a Zhòu who was king.” This attack on political legitimacy, which would have allowed individuals to judge whether rulers deserved their titles and treat them accordingly, was anathema to the absolutism of Legalism. /+/

“Xunzi had carried the rectification of names doctrine even further, in response to a range of sophisticated debates which had emerged among early philosophers of language. He held that language was inherently regulative of behavior – that a well designed language clarified reality and natural values, but that twisted usage of language could make it nearly impossible for people to see the truth or understand morality. For Xunzi the term “rectification of names” denoted a process of carefully examining word definitions and the ways in which debaters employed words in persuasive argument, to ensure that the naturally moral Dao was not distorted by the misapplication of descriptive terms. Here again, the Legalists, who showed no interest in abstract linguistic speculations, did not share Confucian concerns. /+/

Modern Legalism

Xi Xinping at a military parade

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “Legalist thought provided the intellectual foundations for Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping’s opposition to the ideological excesses of Maoist rule during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the ten-year Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Peng’s trenchant critique of the Great Leap Forward emphasized the pragmatic manipulation of real circumstances and rational state planning over the imperatives of ideology, both hallmarks of Legalism. These are also the guiding ideas of Deng’s reform program, the reforms that brought about the spectacular rise of the Chinese economy and state to its present emergence as a major world power. In the light of long-term history (longue durée), Xi Jinping’s political consolidations, legal reforms and policies are just the most recent expression of China’s perennial Legalist political culture. [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016. David K. Schneider is associate professor of Chinese at University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of Confucian Prophet: Political Thought in Du Fu’s Poetry (752–57) (Cambria Press, 2012), and a Wikistrat senior analyst. His present research is on war and diplomacy in Chinese political thought and culture ]

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “There are many factions in the Chinese political debate: New Left intellectuals, neo-Maoists, Westernized reformist liberals, nationalists and militarists. There is also a great deal of talk of a “New Confucianism” promoted in Chinese official discourse as a form of soft authoritarianism that emphasizes harmony, stability, benevolence and avoidance of conflict. [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016 ]

“We are now seeing a resurgence of Legalist discourse and methods in the presidency of Xi Jinping. Journalists have reported on Xi’s fondness for the Chinese classics, including the Legalist writers. But much more significant signs of a move toward a modernized Legalism are clearly evident in recent CCP Central Committee communiqués, internal CCP documents leaked or discussed in the press, and in the speeches of Xi Jinping collected in his book The Governance of China.

“Modern Legalism opposes analogous views of human nature that prevailed during the high tide of Maoist Communism. For all the vitriol poured over Confucius in the early years of the PRC, Maoism and Confucianism had one thing in common. Both argued for the internal transformation of the individual—Confucius through moral cultivation in culture, and Mao through ideological indoctrination designed to purge the individual of bourgeois vestiges, a process that would bring about the utopian Communist state.

“The new Legalism is not the only current of thought informing Chinese domestic and foreign policies. There are many factional alignments in the party and government, and many strains of thought and tradition coming together to shape the present reality. Moreover, the economic reform program, which is consistent with a modernized Legalist emphasis on building the economic foundations of a strong military state, has opened China to economic and political ideas never dreamed of by the ancient philosophers. What is important to understand about Legalism in the present age is that it will inform the foreign and domestic statecraft of the CCP, shape the definition of what law is and how it will work in Chinese politics, and thus will constrain the scope of how far Chinese political and legal reform can go toward Western-led globalization. It will also, as it has for centuries, provide many of the underlying patterns of thought and practice that will shape fundamentally the Chinese understanding and adaptation of all other political and economic models both of native origin, such as Confucianism, and imported, such as free-market economics. Beijing may speak the modern language of political and diplomatic discourse derived from Western Enlightenment thinkers, but its understanding of those terms will be determined by an interaction between their meanings in the West and their meanings to the Chinese as mediated by an indigenous political culture shaped by centuries of Legalist thought and experience.”

“In his “Chinese Dream” speeches, Xi repeatedly invokes these Legalist doctrines: “Empty talk harms the country, while hard work makes it flourish.” The people should concentrate not on political debate but on the hard work of building a modern economy; and they should enjoy the benefits of the prosperity that economy is meant to deliver. The ideal is the model worker, not the sharp-tongued political orator. This is the reward side of the Legalist mode of statecraft. The punishment side has taken legal form in two internal party documents that have recently come to light: Document No. 9 and Document No. 30. Both represent a modernized version of Han Fei’s “five vermin.” Document No. 30, which has not been leaked, appears to be a development of the policies set forth earlier in Document No. 9, which has become public. It identifies “Seven Un-Discussables” that harm the state because they hinder the unification of thought and are to be targeted for suppression. The document is structured exactly like a Legalist treatise, following closely the literary form of parts of Shang Yang’s Book of Lord Shang. It enumerates the seven pernicious ideas—constitutionalism, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, press freedom and questioning the socialist nature of the economic reforms—with a comment attached to each that warns of its specific harm to the state. The unifying thread that runs through all of them—eerily similar to the harm of the “five vermin”—is that they introduce a multiplicity of ideas that distract from the national drive toward socialism with Chinese characteristics and undermine the singular authority of the CCP as the unchallenged sovereign.

Xi Jinping and Legalism

Xi Xinping with a soldier in Inner Mongolia

David K. Schneider wrote in The National Interest: “The turn toward the suppression of foreign and subversive political ideas under Xi Jinping is not, as many have argued in the press, a return to Maoist methods. Rather, it is a reversion to perennial patterns of Chinese political culture, a return to Legalist methods that emphasize control of human behavior by means of reward and punishment administered by the state. [Source: David K. Schneider, The National Interest, April 20, 2016]

“Xi Jinping’s articulation of the “Chinese Dream” is thoroughly consistent with the Legalist ideal. In the speeches collected in his book, Xi promotes the dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation—internally strong, unified and prosperous, and therefore invulnerable to attack and dismemberment from abroad. The intellectual wellspring of Legalism plays directly to the Chinese historical experience of weakness and dismemberment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Legalism provides both a compelling political explanation for that history and a Chinese way to turn China’s “century of humiliation” into a Chinese century. From these objectives flow the other principles of government, all of which are informed by a distinctive view of history and human nature.

“These are the exact motives and reasoning behind the anticorruption campaign and the related move toward the promotion of clear and impersonal laws as a method of control over party and government officials. According to the official communiqué of the Fourth Plenum in 2014, the purpose of the reforms is to shape a complete system of legal standards to govern the party itself, strengthen government administration over the people and the economy according to the rule of law and promote the modernization of the legal system of the entire polity. This is the context for the anticorruption drive, which has had the dual effect of uprooting factionalism in the party and moving toward the objective of an efficient, rationally ordered state capable of implementing the economic reforms required by present conditions, a result that both Shang Yang and Han Fei would applaud.

“Despite talk of grassroots democracy and official accountability at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee held in November 2013, the real news was a move toward greater centralization of power in Xi himself and in the new institution of the National Security Committee. The Fourth Plenum held in October 2014 represents a further development in the same direction. The official communiqué especially emphasized legal reform, the foundation of the anticorruption drive. One of the main sources of social unrest in China is the tendency of officials to coopt the law and make it a tool of personal profit. The reform is designed to take the law out of the hands of local officials with private interest and institute it in a system of impartial regulations, founded in China’s constitution. But this is not a move toward “constitutionalism,” which Xi and the CCP have explicitly rejected. It is rather a move to strengthen the law as a method of political rule and governance. The key phrase, “govern the state according to law” (yi fa zhi guo), means enforcing discipline from the top down on party and government officials first, and then, by the party, on the population.

“These measures are much more than a means to restore the moral authority of the CCP. They represent a fundamental shift from a discredited Communism and tentative flirtations with limited Westernization—both foreign imports—to a greater reliance on political thought and practice deeply rooted in China’s own traditions. All of these reforms and trends in recent Chinese politics are thoroughly consistent with Legalist thought and practice.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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