Hanfeizi Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Hanfeizi} Hanfeizi wrote a Legalist work of twenty volumes and fifty-five chapters that had a profound influence on Chinese methods of organization and management.

Early Life

According to his biography in Sima Qian’s Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), Hanfeizi (hahn-fay-dzu) was one of several sons from a noble family in the small state of Han. The ruling family of Han had formerly been high ministers in the state of Jin, but they gradually usurped power, divided the territory of Jin with two other noble families, and created three new states, Han, Zhao, and Wei. This event initiated a new era in ancient China called the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.).

Among the seven states that existed during this period, the domain of Han was relatively small and its territory located in a mountainous area, so it was constantly threatened by strong neighbors, especially the powerful state of Qin. Worried about the dangerous condition of his own native state, Hanfeizi devoted himself to studying how to rule a state. Because he stuttered, he was unable to articulate his ideas with eloquence. He repeatedly submitted his suggestions for political reform to the ruler, but they were ignored. He therefore decided to write them into chapters, creating the Hanfeizi (latter half of third century b.c.e.; The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Legalism, 1939-1959, 2 vols.; commonly known as Hanfeizi), which became a part of the Legalist (fa-jia) tradition.

Life’s Work

Fa-jia, a major school of Chinese philosophy, emerged in a chaotic and tumultuous age of ancient China. In the earlier Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-771 b.c.e.), the nation had been ruled by the king of Zhou and his vassals. Their rights and duties were clearly defined by a system of feudalism. The sovereign not only commanded universal allegiance and tribute among his vassals but also exercised considerable control over their social affairs. He could even punish an offending vassal with force of arms.

When the Zhou capital was invaded by barbarians in 771 b.c.e., the ruler fled and re-established his court at Luoyang (Lo-yang) in the East. The power of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty declined rapidly, and the rulers of the feudal states were left with increasing freedom to ignore their customary duties to the sovereign and to expand their territories through military force. After a series of battles, five powerful feudal leaders emerged. They not only had to deal with the threat of influential noble families within their states but also vied for influence or even control of the Zhou king and tried to impose their power on the other feudal lords.

This historical context fostered the formation of the Legalist school. In order to acquire official positions for themselves, scholars offered various suggestions, on the basis of different philosophical grounds, on how to rule a state. Unlike the Confucians, the Legalists had no interest in preserving moral values or restoring traditional customs. Their only goal was to teach the ruler how to survive and prosper in a highly competitive world through various measures of administrative reform, such as strengthening the sovereign’s power, increasing food production, enforcing military training, and establishing a merit system to replace the old aristocracy with a team of bureaucrats.

Disappointed with his own political career, Hanfeizi concentrated on studying the works of previous Legalists, including Guan Zhong, Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, and Shen Dao. Guan Zhong (Kuan Chung) was a minister of Duke Huan of Qi (685-643 b.c.e.). He suggested the ruler should carry out a series of reform programs that enriched the state, strengthened the army, and made Qi one of the five hegemonies. From Guan Zhong’s chapter on xin-shu (literally, “art of mind”) in his book Guanzi (fourth century b.c.e.; selections translated in Economic Dialogues in Ancient China, 1954; complete translation Guanzi, 1985), Hanfeizi adopted the doctrine of xu-yi-er-jin (“concentrate on one thing with a calm and serene mind”) and argued that it is necessary for an enlightened ruler to cultivate his mental capability for recognizing the objective facts of an event by concentrating on them with a calm and peaceful mind.

Shang Yang (d. 388 b.c.e.) was originally from Wei. He went to serve Duke Xiao of Qin as a high minister and helped Qin to carry out a series of administrative reforms. Hanfeizi adopted many fundamental concepts of fa (law) from the Shangjun shu (also known as Shangzi; compiled 359-338 b.c.e.; The Book of Lord Shang, 1928) but noted a weakness in Shang’s works. In ruling the state, Shang Yang strongly...

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Hanfeizi Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Combining the philosophies of the Daoist, Confucian, Mohist, and especially Legalist (fa) traditions, Hanfeizi synthesized and articulated better than any of his predecessors the complex set of philosophical and practical ideas about government known as Legalism. He advocated promulgation of law to punish criminals severely and to reward good citizens, irrespective of relationship or rank.

Early Life

Hanfeizi was born into a high-ranking aristocratic family in the state of Han in central China in 280 b.c.e. and lived in the late Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.). According to Shi-ji (first century b.c.e.;Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960; rev. ed. 1993) by the historian Sima Qian, Hanfeizi, being a habitual stutterer, was unable to deliver fluent speeches but was very smart. He thought and wrote very well. Hanfeizi studied under the Confucian philosopher Xunzi. His fellow student Li Si later became the prime minister to the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.e.). Though his teacher was a Confucian master, Hanfeizi was more interested in the arts of fa (law), shi (power), and shu (statecraft) than Confucius’s li (rituals, rites, proprieties) and yi (righteousness or proper character).

Hanfeizi made many attempts to volunteer his advice to the king of Han, but the king did not put his advice into practice. Hanfeizi became incensed with the king, whom he felt was not capable of listening to good advice or of reforming the state of Han. He instead concentrated his time and energy on writing both to express his views on government and to vent his personal frustrations. Most of his works were composed in this period. Later, when the state of Qin was going to attack the state of Han, the king of Han finally sent Hanfeizi as a goodwill envoy to Qin. This was the first time and the last time he was used by a ruler.

Hanfeizi’s works were known in Qin, and the king of Qin had read his essays “Solitary Indignation” and “Five Vermin.” The king was very impressed by Hanfeizi’s thoughts and admired him greatly. Hanfeizi suggested that the king of Qin unite with the state of Han to attack the state of Zhao; however, the king of Qin did not listen to this suggestion. Hanfeizi stayed in the state of Qin, hoping the king would employ him after his mission was finished. The king of Qin did like him and showed interest in employing him. However, before the king gained confidence in him and took him into service, his prime minister, Li Si, who was envious of Hanfeizi’s talents and afraid that Hanfeizi might replace him, slandered him before the king by challenging Hanfeizi’s loyalty. The king of Qin instructed officials to pass sentence on Hanfeizi. Later, Li Si sent people to give poison to Hanfeizi and ordered him to commit suicide. Hanfeizi wanted to plead his innocence before the throne but was barred from seeing the king. Later, the king of Qin realized his mistake and instructed his people to pardon the philosopher, but Hanfeizi had already died.

Life’s Work

Hanfeizi wrote fifty-five essays, mostly on subjects related to government and the legal system. His works were collected after his death under the title Han Feizi. Most of the essays are short and concise. His basic thoughts are presented in twelve essays: “The Way of the Ruler,” “On Having Standards,” “The Two Handles,” “Wielding Power,” “The Eight Villainies,” “The Ten Faults,” “The Difficulties of Persuasion,” “The Difficulty of Bian Hei,” “Guarding Against the Interior,” “Facing the South,” “The Five Vermin,” and “Eminence in Learning: A Critical Estimate of Confucians and Mohists.”

Hanfeizi lived during the great chaos known as the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), which resulted from the collapse of the old feudal order toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). Wars among the states were constantly being fought as each state sought ways to strengthen its own power and maintain social order. Because Hanfeizi was the only member of the nobility among the important early Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mozi, and Xunzi, he seemed more responsible to his native state and more interested in searching for new ways to run a country and rule citizens. This turbulent period provided him a great opportunity to observe political chaos and changing societies so that he could compare the situations of his time with those of history. These observations and comparisons helped him form his philosophy and thoughts on the practical political affairs of government. His concept of the art of rulership, perhaps his greatest contribution to ancient Chinese philosophy, consists of three essential elements: fa (law), shi (power), and shu (statecraft). Even though these three elements were put forward individually by his Legalist predecessors, it was Hanfeizi who first realized them equally important for good government and combined them.

Hanfeizi studied the philosophy of Confucius but did not follow Confucian learning. Unlike Confucius, who believed that human beings are naturally good and can achieve self-perfection, Hanfeizi believed that the great majority of people are self-interested. Because of their self-interested nature, people have the tendency to commit crimes. When the idea of committing crimes does not trouble them mentally, they do so. Therefore, stern...

(The entire section is 2265 words.)