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Legalism and the Effects on Confucius Scholarship

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Legalism is a classical Chinese philosophy which places emphasis on order above every other human need, in contrast to the intuitive anarchy of Taoism, and the benevolence of Confucianism. This doctrine was developed during the warring period of the 4th Century BCE (Schaffer, 1967). It was one of the four main schools of thought during the warring states period close to the end of the Zhou Dynasty, together with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. It was a political doctrine which saw the rule of law as a means of standardizing society, and an ethical system.

Legalism was developed by pupils of Xun Kuang, widely known as Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher who lived during the warring states period and made important contributions to the Hundred Schools Of Thought. One of the most debated themes in the history of Chinese philosophy is between the inborn goodness of human nature, upheld by Mencius; Chinese philosopher referred to as the ‘Second Sage’, and the doctrine of man’s evil nature, maintained by Xunzi, in open criticism of Mencius. It is difficult to conciliate two doctrines which while within the same philosophical schools, appear extreme and contrasting.

Mencius (Meng Tzu) is generally considered an idealist, an institutionalist, and an optimist, while Xunzi is perceived in an opposite light – a rationalist, a pragmatist, a pessimist, and initiator of authoritarianism (Emily, 2016).


While legalists strived for rule by law, they criticized confucianists for their ideology of rule by virtue. They upheld utilitarian views of humanity and earned support from middle-class property owners. Legalist thought was mostly based on existing ideas formulated by Han Fei Tzu; a legalist of the Han Kingdom, and provided a basis for the centralist rule of the Qin Dynasty. However, legalism was a political thought and lacked the ability to control the power of totalitarian monarchs (Schwartz, 1985). Han Fei Tzu, the school’s most prominent contributor, and a student of Confucian philosopher Xunzi, compiled the ideas of various earlier legalist scholars including Shang Yang; a reformist statesman from the state of Qin, Shen Buhai; a contemporary of syncretist Shi Jiao and Shang Yang, and Shen Dao; a Chinese legalist theoretician, to create a theory on authority based on three principles:

  • Fa (Law or principle)
  • Shu (Method, tactic, or, art)
  • Shi (Legitimacy, power, or charisma)

Legalism resulted in the unification of China under Emperor Qin Shi Huang who ruled 247 – 210 B.C.E, and was the central idea behind the governance of the Qin dynasty. Legalism was further powered with administrative reforms from Shang Yang, who was hired in 361 B.C.E by Duke Xiao of Qin to enact changes and transform the Qin into a strong state from a weak and backward one. Before long, he got to work and enacted these changes including the ‘Book of Law’. He stripped the nobles of their titles and property, making them equal with the common people (Barbieri-low, 2006). In a bid to reduce the influence of Confucian thought, Confucian books were burned. Legalism during the Qin dynasty translated into huge loss of life and tradition. It should however be noted that the doctrine was developed in a time of constant warfare where every state in China fought each other for control. ‘First Emperor’ Qin Shi Huang banned all other doctrines, and labelled them as corrupting influence. Confucianism was especially targeted due to its ideals of innate human goodness and its teaching of gently directing people towards a good path to improve society. Any books which did not support legalism were burned. Confucian writers, scholars, philosophers and teachers were executed or buried alive. These excesses made the Qin Dynasty regime very unpopular with the people at that time (Creel, 1953).

Legalist philosophy did not only oppose Confucianism, it showed no tolerance for it. After the adoption of legalism by the Qin dynasty, Confucianism faced obliteration. According to Historian and Scholar Joshua Mark, over 450 Confucian scholars were executed under Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s reign. Those who committed the most minor offences were sentenced to hard labor building the Great Wall, Grand Canal or New roads for the Qin Dynasty. The Chinese people hated the legalist philosophy of the Qin but were powerless against the enforcers of the doctrine.


Legalism remained the central governing idea for the Qin until its fall in 206 B.C.E. after the fall, the states of Chu and Han fought for control of the country until the battle of Gaixia, where Liu Bang of Han defeated Xiang-Yu of Chu. The Han dynasty was founded in 202 B.C.E and lasted for a long time until 220 C.E. they began several significant cultural advances in the history of China including opening of the Silk Road.

The Han maintained a form of legalism as their philosophy, however, it was a much more lenient than that of the Qin. Emperor Wu then finally abandoned legalism for Confucianism, and forbade anyone who held legalist ideology to hold public office; a process which greatly influenced the development of the culture of China. Confucianism could once again be expressed freely. The suppression of legalism by the Han significantly reduced the threat it posed and allowed for the exploration of other philosophies. However, legalism did not go extinct. It still had an effect on the Chinese culture and remains a philosophy in Chinese history up into modern times (Graham, 1993).



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