Was Legalism in China a Religion or a Philosophy of Government

Han Fei famously focused on what he called Xing-Ming (Chinese: 刑名; pinyin: xíngmíng),[14]:349, which Sima Qian and Liu Xiang define as « holding the actual result accountable to Ming (speech) ». [6]: 87, 104 [130] In accordance with the Confucian and Mohist correction of names,[14]:365 he must be associated with the Confucian tradition, in which a promise or obligation, especially in relation to a governmental purpose, entails punishment or reward,[14]:349 although the tight and centralized control emphasized both by his philosophy and that of his predecessor Shen Buhai, clashes with the Confucian idea of the autonomous minister. [6]: 83 This seems to be a rare glimpse of the fundamental inability of the administrative system to monitor itself in the long term; However, the discovery does not lead to radical alternatives to the system of control over officials. The chapter merely asserts the superiority of techniques and rules over personal interference by the leader in policy-making, and does not explain how these would prevent the machinations of supervisors. To the extent that techniques and rules are implemented by selfish – or simply erroneous – people, the question remains: to what extent can the impersonal mode of government cure the diseases inherent in the bureaucratic system (cf. Van Norden 2013)? This question remains one of the greatest challenges to the legacy of legalists. The « legalistic » current still has a great influence on administration, politics and legal practice in China. [29] [30] Legalism, a school of Chinese philosophy that gained prominence during the turbulent Warring States era (475-221 BC). A.D.) and, through the influence of philosophers Shang Yang, Li Si and Hanfeizi, formed the ideological basis of China`s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221-207 BC). Legalism is sometimes compared to modern social sciences (Schwartz 1985), and this comparison captures some of its characteristics. Angus C. Graham (1989:269) notes that legalists were the first political philosophers in China « who assume not how society should be, but as it is. » In fact, it was the most practical of all pre-imperial intellectual currents.

Their stated goal was to create a « rich state and a powerful army » (fu guo qiang bing 富國強兵)[2] which would be the prerequisite for the future unification of the entire subcelestial empire. Thinkers focused on how to achieve this goal rather than philosophical speculation. Therefore, their writings are generally free from overriding moral considerations or conformity with the divine will—topoi that recur in the writings of the disciples of Confucius 孔子 (551-479 BC) and Mozi墨子 (c. 460-390 BC). Cosmological determinations of the political order, which became extremely popular after Laozi 老子 (fourth century BC), are of somewhat greater importance to legalists than morality or religion: they are mentioned in some fragments of Shen Buhai and Shen Dao and especially in several chapters of Han Feizi. However, these speculations are not essential to the reasoning of these thinkers: therefore, Pace attempts to consider Han Fei`s cosmological digressions as the foundations of his political philosophy (Wang and Chang 1986), it would be more accurate to see them as argumentative means that have not been « fully assimilated » into Han Fei`s thought (Graham 1991:285; cf.