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China’s Legalist Order: From the Qin to the PRC (3): Legalism’s Legacy
By Paul Farwell
2013-10-01 08:22:43

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

Despite legalism officially being destroyed with the hated Qin Dynasty, many legalist ideas were copied and used by its successor states.  This section will examine this in detail by examining legalist practices in every major Chinese dynasty that came into being after the Qin Dynasty.

By 206 BC, the Qin was crippled and the country was again in civil war.  In fact, it appeared that another Warring States Period would occur.  The old feudal lords were regaining power and rebellions were everywhere.  However, two leaders emerged from this new era of chaos, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu.  Xiang Yu was one of these feudal lords, while Liu Bang was a peasant rebel leader.  Eventually Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu and established the Han Dynasty.  However this dynasty was much like its predecessor, the Qin, especially in terms of governance.

The Han Dynasty lasted for four hundred years, much longer than its predecessor the Qin, which lasted less than two decades post-unification.  Nevertheless, Liu Bang adopted legalism as he, “…took special care to preserve the maps and laws.”[1] This shows that Liu Bang and other early Han rulers utilized practices that were at the very least similar to legalism, specifically the use of rewards and punishments, for example.[2]  This may have been out of necessity as power in China was becoming more decentralized towards the end of the Qin.  The former feudal lords of the Warring States Period were regaining their former power and several independent states developed as a result.  Even when Liu Bang unified China under the new Han Dynasty, it was semi-feudalistic, with some of these states serving under the central government and others being conquered.[3]  This situation may have challenged this new leadership as another Warring States Period seemed imminent.  Therefore, Liu Bang knew he had to appear to be a strong and decisive ruler and legalism helped him in this matter.  In addition, the pragmaticism and efficiency of the legalism helped Liu Bang consolidate his power and centralize authority under himself.  And thus, legalism continued under the Han for a time, with strict laws and pragmatic doctrine.  However, by 140 BC, legalism began losing much of its strength, as this marked the beginning of Confucian dominance in the Han.  Specifically, the Confucians in this year had consolidated enough power to dismiss several legalist scholars from being considered for office.[4]  From this point on Confucianism gained more and more influence, making them the dominant force in politics.  However, these Confucians did see the merit in several legalist principles, such as granting rank according to merit.  As such, examinations for officials became prominent during the Han.  In addition, many governmental procedures, that were legalist in origin, were kept in use.  This included the use of law to regulate the people, the use of a centralized government, and the use of absolute rulers in the form of emperors.  This shows that legalism was still the heart of the political institutions in China, despite being surrounded by a Confucian shell.  The main noticeable difference between this new political era and the legalist one was in terms of legitimacy.  Qin rulers used force, raw power, and strict laws to legitimize their rule over China.  Meanwhile, Han rulers used their doctrines of benevolence and superior culture to legitimize their rule.[5]  With this, more reliance was placed upon philosophy than pragmatism.  This pattern continued throughout Han history as legalism was used less and less in favor of Confucianism.  Although, legalism and other doctrines like Daoism still existed even towards the end of the Han Dynasty, they held much less influence than they did at the beginning of the dynasty.            

      Towards the end of the Han era, a situation arose that was strikingly similar to what the Qin faced towards the end of their empire.  This is an interesting irony as it ultimately shows that Confucian policies led to the same outcome, despite them surrounding the core principles of legalism.  This can be attributed to internal and external problems.  Internally, emperors in the Later Han were used more as puppets and held no real power themselves, corruption became rampant, and lords were gaining more independence from the central government.  Externally, rebellions crippled the country, such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, and natural disasters cost the country economically which further weakened centralized control over the nation and delegitimized the Han state.  In addition, the Han fell apart and splintered into multiple kingdoms.  These problems are nearly identical to the problems the Qin faced, which means that the Han was not as Confucian as it claimed to be.  This led to a long period of civil war which plagued China until another Qin-like dynasty, the Sui, came to power.

The Sui Dynasty inherited a similar situation that the Qin faced centuries before.  The country was in chaos and centralized authority was nonexistent.  The Sui, therefore, employed many of the same principles that the Qin used, as they believed that the same policies could end the chaos.  This was logical as legalism ended the Warring States Period.  However, legalism further evolved and became more mature during the Sui.  In fact, it can be argued that the Sui learned many lessons from the Qin and sought not to make the same mistakes.[6]

The Sui Dynasty was a true equal to the Qin in terms of philosophy.  It was ruthlessly pragmatic, centralized, anti-feudalist, and ambitious.  While the Sui used the same centralized governmental structure, there were many instances where legalism became more mature.  One notable difference was in the realm of governing officials as a “rule of avoidance” was introduced.  This made it so that, “Officials could not serve in their place of origin…[and] subordinates could only occupy posts for a few years.”[7] This made it so officials could not develop a strong power base that could potentially threaten the central government.  Another difference was the use of censors who kept officials under surveillance.[8]  This was new in the sense that the Qin relied more on the people spying on each other and did not employ a kind of semi-secret police like this.  Again, we can see the evolution of legalist thought through pragmatic necessity.  However, the Sui also learned from the Qin.  There were no book burnings in the Sui, although many books were banned from the public[9].  This shows that the Sui was heavily influenced by the Qin book burnings as they were later reviled in the Han Dynasty.  Clearly, the Sui did not want to be remembered in the same way.  In addition, Confucianism was tolerated under the Sui even though Confucians held no real power[10].  This too shows that the Sui was not as ruthless as their Qin counterparts.  However, many classic legalist practices once again became prominent.  This included the use of harsh punishments, including forced labor, deportation, and beatings.[11]  These punishments also applied to the upper classes, just like in the Qin.[12]  This meant that the Sui were also interested in equality under the law.

Unfortunately the Sui did not made enough changes in legalist thought as they made many of the same mistakes.  First, the Sui relied too much on expansionist policy.  A number of military defeats occurred with wars against the Turks and Koreans and this greatly strained the military.[13]  As a result, rebellions formed that further tested the Sui leadership, which was weak-willed at this point.  On the economic side, the Sui invested heavily in expensive construction projects, such as canals, tombs, palaces, and most notably, the Great Wall.  With the Sui being economically and militarily crippled, it was only a matter of time before the state fell.  However, it is important to note that the Sui did last slightly longer the Qin, post-unification, which means that the Sui reforms of legalism did have a positive effect.  Unfortunately for them, this effect was not nearly enough to stop the collapse.

      The legacy of the Sui was much like that of the Qin.  Even though the Sui lasted briefly lasted for only a few decades, they created the needed foundation for the succeeding Tang Dynasty to make China great once more.  In fact, many Sui officials served in the early Tang government which gave the Tang Dynasty a pool of experienced and knowledgeable officials.[14]  This meant that the Tang did support what the Sui did, though they did not continue Sui policies in the same way.  In addition, much like the Qin, it can be said that the Sui had the same impact as the Napoleonic Era in Europe.[15]

The Tang Dynasty relied heavily on the Sui era for guidance.  In fact, the Tang used the same capital as the Sui and, “that… capital city grew to its full magnificence to become…the glittering cosmopolitan of eastern Asia…”[16] Much like how the Tang built upon this former Sui capital, the Tang built upon Sui legalist thought.  First, it borrowed the Sui idea of land tenure and allocation.[17]  This shows that the Tang were equally interested in agriculture matters.  Second, the country was kept under military control initially by the Tang’s first emperor, Kao Tzu.[18]  This shows that just like Qin and Sui, the military played an important role in the state.  He also supported an expansionist policy and centralized the government and law. Third, the Sui examination system was reintroduced.[19]  This meant the Tang also utilized a merit-based system for hiring officials.   However, much like the Han, the dynasty was much more tolerant of other thought and philosophy and sought to envelop the harshness of legalism with a shell of philosophy and benevolence.  This was through religions, like Buddhism, which flourished during this period.

The fall of the Tang is reminiscent of that of the Sui Dynasty.  Weak leaders made the central government crumble, while the An Shi Rebellion pushed the Tang into turmoil.  Meanwhile, Tang generals were gaining more independence.  As such, the Tang eventually fell and civil war once more enveloped China.

After the Tang Dynasty fell, another period of civil war enveloped China.  Once more it took another great empire to unify China.  This time it was in the form of the Song Dynasty.  Being Confucian in nature and thus borrowing many legalist practices, this dynasty also utilized legalism.  First, the government followed the practice of being highly centralized and the state was once more under the leadership of an emperor.  Second, those of merit and talent were promoted via examinations, which also allowed the Song to recruit people of talent.  Third, the Song invested heavily in infrastructure, much like the Qin and Sui.  Fourth, much of the Song law came from the Tang Dynasty.  In addition, just like in the Han, these legalist practices were once more placed in a philosophical shell.  In this case it was the shell of Neo-Confucianism.

During the Song reign, Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan and other non-Han Chinese flooded China.  While, initially unable to destroy the Song Dynasty, the Mongols sought to legitimize their rule.  Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols were largely nomadic and therefore had no central headquarters.  After the conquest of northern China, the Mongols saw the potential of the Chinese legal system and decided to use it themselves.  This provides testament not only to the influence China had over the world-conquering Mongols, but also that these same people saw that the Chinese system could enhance their efficiency and provide them with a strong order.  As such, despite being foreign, the Mongols essentially copied the Chinese political system and legalism in the process.  Following the Song model, it tried to be both militarily and culturally strong.  As such, this new Dynasty, the Yuan, followed in the footsteps of the many previous Chinese dynasties.  Although having a violent past the, “distinguishing feature of Khubikai’s regime was its pragmaticism in building political consensus, not its commitment to the School of the Way.”[20]  This means that the Yuan Dynasty was equally concerned with stability and, as such, followed the legalist model of rule.  Therefore, many of the same legalistic practices used in other dynasties were used by the Yuan.  This included having a bureaucratic, centralized government, giving rank according to merit (However, there was discrimination against Chinese), building the infrastructure and a strong military, and the use of law, specifically harsh punishments and rich rewards to keep people in line.  Meanwhile, the Yuan Dynasty supported many schools of philosophy and artistic culture, not because it was benevolent, but because it helped legitimize their rule.  Considering that the Yuan Dynasty was foreign, this was a well-calculated move.  As such, the Yuan looked much like any other Chinese dynasty in history and it also carried over many of the same legalist practices.

After the Yuan crumbled, the Ming Dynasty gained power.  This dynasty once again began a period of ethnic Chinese rule.  Much like the previous dynasties, this dynasty used legalistic methods and doctrine.  First, the infrastructure was rebuilt and agriculture was reformed.  Trade was suppressed by high taxes, though it later flourished.  Second, the Ming tried to standardize law, speech and writing.  However, the law was harsher than in recent incarnations.  Third, rank was still given based on merit via examinations, but scholars were not trusted by the central government and a social system was strictly enforced.  Fourth, infrastructure and military expansion were goals of the Ming Dynasty.  For example, the Great Wall was rebuilt and canals were established.  However, later Ming rulers became more isolationist and, as a result, the Ming’s power waned.  The fall of the Ming was much like that of previous dynasties, with rebellions, internal intrigues, economic disaster, and weak leaders.

The Qing Dynasty is the final dynasty in Chinese history.  Despite being a foreign power like the Yuan Dynasty, it too utilized legalist principles in its rule over China.  First, it essentially copied the same centralized and bureaucratic government that every other dynasty also used.  Second, the law was carried over from the Ming Dynasty.  Third, rank was given on the basis of merit via examinations.  However, Manchus were favored in this system of rank as Manchu culture was emphasized and many Qing polices reflected that.  Therefore, during the Qing era, legalist doctrine seemed to wane and this never changed.  Corruption, especially in the case of Empress Cixi, crippled the state.  Although Cixi held some legalist tendencies, such as being ruthlessly pragmatic in terms of keeping power, she cost the government dearly from her redirection of wealth from the state to her private estate.  As such, much of the Qing’s reign was a period of decline, which never occurred fully until 1911.  In addition, “As socioeconomic conditions and cultural attitudes changed, the law did not…”[21]  This means that in the late Qing, rulers were merely following what had been done before in terms of government.   But much like how legalism waned in the late Han era, legalism would eventually return.

The fall of the Qing Dynasty was similar to the fall of many previous dynasties.  First, there were a series of military defeats that greatly harmed the economy and legitimacy of the Qing government.  The first case of this was the Opium Wars, in which an alliance of several major western powers and Japan, occupied China and humiliated the Qing government.  Later, war with Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War further strained the economy and government.  Meanwhile, internally, the Qing leaders became weak with many intrigues.  In addition, rebellions further tested the Qing Dynasty.  As occurred previously with other dynasties, the Qing eventually fell.  However, this was the last Chinese dynasty as a Chinese Republic was briefly formed. 

From briefly examining legalist practice in many of these dynasties, one can draw several conclusions.  First, many of these dynasties appear to be very similar, despite looking different on the surface.  This can be seen most notably in the Qin and Sui, but many of the other dynasties also share some commonalties.  Second, many of these dynasties have clearly followed the same political system.  All of them retained the rank of emperor, first established by the Qin Dynasty and all of them had a bureaucratic, central government under an emperor.  As a result, many of these dynasties suffered from the same problems, such as military defeat, rebellions, economic hardship, natural disasters, and internal intrigues.  Since these are often the result of political policy, one can begin to see just how similar these dynasties were.  Third, most dynasties lasted for several centuries.  Although the Qin and Sui Dynasties are exceptions to this, it can be argued that their short life span contributed to the long lasting dynasties that followed them, the Han and Tang.  This proves that the system was remarkably stable, despite there being some interruptions in rule.  Also one must consider that the United States has only seen the Qing Dynasty throughout its entire lifespan, which also testifies to the stability of the legalistic system.  Another fact is that most dynasties, including the Qin and Han Dynasties, often used legalism in combination with another doctrine.  In many cases this was Confucianism and this proved to be a useful marriage of the two doctrines as it contributed to greater stability.  Fourth, the overriding concern for all the dynasties was stability, the threat of foreign invasion, infrastructure, and control of the masses.  Although this changed during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties as they were foreign, they nevertheless kept a close eye on other foreign powers.  In the Yuan, it was Japan and in the Qing, it was the West.  Nevertheless, they too invested heavily in China’s infrastructure.  Legalism also contributed to solving many problems that could have plagued China long-term.  For example, feudalism was seen as a threat to stability, therefore the legalist-style, central government was constantly utilized.  In fact, it seems that only when legalism was used too heavily or too little in the government, did the dynasties begin to have problems.  After analyzing all these facts, it seems that all of China’s many dynasties shared many common traits, which were mended together through the use of legalism.

Although all the dynasties used legalism in varying forms, one can see a distinct change most noticeably after the Han Dynasty.  This change, beginning in the Sui, was not in the doctrine of legalism, but rather the practice of it.  For example, rulers became less critical of other ideas and philosophies.  This change seemed to begin with the Sui Dynasty in which many legalist practices were modified and reformed.  As such, it was much less radical then its Qin counterpart.  Although laws were still harsh, they were much less potent than in the Qin.  One example of this is that books were merely censored instead of burned.  Although, this shift does not seem very important on the surface, it had profound impact on the development on later dynasties in China as culture was supported more and more. Therefore, this paper will distinguish the two types by acknowledging one as classical legalism, used in the Qin and Han, and the legalism that dominated the Sui, Tang, and those dynasties that followed, as neo-legalism.  However, in the modern era we see another form of legalism begin to develop.


China’s Legalist Order: From the Qin to the PRC (4): *Legalism in the Modern Era

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

[1] Shang p.126

[2] Twitchett  Qin and Han p. 104

[3] Ditto p. 107

[4] Ditto p.770

[5] Ditto p. 103.

[6] Wright, Arthur.  The Sui Dynasty: The Unification of China, A.D. 581-617. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978.  Page 8.

[7] Wright p.103.

[8] Ditto p.105.

[9] Ditto p. 124.

[10] Ditto p. 119.

[11] Ditto p. 117.

[12] Ditto p. 116.

[13] Twitchett Sui and Tang p. 138.

[14] Wright p. 202.

[15] Ditto p. 199.

[16] Ditto p. 90.

[17] Wright p. 176.

[18] Ditto p. 174.

[19] Ditto p. 179.

[20] Bary, Theodore. Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the learning of the Mind-and-Heart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.  Page 27.


[21] Peterson p. 499.

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