Shang Yang Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Shang Yang of Wei led a Qin army to victory over Wei in 342 b.c.e. and was rewarded with the fief of Shang in 341 b.c.e., which gave him the title Lord Shang. Later legend has him executed, like Legalist Han Feizi, by the ungrateful Qin. A body of Legalist writings, the Shangjun shu (also known as Shangzi; compiled 359-338 b.c.e.; The Book of Lord Shang, 1928) purporting to be Shang Yang’s policies for strengthening Qin later circulated under his name. Scholar J. J. L. Duyvendak has noted their stylistic inconsistency. Later research has found within a military chapter of the work a possibly original core treatise on the civil basis of military success; other chapters are later. Chapter 13 is abridged in Chapter 53 of the Han Feizi (The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Legalism, 1939-1959, 2 vols.; commonly known as Han Feizi), and the “Lord Shang” text probably took shape in what would become the Han Dynasty alongside the Han Feizi.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Shang Yang’s position as a victim of Qin made him, like Han Feizi, a viable name under which Han period Legalists, who could not openly recommend Qin policies, could shelter. Features of the Legalism that bore Shang Yang’s name include an emphasis on agriculture and war, rewards and punishments, and weakening the people to strengthen the government.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Duyvendak, J. J. L. The Book of Lord Shang. London: Probsthain, 1928.

Li, Yu-ning. Shang Yang’s Reforms and State Control in China. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1977.

Liu, Yongping. Origins of Chinese Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.