Episode 9: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Legalism
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
In this lecture, Benjamin explores how the Qin Dynasty unified China at the end of the Warring States Period (480-256 BC) and used Legalism. A system of very strict legal codes, they imposed it not only in their own state of Qi, but also in the states they conquered.
The third major philosophy to come out of the Warring States Period,* Legalism taught that human beings were born evil and would only behave ethically if forced to by the state. Harsh Legalist punishments included enslavement, mutilation, branding the face, amputation of hands or feet, exile to the steppes, castration, strangulation, beheading and slow slicing (death by 1,000 cuts).
The Legalists also imposed collective punishment on villages, neighborhoods and families, although individuals could escape punishment (and be rewarded) if they informed on their neighbors.
The Legalist system calls for these punishments to be implemented by the state, rather than the ruler (who is subject to the same laws as his subjects). This system initially proved extremely effective in crushing dissent under the Qin Dynasty.
The Confucians rejected Legalism, arguing it was better to achieve ethically appropriate behavior by reaching collective agreement of what was socially appropriate.
Legalism influenced governance in other Asian societies, with Singapore continuing to run a quasi-legalistic society into modern times.**
The two main political advisors who helped implement Legalism were Shang Yan (390-338 BC) and Han Feizi (280-233 BC). The Qin nobility despised Shang (in part owing to his insistence that bureaucrats be subject to the same laws as commoners) and eventually had him executed.
Han Feizi served as advisor to Qin Shi Huang, who would become China’s first emperor. Owing to Han’s tendency to favor brutal suppression of dissent over ethics, he is frequently compared to Machiavelli. He was eventually imprisoned and poisoned by a rival.
Legalism, along with Confucianism and Daoism eventually made their way to Europe via Jesuit priests during the Renaissance. The Western emphasis on individualism contrasts sharply with the Eastern emphasis on collective welfare and limited the impact of Chinese philosophies in the West.
**Caning is still used as criminal punishment in Singapore.
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