Legalism was a pragmatic political philosophy that does not address higher questions like the nature and purpose of life. It has s like "when the epoch changed, legalism is the act of following all laws", and its essential principle is one of jurisprudence. "Legalism" here has the meaning of "political philosophy that upholds the rule of law", and is thus distinguished from the Western meaning of the word. The school's most famous proponent and contributor Han Fei believed that a ruler should govern his subjects by the following trinity:
# Fa : The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systematically predictable. In addition, the system of law ran the state, not the ruler. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
# Shu : Special tactics and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them getting ahead; except for following the 法 or laws.
# Shi : It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself or herself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trends, the context, and the facts are essential for a real ruler.
Legalism was first created by Shang Yang as a realist reform oriented philosophy to turn the state of from a backward state to a powerful state. Qin would eventually conquer the other six states and create China. Shang Yang's law theories advocate the belief that all people are fundamentally equal and that stringent laws and harsh punishments are required to keep them in order. Shang Yang became prime minister of the Qin under the rule of Duke Xiao of Qin and gradually began transforming the state into a vigorously regulated machine, the sole purpose of which was the elimination of all rivals. Shang Yang swept away the aristocracy and implemented a meritocracy – only those who achieved could reach high places and birth privilege was reserved exclusively for the ruler of the state. Previously the army had been controlled by nobles and constituted of feudal . Now generals could come from any part of society, provided they had sufficient skill. In addition, troops were highly trained and disciplined. From then on, Qin was taking its shape to become the most powerful state in China before it eventually brought all of the six other states together under the First Emperor .
Role of the ruler
Primarily members of the ruling class, the Legalists emphasized that the head of state was endowed with the "mystery of authority” , and as such his decisions must always command the respect and obedience of the people. The emperor’s very figure brought legitimacy. In emphasizing the power of rulership, Legalists such as Shen Dao and Shen Buhai sought to devalue the importance of the charismatic ruler. Skillful rulers hid their true intentions and feigned nonchalance. To ensure that all of his words were revered, the wise ruler kept a low profile. Thus, theoretically, by cloaking both his desires and his will, the Emperors checked sycophancy and forced his subject to heed his dictates. While Shang Yang would allow rulers to listen to musical instruments rather than focus on foreign policy, Han Fei demanded more of the wise ruler. A good leader, by Han Fei's standards, must not only accept the advice of loyal ministers when shown to be in error, but must also extend courtesy to those beneath him or her and not be too avaricious. The adept ruler also understood the importance of strictness over benevolence. Although the ruler was expected to be paternalistic, the Legalists emphasized that being too kind would spoil the populace and threaten the state's internal order. Interestingly, according to 's Grand Historian Sima Qian , while the First Emperor hid himself from the rest of the world and thus maintained a low profile, he did not necessarily follow all of the Legalists’ advice on the role of the ruler.
Role of ministers in Legalist thought
To aid the ruler and help prevent misgovernance, Shen Buhai – a minister from the state of for fifteen years – formalized the concept of shu , or the bureaucratic model of administration that served to advance the ideal Legalist ruler’s program. To the Legalists, the intelligent minister was the ruler's most important aide. Whereas the minister’s duty was to understand specific affairs, the ruler was responsible for correctly judging ministers’ performances. Stressing that ministers and other officials too often sought favours from foreign powers by abusing their positions, Han Fei urged rulers to control these individuals by the two handles of punishment and favour. Officials were required, through fear, to ensure that ministers' accomplishments were neither greater than nor inferior to the assigned undertaking. According to the eminent sinologist Robin Yates, newly discovered Qin Dynasty legal codes show that officials were required to correctly calculate the exact amount of labor expected of all artisans; if the artisan was ordered to perform either too much work or too little work, the official would be held accountable. Thus, in Legalist theory, ministers and other officials were prevented from performing some other official's duties and were punished if they attempted to blind the ruler with words or failed to warn the ruler of danger. One consequence of this situation was that the ministers could always be held accountable for royal misadventures while the ruler’s name was never to be tarnished. By emphasizing performance, however, over sophistry, the Legalists hoped to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and intrigues amongst the officialdom through fear.
Purpose of law
The laws supported by the Legalists were meant to support the state, the king, and his military. They were also reform-oriented and innovative. In theory, the Legalists believed that if the punishments were heavy and the law equally applied, neither the powerful nor the weak would be able to escape state control. The Legalists especially emphasized pragmatism over precedence and custom as the basis of law. Guided by Legalist thought, the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang , would weaken the power of the feudal lords , divide the unified empire into thirty-six administrative provinces, and standardize the writing system. Reflecting Legalist passion for order and structure, Qin soldiers were only mobilized when both halves of tiger-shaped tallies were brought together. Likewise, all documents in the empire had to have recorded the year they were written, the scribe who copied them, and up to the exact hour of delivery. Accepting Shang Yang’s earlier emphasis on the standardization of weights and measures, the Qin Shi Huang would also accept Shang Yang’s philosophy that no individual in the state should be above the law and that families should be divided into smaller households. While there is reason to doubt Sima Qian’s claim that Qin Shi Huang did in fact divide households into groups of ten, certainly the other examples of standardization and administrative organization undertaken by the First Emperor reflect the importance of Legalist thought in Qin law. Based on promoting the interests of the state Qin, the law served as a vehicle to both control the populace and eliminate dissent.
Legalism and individual autonomy
The Legalist philosophers emphasized the primacy of the state over individual autonomy. The lone individual had no legitimate civil rights and any personal freedom had to strengthen the ruler. Han Fei , in particular, would be very caustic towards the concept of individual rights. Fundamentally, the Legalists viewed the plebeian and their actions as evil and foolish.
However, Legalism allowed the common people to gain in rank if they performed well. For example, soldiers would gain in rank according to the number of heads the soldiers collected. A soldier may even gain noble rank. In contrast, some other states allowed only the well-connected to gain higher ranks. An example of this would be Lü Buwei, who originally a merchant, was able to become Chancellor of China, an occurrence that would never happen in the other six states. However, it should be noted that he played a major role in King Zhuangxiang of Qin's rise to power.
According to Shang Yang's ''The Book of Lord Shang'', the people themselves wanted a ruler to generate order. Social cohesion in the Legalist state mandated that the populace never escape punishment. The Qin dynasty used the people, for example, to maintain vigilant mutual surveillance over one another under threat of death.
This intrastate realpolitik would end up devouring the Legalist philosophers themselves. Shang Yang, in advocating the state’s right to punish even the heir-apparent’s tutor, would run afoul of the future King Huiwen of Qin . Whereas at one point, he had the power to exile his opponents to border regions of the state, he died when torn into pieces by chariots. Similarly, Han Fei would end up being poisoned by his envious former classmate Li Si, who in turn would be killed by the violent Second Qin Emperor he had helped to enthrone.
Power politics between the philosophies
Most Chinese philosophers and political thinkers have had very negative views toward Legalism blaming it for what today would be considered a totalitarian society. Many Chinese scholars believe that it was a reaction against legalism that gave Chinese Imperial politics its personalistic and moralistic flavor rather than emphasis on the rule of law.
However, this view of the Qin may be biased, as most of the Chinese historical records were written by Confucian scholars, who were persecuted under the Qin.
In later dynasties, Legalism was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern Confucian observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still play a major role in government. The philosophy of imperial China has been described as a Confucian exterior covering a core of Legalism . In other words, Confucian values are used to sugarcoat the harsh Legalist ideas that underly the Imperial system. During the and Tang dynasty, ideas were also part of the external face of the imperial system.
There was a brief revival of Legalism during the Sui dynasty's efforts to reunify China. After the Sui dynasty was replaced by the Tang dynasty, the Tang government still used the government structure left behind by the Sui dynasty, albeit with much reduced punishments.
More recently, Mao Zedong, who had some knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy, compared himself with Qin Shi Huang and publicly approved of some Legalist methods. One such method approved in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping administration is the reward and punishment, which has increased the size of the Beijing government in the process. However, since the 1990s the related concept of the rule of law has gained currency.
The Confucian thinker Xun Zi is sometimes considered as being influenced by or having nourished Legalist ideas, mostly because two of his disciples were strict Legalists.