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Chinese Legalism - Definition, Belief, History and Facts

Chinese philosophy 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.


But, in around 2200 to 2700 years ago, some excellent reformers and ideologists, like Wu Qi and Shang Yang, organized and implemented Legalism ideas in many states.


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.


The most influential and famous believer and practitioner of Legalism was Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in the history of China, who built the Qin Dynasty (221 B. C. — 207 B. C.), the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors.


He respected Legalism as the only dominant philosophy of the Qin Empire, and his most trusted ministers were excellent grandmasters of Legalism. Intellectuals were only allowed to learn Legalism ideology that was strictly implemented nationwide. This was the most prosperous era of the Legalism ideology in the history of China.

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


Since then, Legalism was no longer dominant in the history of China, however, it was always applied as an auxiliary ideology combined with Confucianism in the next millenniums. 

Legalism is a complete and practical system, including policies in regard to law, reform, economy and finance, governance and management, operation research, etc. 

Main Ideas of Legalism 

1 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. 

2 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. 

3 Movements among social classes are allowable.


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 being contributive to the kingdom, or illegal behaviors. 

4 Generally speaking, good moral comes out of the finest material condition.


People living in 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, and to set up explicit punishments to get rid of wicked activities.

5 Legalism values centralized power of the monarchs.


Emperors and powerful ministers 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. 

6 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.

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

8 An unified ideologies is essential.


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