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Ancient China Legalism

Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, Han Feizi, Later Legalism, Bibliography

Legalism (fa jia) is a label applied since the second century B.C.E. to a group of Chinese thinkers of the Warring States period (453–221 B.C.E.). The label is doubly misleading: first, because the thinkers concerned did not necessarily consider themselves members of a unified intellectual current, much less a common school of thought; and second, because the notion of law (fa), albeit important, is by no means central in the thought of all these thinkers. Legalism is thus not a scientific category but rather a scholarly convention.

Major sources for Legalist thought are the works attributed to the leading Legalist thinkers, Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.), Shen Buhai (d. 337 B.C.E.), Shen Dao (fl. late fourth century B.C.E.), and Han Feizi (d. 233 B.C.E.), as well as portions of the Warring States collectanea, the Guanzi and Lüshi chunqiu. Of these only the first has undisputed Legalist credentials, while the intellectual affiliation of the others is constantly questioned. These disputes notwithstanding, we may discern several major approaches that characterize these thinkers and texts and distinguish them from contemporary intellectual currents. First, all of them sought to strengthen the state versus society through the perfection of a centralized bureaucratic mechanism. Second, Legalists adopted a ruler-centered perspective, which held that reinforcing the ruler's authority was crucial for social stability and that this authority should be absolute and limitless. Third, the Legalists rejected the authority of the past and favored institutional and intellectual innovations to match rapid changes in the sociopolitical situation. Fourth, they rejected the priority of moral values over practical considerations advocated by most of their rivals and adopted a pragmatic and often cynical stand toward political issues. Finally, since major Legalist thinkers had rich experience as administrators, military advisers, and diplomats, their writings are often dominated by practical issues to the extent that some modern critics question their philosophical credentials altogether. Paraphrasing Marx, it may be said that while other philosophers often sought to explain the world, the Legalists did their best to change it—and indeed achieved remarkable results.

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