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Legalist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Legalist philosophy constitutes one of the three dominant streams of Chinese philosophy along with Confucian and Daoist philosophies. It aims to establish objective, impartial and impersonal standards for human conduct. It sets forth prescriptive models using such metaphors as the builder’s plumb line and carpenter’s L-square. ‘Modelling after’ implies reshaping and remoulding of human behaviour, not by moral suasion but by the application of fa, a term designating both prescriptive standards and promulgated penal law, designed to achieve public interest.

The idea of remoulding by punishment and reward is predicated on the Legalist conception of human nature. Innately self-interested human nature underlies human behaviour of liking reward and disliking punishment. Hence, penal law is both natural and an objective prescriptive technique for behavioural control that seeks to harmonize both the individual and the public interest. Penal law is efficacious in so far as it is issued from an authoritative power (shi) based on impersonal, institutionalized position of rulership and borne up, however tacitly, by the support of the people. Shi cannot govern effectively, Legalists argue, without the organizational power of bureaucracy under the centralized control of the ruler. For the ruler, controlling bureaucracy means mastering the technique (shu) of comparing ‘word’ (ming) and actual ‘performance’ (xing), not only through objective mechanisms of empirical verification but also by means of ‘the two handles’ of power over life and death. Hence, the technique holds bureaucracy accountable.

The Legalist philosophy of governing by fa, shi and shu was in effect a new model for sociopolitical reorganization. It became increasingly popular during the Warring States period, a time of incessant political struggle and of irreversible systemic disintegration of the Zhou feudal order. Legalists called for a radical systemic transformation through this new model in the name of historical relativism: ‘There are as many situations as there are generations… and situations change, so the measures change’ (Han Feizi 49).

Historical relativism notwithstanding, Legalist philosophy envisages a ‘natural’ and ‘automatic’ polity that, once established, accords with dao (that is, the way the natural world operates spontaneously). The ruler practices ‘non-action’, ‘emptiness’ and ‘quiescence’ so as to embody dao, and thereby personifies objective, impersonal standards over subjective, personal preferences. Once this ‘natural’ polity is established, the ruler does not act while his subordinates act according to xingming accountability as noted above. The ruler does not act as the centre point of the scale does not move, and yet he knows which side is heavy and which side light. In the end, the ruler does not act so that he can act, that is, so he can employ ‘the two handles’ to control his subordinates. This seemingly ‘natural’ and ‘automatic’ polity still requires a ‘sage’ ruler extraordinarily adept at covert statecraft. Only such a ‘sage’ ruler can hope to achieve order, wealth and power for himself and for his people.

Citing this article:
Chang, Leo S.. Legalist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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