Legalism (philosophy)

From Academic Kids

In Chinese History, Legalism (法家; pinyin Fǎjiā) was one of the four main philosophic schools at the end of the Zhou Dynasty. Legalists believed that a ruler should govern his subjects by the following three ideas:

  1. Fa (法 fǎ): law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Under the Zhou Dynasty, law was loosely written and was based on social classes. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish severely those who dare to break them, even if the result of this would on the face of it appear to be undesirable. As an example from Han Feizi, if a gate guard (while on duty) goes to fetch a blanket for the king who has just dozed off, this guard is being irresponsible to his official duty and deserves punishment. Thus it is guaranteed that every action taken is 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.
  2. Shu (術 sh): method, control or art. Unlike other Chinese systems of thought, morality is not important in Legalism. Special methods and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure the ministers don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the rulers motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them getting ahead; except for following the fa or laws.
  3. Shi (勢 sh): legitimacy, power or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, that holds the power.

Legalism was the central governing idea of the Qin Dynasty, however 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. 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 observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still have a role to play in government.

More recently, Mao Zedong, who had a wide knowledge in ancient Chinese philosophy, compared himself with Qin Shi Huang and publicly approved of some Legalist methods. However, since the 1990s the related concept of the rule of law has gained currency.

Main Legalist scriptures

For most scripture that have been categorised into Legalist thought, the title is the name of a famous minister.

Related figures

The Confucian thinker Xun Zi is sometime considered as being influenced by or having nourished Legalist ideas, mostly because two of his disciples (Li Si and Han Fei Zi) were strict ja:法家 pl:Legizm zh:法家


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