Legalist ideas of law, human nature and statecraft


Burton Watson, Han Feizi: Basic Writings (New York, 2003) PP. 97-130

1. Criticism directed to Confucian “chaos”

  • ‘With their learning, Confucian scholars reduce law to chaos; with their valour, the brave ones break the law’. – Han Fei
  • Instead of working (tilling the ground and weaving the cloth), you just produce your numerous theories. By opening your mouth and moving your tongue, you create right and wrong and thus mislead rulers of the whole world.
  • ‘If you abandon the compass and ruler and instead rely on your arbitrary feel, even Xie Zhong [a legendary master carpenter] cannot finish a wheel. If you throw away the meter and try to guess the length, even Wang Ni [a legendary craftsman] cannot divide a stick in halves.’ Han Fei (But compare what Xun Zi says about Li)
  • 仲尼曰:「君子中庸,小人反中庸。君子之中庸也,君子而時中;小人之中庸也,小人而無忌憚也。」 (中庸)
  • 子曰:「朝聞道,夕死可矣。」 (Lunyu 4.8)
  • 子曰:「觚不觚,觚哉!觚哉!」 (Lunyu 6.24)
  • 子曰:「君子之於天下也,無適也,無莫也,義之與比。」 (Lunyu 4.10)
  • Having explained the choices made by Bo Yi, Shu Qi, Yu Zhong, Yi Yi, Zhu Zhang, Hui of Liu Xia, and Shao Lian, Confucius says, 「我則異於是,無可無不可。」 (Lunyu, 18.8)

2. Thoroughly “rational” approach

  • ‘In order to rule the world, you need to rely on human nature. To like and to dislike is part of human nature and this is why reward and punishment can work. Reward and punishment working, prohibitions and commands can have effect. This is all there is to the true method of governance.’
  • ‘If you go against human nature, even Hercules could not have enough power to force every single man … [but] if you win people’s mind, they will all work hard without your prodding.’
  • ‘Suppose you hire a labourer to plough and sow your field. If you spend money to prepare nice food and pay him good wage, that is not because you love him. That is because, if you do that, your employee will plough more deeply and sow more carefully. If your labourer puts in a great deal of effort to plough and sow your field, that is not because he loves you. That is because, if he does that, he will get nice food and decent wage. The same applies to the relationship between father and son. What moves our mind is ultimately our self-interest.’

3. Promoting “uniformity” by eliminating dissension

  • ‘There cannot be two authorities to an order; there cannot be two right answers to a legal question.’ ‘If the law is not one, it brings disaster to the country. … When the ruler as well as the ministers, the employer as well as the employee, the magnates as well as the lowly people all follow the (uniform) law, that’s what we call great governance.’
  • ‘These days, those who spend their time with learning and training their sophistry can make a comfortable living without tilling the field and be respected without facing the risk of war. Then, who would not do that?’
  • When the ‘five vermin’ (scholars, itinerant speakers, wearers of private swords, courtiers and those engaged in service industry) are utterly eradicated, the ruler can truly emerge and the so-called wise men will have no more use.
  • War and basic industry (agriculture) are the only activities which bring real benefit to the State.
    • In the area of basic industry, reward and punishment sort out themselves (you reap what you sow).
    • ‘profits and emoluments, office and rank should be based exclusively on military merit, and there should be no other reasons for distributing them.’

4. Clear Notice

  • ‘Law must be compiled and written down in books, be made available in public offices and be widely promulgated to people.’
  • If the potential loss from a conduct is set sufficiently higher than the potential gain from the conduct, and if this situation is well publicised, people will ‘voluntarily’ refrain from doing the conduct in question (ni er bu wei: though they don’t like it, they would not fail to do it).
  • Qin Codification

5. Updating the Law

  • ‘Earlier ages had different ideology. How can you rely on their law? The legendary saints will never come back. How can you follow their principles?’
  • ‘Thus the [real] saint never tried to practise the old stuff. How can there be a permanent law? You need to analyse the things of this world and equip yourself accordingly.’
  • “A farmer in the State of Song one day saw a rabbit bumping into a stump to death in the middle of his farm. From that day one, he sat by the stump in the hope of getting many more rabbits that way. Those who insist on going back to the good old days are just like this farmer.”
  • 子曰:「周監於二代,郁郁乎文哉!吾從周。」 (Lunyu 3.14)
  • 子曰:「禮云禮云,玉帛云乎哉?樂云樂云,鐘鼓云乎哉?」 (Lunyu 17.11)

6. Perfect “techniques” of social engineering?

  • no room for moralist preachings in their conception of law.
  • no room for any claims about the ‘normative’, ‘binding’ power of law.
  • Superior technique (shu) which exploits human psychology of love and hate, likes and dislikes, fear and desire
  • “Free”, borderless competition for techniques of governance
  • ‘Those who rule a country must choose [a technique] which works for many and discard the ones which work for fewer people.’

7. Ren(仁), yi(義) and wu wei (無爲)

  • ‘Thus, we do not fear the accusations that we undermine the ruler’s interest. We do not mind the sufferings which would follow such accusations. Our determined quest for material resources to bring all the people to their fulfilment is an act of moral fortitude and wisdom. To fear the accusations about harming the ruler’s interest and to shun the risk of death following from such accusations is to know how to look after yourself and to ignore the comfort and well-being of all the people. It is a base conduct.’
  • ‘to rule without ruling (wu wei er zhi; 無爲而治)’ – everything must be driven by pursuit of self-interest.