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China’s Legalist Order: From the Qin to the PRC (4): *Legalism in the Modern Era
By Paul Farwell
2013-10-01 08:19:54

China’s Legalist Order:  From the Qin to the PRC (1-2): Its origin, doctrine, and earlier years

China’s Legalist Order: From the Qin to the PRC (3): Legalism’s Legacy

After the fall of the Qing, many people believed that the old imperial system was completely destroyed and all of its institutions went with it.  However, it can be argued that legalism, a system of thought developed nearly two thousand years previous to the Chinese Revolution, did survive the transition.  Although one may not be able to tell today, legalism still plays a crucial role in the current Chinese regime, the PRC (People’s Republic of China).  Although much different from classical and neo-legalism, a new form of legalism emerged with Mao, economic legalism.  This new entity may look much different from its processors, given that the imperial system is no longer in use and that there are no emperors, but save for these few differences, it is much the same as its ancient brethren.

Economic legalism is a term to describe the marriage of legalism and economic theory.  Under Mao, it was with socialism, and under Deng Xiaoping, the man who opened up China to trade, it was with capitalism.  In both cases, legalism provides the core and economics, the shell.  This is much like how classical legalism was enveloped in a shell during the Han era by Confucianism.  In addition, much like Confucianism, both capitalism and socialism have many principles that are consistent with legalism.  Both cases should be examined in detail.

In Mao’s era, legalism was combined with socialism and the two complemented one another quite well.  First, one must compare the philosophy of legalism and socialism.  In Mao’s era, socialism was a relatively new and radical idea (Just like legalism in its own time during the Qin).  Mao believed socialism was the path China should follow.  This is consistent with legalist doctrine because legalist writers such as Shang Yang wrote against using old, traditional ways in favor of things that are developed for the era in which one lives.[1]  Since socialism was new and seen as the future at the time (Considering the Great Depression and other events which led many to believe capitalism was declining), it can be easily argued that socialism was the tool which was to be used control China.  However, Mao adopted socialism for use specifically in China.  As such, he utilized the peasants, rather than the workers as was the standard socialist approach at the time.  This too is consistent with legalism as it argues, “The merchants and artisans spend time making articles of luxury goods, accumulating riches, waiting for the best time to sell, and exploiting the farmers.”[2]  Even after Mao gained power, he followed this principle by suppressing trade in favor of agriculture.  However, Mao took this one step further and persecuted anyone who fit this description.  In the Qin, it officials merely suppressed them.  A third principle that was consistent with legalism was the use of the people.  Although Mao fought for the people, he also made use of them in war and in peace, and mended them to his will.  This follows legalist doctrine in the sense that Han Fei supported the notion of people being merely a means to an end.[3]  However, there are also many other ways Mao used legalism.  First, the government was centralized under Mao himself, thus creating a kind of legalist state.  Instead of an emperor ruling the central government, it was Mao.  He also supported the military, which is consistent with legalism since, “…the means, whereby a country is made prosperous, are agriculture and war.”[4]  Although Mao utilized the military in a more defensive way, specifically in the Korean War and to deter a possible invasion by the Soviet Union in later years, it played a crucial war in the PRC, which also has legalist influences.

Although, socialist legalist principles like these formed Mao’s philosophical thought, many of Mao’s actions are also consistent with legalism.  First, he openly admired the Qin Shihuang.  This was quite radical, since almost every dynasty since that the Qin era sought to demonize him.  This also means that Mao was familiar with Qin history and its doctrine of legalism.  Second, the Hundred Flowers Movement has some legalist influence.  This program was first used to promote alternative thought, but shortly after it was implemented, those who spoke out were prosecuted.  This seems to be a purely socialist move, but in fact it is consistent with legalism as it argues, “the ruler makes the people single-minded and therefore they will not scheme for selfish profit.”[5] Considering the Qin Dynasty also persecuted those with opposing thought, it can be argued that it could also have been a legalist action.  The Great Leap Forward also has some legalist influence.  In 1958, Mao initiated this program to make China industrialized almost overnight.  The end result, however, was widespread famine and death.  This program was unique and radical to China and this too may have a legalist origin.  Shang Yang argues that, “There is more than one way to govern the world and there is no necessity to imitate antiquity…”[6] Historically, industrialization took decades to develop and it took many years for a state to become industrialized.  This legalist quote makes it seem as if one does not have to follow this western pattern of industrialization rather that one should try a new way to accomplish this.  As such, this Great Leap Forward was initiated.  Another way legalism influenced Mao’s thought was via the Cultural Revolution.  During the decade of1966 to 1976, China was enveloped in chaos as anyone seen as non-revolutionary was attacked.  This included the Four Olds of old customs, old habits, old culture, and old ideas.  Once more this movement is consistent with legalism.  The first argument has to do with the reason for the Cultural Revolution.  Of the many arguments for why this began, the most logical one seems to be that Mao was afraid of non-revolutionaries within the government.  As such, this movement was designed to root them out.  This can be viewed as consistent with legalism as Han Fei argues, “Destroy all hope, smash all intention of wresting them [power] from you, allow no man to covet them.”[7]  This quote has to do with power and the reason behind the Cultural Revolution can thus be viewed as having some legalist origins.  In terms of the Cultural Revolution itself, there too is some legalist influence.  First, attacking the Four Olds is consistent with legalist doctrine as it argues against using tradition.[8]  In addition Shang Yang argues that, “A right system is therefore more reliable than chance-success or the presence of a specially gifted man.”[9] During this period, Mao’s health was declining and he realized this concept by initiating this movement.  He wanted to root out all the bad within the system he created, so that it could survive after his death.  Another way this movement was consistent with legalism has to do with the belief that a person, “…does not understand that the little pain it suffers now will bring great benefit later.”[10] Although this can justify just about any action, it seems to justify the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s mind.

      By analyzing legalist thought in Mao’s China, it becomes clear that legalism did not die out with the Chinese imperial system.  In fact, it seemed to have taken on a newer, more evolved form.  As we have seen previously, from ancient times to the end of the imperial system, legalism did take on different forms, first combing with Confucianism and then changing during the Sui Dynasty.  However, this new combination of legalism and socialism is perhaps the most potent of all previous forms as legalism accented socialism, making it more radical.  This radicalization both helped and harmed China, as we have seen, but ultimately would not last, much like the previous incarnations of legalism.  Although legalist doctrine did continue on with the change of leadership under Deng Xiaoping, socialist legalism died out to favor capitalist legalism.  Although, the PRC may still consider itself socialist, it is only so in name.

The PRC under Deng Xiaoping was quite different from that of Mao.  Rather than relying on socialist doctrine, which was in decline, Deng adapted the system to the era in which he lived.  As such, legalism was combined with capitalism.  While much less ideologically driven than its socialist counterpart, economics still plays a crucial role in this robust combination.

Deng Xiaoping came to power shortly after Mao’s death.  At first, he kept the system much the same, as he tried to strengthen his powerbase.[11]  However, having been a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, he did want to change the system for the better.[12]  He saw that socialism was in decline, so he continued to open up China to the West.  While Mao opened China to the US in fear of the Soviet Union, Deng continued this for a different reason, wealth.  He saw the weaknesses of the socialist system and knew that China could not continue on the same path, so he adopted capitalism.[13]  However, he realized from the Great Leap Forward that he could not do this instantly.  So, over the next few decades, he progressively made China more capitalist collimating in the China people see today.  However, one can see a more classic approach to legalism in this move.

Although Mao was ideologically driven, Deng was more pragmatic in his approach.  First, he utilized a legalist approach to maintain power.  He did this through harsh and oppressive measures that made him appear resolute.[14]  Specifically, he did this by setting up a system of reward and punishments much like the legalists of ancient times.  After he had formed a significant power base, he eliminated his rivals in order to centralize power, namely the Gang of Four, who sought to continue Mao’s policies.  He also began a policy of improving the Four Modernizations, namely industry, agriculture, the military, and science and technology.  The goal of this program and many others was always economic growth.[15]  This was because Deng saw that economic growth was the only way to survive and become industrialized.  The way he initiated policies show that he was more pragmatic than philosophical, as in Mao’s case.  This is very similar to classical legalism as states like the Qin were also motivated by necessity and initiated their reforms for pragmatic reasons rather than philosophical ones.  However, other actions and beliefs also showed a classical legalist bend.  First, “It was the party’s view that laws were instruments to control people and should be used as it saw fit.”[16]  This legalist thought that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) held is a good example of legalism’s influence in Deng’s era.  Second, Deng replaced the legalist notion of farmers and military troops being the basis of prosperity with businessmen and specialists.  Specifically, businessmen replace the farmers and specialists replace the military.  This is very different from previous legalist incarnations, but consistent with it.  However, the main event that showed Deng’s legalist view was Tiananmen Square.  Although Deng preferred not to use force, it came to that anyway.  In fact, this event parallels the burying of the scholars by the Qin and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  It also shows Deng’s concern with stability and the centralization of authority which is legalist in origin.  However, this event and the fact that socialist philosophy was abandoned shows that Deng was influenced by the legalist belief that, “…benevolence cannot be used to achieve order in the state.”[17]  In addition, it shows that Deng ultimately believed in the legalist principle that, “A weak people means a strong state and a strong state means a weak people.”[18] However, it is important to note that Deng supported democracy in his early years of power.[19]  What this event shows though is that he supported the movements not because he believed in it, but because is gave him a support base he could use to gain power.   Another way that Deng shows his legalist influence was by abandoning the people to the intrigues of capitalism.  Under Mao, everyone was guaranteed a stable job and a life equal to everyone else.  When Deng came to power, he closed many state-run factories and discontinued such support given to the people.  This shows Deng willingness to use the people, however in a way much different from Mao.

There is another dimension that must be considered in this matter.  While Deng and the current PRC leadership are concerned primarily with economic growth, they have allowed other things to deteriorate, in terms of legalist doctrine.  First and foremost the current leadership has allowed the law to weaken.[20]  Serious crimes still carry harsh penalties, but most others are subject to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.  This makes it seem as if the legalist principles the PRC now rests on is hollow and this can be problematic, especially when considering that the law serves as the foundation of legalist doctrine.  However, considering that many western groups feel the law is still too harsh and that China violates human rights, it seems that the law is just strong enough.

Legalism continues to exist to this day as China’s leaders are pragmatic and continue Deng’s policy of economic growth via specialists and businessmen.  There are many actions in today’s PRC that speak volumes in terms of legalism.  Take the one-child policy for instance.  This is a classic legalist practice serves as a means to control the people and as is comparable to the family responsibility system in the Qin.  However, the difference lies in the goals.  While the Qin wanted to increase the population, the PRC today wants to decrease it.  Meanwhile, internet censorship in China is much like the book censorship in the Sui Dynasty.  Today, the PRC utilizes nationalism as a basis of support.[21]  This too is legalistic as many dynasties, such as the Qin, appealed to this notion as well.[22]  However, considering how short-lived classical legalism was during the Qin implies serious implications on China’s future.  Although it can be argued that legalism works well when combined with another philosophy, such as Confucianism, this may not be the case today, as capitalism is not a philosophy in the sense that Confucianism is.  This is because numerous problems have resulted from this union between capitalism and legalism and many of them can be very destabilizing in the long-term.

China’s Legalist Order: From the Qin to the PRC (5): Legalism and China’s Future

[1] Shang p. 97.

[2] Ditto p. 117.

[3] Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu p. 44.

[4] Shang p. 185.

[5] Shang p. 188.

[6] Shang p. 173.

[7] Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu p. 18.

[8] Shang p. 97.

[9] Ditto p. 109.

[10] Ditto p. 128.

[11] Chi, Hsi-Sheng. Politics of Disillusionment: The Chinese Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping 1978-1989. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1991, p. 3.

[12] Ditto p. 8.

[13] Ditto p. 15.

[14] Ditto p. 9.

[15] Chi p. 15.

[16] Ditto p. 206.

[17] Shang p. 102.

[18] Ditto p. 303.

[19] Chi p. 8.

[20] Gorni, Ram.  China: Rule of Law, Sometimes.  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/

EG03Ad03.html (accessed December 1, 2010). 


[21] Chen, Weixing and Yang, Zhong, eds.  Leadership in a Changing China.  New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2005, p. 23.

[22] Lewis p. 39.

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