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Legalism (philosophy)

In Chinese History, Legalism (法家; pinyin fa3 jia1) 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; p fa3), the law. 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. 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, the method and control. Unlike other Chinese systems of thought, morality is not important in Legalism. A strong hand is needed to control the people, or they will become lazy and the law cannot be enforced. Curiously, Legalism considered an official who performed better than what he was commanded to do to be as liable for punishment as a official that underachieved.

The above sentence is true if "better" means successfully completing unrelated task while on official duty. As an example from Han Fei Zi, if a gate guard go fetches a blanket for the king who has just dozed off, he is being irresponsible to his official duty and deserves punishment.

3. Shi, the legitimacy, power and 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 view 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 our historical records have come from 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 Legalism has merged with mainstream Confucianism and still has a role to play in government due to its efficiency.

Famous Legalists

See also: Chinese philosophy