All early Chinese philosophical schools were concerned with political problems, and their systems were more in the nature of political formulas than they were pure metaphysical speculations. Even so, it is still startling to read a work such as Han Feizi in which ethics is totally absent and morality is completely ignored. The Legalists (fa jia, or the advocates of rule by law) of ancient China were unique in their undisguised Machiavellian attitudes toward political realities.
The steadily deteriorating political and social situation that existed during the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.) must have contributed to a hardening realism in the intellectual climate of the time, but this climate alone did not give rise to the Legalist school. Han Feizi, to whom this book is attributed, studied with the great Confucian master Xunzi. From his teacher, Han Feizi acquired one basic concept about human nature that was to serve as the bedrock of the Legalists’ theories.