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Ancient China Legalism

Shang Yang

Shang Yang is the major Legalist thinker and statesman. As a chancellor of Lord Xiao of Qin (r. 361–338 B.C.E.), he initiated a series of profound reforms that turned the relatively weak and peripheral state of Qin into the strongest power and the eventual conqueror and unifier of the Chinese world. Shang Yang's views are presented in the Shang jun shu (Book of Lord Shang); although parts of the book were composed after his death, the text reflects to a significant extent Shang Yang's legacy.

Shang Yang aimed to turn Qin into a powerful state through two parallel and interconnected processes: encouraging agricultural production and strengthening military prowess. To achieve these goals he advocated a clear system of rewards and punishments, according to which aristocratic ranks would be granted for high grain yields and for military merits, while high taxation would be applied against merchants and other "parasites," and harsh penalties would be imposed on those who fled the battlefield and on their relatives. He claimed that rational management of state funds and allocating more resources for reclaiming the wastelands would promote agricultural production, while military achievements would be attained through abandoning any pretension of moral behavior on the battlefield: "When you undertake whatever the enemy is ashamed to do, you will benefit."

Shang Yang's major concern was to assist the ruler to subdue and overcome his people. The people are inherently selfish and stupid, and they do not know how to attain prosperity and peace. Hence a uniform legal system of rewards and punishments is needed to bring order. The punishments should be severe: imposing harsh penalties for the slightest violations of the law can prevent the appearance of capital offences. Only by frightening the people, establishing a system of collective responsibility and mutual surveillance, can the ruler eliminate crimes and achieve peace for the citizens. This ultimately moral goal should be attained therefore through overtly immoral means.

Shang Yang ridiculed traditional culture, moral values, and beliefs in harmonic relations between the ruler and his subjects. All these are bygone ways, appropriate perhaps in the remote past but meaningless in the current age of constant warfare and internal struggles. The only meaningful lesson from the past is that wise rulers changed their laws and regulations to accord with changing circumstances. Shang Yang constructed an evolutionary model of social development, from a kin-based order toward a legal-based one; later Legalist thinkers adopted and further modified this model.

Shang Yang succeeded in creating a harsh and intrusive state that deeply penetrated society and eliminated or weakened previously autonomous social units, such as lineage and the agricultural commune. His success, admitted even by his rivals, explains his appeal, despite his overt attacks against the intellectuals, whom he called parasites and whose moral and intellectual credentials he constantly sought to undermine. In the long run, however, these anti-intellectual philippics backfired against Shang Yang and his followers, turning Legalism into an overtly negative label among the members of educated elite.

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