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Legalism — Definition, Belief, History, and Facts

Legalism is an ancient Chinese philosophical school aimed at governing society through laws and fostering state prosperity through reform, strict governance, and economic regulation.

The goal of Legalist philosophy is to construct a nation characterized by robust military forces, thriving economies, and a populace marked by well-behaved discipline.

It values principles such as equality, reform, and strict law enforcement while opposing hierarchy and aristocracy.

Its ideology encompasses a comprehensive and practical system wherein individuals are equally rewarded for following the law or making contributions and punished for breaking the law, regardless of their social class.

Tiger Shaped Golden Chariot Decoration of Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Tiger Shaped Golden Chariot Decoration of Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Gansu Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legalism Founder and Origin


Legalistic ideas can be traced back to about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, from judicial officials of the Xia and Shang Dynasty in the history of China.


Unlike Confucianism, Taoism, or Mohism, Legalism didn’t have an exact founder.

Later in the Spring and Autumn (770 BC — 403 BC) and the Warring States (403 BC — 221 BC) periods, when kingdoms kept competing and fighting against each other, they were eager to try all means to improve their power. 

Unearthed Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period

Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period — The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Hence, many political theorists and reformists organized and implemented legalistic ideas in some states and made them stronger, such as Guan Zhong (723 BC — 645 BC) in the Qi State,  Wu Qi (440 BC — 381 BC) in the Chu State, Shen Buhai (385 BC — 337 BC) in the Han State, and Shang Yang (395 BC — 338 BC) in the Qin State (one of the most influential and successful reforms in Chinese history). 

These exceptional legalists' methods, policies, successes, and theories were recorded in historical documentation and their articles, which were later preserved as an important philosophical school in Chinese culture and inherited as a political ideology by some sovereigns in history.

Measuring Vessel Implemented in the Reform of Shang Yang

Measuring Vessel Implemented in the Reform of Shang Yang — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Han Feizi and Li Si — Two of the Most Important Legalists

Han Feizi (280 BC — 233 BC) and Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) are two of China's most eminent philosophers of Legalism.

However, they have close connections to other philosophical schools.

Han Feizi and Li Si both were students of Xun Zi (about 313 BC — 238 BC), an important and sincere philosopher of Confucianism.  

Meanwhile, Han Feizi and some other Legalism ideologists claimed that the essence of their essays followed the ideas of Taoism

Silk Manuscript of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Chin), Unearthed From Tomb of Prime Minister Li Cang (? — 185 BC)

Silk Manuscript of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Chin), Unearthed From Tomb of Prime Minister Li Cang (? — 185 BC) — Mawangdui Museum of Hunan Province

Han Feizi — Greatest Theoretical Philosopher of Legalism

Han Fei (280 BC — 233 BC), respected as Han Feizi, was a noble of the Han State.

In 262 BC, the Han State encountered huge losses after a significant military failure to general Bai Qi of the State of Qin.


This shocked and inspired Han Fei, a knowledgeable and diligent noble who wished to strengthen his kingdom.

He learned from master Xun Zi when he wrote many classics and met fellow student Li Si.

Most of Han Feizi's Legalist ideas were trying to strengthen the Han State, but none of them were valued by his kings.

These articles contributed to Legalism's essential theories, making him the greatest Legalist philosopher in ancient China.

Bronze Weapon Ge of the Qin State 

Bronze Weapon Ge of the Qin State — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

When Han Feizi stayed dejected and unvalued, and the Han State remained weak, the King of the Qin State read and was impressed by Han Feizi's book and wanted to meet him in person.

The King of Qin commanded Han Feizi to come to Qin State in exchange for peace between these two states.

Han Feizi came to Qin, where his old classmate Li Si served as chancellor.

He didn't impress the King in their first meeting; others say because of his stammer. But Li Si was quite aware of Han Fei's talent and was concerned that the King would eventually value his talent.

Hence, Li Si persuaded the King that Han Fei was a threat to the Qin State for being able to strengthen Han State, but will never be loyal to Qin State as a noble from Han.

In the end, Han Feizi was imprisoned by the King and later was convinced to suicide by his jealous fellow student Li Si.

Ritual Jade Artifact (Huang) with Double Dragon Heads

Ritual Jade Artifact (Huang) of Warring States Period with Double Dragon Heads — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Li Si — Eminent Practitioner of Legalism

Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC) was an exceptional politician, literature, calligrapher, and practitioner of legalistic philosophy.

As an ordinary official of the Chu State, Li Si learned from master Xun Zi, later came to Qin State and made his way up, seized an opportunity to meet and impress the King of Qin, then became the chancellor of Qin through his exceptional talent and ambition.

He assisted the King of Qin in defeating other states, establishing the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), unifying characters, measurements, and currency, implementing the System of Prefectures and Counties, and promoting Legalism as the dominant ideology. 

Inscriptions of the Qin Dynasty by Li Si, Using the Unified Character Style "Qin Zhuan"

Inscriptions of the Qin Dynasty by Li Si, Using the Unified Character Style "Qin Zhuan" — National Museum of China

The Most Powerful Believer of Legalism in Ancient China and His Implementation of Legalist Ideology in the Qin Dynasty

The King of Qin, who valued Han Feizi's talent and promoted Li Si as chancellor, was the most powerful believer and practitioner of Legalism in China.

With the support of Li Si and Han Feizi's theory, the king unified the Middle Kingdom. He became the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who established the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) and commanded the building of the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors.


Under the suggestion of Chancellor Li Si, Qin Shi Huang implemented a series of legalist policies and respected Legalism as the only dominant philosophy of Qin.

Qin Shi Huang's most trusted ministers were all excellent legalists, and intellectuals were only allowed to learn legalistic ideology that was strictly implemented nationwide.

This made the Qin Dynasty the most prosperous era for legalistic philosophy in the history of China.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling — National Museum of China

Development of Legalism After Qin


After Qin Shi Huang departed, his empire was overthrown and the new Han Dynasty (202 BC —  220 AD) was established, and the legalistic policies were widely considered overly cruel and strict, especially in a stable and unified empire.

A few decades later, Confucianism was promoted as the dominant ideology in the year 134 BC, under the support of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty.

Since then, Legalism has been no longer the dominant ideology in the history of China, except for some turbulent and chaotic eras. 

In peaceful and unified dynasties, according to Emperor Xuan of Han (91 BC — 49 BC), a form of Legalism was always applied as an auxiliary governance theory combined with Confucianism.

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legalism Beliefs

  • Everyone is equal in front of the law (or Fa).


Implement reward and punishment should be based on people's behaviors, not social or political status. The only exception is the monarch.


  • Human beings are born bad.


It's their instinct to constantly pursue more benefits, satisfy endless desires, and avoid harm and unpleasantness. Therefore, explicit awards and penalties could guide people to do the right things. ​


  • Generally speaking, good moral comes out of a fine material condition.


People living stable and wealthy lives are more liable to behave respectfully, and vice versa. 


Therefore, it is more important to develop the economy instead of teaching people to obtain high-level morals and set up explicit punishments to eliminate wicked activities.

Gold Currency (Ying Yuan) of the State Chu

Gold Currency (Ying Yuan) of the Chu State During the Warring States Period — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • ​Societies keep developing and moving forward.


Therefore, constant reform and relevant adjustments are necessary.


Imitating and worshiping the systems of past empires is a big retroversion.

  • Movements among social classes are allowable. The ancient hierarchy and aristocratic heredity should be abolished. 


Noble people would lose their titles or be punished because they could not contribute to the kingdom or engage in illegal behaviors. 

Civilians could get rewards, such as noble titles or political positions, based on their excellent military or productive contributions.

Unearthed Sword of the Qin Dynasty
Unearthed Armour of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Sword and Armor of the Qin Dynasty — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum

  • Values the centralized power of the monarch; the System of Prefectures and Counties should take the place of the enfeoffment of heredity feudal states.


Emperors and powerful officials should be capable of establishing systematic rules regarding governing, controlling, evaluating, awarding, and punishing their subordinates for making sure that every position is served well by the right person. 

  • A unified ideology is essential.


Law, agriculture, and military skills should be included in national education; meanwhile, Confucianism and other philosophical schools should be removed from the teaching contents.


  • Rule of Law is always better than the Rule of Man.


Clear terms and orders of law are the most reliable means to keep a society stable and peaceful.


  • Law provisions should be explicit, stable, and widespread, so that the entire society would strictly know and follow them. ​

Unearthed Unified Scale Hammer of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Unified Scale Hammer of the Qin Dynasty — National Museum of China

Legalism Symbol in Chinese Culture


Legalism didn't form an established symbol to present the philosophical school; however, a mythical creature in ancient mythology named Xiezhi has been the symbol of law and justice.


Xiezhi has dark and bright fur, a cattle or sheep's size, usually has a horn on his forehead, and looks like the auspicious creature Qilin.


Xiezhi can speak the human language and knows human nature well; extremely talented and righteous.


A Xiezhi could quickly identify, point out, and sometimes attack the wrong side in a dispute to protect innocent people and bring them justice.

Gilt Bronze Xiezhi Statue in Imperial Forbidden City

Gilt Bronze Xiezhi Statue in Imperial Forbidden City, Picture from Official Site of Palace Museum.

Hence, as the symbol of law, and a practitioner of legalistic ideology, Xiezhi has been widely used as an important pattern in traditional Costume and Architecture.


Law officials and enforcers wore hats and clothes shaped like or embroidered with Xiezhi pictures since the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC).


Xiezhi is one of the mythical creatures on the Rooftop of Traditional Chinese Buildings; today, many courts still place Xiezhi statues in their front doors.

Mythical Creatures and Leading Deity on Roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City

Mythical Creatures and Leading Deity on Roof of Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City, Xiezhi is on the Ninth One from the Left, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

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