Introduction to Legalism

Though some of the Legalists borrowed certain ideas from the Daoists, they used Daoist ideas for completely different purposes, and the two philosophies were generally in conflict with one another. Most of the famous Legalists of ancient China were advisers to rulers who were bent on organizing society on a rational basis and finding means to strengthen their states agriculturally and militarily. Instead of being devoted to conformity to the processes of nature, the Legalists were interested in the deconformity which could be imposed through government institutions. They devised elaborate means for controlling people's lives and actions through laws and punishments.

The advice these Legalists gave tended in the direction of regulating every aspect of people's lives so that they would have the discipline to work hard in the fields and fight hard on the battlefields. Many of the laws they recommended were extremely harsh. In the state of Qin, where Legalist advisers were most influential, rewards might be generous, but death and mutilation wee often the order of the day.

You will read in other sections about the monumental achievements of the Qin dynasty in unifying China for the first time and extending its military influence over an enormous geographical area. When it comes to the influence of Legalist thinking, the striking thing is that the Chinese until recent times drew one historical lesson from the rise and fall of the Qin: the limits of force. It was widely recognized that force was necessary to unify the state and to mobilize society. Yet many people were convinced that the brutality of Qin rule was what undermined it in the end. Many of the Legalists presented law as an alternative to morality — a more reliable means of ensuring a disciplined and cohesive society. It was this resort to law as distinct from morality that aroused widespread misgivings in later times. As they reflected on the harshness of Qin rule and the bleakness of Legalist ideas about human nature, many Chinese were convinced that it is easier to make laws to compel people to behave in certain ways than to inspire them to behave morally but that, over the long run, law without morality is a weak basis for a stable society. Largely because of this experience in their early history, the relation between force and persuasion, between law and morality, has been for centuries a problem of intense interest to the Chinese people. It remains a central problem right down to the present day.

The Legalist tradition in ancient China culminated in the thought of Han Fei, who lived in the third century B.C. Han Fei served for a time at the Qin court but was put to death in 233 B.C. in a plot instigated by his one-time friend, Li Si, a chief minister to the first emperor of the Qin.

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Irene Bloom, a specialist in Chinese intellectual history.