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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.

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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.

The Necessity for Law

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Xunzi distinguished himself by challenging Mencius’s idealistic view of human nature. According to Xunzi, human nature is like the young craboak tree: Without restraining influence, the tree will grow crooked. Although Xunzi never lost sight of a moralistic ideal in advocating the need for education, his disciple Han Feizi carried this view one step further to assert that nothing interests people except material profit. The hired hand works hard only because of a promised reward, says Han Feizi, and even parents do not raise their children for love but for their own future security. If this is not the case, asks Han Feizi, then why do people value their baby boys so much that they drown their baby girls? (Presumably this practice was still observed in Han Feizi’s time.)

Han Feizi did not deny that there were ancient sages, a common belief shared by most people in China at that time. However, he believed that good people are the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, those who are good by nature are of little value to an orderly society and a prosperous state. If a ruler relies upon the few good people to run the country, Han Feizi argues, it would be like the archer who counts on the few naturally straight branches with which to make arrows. The archer would not have many arrows to shoot. A few good people do not make an orderly society—for orderliness to exist, everyone must observe the interests of society. Therefore, the only thing that counts is a set of laws. The person who obeys the law is good. This is the only necessary standard of good and bad or right and wrong.

Environment offers an explanation for the existence of the Sage Kings in China’s golden past. In high antiquity, material supplies were abundant and people few. No one needed to steal for a living. However, as the population grew and the land became more crowded, the struggle for existence made manifest the true nature of humankind, which is profit-centered and selfish. Therefore, although in the golden past, as the Confucians explain in their teachings, a moral life was possible, the same material conditions no longer exist. Han Feizi applied this theory to explain the behavior of the legendary kings who abdicated their thrones without regret. Legend says that the Sage Kings worked harder than the common peasant and enjoyed less comfort, so why should they have regrets about giving up their “burdens”? However, times had changed, and the throne had become a coveted position that bestowed comfort, power, glory, and material rewards on its holder. It is small wonder, says Han Feizi, that people all aspire to be a ruler.

In many chapters and through various analogies, Han Feizi attempts to prove his theory of economic determinism. He cites the relative value of water on high mountains and near the river shore to show that generosity with water is conditioned by the amount of its supply. He tells the story of a disobedient son—incorrigible in spite of all the affection his parents showered on him and chastened only when imprisoned—to prove that there is no reliable “moral sense” in human nature. As evidence of the ignorance of the masses, he recounts the predicaments of several ancient sages whose benevolence was met with popular resentment. Han Feizi’s distrust in the ability of the people to govern themselves is absolute.

The Art of Rulership

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The only available documentary evidence shows that Han Feizi wrote Han Feizi as a result of his inability to win a position of direct influence on the ruler of his state, the state of Han. If this is true, it is understandable why the book reveals a constant emphasis on the art of government and a persistent belief in the value of a prosperous state with strong armies. Toward these goals, Han Feizi constructed his philosophy. Because he saw material gain as the only governing force in human nature and could find no proof anywhere of humanity’s intelligence, he logically turned to reward and punishment to induce people to do what should be done. Punishment and reward, what Han Feizi calls the ruler’s “two helms,” allow the sovereign to rule successfully. In order to enable the common people to know clearly what will bring pleasure and what pain, a set of specific rules is essential. These rules are laws.

Like the carpenter’s compass and square, the laws must be fixed and rigid, and their enforcement constant and consistent. The ruler must not follow the Confucian advice to respect the opinions of the learned. To do so would undermine the authority of the law and cause confusion. The ruler paying much attention to the advice of the wise not only will destroy the smooth functioning of a government but also may endanger his personal position because his subjects may strive to become cunning so that they can either deceive or even replace the ruler. There must be only one authority and one standard, and that standard rests with the ruler alone. With legal codes as their books and law-enforcement officers as their teachers, the people need nothing else to keep them well behaved.

Names and Actuality

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The Legalists’ punishment-reward theory closely parallels the views of Mozi, which were common knowledge in Han Feizi’s time. However, the real inspiration of Han Feizi’s belief in law is to be found in the common concern over the confusion of names. Confucius urged a rectification of names to restore a proper social hierarchy and reestablish desirable social relationships. The members of the School of Names, including Gongsun Long, examine names to dramatize certain problems in human knowledge. Han Feizi also demanded a “search for actuality through examination of its name.” Han Feizi wanted a uniformity of standards, and the only way to achieve it, as he saw it, depended on an exact correspondence between names and actualities. If the meaning of a name is not clear, then its actuality must be investigated to clarify the name. If the name is unknown, then its actuality must be searched out to arrive at a proper appellation.

The important and interesting aspect of this theory is that Han Feizi did not urge any adjustment of names to match actualities. On the contrary, in Han Feizi’s philosophy the names provide the norm, and it is the actuality that must be adjusted to match the names. Therefore, Han Feizi insisted that the ruler hold the name in his hand and that his subjects adjust their behaviors in order to conform to the name. Then and only then could a uniformity of standards be achieved and government be made successful. This idea concerning the use of names represents the extreme of the evolution of the theory on rectification of names. It is, as it has worked out, not a “search for actuality through an examination of its name,” but rather a “demand that actuality conform with its name.”

Once the names are fixed in the form of laws controlled by the ruler, these laws must be enforced so strictly that no deviation from them, for better or worse, is tolerated. Han Feizi does not hesitate to advise punishment of anyone whose claims or promises are not borne out exactly by subsequent performance. Even if a person does more and better than promised, the individual must be punished, because the harm that person does by corrupting the exact correspondence between name and actuality more than offsets the excess service rendered or the excess goods produced. To Han Feizi, a “small loyalty” (partial fulfillment of one’s promise) is detrimental to the “great loyalty” (exact fulfillment of one’s promise).

The Ruler’s Lofty Position

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A philosopher named Shenxiu, who lived shortly before Han Feizi, has expounded the principle of force that comes from one’s position. Han Feizi quotes Shenxiu and gives the latter support. According to Shenxiu, a rock acquires its smashing force only when it falls from an altitude. Depending on where an object is located, it may have greater or less power. Han Feizi elaborates on this theory and acknowledges that dragons without clouds to float them would be as miserable as earthworms. He advises rulers to make best use of their lofty position, for their position is the rulers’ sole source of power. Even an ancient Sage King would have been totally disabled if his orders had not been obeyed. Therefore, Han Feizi urges rulers to maintain their lofty, august position by remaining aloof from their subjects, including the top-ranking ministers. The wise sovereign rules by merely demonstrating “awe-inspiring majesty,” without which the ruler would be a fish out of water and could do nothing.

Han Feizi recognized the possibility of abuse of power in the hands of undeserving rulers, but he argued for the need of a position of power in order for anyone to rule. A good chariot can travel far even when handled by a mediocre driver, and with a good driver, it can perform miracles. However, if the chariot is rickety, even the best of drivers cannot make it perform well. Han Feizi preferred to gamble on the greater odds against having many bad rulers who abuse power.

The theory of the ruler’s position is one of the important aspects of statecraft that Han Feizi discusses in great detail. By maintaining a lofty position, the ruler of a state can command obedience and ensure internal order. With order comes the opportunity to build the strength and wealth of the state for the ultimate purpose of becoming the leader (ba) of all the states. This was the political ideal pursued by all the rulers of the states at that time. A collapsed old feudal order left the field wide open and resulted in a power struggle. Each state sought political supremacy to rule over the entire territory of China. Therefore, Han Feizi presents lengthy arguments on how to maneuver interstate politics in order to acquire the status of a ruling state. He examines many historical events involving the success or failure of a ruler and comments on the causes. Invariably, he finds these historical cases supporting his political philosophy.

Rule Through Nonactivity

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Legalism and Confucianism are curiously similar regarding one concept. The Confucians believed that the best king rules by moral magnetism: If a ruler’s moral virtues are perfect, his subjects and neighboring states will of themselves recognize him as their leader. Han Feizi believed in rule by the magic of power: If the king’s majesty is awe-inspiring, his subjects will obey without further ado. When the laws are complete, the people will know what to do without the need for the ruler to make any move.

This is an extension of the Daoist idea of nonactivity. Two chapters in the Han Feizi are devoted to an explication of the Dao De Jing. In giving his views on the Dao De Jing, Han Feizi makes it clear that he subscribes to the idea of dao as nature’s Way. There is a proper way for everything, for its existence and function. “Things have their appropriateness and materials have their right use,” and because the ruler who learns of dao knows how to put everything in its proper place and to assign it its proper function, there is nothing left to be done. What a ruler has to do is to set up laws according to the Way; then the state will go on to rule itself. The king ultimately will rule by not ruling.

Laws backed by the ruler’s infinite authority and enforced through the ruler’s instruments, the ministers, will free the ruler from any personal concern. Han Feizi here completes his idea of a perfect rule through nonactivity, for if every part of this political mechanism functions as it should, the ruler really does not have to be concerned with government. Han Feizi cites a number of historical cases in which a king indulged in comfort and yet his kingdom lasted; the philosopher attributes this result to the good laws set up by the king. Although Han Feizi stresses the importance of the king’s vigilance over the welfare of his state, the suggestion that the state can rule itself while the king enjoys life must have had a great appeal to many rulers.

“Termites” of the State

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The sole criterion for judgment of right and wrong or good and bad in Legalism is whether something contributes to the prosperity of the state and to the strength of its armies. The law, therefore, also determines reward and punishment in accordance with this very principle, which is an application of Mozi’s utilitarianism. The ruler recognizes the “merit” of subjects in relation to their actual material contribution to the state. Against this yardstick, the Confucians are useless and meritless because their principles of human-heartedness and rules of propriety concern only the individual’s life. Encouragement given to the study of literature, praise of knight-errantry, and indulgence in idle theoretical discussions are all, in Han Feizi’s opinion, irrelevant to the good of the state. To uphold any one of these would pose another standard in competition with the standard of utility to the state.

The “five termites of the state” are classified by Han Feizi on this very basis. They are the traveling political advisers (a trade that flourished only during times such as the Warring States period), the scholars, the merchants, the artisans, and the knights-errant. The first two groups use their glib tongues to confuse the rulers and undermine the laws. The merchants and artisans speculate and produce goods of no real utility but deceive the people in order to realize undeserved increment in the process. The knights-errant take laws in their own hands in defiance of governmental authority. If these people are not discouraged, says Han Feizi, nobody will be willing to sweat in the fields (to produce grains) and to bleed on horseback (to fight for the state). Han Feizi values only the farmers and the soldiers; this is another parallel between Mozi and the Legalists.

The Ruler of Qin and Han Feizi

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The harshness of Han Feizi’s realism appealed to power-hungry rulers of the states embroiled in a bloody political struggle; it also impressed a seasoned Legalist such as Han Feizi himself. The authority of the ruler, in Han Feizi’s own theory, had to be so absolute and infinite that to approach the ruler with any kind of advice was a dangerous undertaking at best. Chapters 3 and 12 express the frustration of the philosopher whose speech impediment (stuttering) made the eloquence of his arguments anything but apparent.

As chapter 11 makes amply clear, the Legalist’s career was a precarious one. Han Feizi’s theories made him extremely unpopular among the other courtiers, and he constantly risked “official execution or secret assassination.” Han Feizi’s own life bore tragic witness to these observations. According to the biography written by the Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) historian Sima Qian, Han Feizi’s works became known to the ruler of the state of Qin, who harbored ruthless political ambitions. The treatises caught the fancy of this aggressive ruler, and he sought Han Feizi’s services so desperately that he ordered a siege of the state of Han by Qin soldiers. The defeated ruler of Han surrendered Han Feizi. However, the irony of history found its agent in a man named Li Si, who studied under Xunzi with Han Feizi and also was a Legalist, although somewhat inferior to Han Feizi in his intellectual achievement. At this juncture, Li Si had been advising the ruler of Qin for some time already. Fearing that the arrival of Han Feizi in the Qin court would spell his political death, Li Si slandered Han in front of the Qin ruler and forged an order to demand Han Feizi’s suicide. Han Feizi drank the poison and died before serving in the court of Qin.

Han Feizi died, but the school of political thought that went under his name lived on and found a powerful exponent in the ruler of Qin. Aided by the scheming Li Si and having adopted a number of Legalist measures, the state of Qin became a “prosperous state with strong armies” and conquered the whole of China in 221 b.c.e., establishing the first truly unified empire in Chinese history. Even the Daoist element in Han Feizi’s system seemed to have been absorbed by the Qin ruler, who became the first Chinese emperor. He set up severe laws, burned the Confucian theoretical books, and buried “useless” scholars. Then, when he felt that his empire was being governed quite smoothly and efficiently, he turned to a search for drugs of longevity and material enjoyment, trusting his country to rule by nonactivity.


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Additional Reading

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989. A well-informed and thorough discussion of Legalist philosophy, including that of Han Feizi.

Han Feizi. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. This translation of twelve books of Han Feizi’s works by a Western scholar in Chinese and Japanese studies provides another perspective on Han Feizi’s works. The translator includes a preface and a helpful introduction that places the philosopher in relation to Chinese history and thought.

MacCormack, Geoffrey. The Spirit of Traditional Chinese Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. This book devotes a section to a discussion of the teachings of the Legalist school, including Han Feizi’s view of rule by law.

Tong, Shuye. “A Study of Han Fei’s Thought.” Chinese Studies in Philosophy 14, no. 61 (Winter, 1982-1983). This article uses the Maoist theory of classes to analyze the sources of Han Feizi’s philosophy and to study his methodology. The author also discusses Han Feizi’s political thinking and his theory of human nature and ethical views.

Wang, Hsiao-Po, and Leo S. Chang. The Philosophical Foundations of Han Fei’s Political Theory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. This book reconsiders the role of Legalism in Chinese philosophical and political history. The authors challenge the traditional Chinese historians’ view, which treats the thought of Han Feizi as a philosophical and political anomaly, and hold that Han Heizi fits within traditional Chinese thought, despite his utilitarian approach. The authors also conclude that Han Feizi’s Legalist thinking has exerted a greater influence on the Chinese governmental system than traditionally believed, even affecting contemporary governing structures and policies.

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