Shang Yang was a statesman and reformer of the State of Qin during the Warring States period. His policies laid the administrative and political foundations that would enable Qin to conquer all of China and unite the country for the first time.

Shang Yang (c. 390 – 338 BCE) was born as the son of a concubine to the ruling family of the minor state Wey. His surname is Gongsun and his personal name Yang. As a member of the Wey family, he is also known as Wei Yang.

At a young age, Shang Yang studied law and obtained a position under Prime Minister Shuzuo of Wei (not the same as his birth state). With the support of Duke Xiao of Qin, he left his lowly position in Wei to become the chief adviser in Qin.

Shang Yang advocated a philosophy of Legalism and introduced a number of militarily advantageous reforms from 361 BC. He also helped construct the Qin capital.

Believing in the rule of law and considering loyalty to the state above that of the family, Gongsun introduced two sets of changes to the State of Qin, which included a new standardized system of land allocation and reforms to taxation.

In his first reform, Li Kui’s Book of Law was implemented and he codified reforms into enforceable laws. Shang Yang assigned land to soldiers based upon their military successes and stripping nobility unwilling to fight of their land rights. He encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands and immigration, favouring agriculture over luxury commerce.

He introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved subjects as (state-owned) rewards for those who met government policies.

He made laws forcing citizens to marry at a young age and passed tax laws to encourage raising multiple children. He also enacted policies to free convicts who worked in opening wastelands for agriculture.

In 341 BC, Qin attacked the state of Wei. Shang Yang personally led the Qin army to defeat Wei, and eventually Wei ceded the land west of the Yellow River to Qin. For his role in the war, he received 15 cities in Shang as his personal fief and became known as the lord of Shang (Shang Jun) or Shang Yang.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, with his personal connections while serving in the court of Wei, Shang Yang invited Gongzi Ang, the Wei general, to negotiate a peace treaty. As soon as Ang arrived, he was taken prisoner, and the Qin army attacked, successfully defeating their opponents.

Deeply despised by the Qin nobility, Shang Yang could not survive Duke Xiao of Qin’s death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the nine familial exterminations against Shang Yang and his family, on the grounds of fomenting rebellion.

Shang Yang had previously humiliated the new duke “by causing him to be punished for an offense as though he were an ordinary citizen.”

According to Strategies of the Warring States, Shang Yang went into hiding and at one point Shang Yang tried to stay at an inn. The innkeeper refused because it was against Shang Yang’s laws to admit a guest without proper identification, a law Shang Yang himself had implemented.

Yang was executed by jūliè -dismemberment by being fastened to five chariots, cattle or horses and being torn to pieces; his whole family was also executed.

Edited by staff


Reform of the Law

Duke Xiao discussed his policy. The three Great Officers, Gong sun Yang, Gan Long and Du Zhi, were in attendance on the Prince. Their thoughts dwelt on the vicissitudes of the world’s affairs; they discussed the principles of rectifying the law, and they sought for the way of directing the people.

The prince said: “Not to forget, at his succession, the tutelary spirits of the soil and of grain, is the way of a prince; to shape the laws and to see to it that an intelligent ruler reigns, are the tasks of a minister. I intend, now, to alter the laws, so as to obtain orderly government, and to reform the rites, so as to teach the people; but I am afraid the empire will criticize me.”

Gong sun Yang said: “I have heard it said that he who hesitates in action, does not accomplish anything, and that he who hesitates in affairs, gains no merit. Let Your Highness settle Your thoughts quickly about altering the laws and perhaps not heed the criticism of the empire. Moreover, he who conducts himself as an outstanding man is, as a matter of course, disapproved of by the world; he who has thoughts of independent knowledge is certainly despised by the world. The saying runs: ‘The stupid do not even understand an affair when it has been completed, but the wise see it even before it has sprouted.’ One cannot let the people share in the thoughts about the beginnings of an affair, but they should be allowed to share in the rejoicings over the completion of it. The law of Guo Yan says: ‘He who is concerned about the highest virtue is not in harmony with popular ideas; he who accomplishes a great work, does not take counsel with the multitude.’ The law is an expression of love for the people; rites are a means for making things run smoothly. Therefore a sage, if he is able to strengthen the state thereby, does not model himself on antiquity, and if he is able to benefit the people thereby, does not adhere to the established rites.”

Duke Xiao expressed his approval.

But Gan Long said: “Not so. I have heard it said: ‘A sage teaches without changing the people, and a wise man obtains good government without altering the laws.’ If one teaches in accordance with the spirit of the people, success will be achieved without effort; if one governs, holding on to the law, officials will be well versed in it and the people will live quietly. Now, if Your Highness alters the laws without adhering to the old customs of the Ch’in state, and reforms the rites in order to teach the people, I am afraid that the empire will criticize Your Highness, and I wish that You would reflect maturely.”

Gong sun Yang replied: “What you, sir, hold is the point of view of the man in the street. Indeed, ordinary people abide by old practices, and students are immersed in the study of what is reported from antiquity. These two kinds of men are all right for filling offices and for maintaining the law, but they are not the kind who can take part in a discussion which goes beyond the law. The Three Dynasties have attained supremacy by different rites, and the five Lords Protector have attained their protectorships by different laws. Therefore, a wise man creates laws, but a foolish man is controlled by them; a man of talent reforms rites, but a worthless man is enslaved by them. With a man who is enslaved by rites, it is not worth while to speak about matters; with a man who is controlled by laws, it is not worth while to discuss reform. Let Your Highness not hesitate.”

Du Zhi said: “Unless the advantage be a hundredfold, one should not reform the law; unless the benefit be tenfold, one should not alter an instrument. I have heard it said that in taking antiquity as an example, one makes no mistakes, and in following established rites one commits no offence. Let Your Highness aim at that.”

Gong sun Yang said: “Former generations did not follow the same doctrines, so what antiquity should one imitate? The emperors and kings did not copy one another, so what rites should one follow? Fu Xi and Shen nong taught but did not punish; Huang di, Yao and Shun punished but were not angry; Wen wang and Wu wang both established laws in accordance with what was opportune and regulated rites according to practical requirements; as rites and laws were fixed in accordance with what was opportune, regulations and orders were all expedient, and weapons, armour, implements and equipment were all practical. Therefore, I say: ‘There is more than one way to govern the world and there is no necessity to imitate antiquity, in order to take appropriate measures for the state.’ Tang and Wu succeeded in attaining supremacy without following antiquity, and as for the downfall of Yin and Xia – they were ruined without rites having been altered. Consequently, those who acted counter to antiquity do not necessarily deserve blame, nor do those who followed established rites merit much praise. Let Your Highness not hesitate.”

Duke Xiao said: “Excellent ! I have heard it said that in poor country districts, much is thought strange, and that in village schools there are many debates. What the foolish laugh about, the wise are sad about; the joy of a madman is the sorrow of a man of talent. One should, in one’s plans, be directed by the needs of the times – I have no doubts about it.”

Thereupon, in consequence, he issued the order to bring waste lands under cultivation.

From “Shang Jun Shu -the Law of Lord Shang”.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here