Shang Yang — A Great Reformer with A Cruel, Tragic Ending

Shang Yang (about 395 BC — 338 BC), also named Gongsun Yang or Wei Yang, was one of the most influential reformers in the history of China. 


He impressed and gained the trust of the King of Qin, using his talent and brilliant reform ideas.


With the full support of the king, Shang Yang implemented a series of reforms that made the State Qin the strongest empire in the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) and set a solid foundation for the future unification of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207). 


However, Shang Yang’s thorough reform also jeopardized many people’s interests and had offended almost the entire noble class of the State Qin. 


Hence, he was cruelly executed, after the supportive king passed away, in the kingdom that he had dedicated his life to flourishing and developing. 

Shang Yang the great reformist of Kingdom Qin

Backward State Qin and Its Ambitious New King

In the year 389 BC, General Wu Qi led 50, 000 soldiers of State Wei successfully defeated Qin’s 500, 000 soldiers. 

After this huge failure, the State Qin lost many cities and was forced to retreat and change its capital city.


Since then, Qin had been backward, while the other six kingdoms in the Warring States Periods implemented reforms and kept expanding.

After the Duke Xiao of Qin (381 BC — 338 BC), given name as Quliang, ascended to the throne and became the King of Qin, he published an announcement to recruit talented people, saying that anyone who could make the State Qin strong would be awarded power, a political position, many lands, and an honorable title.  

Exquisite Cart Decoration of the State Wei Inlaid with Gold and Silver

Exquisite Cart Decoration of the State Wei Inlaid with Gold and Silver — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Influential Meeting of Shang Yang and the King of Qin

Shang Yang was born in the State Wei but wasn’t quite appreciated by his king. 

When he heard about the King of Qin’s recruitment edict, he left his country and came to the State Qin. 

Recommended by an official of Qin, Shang Yang introduced Confucianism and Taoism ideas to the King of Qin but didn’t get any positive responses. 

Hence, in the next meeting, Shang Yang presented Legalism concepts, which impressed the king.

Shang Yang believed that a complete reform would be the most efficient way to make the State Qin strong and wealthy. 

He convinced the king that visionary usually means being criticized and questioned, and the development of society has been the reason for timely reform and proper adjustment; obeying the system of former empires would end up being perished, exactly as those previous kingdoms. 

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The Reform of Shang Yang in State Qin

In the year 359 BC, the king supported Shang Yang and implement a series of reforms in the State Qin.

  • Movements among different classes were encouraged. 

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 had 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.   

  • Agricultural activities were encouraged, while all types of commerces were restrained. 

One could be exempted from national labor service or certain taxes if his/her production surpassed certain numbers.


Lazy citizens would be forced to relocate to remote places and become slaves.

  • Nobles were required to pay more taxes and participate in more force labor works.

Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Late State Qin — Hubei Museum

  • Private fights, even just showing weapons publicly, would get serious penalties. 

Clan battle, street fight, personal duel, domestic violence, were all included in the punishment system. 

Brave people should make contributions on battlefields and get a noble title, instead of fighting against each other. 

  • All farmland was collected and redivided, private ownership and trade of lands were allowed.

  • Implementing of Administrative System with Prefectures and Counties.

  • All citizens had to be registered and issued with ID cards. Every 10 families were divided as a group. 

Shang Yang 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.

  • Officials of Qin should study and strictly implement the law.

  • A new nationwide tax system was set, and a unified measurement system was regulated. 

Measuring Vessel Implemented in the Reform of Shang Yang

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

Resentment of the Crown Prince to Shang Yang

When the policies were newly published, many people of Qin considered them complicated and didn’t take nor follow them seriously. 

The crown prince of Qin also broke Shang Yang’s rules. 

Considering the crown prince would be the next king, Shang Yang didn’t punish him. 

Instead, Shang Yang penalized the crown prince’s two masters, by tattooing humiliating characters on their faces.

A few years later, the brother of the King of Qin committed another crime, when Shang Yang commanded to cut his nose off, based on Qin’s new laws.

Seeing those nobles took those cruel penalties for breaking the new law, civilians of Qin started to follow all of Shang Yang’s policies strictly. 

Throughout the entire reformative procedure, the King of Qin supported Shang Yang completely.

However, Shang Yang had displeased most of the other aristocrats of Qin. 

Ritual Bronze Food Container (Gui) Made During By the Duke Jing of Qin (? — 537 BC), with Inscriptions Recording Establishment and Development of the State Qin

Ritual Bronze Food Container (Gui) Made During By the Duke Jing of Qin (? — 537 BC), with Inscriptions Recording Establishment and Development of the State Qin — National Museum of China

The Prosperity of the State Qin after Shang Yang’s Reform

Thanks to Shang Yang’s reform, the State 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 also led the Qin’s army, as the chief commander, achieved remarkable successes on battlefields, which recovered Qin’s lost lands and largely expanded Qin’s territory. 

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

Decades later, the supportive king passed away, and the crown prince whose masters had been punished by Shang Yang before became the next king of Qin.

Ying Si (356 BC — 311BC), the King Huiwen of Qin, was another intelligent and accomplished monarch. He was quite aware of the competitiveness that Shang Yang’s reform had brought to Qin, so he followed those policies strictly. 

Certificate (Hu Fu) of the King Huiwen of Qin to Deploy Forces

Certificate (Hu Fu) of the King Huiwen of Qin to Deploy Forces — Shaanxi History Museum

Tragic Ending and Legacy of Shang Yang

However, because of personal hatreds, or trying to pacify nobles that had been offended by Shang Yang, or feeling threatened by Shang Yang’s talent and reputation, the King Huiwei of Qin commanded to execute Shang Yang. 

The king’s masters that had been punished by Shang Yang before, allied many other nobles and “collected” a list of crimes that Shang Yang had “committed”, of which the most important one was “treason”. 

Shang Yang tried to escape after he found out that he was framed 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 Qin from a backward state to the most prosperous and powerful kingdom, who had been a good friend of the former king, got caught, torn apart by five carts, and then hastily buried by some of his believers. Shang Yang’s entire clan was also executed. 

Bronze Arrow Bolts of the Qin Dynasty

Bronze Arrow Bolts of Qin — Shaanxi Museum (Photo by Professor Gary Lee Todd)

Shang Yang’s reform and his strictness in implementing his new laws had displeased and failed lots of people, like most old nobles of Qin, many civilians, and his whole family. 

But he had never failed the king who trusted him completely and realized all of his political ambitions, nor the empire that he had dedicated his life to developing. 

Throughout history, Shang Yang’s Reform was widely believed as the reason for the rise of the State Qin.


After Shang Yang’s death, the State Qin kept expanding, until a century later, Qin defeated the other six kingdoms, unified the whole of the nation, and established the strong Qin Dynasty.

Unearthed Terre Cotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Terracotta Army of the Qin Dynasty — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum