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The Legalist School Essay

The Legalist School was originated by a realist named Shang Yang who wanted to turn the state of Qin from a precarious state to a strong and powerful state that could take over the other six states and create a powerful China. Legalism,which is the act of following all laws, emerged in the Warring States during the Spring and Autumn Periods between 770 to 221 B. C. and is one of the earliest known forms of totalitarian ideologies, which led to the eventual rise and fall of the Qin Empire.

Some of the most influential leaders and contributors in the School of Legalism include Li Si, a political leader of China, who’s form of legalism became a totalitarian ideology in China. Shang Yang, one of the most influential and prestigious Leglist reformers who praised farming, awarding military achievements and stressing the law, which all helped lay the foundation of the Qin dynasty. And Han Fei Tzu, who was compared to the works of Machiavelli and Kautilya, was one of more famous contributors that emphasized that rulers should govern their subjects within the Legalist Doctrine of Fa (law), Shu (strategy), and Shih (power).

Theory of Knowledge: The Legalist School, which translates to the School of Law, was a “school of thought which stressed the enforcement of law” (A Brief Account of the Legalist School in the Pre-Qin Period section, para. 1). The laws were proposed to help support the king and his or her troops. Legalist believed that everything should be regulated through law, which was the main idea of Legalism. Anyone, including the emporer, who was caught disobeying these laws were severly punished.

These laws were set up to punish the bad and reward the good, which were the “two handles” applied to government. Han Fei Tzu called these two handles reward and punishment. In addition to stressing the enforcement of law, there were other basic features of the Legalist School (from www. english. cciv. cityu. edu. hk). Advocating social reform and opposing old conventions. Most of the scholars from the Legalist schools acted as the pioneers that helped the social stability of their time. Developing the agriculture and develop a strong and potent army to make the country prosperous.

Regulating strict laws and inflicting punishment by rewarding the good and discipline the bad. “Uphold the centralizatoin of state power but oppose the enfeoffment and hereditary systems” (Hooker 1996). Legalist did not agree with the old systems of feifdom and hereditary, which they thought would lead to the rise of warlords. Legalist, instead, proposed a strong centralized state power where rulers should combine the three doctrines of Fa, Shih, and Shu to govern and control the people.

In an exert from the Sources of Chinese Tradition Han Fei Tzu states “rewards should be rich and certain so that the people will be attracted by them; punishments should be severe and definite so that the people will fear them; and laws should be uniform and steadfast so that the people will be familiar with them. Consequently, the sovereign should show no wavering in bestowing rewards and grant no pardon in administering punishments, and he should add honor to rewards and disgrace to punishments–when this is done, then both the worthy and the unworthy will want to exert themselves”.

Ideas of Human Nature: Legalist believe that the idea of human nature is greedy and fundamentally evil and that individuals will only behave in a well manner if it is to benefit the state, rewarded, or to avoid punishment. Hooker (1996, Economics section, para. 3) writes that “Legalists also believed that the fundamental purpose of human life was productivity and any human unproductive activity was fundamentally to be discouraged”. Han Fei Tzu, who was influenced by his teacher, Xunzi, preached that the “Man is born evil” and the the psychological and physiological aspects were man’s inborn nature.

It is also in the nature of man to seek profit and to avoid harm. Since it was in human nature to be self-interested, the ruler could use incentives to reward good morality and; since it was human to nature to avoid harm, the ruler would hand down penalties and punishments to repress crime. This utilitarian doctrine preached by Han Fei Tzu set the foundation on his ideas of rule by law. Ideas On What Makes a Good Man: According to the Legalist’s point of view, the Two Handles (reward and punishment), are what makes a man good.

“Han Fei Tzu accepted Xunzi’s thoery of “natural evil,” on which his doctrine of self-interest or selfishness was based and since it was human nature to be self-interested, the ruler could use bonuses to encourage merit; since it was human nature to avoid harm, the ruler could employ penalties to repress crime” (From www. english. cciv. cityu. edu. hk). To be a good leader, one must take responsibility of one’s wrong doing and take any advice from loyal advisors and should also show courtesy to those of less ranking. Also to become a good leader one must be strict with the laws and not be to benevolent.

A new way of governent is also to be set up in which laws are to be set up and promulgated amongst the people. These laws tell the people what they are should and should not do. Once these laws are implemented the ruler should keep a good eye on the people since he posseses shih or the authority to punish those who transgress his laws and guerdon those who abide by him. But with Legalism in place it caused people of the society to be very suspicious of each other, which lead to mistrust between people even in family units. Attitudes Towards History:

Fung Yu-Lan (1947, pp.256-258) points out that Chinese tradition is based on past experience and that this mentality has influenced Chinese philosophy a great deal, so that since the time of Confucius, most philosophers have appealed to ancient authority as justification for their own teaching. So by looking to the past philosophers can find the answers they are looking for since the golden age of man lies in the past and not in the future. Legalist took a different approach. They understood that times change and that the people need to change to meet the needs of the future.

Fung Yu-Lan uses the example that there were a few people but plenty of supplies, therefore there was no quarreling. But nowadays large families consisting of five chilren, and those children having another five, and so on, resulting in many people but few supplies, so this forces one to work harder to fill the needs of the family, which resorts to quarreling. So according to Han Fei Tzu, new problems can only be solved by new meaures. Theory of Government: Han Fei Tzu also believed in the three-in-one Legalist Doctrin of Law, which was compiled of Fa, Shu and Shi.

Fa, referring to the rules and regulations, which are disseminated among the public and to which the common people, authorities and even the ruler him/herself are subject to follow. These laws act as a doctrine which acoording to Legalist to become fair and become equal. The theory behind fa was that it was supposed to give the ruler the oppurtunity to show benevolence in certain circumstances, but this also gave way to easy corruption. Shu, referring to strategies and motivation, which the ruler controls his men so that he or she can get the right people do what he or she wants when he or she wants.

These people then hold different responsibilities according to the position the ruler has given them. The ruler’s duty is to also give each of these office members a name in which they carry out the task in which their name implies and the ruler should not interfere with the work being carried out by these members as long as they are done properly. So if the work is done properly then they are rewarded if not, they are punished. Lastly, Shih, which implies power or charisma, gives the ruler the authority to enforce his orders. If the ruler does not possess shi then the methods and law will have little or no value.

Legalists also believed that people are there to serve and help strengthen the state. As a result rulers created a government where people were rewarded for helping serve the state and punished for weakening it in any way. Ministers and commoners must do what the law says and can do no more or no less and the states is always more important than the individual. View of the Universe: Legalist viewed the universe through its government and human nature. For Legalist this was the basis of their theory.

The government was everything to Legalist since this was where the rules and regulations were set and implemented and made public to the common people. Since Legalist viewed the lower class people and their actions as evil and foolish, it was necessary to set up a system of harsh punishment and rewards to bring out the good in man.

By making these punishments so severe fear was struck in the minds of the common people and forced them to respect the law and the government. So the universe to the Legalist is the method of a benevolent government which includes laws and that these laws are necessary to run a counrty. Differences with other Schools:

Legalism and Daoism both believed in the idea of wu wei, which meant having no activity or non action. The difference between these two schools of thought lie in the way they percieve man. Legalist believe man is evil and stood for absolute social control while Daoist believe man is innocent and stood for absolute individual freedom. Daoist perception of the idea of rewards and punishments is not as important compared to Legalist who view this theory as one of the foundations of the theory. Legalism and Confucianism had different views on the ways they should govern the people.

Confucianists believed that the people should be governed by li and righteousness, and not by law and punishment. Confucianists also made the distinction of the class system and that is should be based on the morality of the person and not through inheritance. “The Confucianist ideas are idealistic, while those of the Legalist are realistic. This is the reason why, in Chinese history, the “Confucianists have always accused the Legalists of being mean and vulgar, while the Legalists have accused the Confucianists of being bookish and impractical” (Yu-Lan 1947).

Social Attitudes: Legalism of the past has obviously affected our social attitudes of our modern society. It is obvious that well still need fa (law), or else the nation would be in turmoil and chaos. In the Legalist days people were thought to be born evil and that Legalism was put into order to cause people to do good. This method is also applied today in our society today with the exception of man is born evil. People also need someone to look up to and invent these laws, which in the Legalist days would be the ruler.

Today we have a legal system where laws are written and passed and made public to the people of China. The people then should abide by these laws and if found disobeying these laws, we have law enforcement officials who will punish and decide the fate of these individuals. People also believe in electing leaders who possess shi to help stabalize the country and to unify us as one. With having leaders that impose laws among the people this will cause their social attitudes to be good and within the law.

Without rules and regulations people will just do what they think is right which can lead to violence and ultimately death. Political System: “The Legalisits implemented a series of economic, political and military reforms by force, abolished the old square-field system and established the private ownership of land “(From www. english. cciv. cityu. edu. hk). The Legalist theories influenced politics, ideology, economy and culture of later societies and was the building blocks for the growth of Chinese society. Even though most dynasties chose Confucianism as their official ideology, Legalist ideas were not ignored.

The idea of having laws was an important factor in all dynasties and rulers laid equal stress on punishment and benevolence. Most Chinese philosophers and politicians blamed Legalism for creating a totalitarian in today’s society. “Many Chinese scholars believed the reaction against Legalism gave Chinese Imperial politics its personalistic and moralistic flavor rather than emphasis on the rule of law”(Graham 1993). However, both ancient and modern Confucianists of Chinese politics argue that Legalist ideas have merged with Confucianism and still play a role in today’s government.

“The philosophy of imperial China can be described as Confucianism externally and legalism internally” (from http://en. wikipedia. org). The great Mao Zedong also had some knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy and publicly approved some of the Legalist methods to help congregate power and guide the people. One method that was approved in the 1980s under the Deng Xiaoping adminstration was the “Two Handles” theory of reward and punishment. Mao glorified the first emporer of the Qin dynasty and he was the first emporer in the new Communist China.

Communism also plays a role in the Legalist view since the communist government of China tells the people what and what not to do and what and what not to believe and that the people are all equal before the law as was the same in the Legalist views. Education System: Our education system also takes some consideration in the theories of Legalists in a more modern theory. There also exists a class system where there is a king, which is the president or the dean, the prince, which is the principle and assistant principle, feudal lords, which are the teachers, and the common people, which are the students.

The education class system also must follow the law and all are treated equally, meaning no matter who it was; teacher, student, or dean, if one breaks the law one will be punished. The process of using rules and regulations are standard in all schools. Education facilities also practice the method the “Two Handles” of reward and punishment. This is shown today in our modern society of education. If a student does well in school by studying hard, doing their homework, and has a great attendence record they are ultimately rewarded with good grades, a degree, scholarships and eventually a good job and a good future.

If the student is found slacking off, cheating, not attending class, and becoming a nuisance they will ultimately be punished through detention, expulsion, an unstable future, and less paying jobs. So even in our society today we still practice the philosophy of Legalism in a way. Some teachings of Han Fei Tzu also can relate to our education system Han Fei Tzu states that a ruler should now expose his own desires so that his ministers could gain an advantage. Teachers and students should be on a strict teacher to student relationship basis only.

If students can find the weaknesses of teachers or become a teachers pet, they can gain an advantage and have an easier time during their learning process. Same with punishments and rewards, if teachers lightly punish a student for cheating the student may cheat again, and students awarded too generously for their work may be come lazy. Our education system is also based off of the way the Legalist viewed history. The standards and practices of our teachers must conform to what is happening now instead of following what teachers did 50 years ago to teach there students. Every day things change and new things are invented.

We must not base our information on the past but on what is happening now. If we use information of the economy from 10 years ago compared to now in no way will they be the same. So in the way the Legalist viewed history we still apply it today in our education system. Future Role: These ideas will have a role as China continues to become more modern and powerful. Legalism is the enforcement of laws, and China has established the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, the People’s Armed Police, the People’s Liberation Army, and the state judicial, procuratorial, and penal systems.

China uses the concept of governmental control through imposed collective responsibility. This means a group of people or family who will share each other’s punishments or rewards. Like a basketball team, if the team wins they are rewarded with medals, if they lose they are punished with grief and embarrasment. This concept was also made use by the Qin dynasty where Legalism prospered. So as China continues to grow Legalism may help contribute in one way or another. Rules and regulations will always be needed to keep a country’s order in line.

Punishment and rewards also play a role, since people need to be punished for wrong doing and rewarded for good deeds. But unlike the Legalist view where they believed in harsh punishment for their crimes, modern society is based off of different degrees of punishment depending on the severity of the crime. Though the ideology of Legalism today is not as harsh and punishments are not as severe, with a benevolent government that emphasizes law and order and both are equally weighted, China can prosper into the powerful country it is destined to be. Conclusion:

Legalism has come a long way and some of its theories have paved there way into China’s modern society. Legalism did achieve what other philosophies strived for which is unification of China. By unifying China this was considered a success under Legalist philosophy. But after 14 years of fear and respect of the law and government into the people, a combination of minister and peasant rebellions caused the decline of Legalism. Legalism finally died out due to their inability to seek the benefits of moral education and a benevolent government and rely mainly on severe punishments and strict laws.

Legalist did not realize that severe punishments and strict laws were not effective in the long run, and that only a benevolent government can create a long period of peace and stability. Thus Legalist were destroying cultural heritage by extreme methods, all of which did a great deal to Chinese culture. So although many parts of Legalism seem to make good sense, such as equality under the law and good government morality, memories of the severe punishments and abuse of the law under the Qin has kept Legalism in a bad light but has had a profound influence throughout Chinese history.

Reference List Han Fei-tzu: Legalist Views on Good Government (2006). Retrieved May 21, 2008 from http://www. wsu. edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_rea_1 /hanfeitzu. html Chinese Civilization Centre: The Legalist School in the pre-Qin Period (2006). Retrieved May 24, 2008 from City University of Hong Kong, Web site: http://www. english. cciv. cityu. edu. hk/China_5000/? chapter=dicts/Legalist Graham, A. C. (1993). Hundred Schools of Thought. Retrieved May 20, 2008 from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Hundred_Schools_of_Thought Hooker (1996). Economics.

Retrieved May 24, 2008 from Washington State University, World Civilizations Web site: http://www. wsu. edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/ECONOMIC. HTM Theodore De Bary, W. M. (1960). Legalism. In Sources of Chinese Traditions,1. Retrieved May 25, 2008 from Columbia University, Web site: http://www. geocities. com/tokyo/springs/6339/Legalism. html Xiangming, Z. (2002). On Two Ancient Chinese Administration Ideas: Rule of virtue and rule by law. Retrieved May 25, 2008 from Bond University, Web site: http://www. international-relations. com/wbcm5-1/wbrule. htm Yu-lan, F. (1947). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. London: Princeton University Press.


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