Han Feizi (died 233 B.C.) developed the Legalist ideas of was Shang Yang (c. 390 – 338 BC), who became the actual organizer of the state of Qin. 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, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University 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. /+/

“This very large book weaves together ideas from four principal sources, each making a distinct contribution to the complex system of Legalism. The four strands may be associated with the ideas and policies of four men, who may be considered the “fathers of Legalism.” The first of these four was Shang Yang, whose policies we have already examined in an earlier section. The aspects of Shang Yang’s thought that became central to Legalism, apart from his foundational stress on the wealth and size of the state as its sole concerns, included his rejection of the criterion of heredity in office in favor of a government of bureaucratic term appointments, his goal of creating a fully centralized state, and most of all, his insistence on the absolute rule of law and the uniform application of rewards and punishments." /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

The Two Handles: Han Feizi on Rewards and Punishments

Punishment in China in 1900

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Two Handles” by Han Feizi “is the best expression of the Legalist notion that explicit codes of laws and administrative regulations and strictly applied standards for rewards and punishment are the most essential tools for effective statecraft. The theme of this chapter concerns the use of reward and punishment to control ministers, and the text examines in detail this adversarial relationship that the Shen Buhai strain of Legalism specified as the central challenge of ruling. The term “reward,” which denotes bestowals of wealth and status in this chapter, is actually the word”de”, which elsewhere means virtue, power, or more generally, earned social leverage. Here, “de” is conceived as the storehouse of favors that a state’s resources allow a ruler to dispense (or a minister to usurp). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

In “The Two Handles”, Han Feizi wrote: “The enlightened ruler guides and controls his ministers by means of two handles alone. The two handles are punishment and reward. What do I mean by punishment and reward? To inflict mutilation and death on men is called punishment; to bestow honor and wealth is called reward. Those who act as ministers fear penalties and hope to profit from rewards. Thus if the ruler himself wields his punishments and rewards, the ministers will fear his awesomeness and flock to receive his benefits. But the perfidious ministers of this age are different. They persuade the ruler to let them inflict punishment themselves on men they hate and bestow favors on men they like. Now if the ruler does not insist upon reserving to himself the authority to dispense profit in the form of rewards and show his awesome power in punishments, but instead allows his ministers to hand these out, then the people of the state will all fear the ministers and treat the ruler with disrespect; they will flock to the ministers and desert the ruler. This is the danger that arises when the ruler loses control of punishments and rewards. /+/

“The tiger is able to overpower the dog because of his claws and teeth, but if he discards his claws and teeth and lets the dog use them, then he will be overpowered by the dog. The ruler of men uses punishments and rewards to control his ministers, but if he discards his punishments and rewards and lets his ministers dispense them, then he will fall under the control of his ministers. Tian Chang petitioned the ruler for various offices and stipends which he then dispensed to the lesser ministers, and he used oversize measures when he doled out grain to the common people. In this way the ruler, Duke Jian of Qi, lost the exclusive right to 6 dispense favors, and it passed into Tian Chang’s hands. Thus it was that Duke Jian came to be assassinated. /+/

“Zihan said to the lord of Song, “Since the people all delight in rewards and gifts, you should bestow them yourself; but since they hate punishments and death sentences, allow me to dispense these for you.” Thereupon the lord of Song gave up control over penalties and it passed into the hands of Zihan. Thus it was that the ruler of Song came under the power of others. Tian Chang got hold of the power to reward and Duke Jian was assassinated; Zihan got hold of the power to punish and the ruler of Song fell under his power. Ministers today are permitted to gain control over both punishment and reward; their rulers put themselves in greater peril than Duke Jian and the lord of Song. When rulers are coerced, assassinated, obstructed, or subject to deception, it has invariably because they lost control over punishment and reward to their ministers, and thus brought about their own peril and downfall. /+/

“Like the “Xunzi”, the “Han Feizi” is a very large and rich text that has not been adequately studied in the West (and, until the 20th century, it was marginalized in China as well). The only full translation published in English is very much out of date (though reliable in substance): W.K. Liao, “The Complete Works of Han Fei”(London: 1939). A judicious selection of chapters has been translated by Burton Watson, “Han Feizi” (NY: 1964, 2003)

Han Feizi on Speech, Action and Concealing Preferences

Cao Cao mask

In “The Two Handles”, Han Feizi wrote: “If a ruler wishes to put an end to depravity, then he must be careful to align name and form, that is to say, word and deed. When ministers come forward to present proposals, the ruler assigns them tasks on the basis of their words and measures their merit solely on the basis of the accomplishment of the tasks. If the accomplishment fits the task, and the task fits the words, then he rewards them; but if the accomplishment fails to fit the task or the task the words he punishes them. Hence, if ministers offer big words but only produce small accomplishments the ruler punishes them. This is not because the accomplishments are small, but because they do not match the name that was given to the undertaking. Likewise, if ministers come forward with small words but produce great accomplishments they too are punished. This is not because the ruler is displeased with great accomplishments, but because he considers the harm of giving too small a name to the undertaking to be more serious than the benefit of great accomplishments. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Once Marquis Zhao of Han got drunk and fell asleep. The Keeper of the Hat, seeing that the duke was cold, laid a robe over him. When the marquis awoke, he was pleased and asked his attendants, “Who covered me with a robe?” His attendants replied, “The Keeper of the Hat.” The marquis thereupon punished both the Keeper of the Hat and the Keeper of the 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 harm of one official encroaching upon the duties of another to be a greater danger than cold. /+/

“Hence an enlightened ruler, in handling his ministers, does not permit them to gain merit by overstepping their offices, or to speak words that do not tally with their actions. To overstep one’s office is to die; speech that does not tally with action is punished. When ministers execute their proper duties and must ensure that deeds are true to words, then they cannot form factions and work for each other’s benefit. /+/

The ruler of men has two worries: If he employs only worthies as ministers, then they will use their worthy reputations to control the ruler. However, if he promotes men unreasonably state affairs will become blocked and nothing will get done. Hence, if the ruler values worthies, his ministers will all ornament their actions in order to exploit his desires. In this way, they will never show their true characters, so the ruler will have no way to distinguish the qualities of his ministers. Because the king of Yue admired valor, many of his subjects looked on death lightly. Because King Ling of Chu liked slim waists, his state was full of people starving themselves. Because Duke Huan of Qi was jealous and loved his ladies in waiting, Shudiao castrated himself in order to be put in charge of the harem; because Duke Huan was fond of unusual food, Yiya steamed his son’s head and served it to him.

Wielding Power by Han Feizi

“Wielding Power” illustrates the Daoist element in Han Feizi’s thought. Dr. Eno wrote: It “exhibits many of the Daoist characteristics that are sometimes identified as Han Feizi’s particular contribution to Legalism (though the “Han Feizi” is a large and varied text, and which parts may have been by Han Feizi himself is a question not yet well answered). The entire chapter is written in a condensed language that frequently lapses into rhymed passages, reminiscent of the “Dao de jing”. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to “Wielding Power” in the “Han Feizi”: “There is a fixed order that governs the action of Tian; there is a fixed order that governs man as well. Fragrant aromas and delicate flavors, strong wine and fat meat delight the mouth but sicken the body. Sleek skin and pearly teeth satisfy desire but dissipate the essence. Therefore discard all excess; only then can your keep your body unharmed. /+/

“Power should not be displayed; be plain, like undyed cloth, and actionless...A ruler makes his appointments on the basis of names, and where the name is not clear, he investigates achievement. When achievement and name tally, he dispenses the reward or punishment deserved. When these are utterly predictable, subordinates will dedicate themselves entire. /+/

“Things have their proper places, talents their proper uses. When all are properly settled, then high office or low, all will be free from action. Let the cock cry out the dawn, let the cat catch rats – when each exercises his ability there is nothing the ruler needs to do. If the ruler excels in any way, affairs lose their proper fit. If he prides himself on love of talent, he invites his ministers’ deceit. If he shows mercy and care of others’ lives, his ministers will impose upon his kind nature. Once superior and inferior exchange their roles, the state will surely never be ordered. /+/

“When the ruler does not work side by side with his people, the people treasure him. He does not discuss affairs with them, but leaves them to act by themselves. He bars shut his inner door and from his room looks out into the court; rules and measures all provided, all go straight to their places. Those who merit reward are rewarded; those who deserve punishment are punished. Reward and punishment follow the deed; each man brings them upon himself. When pleasant or hateful consequences follow with inevitability, who dares fail to match word and deed? When compass and rule have marked out one corner, the other three are evident of themselves. /+/

“If the ruler does not appear spirit-like, his subordinates will find leverage points. If his management of affairs is not impartial, they will track his preferences. Be like heaven, be like earth, all coils will untangle. Be like heaven, be like earth, who will be intimate, who estranged? He who can be an image of heaven and earth may be called a sage.” /+/

Han Feizi on the Dao of Power

According to “Wielding Power” in the “Han Feizi”: “Government affairs reach to the four quarters, but the pivot lies at the center. The sage grasps the pivot and the four quarters come to serve him. Await them in emptiness and they will spontaneously take up their tasks. Once all within the four seas are within your store, follows the Dao of to manifest. When subordinates to your left and right are in their places, open the gate of court and all will be settled. Change nothing, alter nothing, but unceasingly act by the “two handles”; this is called walking the path of principle. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Use the Dao of One and let names be its beginning. When names are rectified things stay in place; when names are twisted, things shift about. Hence the sage holds to the One in stillness; he lets words spontaneously fit with their proper sense and affairs become settled on their own. He does not display his colors and so his ministers are plain like undyed cloth. He assigns them tasks according to their ability and lets affairs complete themselves; he bestows rewards according to the results and lets promotions follow spontaneously. He establishes the standard, abides by it, and lets all things settle themselves. /+/

“Attend diligently to affairs and await the decree of Tian; do not lose held of the pivot and thus become a sage. The Dao of the sage discards wisdom and wit, for if you do not, you will find it hard to remain constant. When the people use wisdom and wit, they fall into great danger; when the ruler uses them, his state faces the peril of destruction. Follow Tian’s Dao, return to the principle behind forms; match word to deed, and every end will become a renewal. Be empty, following behind in tranquility; never follow personal inclinations. All of the worries of the ruler stem from acting like others. Employ others and never be like them, and then the people will follow you as one. /+/

Primordial Chaos by Yuan painter Zhu Derun

“The Dao is vast and without form; its power creates order and extends everywhere. It extends to all living beings, and they partake of it in their measure. Though all things flourish through it, it does not come to rest in any of them. The Dao pervades all affairs here below, destinies being set by a constant standard, life and death governed by proper season. Compare names, differentiate events, and you will comprehend their underlying unity. /+/

“Thus it is said: The Dao does not identify itself with any of the things of the world; its power does not identify with either yin or yang – no more than a scale identifies itself with heaviness or lightness, a measuring string with bumps and hollows, tuning pipes with dampness or dryness, or a ruler with his ministers. All these six are products of the Dao, but the Dao itself never takes a double; therefore it is called the One. For this reason the enlightened ruler prizes solitariness, which is the figure of the Dao. Ruler and ministers do not follow the same Dao. Ministers’ requests are like words of prayer: the ruler holds fast to the words, and the ministers present him with results. When words and results match, superior and inferior achieve harmony. /+/

“The Dao of holding court: take the statements that come forth and compare them with reports that come back. Examine names carefully in order to set ranks, clarify duties in order to distinguish worth. This is the Dao of listening to the words of others: be silent as though in a drunken stupor. Lips! teeth! Do not be the first to move! Lips! teeth! Be ever more numb! Let others explain and detail – I will gain knowledge thereby. /+/

“Though assertions and denials swirl about him, the ruler does not argue. Empty and still, inactive, such is the true character of the Dao. Study, compare, line things up to match, examine thus the forms of deeds done. Compare with matching affairs, aligning them to join with emptiness. Where the root and base are firmly anchored, there will be no error of movement or stillness. Whether moving or still, all is corrected though. If you show pleasure in some, your troubles will grow; if you show hatred of others, resentment will rise. Therefore discard both pleasure and hatred and with an empty mind become an abode of the Dao.” /+/

Han Feizi on Controlling Ministers

According to “Wielding Power” in the “Han Feizi”: “If you wish to govern your inner palace, have no intimates among your officers. If you wish to govern your realm, appoint one man to each office. Let none do as he pleases, and none will exceed his office or control another. Take warning when there are many men gathered at the gates of high ministers. The utmost of governance is to allow no subordinates means to seek favor. Make certain that word and deed match, and the people will guard their offices. To discard this and seek elsewhere is profound delusion. Wily men will ever increase, and treachery will crowd by your side. Hence it is said: Never enrich a man so he can become your creditor; never ennoble a man so he can become your oppressor; never put all your trust in a single man and thereby lose your state. /+/ [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Yuan Dynasty Grand Imperial Procession

“When the shin grows stouter than the thigh, it is hard to run; when the ruler loses his spirit-like mien, tigers prowl behind him. If the ruler remains unaware, the tigers will run in packs like dogs. If the ruler does not soon halt, like dogs they will grow in number. When tigers form a band they will assassinate their own mothers. Now, a ruler who has no ministers – how could he keep possession of a state? The ruler must apply the laws, then the greatest tigers turn timid. If the ruler applies punishments, the greatest tigers will grow docile. If laws and punishments are unfailingly applied, then tigers will be transformed into men again and revert to their true form. /+/

“If you wish to govern the state, you must make certain to destroy factions; if you do not destroy factions, they will grow ever more numerous. If you wish to govern the land, you must make certain that your rewards pass into the right hands; if you do not do so, then unruly men will seek gain. If you grant what they seek, you will be lending a battle.ax to your enemies; you must not lend it, for it will only be used to attack you. /+/

“The Yellow Emperor had a saying, “Superior and inferior fight a hundred battles a day.” The subordinates hide their private desires and see what they can get from the ruler; the ruler grasps his standards and measures to constrain his subordinates. Thus to set standards and measures is the ruler’s treasure; to form factions is the ministers’ treasure. The only reason the ministers do not assassinate their ruler is that their cliques are not strong enough. Hence, if the ruler loses an inch, his subordinates gain a yard. 13 The ruler who knows how to govern his state does not let his cities grow too large; the ruler who understands the Dao does not enrich powerful families or ennoble his ministers. Were he to enrich and ennoble them, they would oppose and displace him. Guard against danger, fear peril, make haste to designate an heir, and misfortune will have no means to arise. In searching the palace to expel traitors within, hold fast to your standards and measurements. Pare away those who have too much, enrich those who have too little, and let both be according to measure, so they will not form cliques to deceive their ruler. Pare the great as moon wanes, enrich the meager as the frost thaws. Simplify the laws and be cautious in executions, but carry out punishments to the full. Never loosen your bow or you will find two cocks in a single roost; when two cocks share a single roost, they fight in a frenzy of cries. While the wildcat and wolf roam within the fold the sheep will never increase. When one house has two senior elders, its affairs will never prosper. When husband and wife both order the family, the children cannot know whom to obey. /+/

“A ruler of men must often prune his trees and not let the branches grow too long, for if they do they will block the gate of court. If the gates of private men are crowded with visitors the ruler’s courts will stand empty, and he will be shut in and encircled. He must often prune his trees and not let them become obstacles, for if they do, they will encroach upon his place. He must often prune his trees and not let the branches grow larger than the trunk for, if they do, they will not be able to stand before a spring wind; when they cannot, the braches have injured the heart of the tree. When cadet branches of the ruler’s lineage become too numerous the royal family will face anxiety and grief. The Dao to preventing this is often to prune your trees and not let the branches grow luxurious. If the trees are often pruned, cliques and factions will be dispersed. If you dig up the roots, the tree is no longer vital. Fill up the pools, and do not let water collect in them. Search out the hearts of others, seize their power. The ruler who does so is like lightning, like thunder. /+/

Han Feizi on “The Five Vermin”

Chapter 49 of the Han Feizi on “The Five Vermin” reads: "Now here is a young man of bad character. His parents rail at him, but he does not reform; the neighbors scold, but he is unmoved; his teachers instruct him, but he refuses to change his ways. Thus, although three fine influences are brought to bear on him.. the love of his parents the efforts of the neighbors, the wisdom of his teachers.. yet he remains unmoved and refuses to change so much as a hair on his shin. But let the district magistrate send out the government soldiers to enforce the law and search for evildoers, and then he is filled with terror, reforms his conduct, and changes his ways. Thus the love of parents is not enough to make children learn what is right, but must be backed up by the strict penalties of the local officials; for people by nature grow proud on love, but they listen to authority.

The best rewards are those that are generous and predictable, so that the people may profit by them. The best penalties are those that are severe and inescapable, so that the people will fear them. The best laws are those that are uniform and inflexible, so that the people can understand them. Those who practice humaneness and rightness should not be praised, for to praise them is to cast aspersion on military achievements; men of literary accomplishment should not be employed in the government, for to employ them is to bring confusion to the law. In the state of Chu there was a man named Honest Gong. When his father stole a sheep, he reported the theft to the authorities. But the local magistrate, considering that the man was honest in the service of his sovereign but a villain to his own father, replied, “Put him to death!” and the man was accordingly sentenced and executed. Thus we see that a man who is an honest subject of his sovereign may be an infamous son to his father.

“There was a man of Lu who accompanied his sovereign to war. Three times he went into battle and three times he ran away. When Confucius asked him the reason, he replied, “I have an aged father, and if I should die, there would be no one to take care of him.” Confucius, considering the man filial, recommended him and had him promoted to a post in the government. Thus we see that a man who is a filial son to his father may be a traitorous subject to his lord.

“The magistrate of Chu executed a man, and as a result the felonies of the state were never reported to the authorities; Confucius rewarded a man, and as a result the people of Lu thought nothing of surrendering or running away in battle. Since the interests of superior and inferior are as disparate as all this, it is hopeless for the ruler to praise the actions of the private individual and at the same time try to ensure blessing to the state’s altars of the soil and grain.

Qing-era punishments

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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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