Qin unification of 221 BCE could have become the triumph of Legalism. The rise of the state of Qin started with Shang Yang; and it was by following his “agriculture cum warfare” course of action that this state became rich and powerful enough to subdue its formidable enemies. Many aspects of Qin’s policy before the imperial unification and in its aftermath—such as the creation of an intrusive government apparatus, tight supervision over officials, reliance on impartial laws and regulations, and the like—were designed by Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, Han Fei, and their like. And these policies brought about unprecedented success: after five centuries of unending warfare, the entire realm “under Heaven” was unified under a single ruler! Proud of his success, the First Emperor (r. 221–210 BCE) toured his newly acquired empire, erecting stone steles on the sites of sacred mountains; in the stele inscriptions he boasted of bringing unity, peace, stability, and orderly rule (Kern 2000; Pines 2014b). Dreams of generations of preimperial thinkers were realized, and this was done primarily through following the recipes of those whom we dub today “Legalists.”
Yet history was cruel to the Legalists: the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE), which was designed to rule for “myriad generations” (Shiji 6: 236), collapsed shortly after the founder’s death, brought down by a popular rebellion of unprecedented scope and ferocity. This swift collapse—which took place just a few years after Li Si’s infamous biblioclasm—shaped the image of Qin for millennia to come. The dynasty was no longer a success story, but rather that of miserable failure; and the ideas which guided its policymakers were discredited as well. Already in the first generations after the Qin, consensus was reached: its collapse was due to excessive activism, abnormal assertiveness of its administrative apparatus, over-reliance on penalties, senseless expansionism, and debilitating mistrust between the emperors and their entourage (Shiji 6: 276–284; Xin yu 4: 62). All these policies could be meaningfully attributed to the Legalists, whose intellectual legacy was as a result discredited. At best it was reduced to Sima Tan’s assessment: “a one-time policy that could not be constantly applied.”
The diminishing appeal of Legalism became fully visible under the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han (r. 141–87 BCE). While the Emperor himself adopted assertive domestic and foreign policies largely patterned after the Qin dynasty, he considered it prudent to distance himself from the Qin and Legalism, and to endorse—however superficially—Confucianism. It was during his reign that first proposals were made to ban the followers of Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, and Han Fei from holding office. Although in the short term these proposals had limited consequences (Shang Yang’s legacy was still openly defended by the government representative during the court debates in 81 BCE), in the long term the attitude toward Legalists changed. Few scholars studied their writings; even fewer were courageous enough to endorse their legacy openly. Much like Qin itself (for which see Pines 2014a), Legalism henceforth became a negative label, associated with the policies immensely opposed by the majority of imperial literati: excessive harshness, oppression, terror at court, imperial hubris, and the like. Self-identification as a follower of Shang Yang or Han Fei became a rarity, if not an impossibility.
In imperial times, the position of Legalism was somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, its ideas remained highly influential, especially in the realm of administrative practice, but also with regard to the policies of the enrichment and empowerment of the state, as well as in some legal practices. On certain occasions, some of the leading imperial reformers—from Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181–234) to Su Chuo 蘇綽 (498–546), from Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–1086) to Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525–1582)—could openly recognize their indebtedness to the Legalist ways of reinvigorating the government apparatus and restoring the state’s economic and military prowess. On the other hand, most political reformers and activists remained closet Legalists at best. For the vast majority of the literati, Shang Yang, Han Fei, and their like were negative examples; hence, most of the texts associated with the Legalist school ceased circulating, and only a very few merited commentaries. Overt endorsement of Shang Yang, for instance, would be all but impossible for a respected man of letters.
It was only at the turn of the twentieth century that Legalism was rediscovered and partly rehabilitated by the new generations of intellectuals. Frustrated by China’s inability to reconstitute itself in a modern world as a “powerful state with a strong army,” young intellectuals began searching for a variety of non-traditional responses to domestic and external challenges; among these, some turned toward Legalism. It was deemed relevant not only because it had demonstrable practical achievements in the past, but also because of its innovativeness, willingness to depart from the patterns of the past, and even its quasi-scientific outlook. For instance, the first major promulgator of interest in Shang Yang’s thought, Mai Menghua 麥夢華 (1874–1915), was positively attracted by the surprising similarity between Shang Yang’s views of history and evolutionary ideas of Occidental social theorists (Li Yu-ning 1977: lviii-lix). Even such a major liberal thinker as Hu Shi 胡適 (1891–1962) was willing to forgive the Legalists their notorious harshness and oppressiveness, hailing Han Fei and Li Si for their “brave spirit of opposing those who ‘do not make the present into their teacher but learn from the past’” (Hu Shi 1930: 6.480–81). Slightly later, it was no less a figure than Hu Hanmin 胡漢民 (1879–1936), one of the most eminent Guomindang 國民黨 (Kuomintang, KMT, “Party of the Nation”) leaders, who wrote a preface to a new edition of theBook of Lord Shang (Hu Hanmin 1933).
The endorsement of Legalism peaked under Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893–1976). Mao’s intellectual activism started, incidentally, with a high-school essay written in praise of Shang Yang (Schram 1992–2004, Vol. 1: 5–6), and his positive view of Shang Yang and of the Qin dynasty strengthened as time passed. In the last years of Mao’s life, under the infamous “anti-Confucian” campaign, Legalism was openly endorsed and hailed as “progressive” intellectual current both in its outlook and its historical role (Li Yu-ning 1977); attempts were even made to position it as a direct predecessor of Mao Zedong’s Thought (see, e.g., Liu Zehua 2012).
After Mao’s death, this grotesque politicization of Legalism discontinued. While in the 1980s Legalism still could surface in China’s intellectual debates about paths that the country needed to take, and while echoes of Chinese polemics could be heard in the West as recently as the 1990s (Fu Zhengyuan 1996), this “usage of the past to criticize the present” gradually receded. With it, studies of Legalist thought receded as well, especially in the West and in Japan, but to a certain extent also in China. Most recently, this trend is changing, and the academic community is rediscovering the richness of Legalist thought. Without excessive endorsement or disparagement, scholars can investigate this set of ideas, which was highly effective in the context of the Warring States period, but proved less applicable to other historical circumstances.
By Yuri Pines
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy