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(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...

(The entire section is 2,027 words.)