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Shang Yang -- A Great Reformer with a Cruel, Tragic Ending

Backward Kingdom Qin and It's Ambitious New King

After Wu Qi used 50, 000 soldiers successfully defeated Qin’s 500, 000 soldiers, kingdom Qin stayed as a regime lagging behind six others for a few decades.


When the strong kingdom Chu abolished Wu Qi’s brilliant policies and stepped into gradual declination, a new king of Qin published an announcement to recruit talented people, saying that anyone who could make Qin powerful would be awarded a political position and lands and an honorable title. 


Shang Yang (about 395B.C. — 338B.C.), also named as Wei Yang, a great philosopher of Legalism, came to Qin and impressed the king with his brilliant reform ideas. Then the king assigned him a powerful position to implement these policies. 


The Great Reform of Shang Yang

Shang Yang’s reform was very advanced and influential in the history of China, especially coming from a person from more than 2300 years ago.


He allowed movements among different classes, by encouraging agricultural and military achievements. Soldiers could win noble titles or get awards because of their military accomplishments, while nobles might lose their titles and political privileges if they did not perform well in wars; everyone has been provided opportunities to become noble, no matter where did they originally come from.


This policy had put a conception in many people’s minds that no one is born noble or humble, an important ideology of Chinese culture.   


In addition, citizens with high agricultural productivity could get awards and be exempted from certain taxes, while lazy citizens would be banished and become slaves.


The reform also forced the nobles to participate in production and allowed private trade over lands.


The king supported him completely, so the reform was a huge success in the history of China. Thanks to Shang’s reform, Qin became one of the most prosperous kingdoms, with the most powerful army in which every soldier had a strong will to fight and win. 


Shang Yang was also strict, even cruel in respect of implementing his policies.


He registered and issued ID cards to all citizens, and then teamed every 10 families up. He encouraged people to keep an eye on each other; if someone broke the law and other people did not report, all the people on that team would be punished as if they committed the same crime.


He also believed that everyone is equal in front of the law; even the crown prince’s master also got punished after having committed some crime. 


Seeing his success, other kingdoms also started to try to reform and improve their competitiveness, but no one could triumph over what Shang was able to do. 


Tragic Ending of Great Reformer Shang Yang 

However, Shang also harmed many people, especially by depriving the noble and landlords’ benefits.


After the supportive king passed away, the crown prince, whose master was punished by Shang before, became the next king of Qin.


Shang tried to escape after he found out that he was set up, but failed because of his own strict rules. According to his own law, a person with no valid ID had to be reported. 


The great reformist who made Empire Qin from a backward sate to the most prosperous and powerful kingdom, who was a good friend of the former king, was then caught, torn apart by five carts and hastily buried by some of his believers.


His cruel and tragic ending was because of personal hatred, but his policies were strictly applied by the following kings of Qin, until this kingdom finally unified the whole of the nation and then perished decades later.