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Chinese Legalism — Definition, Belief, History and Facts

What Is Legalism

Legalism is an ancient Chinese philosophical school that in regard to law, reform, governance, management, economy regulation, etc.


It valued equality, reform, efficiency of enforcement of law, and opposed of hierarchy and aristocracy. 

The ideology of Legalism included a complete and practical system, in which people would equally get rewarded for following the law or making contributions, and get punished for breaking the law, no matter which class one comes from. 

Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) — Hubei Museum 


Origin and Founder of the Legalism


Legalism ideals originated in about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, from judicial officers of 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 Periods (403 BC — 221 BC), when kingdoms kept fighting against each other, they also were eager to try all means to improve their power. 

Hence, many reformists organized and implemented Legalism ideas in many states and made them stronger, such as Guan Zhong (723 BC — 645 BC) in the Kingdom Qi,  Wu Qi (440 BC — 381 BC) in the Kingdom Chu, and Shang Yang (395 BC — 338 BC) in the Kingdom Qin (one of the most influential and successful reforms in Chinese history). 

Meanwhile, their thoughts were presented in their own articles or other documentations, which made sure this philosophical school was well preserved and inherited in Chinese culture.

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

Click to Read Ideas of Shang Yang, One of the Most Important Classics of Chinese Legalism 


Relationship of Legalism, Confucianism and Taoism

Two of the most foremost philosophers of Legalism in China were Han Fei (280 BC — 233 BC) and Li Si (284 BC — 208 BC).


However, Han Fei and Li Si both were students of Xun Zi (about 313 BC — 238 BC), an important and sincere believer of the Confucianism.  

Han Fei contributed the most essential theories in Legalism; a series of his articles clearly included and developed ideas and means of implementing this philosophy in a country. Meanwhile, Han Fei, as well as some other Legalism ideologists, claimed that the essence of their essays followed the ideas of Taoism. 

Click to Read Classics Written by Xun Zi and Han Fei 

Li Si, the prime minister of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), made great contribution in unification of characters, measurements, currency, and implement of the System of Prefectures and Counties, etc. 

Part of Li Si's Calligraphy Work that Carved on A stone, Writing in the Unified Characters (Qin Zhuan) in the Qin Dynasty — National Museum of China


The Most Powerful Believer of the Legalism

The most influential and famous believer and practitioner of Legalism was Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in the history of China, who established the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC),  defeated other kingdoms and unified the Middle Kingdom of China, and commanded to build the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Under suggestion of prime minister Li Si, Emperor Qin Shi Huang respected Legalism as the only dominant philosophy of the Qin Empire, and his most trusted ministers were excellent masters of Legalism. 

Intellectuals were only allowed to learn Legalism ideology that was strictly implemented nationwide. This was the most prosperous era for the Legalism ideology in the history of China.

After Qin Shi Huang departed and his empire was overthrown, Legalism was widely considered to be over cruel and strict, especially in a stable and unified empire.

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

In unified and stable dynasties, however, Legalism was always applied as an auxiliary ideology combined with Confucianism by emperors in the next millenniums. 

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


Main Ideas of Legalism 

  • Everyone is equal in front of the law.


Implement of 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 try to avoid harm and unpleasantnesses. Therefore, explicit awards and penalties could guide people to do right things. 


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


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


Noble people would lose their title or get punished because of their incapable of contributing to the kingdom, or illegal behaviors. 


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


People living stable and wealthy lives are more liable to behave in respectful ways, and vise versa. 


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

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

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


Emperors and powerful officials should be capable of establishing systematic rules in regard to govern, control, evaluate, award and punish their subordinates, in order to make sure that every position is served well by the proper person. 


  • Societies keep developing and moving forward.


Therefore, constant reform and relevant adjustment are necessary.


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


  • Rule of Law is always better than the Rule of Man. Clear terms and orders of laws are the most reliable means to keep a society stable and peaceful.


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


  • A unified ideology is essential.


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