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Legalism, also known as “the school of law”, was a school of Chinese political philosophy that flourished during the Warring State Period of Ancient China (475-225 B.C.E.). Legalism does not address higher questions regarding the nature or purpose of existence. It is mostly concerned with the effective way of manipulating power and governing society.


Philosophers from this school, such as Shang Yang, Li Si, and Han Fei, provided foundational ideology of China’s imperial dynasties. Scholars argue that the imperial China in ancient times was “Confucian on the outside, but Legalist within”, which means the values of Confucianism were used to moderate the harsh legalism doctrines embedded in the imperial ruling system.



The Three Main Concepts

According to Han Fei, the best known legalist, a ruler should employ three tools to rule the country and its people. The three tools are:

  • ·         FA (Chinese character:, penal law):

Fa is the core of Han Fei’s political philosophy.

Human nature is selfish and short-sighted. In order to achieve good social order and harmony, people should rely on strong state control and absolute power and obedience, not virtue or ethics.

The law code must be written in a very clear way and made public.

The laws should be made to strengthen the state and maintain social order.

The laws should be strictly applied. Everyone is equal under the ruler. Anybody who breaks the rule should be punished accordingly.


  • ·         Shu(Chinese character:   political strategy):

Shu is the means to employ Fa.

Rulers should use special strategies and "secrets" to make sure others (especially the ministers) don't take over control of the state.

The relationships between the ruler and his ministers are based on self interests. The ruler wants to maintain his power, while his ministers are interested in gaining favor and material benefits. So it is important for the ruler to be cautious about the suggestions and ideas proposed by the ministers, and it is equally important for the ministers to be fully aware of whether or not the speeches they make catering to the ruler’s true desire. This idea could be reflected in Han Fei’s The Difficulties of Persuasion.


  • ·         Shi(Chinese character: power position):

Shi is referred to the absolute power the ruler held.

What gives a ruler power is not himself, but the position he stands.

It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself or herself, that holds the power. No matter how detailed and how cautious the rulers are, if the rulers are not capable of holding or maintaining the position and practicing his authority, rulers would have no significant impact.




“Legalism”. Encyclopedia of Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/334895/Legalism 

“Legalism”. Philtar. University of Cumbria. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.http://www.philtar.ac.uk/encyclopedia/china/legal.html  

“Legalism (Chinese Philosophy)”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalism_(Chinese_philosophy)#Purpose_of_law 

Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century B.C.E.: A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. 1997. Print.  



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