Hanfeizi Additional 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.)