Thursday, September 22, 2005

A balanced view on the Legalists

Interpretation and understanding of ancients proves difficult let alone putting their ideas to good use in this modern day and age. Knowing only 1 or 2 about the ancients, one ventures forth to provide perhaps a balanced view on the Legalists of yore.

Of the better known Legalists to the West, Kungsun Yang of Uei who later became Lord Shang of Qin takes precedence. As a youth he was interested in the study of law and served as a clan officer under the prime minister of Wei. Yang later went to Qin and obtained an audience with the duke through the offices of his favorite eunuch. Employed by the duke after a few days of discussions, Lord Shang was later accredited to be the first of the Legalists who implemented rules of law to govern a state. These laws were reforms of established traditions and provided for meritocracy. Yang ensured that the laws apply equally to the people and the court officials, no matter how senior.

“Therefore when the crown prince broke the law, and since the heir apparent could not be punished, his guardian Lord Chien was punished in his stead while his tutor Lord Chia had his face tattooed. From the next day on all the people of Qin obeyed the newly implemented laws.
Later, fathers, sons and brothers were forbidden to live in one house, small villages and towns were grouped together as counties, with magistrates and vice-magistrates over them. The state was divided into 31 counties; old boundaries between fields abolished; regular taxation introduced; with weights and measures standardized. When the prince’s guardian Lord Chien broke the law again, his nose was cut off. After five years Chin was so wealthy and powerful that the King of Zhou sent sacrificial meat to the duke, and all the states offered congratulations.
Two years later, Yang tricked his old friend, Lord Ang leader of the defending Wei troops, to a peace talk where after a pledge to withdraw both troops, he was seized. The Qin army then fell upon and defeated the leaderless army of Wei. On his return, the duke rewarded him with fifteen towns as his fief and he became known as Lord Shang. For ten years, Lord Shang was the prime minister of Qin, and many of the nobles hated him.
When the duke died, and the crown prince became ruler; the followers of his guardian accused Lord Shang of plotting revolt, and officers were sent to arrest him. He fled and sought lodging for the night in a frontier inn but the inn-keeper, not knowing who he was, told him, ‘According to the laws of Lord Shang, I shall be punished if I take in a man without a permit.’ Lord Shang sighed and said, ‘So I am suffering from my own laws!’
Failing to obtain asylum in Wei, he returned to raise local troops in his fief. Qin sent an army against him and he was killed. The duke had his corpse torn limb from limb by chariots as a warning to future rebels. His family was wiped out.

Sima Qian comments: Lord Shang had a cruel nature. His falseness was shown by the way in which he tried to impress the duke with the emperor’s way and kingly way, just high-sounding talk in which he had no real interest. His inhumanity was revealed by the way he gained an audience through the duke’s favorite, but after he was in power punished Lord Chien, tricked Lord Ang of Wei and turned a deaf ear to Chao Liang’s advice. I have read his dissertations on law and government, agriculture and war, which correspond to his actions. The bad end he finally came to in Qin was no more than he deserved.”

Of Legalists during the Han dynasty, two stand out during the reign of Emperor Wen. One was Chang Shih-chih, the other Feng Tang. The Grand Historian comments: “Chang Shih-chih knew what constitutes a superior man and he upheld the law regardless of the emperor’s wishes, while Feng Tang’s comments on what makes a good general are well worth pondering too. The proverb says, “You can know a man by his friends.” The sayings of these two men deserve to be preserved in the court archives. The Book of Documents says, “No prejudice, no bias, how broad is the Kingly Way! No bias, no prejudice, how smooth is the Kingly Way!” Both Chang and Feng came close to this.” (Records of the Historian)

Laws enacted by the wise (lawmakers in parliament or congress) need to be humane and just. As harsh laws harm the people, elicit resentment and resistance. Implementation of laws needs to be tempered by mercy. That is why the wise (in courts and enforcement agencies) are given powers and leeway to impose penalties according to propriety and circumstances, without fear or favor.

When we study ancient thoughts there is also a need to learn some characteristics of the ancients. If we fail to understand what they rest on, and yet study and promote their teachings irrespective of their good or bad conduct and character then not only do we fail in our learning of humanity, we could mislead others. Is it not therefore prudent and wise to examine who or what we choose to rely on, can indeed be relied upon?

Therefore please do not influence those earnest to learn about ancient Chinese thoughts with the wrong sources, for example Lord Shang. Chang Shih-chih and Feng Tang could be better Legalist sources, but how many Westerners have heard about them and their thoughts?

I have seen one too many of professors from established Western universities (like Cambridge for instance) who revered historical figures hated by the Han people, probably teaching their partisan views to their students. It is difficult to unlearn wrong things taught by a seemingly reliable teacher. But what can be done, except do our part in pointing to the correct ancient sources and thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Very helpful post: it expands the discussion nicely. I have put a link on my site, but did not see how to do a trackback to you.

Allan said...


Thanks. I have already posted at your blog. The link is up and running if anyone wants to read the entire entry.