BECK index

Legalism, Qin Empire and Han Dynasty

Book of Lord Shang
Han Fei-zi
Qin Empire 221-206 BC
Founding the Han Dynasty 206-141 BC
Wu Di's Reign 141-87 BC
Confucian China 87-30 BC

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Daoism and Mo-zi

We have seen how Chinese politics became more corrupt, cynical, and violent in the Spring and Autumn era and especially in the Period of Warring States. While many philosophers of the schools of Confucius and Mo-zi called for ethical reforms and Daoists let nature take its course or retreated into seclusion, others experimented with stricter laws and practical administration. One of the first of these was Guan Zhong, who advised Duke Huan of Qi in the early 7th century BC. His life and the fourth-century administrative reforms of the realists Shang Yang and Shen Buhai were discussed in Chapter 13 on the Zhou dynasty.


About 302 BC King Xuan of Qi founded a scholarly academy known as Chi-Xia. An influential book named after Guan Zhong called the Guan-zi was probably written around the middle of the third century BC, supplemented over time, and edited into its final version by about 26 BC. Though still often recommending the same virtues the Confucians emphasized, this work is considered a forerunner of Legalism because of its practical political philosophy.

In the Guan-zi agriculture and wealth are considered the basis of good behavior. The spirits and ancestors are to be venerated, and the four cardinal virtues are propriety, justice, integrity, and conscience. Successful government depends on following the hearts of the people. If the ruler can provide the people with prosperity and leisure, they will make sacrifices for their state. Punishment alone is not sufficient, because if it becomes excessive, orders will not be carried out. Trusting those with virtue puts the state on a firm foundation. Cultivating grain, mulberry, hemp, and domestic animals supplies the storehouses. Employing those with skill, giving orders that accord with the will of the people, using stern punishments and consistent rewards, and not cheating the people lead to good government. Those who govern should be impartial like heaven and earth, the sun and the moon. Walls and armed forces are not enough to meet the enemy, and vast territory and abundant wealth will not hold the masses, unless the way is followed.

These scholars recommended that anyone who would question the present should investigate the past, and one can understand what is to come by studying what has gone before. To control the state one must be careful how one uses the people. The sovereign can instruct the people with wisdom and propriety but must also set an example and see that expenditures are proper while excesses are avoided. Laws establish the authority of the government and make use of the people's strength and ability. Serious attention must be paid to the granting of offices, their rewards, and to punishments. Collective responsibility for crime extends from the members to the head of the family, from them to group leaders, then to clan elders, the village commandant, subdistrict prefects, the district governor, and finally to the chief justice. Rewards were similarly applied, giving authority figures strong incentives to influence those under them.

The Guan-zi criticized such Moist ideas as abolishing the use of arms and universal love out of fear that the troops would not fight. The art of warfare is discussed, commending speed, lightness of equipment, well organized troops, destruction of enemy fields, well paid spies, and prohibition of unorthodox doctrines. As usual, military morality violates universal ethical principles. Yet in the model guidelines the prince is urged to conform to the will of heaven in initiating affairs of state. This is interpreted as not bestowing favors on those close to him nor disdaining those far away. The prince is warned not to reward just because he is pleased nor to kill because he is angry; for if his orders are capricious, they will not be carried out, and the people will turn to outsiders. Pragmatically this work suggests examining the results when promoting what one thinks is good and counting the cost when one rejects what one dislikes. The prince should encourage those he respects, provide salaries for those with merit, and honor those who achieve success. Here spreading universal love is considered spreading the princely mind.

The people can be influenced in a moral way by caring for them with kindness, humanity, justice, goodness, faithfulness, and propriety. They can be harmonized with music, limited with time, tested with words, sent forth with strength, and overawed with sincerity. However, one who is incompetent in government has barren fields, empty towns, offices in disarray, laws ignored, empty granaries, and full jails. The worthy withdraw, while the wicked advance; officials esteem flattery and look down on honesty. Citizens honor profit-seeking and despise martial courage; they love drinking and eating but abhor agricultural labor. The result will be exhaustion of fiscal resources and lack of food. Such a ruler is extremely severe and demanding, while the officials are disobedient and destructive, resulting in discord.

Benevolent government opens up fields, regulates shops, cultivates horticulture, exhorts the citizenry, encourages farming, repairs the walls and buildings, and circulates wealth by developing hidden resources, building roads, making markets convenient, and providing travel lodgings. Government is liberalized by easing exactions, lightening levies, relaxing punishments, pardoning crimes, and forgiving minor errors. The people are assisted by being compassionate to orphans, the widowed, the sick, and the unfortunate. They are further aided in distress by clothing the freezing, feeding the starving, assisting the poor, and comforting the upset. Benevolent government can then lead to just conduct and propriety, resulting in respect.

Heaven serves with its seasons, earth with its natural resources, spirits with their omens, and animals with their strength; but humans serve with their virtue. The Guan-zi notes that nothing destroys goods, impoverishes the people, endangers the country, or causes the ruler concern more than the armed forces; but from the ancient times no one has been able to dispense with them. Violent and reckless princes cannot avoid external disorders, but weak and irresolute princes cannot avoid internal disorders. Finally Guan-zi advises us that the enlightened kings governed by being cautious and making the people happy.

The best thing is to criticize oneself.
Then the people will not have to criticize.
The people will criticize those who are unable to criticize themselves.
Therefore, being able to judge one's own mistakes represents strength.
Cultivating one's moral integrity represents wisdom.
Not blaming evil on others represents goodness.
Therefore, when the enlightened kings made mistakes,
they took the blame themselves.
When they did well, they gave credit to the people.
When there are mistakes and one takes the blame oneself,
one becomes cautious.
When things are done well and credit is given to the people,
they are happy.1

Book of Lord Shang

At the same time the book named after Guan Zhong was circulating in the third century, there was another legalist tract going around attributed to the fourth-century chancellor of Qin, Shang Yang, called the Book of Lord Shang. It begins with a discussion led by Duke Xiao with three great officers on the world's affairs. The Duke wants to alter the laws but is afraid of being criticized by the people. Believing that the people's thoughts do not matter at the beginning, but they may rejoice in the completion, Shang Yang says, "The law is an expression of love for the people."2 He believes the wise do not model themselves on antiquity nor adhere to established rites if they can benefit the people. The wise create laws, but the foolish are controlled by them. The great emperors and kings of the past did not copy one another but acted according to practical requirements. Thus according to Shang Yang's advice, the Duke decided to bring the waste lands under cultivation.

In order to strengthen the country Shang Yang believed that everyone's efforts should be devoted to agriculture and war. A strict legalist, Shang Yang's book is definitely anti-Confucian, as seen by the beginning of the section on "Discussion About the People."

Sophistry and cleverness are an aid to lawlessness;
rites and music are symptoms of dissipations and license;
kindness and benevolence are the foster-mother of transgressions;
employment and promotion are opportunities
for the rapacity of the wicked.3

These eight things would make the people stronger than the government and the state weak. Shang Yang wanted the government to be stronger than the people so that the army will be strong, and the state can attain supremacy. If the officials are virtuous, the people will love their relatives; but if officials are wicked, people will love the statutes and spy on others so that crimes will be punished. Thus this book actually argues against virtue and the strength of the people but for a strong government and army. The poor should be urged to work by rewards, and the rich should be punished so that they will not be parasites. Private rewards to those below should be forbidden so that the people will fight forcibly against the enemy.

In the best ordered state the laws are clear, and the judgments are made by the families; in a merely strong state judgments are made by the officials; and in a weak and disordered state judgments are made by the prince. Shang Yang's book recommends statistical methods in cultivating the grass lands and making uniform rewards for soldiers. Orderly government is to be brought about by law, good faith, and correct standards. When rights and duties are clearly established by law, self-interest will not do harm.

The Book of Lord Shang criticizes contemporary states that are disorderly because of private benefits going to those in office. Bad ministers let their standards be influenced by money in order to obtain emoluments. When the ministers compete with each other in selfishness and neglect the people, inferiors are estranged from superiors, dividing the state. States are in disorder, because the law is not applied. Crimes are committed, because their perpetrators are not caught. This book argues that if punishments are too light, crime cannot be eradicated; but when punishments are heavy, people will not dare to do wrong. Then everyone will be virtuous without rewarding the virtuous. Rewarding the virtuous is not permissible, because it is like giving rewards for not stealing. The good may be good toward others but cannot cause others to be good; they may love others but cannot cause others to love. Thus goodness is not sufficient for governing the empire. The wise insist on good faith and have a method (law) by which the whole empire can be compelled to have good faith. Thus when law is correctly administered, the result will be virtue.

The legalist argues that if a condition can be brought about where there is no other standard than the law, then the clever will be unable to do wrong. If people are controlled by law and if promotions are awarded by following systematic rules, then they will not be able to benefit each other with praise nor harm each other with slander. Then they will become accustomed to loving each other without flattery and hating each other without injuring each other, thus purifying love and hatred and producing the highest degree of order. Some of these principles of law are commendable, in my opinion, but the accompanying ideas of control by harsh punishments and that people should not be allowed to exert their capabilities in anything other than farming or war are abominable.

Han Fei-zi

Unlike the other great Chinese philosophers of this era (Lao-zi, Confucius, Mo-zi, Mencius, Zhuang-zi, and Xun-zi) who were impoverished noblemen, Han Fei-zi was a prince of the royal family in the state of Han. He was born around 280 BC and studied under the Confucian realist Xun-zi at the Chi-Xia academy along with Li Si, who considered Han the better student, according to Sima Qian's biography. Since he was not a good speaker, Han Fei submitted his writings to the rulers of Han. The king of Han, however, did not apply them; but Han Fei continued to complain that ambitious scholars and militarists were given prominence over honest gentlemen.

Eventually the writings of Han Fei came to the attention of the young king of Qin, who began ruling in 246 BC and went on to become the founding Emperor of the Qin dynasty, Shi Huang Di. His prime minister was Han Fei's old friend Li Si, who informed his sovereign these writings were Han Fei's. In 234 BC Qin attacked the state of Han, and their king An sent Han Fei as his envoy to Qin. The king of Qin was delighted to meet the philosopher, but Li Si warned the king that Han Fei was of the royal family of Han and likely to remain loyal to that state and therefore be against Qin. Charges were brought against Han Fei, who wanted to plead his case before the king, but he was not allowed an audience.

So Han Fei sent a written memorial in which he acknowledged the perpendicular alliance formed from a north-south line of countries against the western power of Qin; but he argued that they were weak and likely to run away in a confrontation, because they have no faith in rewards and punishments. In contrast the people of Qin respect courageous death, and it is a much more powerful country. Nevertheless Qin has not yet gained hegemony, because its counselors are not loyal. Han Fei suggested that Qin could conquer the powerful Chu in the south and Qi and Yan in the east as well as the three states of Zhao, Han, and Wei, which had formed out of Jin. He recounted several times in history when Qin lost its opportunity to gain this hegemony. Han Fei declared that if his advice was followed and Qin did not gain hegemony, then the king could behead him as a warning to others.

In another memorial Han Fei urged the king of Qin to treat Han as a loyal ally rather than an enemy so that the perpendicular alliance would not be mobilized against him. However, Li Si argued against this theory to the king and sent poison to Han Fei in prison. Han Fei, unable to communicate with the king, drank it and died in 233 BC. Although the king regretted his decision and pardoned Han Fei, it was too late.

Han Fei-zi is the main representative of the school of philosophy called Fa-jia, the legalists or realists. He drew the concept of law (fa) from the Book of Lord Shang and the idea of administration (shu) from the writings of Shen Buhai. From the logicians he borrowed the theory of forms and names (xing-ming), which he applied to politics as the correspondence between administrators' words and job descriptions and their actual functioning in practice.

Han Fei-zi was also very much influenced by Daoism, making a strange combination of legalistic authoritarianism and passive acceptance. His essay on the "Way of the Ruler" shows this relationship. It begins,

The way is the beginning of all beings
and the measure of right and wrong.
Therefore the enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning
in order to understand the wellspring of all beings,
and minds the measure
in order to know the source of good and bad.
He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves
and affairs reach their own settlement.
Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness;
being still, he can correct the mover.
Those whose duty it is to speak
will come forward to name themselves;
those whose duty it is to act will produce results.
When names and realities match,
the ruler need do nothing more
and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

Hence it is said: The ruler must not reveal his desires;
for if he reveals his desires
his ministers will put on the mask that pleases him.4

Han Fei-zi did not want the ruler to be manipulated by his ministers, which is why he advised the sovereign not to reveal his will or express his likes and dislikes. The wise ruler does not expose his wisdom but has everyone know their place, does not display his worth but observes the motives of the ministers, and does not flaunt bravery in shows of indignation but allows subordinates to demonstrate their valor. The officials have their regular duties, and each is employed according to specific ability. The ruler practices inaction, but the ministers below tremble in fear. The inferior ruler uses his own ability; the average ruler uses the people's strength; and the best ruler uses the people's wisdom.

The ruler takes credit for accomplishments but holds ministers responsible for their errors. The ministers labor and display wisdom, but the ruler is their corrector and maintains an untarnished reputation. The ruler should know but not let it be known that he knows. Each person's words are to be compared with their results. Officials should not know what others are doing. No one must be allowed to covet his power in this authoritarian regime. The ruler uses the two handles of rewards and punishments to control others and examines results to see how they match his objectives. The ruler is to be immeasurably great and unfathomably deep, while any attempt of ministers to form cliques is to be smashed.

Thus ministers should not be allowed to shut out the ruler nor control the wealth of the state nor issue their own orders nor do good deeds in their own name nor build up cliques so that the ruler will not lose effectiveness, the means of dispensing bounties and command, his reputation for enlightenment, and his support. The way of the ruler is to observe calmly what others say and do without speaking or doing himself. He notes proposals and examines their results. He assigns tasks to ministers according to what they say and the accomplishments that result. Those whose deeds match their words are rewarded; when things do not match, they are punished. These rewards and punishments must be dispensed objectively so that even those close to the ruler may be punished and those far away can be sure of reward. Thus all will have to make effort, and none can be too proud.

Nevertheless for Han Fei-zi what transcends even the ruler is the law. "On Having Standards" explains that an enlightened ruler uses the law to select officials by weighing their merits without attempting to judge them himself. True worth will not remain hidden, and faults will not be glossed over. Praise will not help some advance, nor will calumny drive others from the court. Ministers are to be like the hands and feet of the ruler, not presuming to use their mouths to speak for private advantage or their eyes to look for private gain. Even the ruler must never use wise ministers and able servants for selfish ends so that the government can be consistent and good.

Han Fei-zi disdained those who leave their posts to search for another sovereign, controvert the law with false doctrines, censure their sovereign, try to gain a name for themselves by doling out charity, or even those who withdraw from the world and criticize their superiors or seek favorable relations with other states in order to make themselves indispensable in a crisis. If the ruler tries to monitor the government with his own eyes, ears, and mind, he can be manipulated by what is presented to him. Thus the ancient kings relied on law and policy to make sure that rewards and punishments were correctly implemented. Then even clever speakers could not deceive them. Authority and power should never be in more than one place or else abuse will become rife. If law is not respected, all the ruler's actions will be endangered. If penalties are not enforced, evil cannot be overcome. Even the highest minister must not be allowed to escape punishment, nor should the lowest peasant's reward be skipped. Thus those in high positions will not abuse the humble. If laws are clearly defined, superiors will be honored, and rights will not be invaded.

Han Fei-zi warned the ruler against eight villainies. Though a ruler may share his bed with beauties, he should not listen to their special pleas. He should hold attendants personally responsible for their words and not allow them to speak out of turn. He should not allow kin and elder statesmen to escape appropriate punishment nor advance them arbitrarily. Buildings may be constructed to delight the ruler, but officials should not be allowed to use them to ingratiate themselves. Orders for doling out charity in time of need must never come from ministers but from the ruler. The true abilities of those who are flattered must be determined, likewise the faults of those who are denounced. Military heroes should not be given unduly large rewards, and those who take up arms in a private quarrel must never be pardoned. Officials must not be allowed to have their own soldiers, and requests of feudal lords should be granted if they are lawful, but rejected if they are not.

In the essay "Ten Faults" Han Fei-zi listed them briefly and then gives numerous historical examples of each one. The list is as follows:

1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty.
2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one.
3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall.
4. To give no ear to government affairs but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress.
5. To be greedy, perverse, and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state and your own demise.
6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction.
7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself.
8. To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others.
9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment.
10. To insult big powers even though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of your ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.5

Han Fei-zi also wrote on the difficulties of persuading a ruler. This requires more than general knowledge and the ability to express oneself well. The most difficult part is to know the mind of the person one is trying to persuade so that fitting words can be used. One does not talk about profit to one who is seeking a reputation for virtue; and if one is talking to someone who wants profit, it is useless to talk about virtue. If the person secretly wants gain but claims to be virtuous, and you talk about virtue, he will pretend to listen but ignore you. If you talk about profit, he will appear to reject your advice but secretly follow it. Han Fei-zi also discussed many other complicated situations, many of them quite dangerous for the advisor because of the insecurity of the sovereign. He concluded that it is not difficult to know something; the difficulty is in knowing how to use what one knows.

For Han Fei-zi the wise governs by rectifying laws clearly and establishing severe penalties in order to prevent the strong from exploiting the weak and the many from oppressing the few, to enable the old and infirm to die in peace and the young and orphans to grow freely, to make sure frontiers are not invaded, the ruler and minister are on intimate terms, fathers and sons support each other, and people do not worry about being killed in war or taken prisoner. He believed that stupid people want order but dislike the true path to order, which he considered to be the severe penalties, even though they are hated by people. Mercy and pity are welcomed by the people, but Han Fei-zi believed they endanger the state. Although he acknowledged that the legalist who makes laws in the state acts contrary to prevailing public opinion, he nevertheless believed that this is in accord with the way, virtue, and justice.

In "Precautions within the Palace" Han Fei-zi wrote that it is dangerous for the ruler to trust others, for whoever trusts others will be controlled by them. Ministers have no blood bonds with their ruler, and they never stop trying to spy into the sovereign's mind. Thus many rulers are intimidated, and some are even murdered. If the ruler trusts his son or his consort, evil ministers may find ways to use them for their private schemes. The ruler must make sure that no one receives unearned rewards nor oversteps their authority. Death penalties must be executed, and no crime must go unpunished. However, if too much compulsory labor is demanded of people, they will feel afflicted and join local power groups. Local power groups then work to exempt people from labor service which enables their leaders to grow rich on bribes. Thus the ruler should keep labor services minimal so that the power groups will disappear, and all favors will come from the sovereign. Han Fei-zi was afraid that if the ruler lends even a little of his power to others, the superior and inferior will change places. Thus no ministers should be allowed to borrow the power and authority of the ruler.

According to Han Fei-zi the ruler should be so strict that if what a minister says beforehand does not tally with what he says or does later, he must be punished even though he may have fulfilled his task with distinction. This, he believed, will keep the subordinates responsible. Han Fei-zi held that the ruler must be strict enough to put these theories into practice even though it means going against the will of the people. He noted how Lord Shang had to be guarded with iron spears and heavy shields, and eventually the people of Qin tore apart his body with two chariots. When Guan Zhong first instituted his reforms in Qi, Duke Huan had to ride in an armored carriage.

Writing on "Pretensions and Heresies," Han Fei-zi argued that it is the duty of the sovereign to establish the laws and standards of right and distinguish these from private interests. Most ministers want to exalt their private wisdom; but if they condemn the law as wrong, their creeds must be regarded as heresy and suppressed. The ruler must forbid private favors and enforce what is ordered. Yet the private virtue of ministers is to practice personal faith with friends and not be encouraged by reward or discouraged by punishment. This, Han Fei-zi believed, leads to disorder; but where public virtue is practiced, there is order. Though ministers have selfish motives, their public duty is to obey orders and behave unselfishly in office. Thus ministers must use their calculating minds to put aside selfish motives and serve the ruler. The ruler also calculates how to protect the state from injury by private interests and uses rewards and penalties to overawe them.

The commentaries on the teachings of Lao-zi in the Han Fei-zi may have been by his followers in an era when legalism was trying to survive by merging with Daoism. Some of the interpretations become rather absurd, as when compassion is extended to military victory and defense in order to be compassionate to one's soldiers (What about the enemy's?) and even more absurdly to the weapons themselves. What could be more perverted than that?

When Han Fei-zi's sage-king makes laws, the rewards must be enough to encourage the good, and his authority strong enough to subjugate the violent; his preparation must be sufficient to accomplish his task. In this system the good live on and flourish, while the bad fade away and die. If the pronouncements of the sovereign are clear and easy to understand, his promises can be kept. If the laws are easy to be observed, his orders will be effective. If the superiors are not self-seeking, the inferiors will obey the law.

Han Fei-zi also recommended seven tactics to the sovereign and then gave historical examples of how they work. The first is to compare and inspect all available and different theories. Second, punishments must be definite and authority clear. Third, rewards are to be bestowed faithfully, and everyone is to exercise their abilities. Fourth, the ruler should listen to all sides of every story and hold speakers responsible for their words. So far these are clear and straightforward, but the last three use deception and manipulation to enhance the power of the ruler. The fifth is to issue spurious edicts and pretend to make certain appointments. Sixth, one may inquire into cases by manipulating different information, and seventh, words may be inverted and tasks reversed. Ostensibly the purpose of the last three is to help the ruler find out the truth by using indirect methods, but the lack of integrity and damage to credibility certainly makes them questionable for the long term.

Han Fei-zi argued that people can be deterred from even small crimes by serious penalties, and then they will not commit major crimes at all. Thus he hoped that a strong government will not allow any serious crimes. Yet the problem is that criminals are not always caught no matter how vigilant the government may be. He noted that the gold-diggers in the south could not be stopped from stealing gold-dust even though some were caught and stoned to death in the marketplace, and there is no chastisement more severe than that.

Duke Jing once asked a poor man about the prices in the market. Yen-zi replied that ordinary shoes are cheap, but shoes for the footless are expensive. Duke Jing, who had been busy inflicting many punishments (cutting off feet), was embarrassed. Thinking he was too cruel, he abolished five laws of the criminal code. Yet he was criticized by Han Fei-zi, who argued that loosening censure and giving pardons benefit the crooks and injure the good and thus do not lead to political order.

Han Fei-zi did not consider personnel administration easy, but the ruler must regulate officials with rules and measures, and then compare their actions with their words. Projects that are lawful should be carried out; those that are not should be stopped. Results matching proposals should be rewarded; those not producing corresponding results should be punished. Han Fei-zi believed that only about one person out of a hundred would act correctly simply out of virtue, but everyone loves profit and dislikes injury. Thus effective government cannot rely on virtue. He believed that if the punishment for desertion is heavy, no one will run away from the enemy.

Han Fei-zi criticized those who believed that heavy penalties injure the people and are unnecessary, because light penalties can be used. He argued that heavy penalties are more likely to deter than light ones, and therefore they can prevent all crime. I believe the error in his logic is that he incorrectly generalizes that heavy penalties will stop all crimes, which is not the case. He noted that people often trip on ant-hills, but no one stumbles over a mountain. He argued that people will either ignore light penalties or trip on them like traps. This may be true, but may not using heavy penalties like mountains lead to a monstrous society?

Han Fei-zi described five kinds of customs as vermin, which he felt caused a disordered state. Scholars, who praise ancient kings for their virtue, put on a fair appearance but cast doubt on the laws of the time and confuse the ruler. Persuaders present false schemes and borrow influence from abroad to further their private interests but injure the welfare of the state's land and grain. Heroic swordsmen gather bands of followers and violate the government's prohibitions. Courtiers gather in private homes and bribe influential men to get out of military service. Finally, artisans and merchants make and collect useless articles and luxuries, accumulating wealth, cornering markets, and exploiting farmers.

Han Fei-zi pointed out that even the wise Confucius was subordinate to Duke Ai of Lu because of his authority. He realistically argued that the people and even kings are not able to rise to the goodness and justice of a Confucius, who could convince only seventy followers. Rather the enlightened ruler should make punishments certain as well as severe so that people will fear them. Rewards should be generous and consistent so that people will seek them. The best laws are uniform and inflexible so that people understand them. Rewards must not be delayed nor should mercy deflect the administering of punishment. Praise accompanying the reward and censure following the punishment both stimulate people to do their best. The wise ruler takes into consideration the scarcity or plenty of the time. Punishments may need to be light but not because of compassion, while severe penalties are not imposed because the ruler is cruel. Circumstances change, and the ways of dealing with them must also change. Here Han Fei-zi showed some flexibility but still did not waver from his calculated policy.

One method Han Fei-zi recommended for making rewards and punishments more effective was to have people watch each other and be responsible for reporting crimes in their community. By rewarding those who denounce criminals and punishing those who refuse to do so as complicit, he hoped that all kinds of culprits would be detected. However, this innovation, which was actually a regression to primitive times, was implemented by Lord Shang in Qin in the fourth century BC; it was one of the reasons he was so unpopular and led to his death.

Han Fei-zi coldly and calculatingly suggested methods of behavioral modification as political theory under an authoritarian system of monarchy. He brought these to the attention of the leaders in the powerful state of Qin, where he became the first casualty of a policy that allows no one to challenge the authority of the ruler. Next we shall examine what happened when Qin implemented these ideas in its conquest of China.

Qin Empire 221-206 BC

In 221 BC when Qin took over Qi, the last of the other six states, King Zheng's first official act was to declare himself First August Emperor (Shih Huang Di) of what we still call China from the name of his state of Qin. He abolished the traditional practice of having posthumous names assigned by one's successor and expected his successors to be called August Emperor of the second generation and third on down to one thousand and ten thousand generations, but ironically his dynasty was to end about four years after his own death.

According to current cosmology the element water was to succeed the fire of the Zhou dynasty, and so the First Emperor adopted the corresponding characteristics of water such as the color black, the number six, and the harsh punishments of strict laws as indicated by the season winter. For this reason he refused to pardon any crimes. The chancellor suggested that feudal kings be set up in each region as the Zhou dynasty had done, but the commandant of justice, Li Si, argued that the son of heaven had been unable to control feudal rulers. Since the power of the new Emperor had united all the civilized areas between the seas, they should be made into provinces and districts in the usual Qin administration. The Emperor agreed with this, hoping that the unending warfare of the kings and marquises could thus be pacified by his sole rule.

So the empire was divided into 36 provinces, each with a governor, military commandant, and superintendent. Weapons from all over the empire were confiscated and brought to the capital at Xian-yang, where they were melted down and cast into bells and statues of twelve giants weighing 29 tons each. All weights and measures were standardized as was the writing system. According to the historian Sima Qian, 120,000 rich and powerful families from all over the empire were moved to the capital. Replicas of the palaces of the conquered states were reconstructed near Xianyang. Extensive mansions with elevated walks and fenced pavilions were filled with beautiful women and treasure taken from the feudal states.

Broad highways were built and lined with trees. The Emperor traveled and erected stone markers with inscriptions praising his accomplishments and claiming that "all is gauged by law and pattern."6 He exalted agriculture and abolished "lesser occupations." The edicts proclaimed that evil and wrongdoing were no longer permitted; so everyone was to practice goodness and integrity. When the Emperor had difficulty crossing a river because of winds, he ordered 3,000 convict laborers to cut down all the trees on the mountain of the offending goddess. In 218 BC when an attempted assassination failed, he ordered a search of the entire empire for ten days. Further inscriptions claim that he captured the kings of the six states, united all under heaven, ended harm and disaster, and then laid aside his arms for all time; he ordered the whole universe and had established justice, and his honored office holders so understood their duties that everything proceeded without ill feeling or doubt.

The Emperor had local walls and fortifications torn down, waterways improved, and canals built. He claimed that when the land was fixed, the masses were freed from their forced labor; but in fact for ten years an army of 300,000 under General Meng Tian was not only fighting the barbarians in the north but also building the Great Wall to defend the empire. In 214 BC 500,000 men, who had run away from conscription or evaded taxes, were sent to invade Luliang. Convicts were sent to populate newly conquered territories.

One day in 213 BC when the Emperor was entertaining seventy scholars with wine, one of them complained that the sons and brothers of the Emperor were commoners and that if anyone threatened him he would not be able to respond, because the Emperor had gone against the ancient tradition. The Emperor asked for discussion, and the chancellor Li Si replied that the greatest emperors did not imitate each other. He criticized past feudal strife and praised the Emperor's unified rule. Li Si then complained that scholars study antiquity and criticize their own age to mislead and confuse people. This discussion of the Emperor's laws causes problems and should be prohibited. Li Si therefore recommended that all historical records other than Qin's be burned. Anyone other than approved academicians with literature or writings of the philosophers must turn them in to be burned within thirty days or be subjected to tattoo and "wall dawn" labor. Books on medicine, divination, agriculture, and forestry were exempt, apparently because they were considered of practical value; but they could only be studied under the tutelage of a law official. Furthermore anyone who used antiquity to criticize the present was to be executed along with his family.

The next year the Emperor felt his palace at Xianyang was too small; so he ordered the building of an immense palace at Epang that was connected to the Xianyang palace by an elevated walk across the Wei River. 700,000 people condemned to castration and convict labor were called up for this project and to build the Emperor's secret mausoleum at Mount Li, where 30,000 households were transported. All 270 palaces in the Xianyang area were connected by elevated walks and walled roads. Anyone revealing where the Emperor was visiting at the moment was put to death.

Once the Emperor happened to notice the large number of carriages and attendants of the chancellor. A eunuch reported this to Li Si, who reduced the number of his carriages; but the Emperor was so outraged by the leak of information that he had all those eunuchs who attended him that day executed, since none confessed. Two advisors, noting the increasing arrogance of the Emperor and the futility of anyone trying to give him advice on pain of death, fled in secret. This led to an investigation of all the scholars in the capital and the execution of 460. Meanwhile increasing numbers of convicts were being transported to the border regions. When the oldest son Fusu tried to remonstrate with the Emperor, he was sent to supervise the activities of General Meng Tian in the north.

In 211 BC a meteor landed, and someone inscribed on the stone, "The First Emperor will die, and his land will be divided."7 Failing to find the author, the Emperor had everyone in the area put to death and the stone pulverized. The next year the Emperor went on tour with Li Si and his youngest son Huhai accompanying him. The magicians put off the Emperor, who was intent on finding the herb of immortality, by saying a large fish prevented them from getting to the island of immortality. The Emperor dreamed that he was struggling with an ocean god and later shot a huge fish himself with his crossbow. Shortly after that he fell ill; when his condition became grave, he wrote a letter under the imperial seal to his son Fusu, telling him to carry out the burial in the capital. The letter was sealed and given to Zhao Gao, the eunuch in charge of the seals, but it had not yet been entrusted to a messenger when the Emperor died at Sand Hill.

Only Prince Huhai, chancellor Li Si, Zhao Gao, and five or six trusted eunuchs knew of the First Emperor's death. Since they were far from the capital and no heir had been designated, Li Si kept it a secret and put the body in a closed carriage where imperial government continued. Zhao Gao, who had kept the letter to Fusu and was Huhai's tutor, went to the latter and persuaded him to go along with what he knew was not virtuous. Huhai reluctantly agreed to let Zhao Gao consult with chancellor Li Si, and after a long discussion of Li Si's opposing prospects, he too agreed to Zhao Gao's proposal. Thus the three plotted together. Pretending they received an edict from the First Emperor making Huhai the successor, they forged a letter to the elder son Fusu accusing him and General Meng Tian of many things and suggesting that they commit suicide.

Receiving the letter, Fusu wept and prepared to take his life, but Meng Tian recommended waiting for confirmation. At the messenger's insistent urging the prince committed suicide, and Meng Tian, who refused to do so, was imprisoned. As the Emperor's corpse was being returned to the capital, surrounding carriages were loaded with fish to disguise the smell. The body of the First Emperor was interred in the immense mausoleum at Mount Li along with the women in his harem who bore no sons and the artisans who knew about the secret tomb.

The Second Emperor was 21 years old and entrusted the handling of state affairs to Zhao Gao, who urged him to make the laws sterner and the penalties more severe and extended to accomplices and families so that the chief ministers, who sow dissension, could be wiped out and the former Emperor's officials be replaced by those who could be trusted by the new Emperor. Meng Tian was forced to take poison, and his younger brother, some of the chief ministers, and six (or twelve) princes were executed in the marketplace of Xianyang; all their wealth was confiscated by the state.

Construction work on the Epang palace and roads resumed, making taxes and levies on labor increasingly heavy. 50,000 crossbowmen were brought to the capital from all over the empire, and for them and their dogs, horses, and other animals food had to be shipped in from surrounding areas, increasing hardships.

In the late summer of 209 BC a former laborer named Chen She, who was in charge of transporting 900 convicts to a penitentiary settlement, was delayed by rain from arriving on time. Knowing that his penalty for tardiness would be death, he started a rebellion and declared himself king of Chu. Using plow handles and sticks they rampaged over the empire. Numerous young men, calling themselves the magnifiers of Chu, murdered provincial Qin officials and set themselves up as marquises and kings, joined forces, and planned to attack Qin.

When an official returning from the area reported the rebellion, the enraged Emperor ordered him punished. After that, envoys when questioned replied that it was just a bunch of bandits, who would soon be captured; this pleased the Emperor. Li Si tried to remonstrate with the Emperor, but he would not listen to him. The Emperor said that to work hard all the time like past emperors mentioned in Han Fei-zi's "Five Vermin" was to be a slave when his sole concern should be to gratify himself. Li Si's son was governor of a province the rebels had invaded, and he had not been able to stop them. By winter a rebel army of several hundred thousand was approaching the capital, but General Zhang Han, using a force of convicts pardoned and released from working on the Emperor's monument, forced the rebels to retreat to the east, where Chen She was assassinated by his charioteer. However, by now the rebellion was widespread.

Li Si was reprimanded for allowing such outbreaks of bandits; so he wrote a scholarly reply to the Emperor in which he quoted from Shen Buhai and Han Fei-zi, arguing that if the techniques of supervision and reprimand are correctly applied, one cannot fail. Pleased, the Emperor increased the severity of the supervising and reprimanding activities. Those officials who squeezed the most taxes out of people were admired, as were those who put the largest numbers of people to death. Zhao Gao convinced the Emperor that he should not expose his shortcomings before the chief ministers in court but rather make decisions in the inner recesses of the palace, where he himself and a few other attendants could wait upon him.

Soon all decisions were being made by Zhao Gao. This powerful eunuch then went to Li Si and asked him to remonstrate with the Emperor. Li Si said he would but could not see the Emperor, because he was hidden away. Zhao Gao offered to tell Li Si when was a good time to request an interview; but instead he told him the times when the Emperor was relaxing and did not want to be disturbed. Already perturbed, the Emperor was easily persuaded that Li Si and his son should be investigated. Unable to see the Emperor, Li Si wrote a memorial warning that Zhao Gao's power was dangerous.

However, the young Emperor trusted his long-time tutor and had Li Si arrested instead. Zhao Gao had Li Si beaten until he confessed. In a letter to the Emperor Li Si listed his crimes as helping his king to annex all six states and become Emperor, driving out barbarians, honoring loyal ministers, standardizing measures and ordinances, constructing roads and pleasure parks, and relaxing penalties and lessening taxes. When the Emperor sent someone to question him, Li Si refused to speak, because he thought he was like the others who had examined him. Li Si's son had been killed by the rebels, but Zhao Gao falsified the report to make it look like he was a traitor. Finally Li Si underwent the most severe punishment of the five mutilations, and his body was cut in two in the marketplace. All his relatives were also executed.

Zhao Gao was made chancellor. Zhang Han, losing battles against the fighters of Chu, sent the chief official to the capital for instructions, but Zhao Gao refused to see him or believe him. Learning that Zhao Gao was controlling the government and that he would be executed whether he won in battle or not, Zhang Han and others surrendered their armies to the leaders of the states. To test the ministers Zhao Gao had a deer presented to the Emperor but said it was a horse. The Emperor laughed at his chancellor calling a deer a horse and then asked his courtiers. Some who wanted to please Zhao Gao said it was a horse, and Zhao Gao secretly made sure that those who said it was a deer were charged with crimes.

When Zhao Gao realized that the former states had set up kings and were defeating the Qin forces, he was afraid he would be punished for misleading the Emperor about the seriousness of the problem. So with his son-in-law he staged a fake rebel attack on the palace, killed thirty or forty guards, and forced the Second Emperor to commit suicide. When the one eunuch, who had remained loyal to the Emperor, was asked by the Emperor why he did not warn him sooner, he replied that if he had dared to speak he would have been put to death long before.

Zhao Gao summoned all the officials and the royal family to inform them he had punished the Second Emperor. Then he set up Ziying, son of an older brother of the Second Emperor, as king of Qin, since the six independent states would have made the title Emperor a mockery. Afraid he would be put to death in the temple, Ziying waited for Zhao Gao to come get him where he was fasting. Then Ziying stabbed and killed Zhao Gao and had his relatives executed. After 46 days the Qin armies were defeated, and Ziying surrendered with a rope around his neck.

Liu Bang, the governor of Pei, entered the capital without destroying it; but Xiang Yu came and burned the city, probably destroying more literature than the recent official burning of books. Ziying and the rest of the royal family were executed; the Qin empire was dead in 206 BC. Xiang Yu declared himself protector king of Western Chu and divided the empire among various kings and marquises, making Liu Bang king of Han.

A Confucian scholar named Jia I (201-169 BC) wrote the "Faults of Qin." He observed that Qin's long military dominance was primarily due to its strategic geographical position in the fertile Wei River valley surrounded by mountains and the Yellow River with only a narrow pass to defend. Although the people hoped for peace under the unified empire, he criticized the First Emperor for being greedy and short-sighted and never trusting his officials nor getting to know the people. He cast aside the royal way by relying on private procedures, outlawing writings, making laws and penalties harsh, putting deceit first and humanity and justice last, and leading the whole world in violence and cruelty. These methods may have worked temporarily in seizing an empire, but they did not work in preserving it.

Similarly Jia I argued that the Second Emperor might have been able to answer the people's hopes if he had cared for the nation's ills, corrected the First Emperor's errors, apportioned the land to the people, enfeoffed worthy ministers, set up states to order the empire with propriety, emptied the prisons, pardoned those condemned to death, abolished slavery and humiliating punishments, allowed people to return to their villages, opened the granaries and dispersed funds to help orphans and the poor, lightened taxes and labor requirements, simplified laws and reduced penalties, and allowed people to make a new beginning and practice integrity, presiding over the empire with authority and virtue; then the people would have flocked to him. However, the Second Emperor did not adopt these policies but rather multiplied laws and made punishments harsher with unjust rewards and penalties and unlimited taxes and levies. Officials could not supervise all the tasks assigned, and people sank into poverty and destitution. Then villainy and deceit sprang up all around, as superiors and inferiors turned on each other. The numbers of those accused of crimes grew, and everyone feared for their safety. Thus people were easily aroused to violent rebellion.

Founding the Han Dynasty

After Qin commander Zhang Han defeated the first rebel attack inside the Hangu Pass, Wu Chen went to Zhao, where he set himself up as king of Zhao, Chen Yu as general, and Zhang Er and Shao Sao as prime ministers. Rebel leader Chen She wanted to have all their families executed, but his chief minister, Cai Ci, convinced him that this would be plaguing the people with a second Qin; so he confirmed their positions. Chen She, calling himself king of Chu, asked them for troops to attack the Hangu Pass again, but they decided it was safer to seize Yan. Zhang Han attacked the city of Chen and killed Cai Ci; Chen She retreated and was murdered by his carriage driver. Chen She had ruthlessly executed an old peasant friend of his for embarrassing him and had appointed two men, who severely punished generals for not carrying out orders exactly.

Two officials in Pei, Xiao He and Cao Can, urged the magistrate there to revolt, but he changed his mind. Liu Bang shot a message over the wall which convinced the people of Pei to execute the magistrate, which they did; they then insisted that Liu Bang be their new governor, and his following quickly grew to 3,000 men. Meanwhile members of the royal Tian family in Qi had set themselves up as sovereigns there, and the martial family of Xiang Liang and his nephew Xiang Yu arose in Wu. Xiang Liang gave the new governor of Pei five thousand infantry to attack Fang. Hearing that Chen She was dead, Xiang Liang and the governor of Pei set up the grandson of former King Huai as king of Chu. The governor of Pei and Xiang Yu defeated Qin forces at Chengyang and massacred its inhabitants. Xiang Liang boasted of his victories over Qin but was defeated and killed by Zhang Han.

Afraid, King Huai of Chu moved his capital to Pengcheng. He appointed the governor of Pei a marquis and Xiang Yu duke of Lu and second general under Song Yi, both of whom he sent north to rescue Zhao from Zhang Han's attacks. The governor of Pei he sent west to enter the Hangu Pass, promising that whoever should enter the Pass first and conquer the Qin region should be king there. The bold Xiang Yu wanted to attempt the Pass, but King Huai's elder generals advised him that Xiang Yu, who had butchered the inhabitants of Xiangcheng, was too impetuous and cruel; they argued that the tolerance and moral stature of the governor of Pei would be more likely to win over the suffering people of Qin. So Xiang Yu went north with Song Yi, whose head he personally cut off for refusing to attack in spite of hunger and cold, though he said that Song Yi was plotting with Qi. Confirmed as supreme general, Xiang Yu led his Chu armies across the Yellow River, sunk his own boats and smashed the cooking pots, and after nine battles defeated the Qin army. It was at this time that Zhang Han sent for instructions from the Qin Emperor and decided to ally himself with the revolt.

Meanwhile the governor of Pei gained the advisor Li Yiji, who told him how to capture Qin's stores of grain. Another advisor, Zhang Liang, told him not to pass by the city of Yuan, where he was persuaded to enfeoff its surrendering governor. Then Zhang Liang sent Li Yiji and Lu Jia to bribe Qin's generals. The governor of Pei ordered his men not to plunder or seize prisoners, and the Qin armies were easily defeated. Soon Ziying, the king of Qin, surrendered with a rope around his neck. When the governor of Pei entered the capital at Xianyang, he ordered Qin's treasures sealed up; then he abolished all of Qin's irksome laws except for murder and reasonable punishments for assault and theft. The people of Qin rejoiced and brought gifts to the governor of Pei, but he declined them. Xiao Ho collected Qin's important charts, registers, and documents, which later proved of strategic value.

The governor of Pei claimed to have a force of 200,000, which was actually 100,000, while Xiang Yu came through the Pass claiming one million men, which was actually 400,000. The governor of Pei apologized to general Xiang Yu for guarding the Pass at first and explained that he had preserved Qin's treasures while waiting for him. After killing Qin king Ziying and burning the capital, Xiang Yu declared King Huai the Just Emperor and himself protector king of Western Chu; but going back on the promise to the general who first entered the Pass, he assigned the Qin area to Zhang Han and two other former Qin generals, while the governor of Pei was only made the king of Han. Various generals and nobles were set up as eighteen local kings. Angry at the broken promise, the king of Han wanted to attack Xiang Yu but was restrained by Xiao Ho. So in 206 BC they all went to their own sovereignties.

Han Xin persuaded the king of Han that his new position was really an exile and that this was the time he could re-unify Qin and then march east. That summer the king of Han made a surprise attack and defeated Zhang Han and the other Qin generals. He proclaimed an amnesty for criminals, allowed the people to use the parks and orchards that had been imperial Qin reserves, and granted two years' exemption from taxes and service. He appointed a local leader in each district from those over age fifty with cultivated personalities.

In the east Xiang Yu had the Just Emperor moved and then assassinated. In Qi he tried to replace king Tian Rong with Tian Du, and he sent Peng Yue to lead a revolt in Liang. Chen Yu, resenting that he had not been made a king, asked Tian Rong to join him in attacking Chen's friend Zhang Er, king of Changshan, who fled to join the king of Han. Xiang Yu attacked and defeated Tian Rong and made all of Qi submit to Chu, but by burning its cities and enslaving the women and children the people of Qi were aroused to revolt again.

In 205 BC the king of Han headed east and got the support of the king of Wei and subdued the king of Yin. As he crossed the Yellow River, a local leader told him that the Just Emperor was dead. The king of Han proclaimed mourning and vowed vengeance against Xiang Yu. With Xiang Yu busy in Qi, the king of Han was able to enter his capital at Pengcheng; but Xiang Yu marched back and inflicted a bloody defeat on the king of Han, capturing his parents, wife, and children. The king of Han escaped to the west, but many abandoned his cause. However, by establishing his base at Xingyang near the Ao Granary he was able to rebuild and supply his army.

Xiang Yu attacked and cut off the Han supply road and then surrounded the Han army. The king of Han suggested they divide the empire in two, but Xiang Yu refused. Using the subterfuge of women dressed in armor and a general impersonating the king, once again the king of Han managed to escape with a few horsemen, this time to within the Pass. Eventually Xiang Yu and the king of Han personally faced each other across the ravine at Guangwu. Xiang Yu, the invincible warrior, challenged the king of Han to a single combat; but the latter accused the former of breaking his promise, murdering Song Yi, burning the palaces of Qin and killing its king, slaughtering 200,000 men he had tricked into surrendering, replacing local kings with his generals, and driving out and assassinating the Just Emperor. The king of Han intended to punish him for these crimes, but Xiang Yu shot an arrow, wounding him in the chest, though the king of Han pretended it was his foot.

Han Xin was winning victories in the east, and the king of Han reluctantly appointed him king of Qi. The king of Han had to levy a poll tax for the first time but magnanimously ordered coffins so that killed soldiers' bodies could be returned home. After suffering repeated attacks by Peng Yue and Han Xin, Xiang Yu's army had little food. So he agreed to divide the empire with the king of Han and released his family. The king of Han was going to return to his western domain, but his advisors persuaded him that this was the opportunity to pursue Xiang Yu. At first he suffered a grave defeat from Chu, but with the help of Han Xin and Peng Yue he gathered a force of 300,000 to Xiang Yu's 100,000. The Han soldiers sang the songs of Chu, which convinced the soldiers of Xiang Yu that Han had conquered Chu. Xiang Yu fled in despair, pursued by Han cavalry who killed 80,000. After killing many enemies himself Xiang Yu eventually cut his own throat. Xiang Yu died believing he was destroyed by heaven, but the historian Sima Qian criticized him for not accepting responsibility for his errors.

Finally in 202 BC the king of Han assumed the position of supreme Emperor and was renamed Gaozu meaning "Exalted Ancestor." Han Xin was transfered to be king of Chu; Peng Yue was made king of Liang and Wu Rui king of Changsha. Confirmed in their positions were Xin as king of a different Han, Qing Bu as king of Huainan, Zang Tu as king of Yan, and Zhang Ao as king of Zhao. Armies were disbanded, and Gaozu made his capital at Luoyang, giving credit to advisor Zhang Liang, chancellor Xiao Ho, and general Han Xin. Although Luoyang was considered the center of the world, Liu Jing persuaded the Emperor that in these circumstances it would be more strategic to locate his capital inside the Hangu Pass. Accordingly Gaozu established the imperial capital near Xianyang at Chang'an and declared a general amnesty. All slaves were freed, and refugees and exiles had their civil rights restored.

During Gaozu's seven-year reign most of the kings were suspected of revolting and replaced by members of Gaozu's family. Zang Tu was replaced in Yan by Gaozu's boyhood friend Lu Wan. Han Xin was arrested and demoted. The other Han Xin joined the Xiongnu threatening his Han kingdom. The Emperor's son-in-law, Zhang Ao of Zhao, conspired to assassinate Gaozu and was demoted. General Peng Yue was arrested, sent into exile, and then executed. Qing Bu's rebellion was defeated, and he was killed. Lu Wan came under suspicion and moved his family and troops outside the Great Wall. When Gaozu died in 195 BC, nine of his sons and relatives ruled kingdoms, and only the small realm of Changsha was outside the imperial house.

Gradually Emperor Gaozu became more receptive to Confucian influences. Once he angrily declared to Lu Jia that he had won everything on horseback and asked him why he should bother with the Odes and Documents. Master Lu asked whether he could rule the empire on horseback. He noted rulers who failed, because they paid too much attention to military affairs. If Qin had practiced goodness and justice, this Emperor would never have arisen. To the Emperor's delight Lu Jia wrote a book called New Discourses, explaining why Qin lost the empire and Gaozu won it. An edict in 196 BC proclaimed that those with reputations for virtue were to be sent to the chancellor so that they could be given appropriate positions.

The heir apparent was Ying, the son of Empress Lu, but Gaozu felt that his son, Ruyi, by the concubine Lady Qi was more like him. However, his advisors were able to dissuade him from changing the heir apparent, which could cause conflict and turmoil. When Gaozu died in 195 BC, the Empress Lu was persuaded to proclaim mourning and a general amnesty. Her son succeeded as Emperor Hui in his sixteenth year. Empress Lu imprisoned Lady Qi and sent for her son Ruyi, who was king of Zhao. The kind Emperor Hui kept Ruyi with him to protect him but returned from hunting one morning to find he had been poisoned. The Empress Lu also had Lady Qi mutilated so horribly that the Emperor, when he found out, sent a message to his mother that no human being could have done such a thing. As her son, he reasoned that he was not fit to rule the empire and gave himself up to drinking. Empress Lu also tried to poison his brother Liu Fei, king of Qi.

When Emperor Hui died in 188 BC, the Empress Lu set up his three-year-old son by a consort as Emperor. She established four of her nephews as kings and passed six Lu babies off as children of Hui. Empress Lü had the Emperor's real mother killed; but when he was old enough to discover that Empress Lu's daughter was not his real mother, he declared he would change things when he grew up. So Empress Lu had him declared insane and replaced with an even younger child. She had three kings of Zhao killed in succession, wiped out the royal families of Liang and Yan as well and divided Qi into four kingdoms. When she was bitten by a mysterious dog, the diviner declared it the evil spirit of Ruyi; she died of it in 180 BC.

Although Lu family members were strategically placed as prime minister and commanding general, other officials, who had sworn to Emperor Gaozu that his family line should not be replaced, managed to oust them, kill the Lu family, and make the king of Dai Emperor Wen. Although not the oldest of Gaozu's living sons, he was selected both for his own ability and because his mother's family was of better character than the king of Qi's, who had someone they said was rebellious and no better than a tiger with a hat on. In spite of the macabre palace intrigues, the Daoist inactive rulership of Emperor Hui and his mother actually allowed the people a time of peace and prosperity, according to Daoist historian Sima Qian. In Qi the prime minister from 194-185 BC, Cao Can, was so won over to Daoism that he gave his authority in the main hall to his teacher, master Gai, and the state enjoyed such peace that he was known as a worthy minister. The Xiongnu invaded Henan in 177, and their founder Mao Dun died in 174 BC.

This peace and prosperity was continued by the benevolent policies of Emperor Wen. In his first year he questioned the laws that punished the relatives of criminals as unjust and had these joint accusations and punishments abolished. At first he wanted to search for a virtuous person to be his heir but later gave in to the tradition of appointing the oldest son as a stabilizing practice. He made sure that the elderly and orphans were treated well. Emperor Wen abolished the cruel punishments of mutilation. He limited his own expenditures, sent women home from the palace so that they could marry, began civil service examinations, and eventually was able to eliminate taxes on land and produce as well as customs barriers and passports. In 162 BC he made peace with the Shanyu or king of the Xiongnu, who often had challenged the border regions, declaring, "We have bound ourselves together in the relationship of brotherhood in order to conserve the good people of the world."8 The next year Emperor Wen proclaimed another general amnesty and freed all slaves held by the government.

When Liu Pi, the king of Wu, pleaded illness and refused to come to court, because his son had been killed by the prince in a fight over a board game, Emperor Wen did not insist, sending him a stool and a cane as a sign he need not come. When Yuan Ang and other officials remonstrated with cutting words, he pardoned them and often put their advice into practice. Relationships throughout the empire improved, and the number of executions was greatly reduced. His successor Emperor Jing declared Wen the great exemplar of emperors and ordered that he should be worshipped along with Gaozu, the great founder of emperors.

Emperor Jing ruled from 157-141 BC. Emperor Wen had heeded Jia Yi's advice to weaken the vassal kings by dividing Qi into seven kingdoms but avoided taking territory from the feudal kingdoms. However, Chao Cuo urged Emperor Jing to weaken the power of the vassal kings and began chipping away at their territories. Wu's recalcitrant King Liu Pi meanwhile had built up his power through state-owned copper and salt industries such that he even eliminated taxes. When he learned that the Emperor was going to move against him, he organized a coalition with Chu and five other kingdoms, which resented their losses of territory, to march on the capital and rid the world of Chao Cuo. Liu An, king of Huainan, decided to join the rebellion also; but he turned the soldiers over to the prime minister, who ignored him and remained loyal to the Han government.

Emperor Jing summoned Yuan Ang, who had been prime minister in Wu, and he, once he was alone with the Emperor, suggested the whole rebellion could be easily defeated if he would execute Chao Cuo for wrongfully seizing territories from the feudal lords. Chao Cuo was beheaded in 154 BC, and Yuan Ang was sent to Wu as master of rites, where the king of Wu tried to enlist him as a general in the rebellion. Yuan Ang refused and would have been executed, but he was saved by a marshal he had previously pardoned for having a relationship with his maid. The Han commander Zhou Yafu craftily refused to battle the rebels until they were weakened by hunger. All the rebel kings were either killed or committed suicide; everyone else was pardoned. After this, vassal kingdoms were usually divided among the heirs so that the power of feudal lords faded away within two centuries.

Wu Di's Reign 141-87 BC

Wu Di (meaning "Martial Emperor") became emperor in 141 BC in his sixteenth year, and having been tutored by Confucian Wang Zang he requested that capable and good people with integrity, who will speak frankly, be recommended. However, those who followed the Legalist philosophies of Shen Buhai, Shang Yang, and Han Fei-zi were dismissed along with those guided by the diplomatic machinations of Su Qin and Zhang Yi. Wu Di appointed Dou Ying, Tian Fen, and Zhao Wan to the top three positions, all of whom were sympathetic to Confucian philosophy. Thus Confucians became influential and tried to reform the capital by establishing a ceremonial building for court receptions and sending the marquises back to their territories; but many marquises were married to royal princesses and did not want to leave the luxury of Chang'an. When the Confucians tried to bypass consulting with the Empress Dowager Dou (Wu Di's grandmother), this Daoist became enraged and had several Confucians secretly investigated; Wang Zang and Zhao Wan were compelled to commit suicide in jail, and Dou Ying and Tian Fen were dismissed.

When the Empress Dowager Dou died in 135 BC, Tian Fen became chancellor and promoted Confucians like scholar Gongsun Hong while downgrading all others. At the urging of Confucian Dong Zhongshu an imperial university was established, and the five traditional classics of Documents, Odes, Changes, Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals became the basis of examinations for officials. Fifty students were sent to be trained academically, but by 110 BC Emperor Wu broke with the Confucians over the Feng and Shan sacrifices, and his later policies came to resemble the harsh punishments of Legalism. After chancellor Tian Fen died in 131 BC, Wu Di took greater control over his government. He ruled for more than half a century, and in the last 33 years Wu Di had seven chancellors, only one of whom died a natural death; the others were condemned for crimes. The Emperor's master of writing became more powerful than the chancellor, and attempts by relatives and confidants (including eunuchs) to influence the Emperor personally led to numerous court intrigues that weakened the Former and Later Han dynasties.

Irritated by barbarian raids, in 133 BC Wu Di replaced diplomatic gift-giving with a military campaign against the Xiongnu in the northwest, but Chinese victory in Mongolia was not achieved until 119 BC when a cavalry general returned with 40,000 enemy heads. General Li Guang, who had fought the Xiongnu in 166 BC, led many of these campaigns but never was made a marquis. He once asked a diviner why not. The diviner asked him if he had ever done anything he regretted, and General Li Guang had to admit that he had once persuaded eight hundred men to surrender and then went back on his word and killed them. In 119 BC he ended up disobeying orders, losing his way, and facing charges, cut his own throat.

While Gongsun Hong was recommending Confucian principles, Zhang Tang, the commandant of justice, was conducting wider investigations and applying stricter punishments. When the rebellious plans of the kings of Huainan, Hengshan, and Qiangdu were discovered in 122 BC, more than 20,000 people were tried and executed. Liu An, the king of Huainan was a grandson of Emperor Gaozu, and his father, after quarreling with the court and killing a man, had starved himself to death. When Liu An had presented the Daoist book Huainan-zi to Emperor Wu in 139 BC, he had been led by Tian Fen to believe that he might succeed to the throne. For years he made plans and preparations for a revolt, while his minister Wei Pei tried to persuade him it was inappropriate. Finally when King Liu An was about to revolt, Wu Bei went to the authorities; an imperial prosecutor was sent, but before he arrived Liu An cut his throat and died.

Chinese military campaigns went into Manchuria and Korea in 128 BC and advanced well into Mongolia in 121 BC. Floods east of the mountains caused starvation in Shandong, and 700,000 people were ordered to migrate to lands west of the Pass in Shanxi. Daoist advisor Ji An was sent to observe what a fire had done in Henei, but on his way found such starvation and cannibalism in Henan that he ordered the imperial granaries opened to relieve the distress, showing that Daoism was not a do-nothing philosophy when the natural way was to act. Knowing he had overstepped his authority, he returned for punishment. Wu Di was impressed by his wisdom and tried to promote him. Ji An declined a governorship but occasionally would criticize the Emperor sharply, especially for attacking the Xiongnu. He berated Zhang Tang for excelling in evil and cruelty in tampering with the old laws. He argued for general principles in contrast to Zhang Tang's strict adherence to petty details. Ji An also criticized Gongsun Hong and Confucians for flattering the Emperor with hearts full of deceit and the facade of learning.

Costs of the victory over the Xiongnu in 119 BC were enormous, resulting in new taxes. Merchants who were becoming rich forced the poor to work for them as they bought up and hoarded goods for profit. As the wealthy declined to help the poor in their misery, Wu Di was moved to issue a new currency and punish numerous counterfeiters. When Emperor Wu traveled east in 114 BC, two governors were so unprepared to provide for all the imperial attendants that they committed suicide. In the expedition to Nanyue in 112 BC criminals were pardoned to fight in the army, which became standard practice; convict workers were also used in imperial construction projects. The forces sent against the Yue kingdoms went as far south as Vietnam, and Dian was crushed by 109 BC. The next year four commanderies were established in northern and central Korea. Envoys were sent to western lands, lured by the incentive of making money in trade, and reached Seleucia on the Tigris in 105 BC. These profit-makers became so lawless that they took to quarreling and attacking each other, but eventually a series of defense stations was established.

When Di Shan urged Wu Di to make peace with the Xiongnu, he was challenged by Zhang Tang as a stupid Confucian. Criticizing the severity of Zhang Tang's prosecutions of the kings of Huainan and Jiangdu, the Emperor was embarrassed as well and asked Di Shan if he were given a position in a province, could he keep the barbarians from plundering the region? Sensing that if he refused he would face a criminal trial, Di Shan agreed to command one of the border posts, where a few weeks later the Xiongnu raided and cut off his head. After that, officials were too terrified to criticize the military policies.

Sima Qian described how officials became increasingly harsh, especially after Wang Wenshu rose from a grave-robber to become a corrupt official, who offered rewards to help catch thieves, conscripted more men into the army, condemned thousands to provide slaves for the government monopolies of salt, iron, and liquor, and freed tens of thousands who were accused so that they could work on imperial building. He did little to prevent corruption, and his whole family was executed for his crimes after he committed suicide. From his example lower officials went into lawbreaking, and the number of bandits increased until some had bands of several thousand men, assumed a title, attacked cities, seized weapons, freed convicts, humiliated governors, killed officials, and demanded they be supplied with food. Smaller bands of several hundred plundered numerous villages and hamlets.

Wu Di sent high officials to call out troops and attack the bandits, cutting off as many as ten thousand heads at a time. They arrested even more people for aiding the bandits with food. In a few years most of the robber bands had been caught, but others went into hiding. Then a concealment law, specifying the execution of officials for not arresting reported bandits, led officials to avoid investigations. Thus the number of bandits increased again as officials sent in false reports to escape being involved.

Du Zhou learned how to please Wu Di by trapping people he wanted removed into being arrested. When Du Zhou became commandant of justice, the number of officials in prison never fell below a hundred men. A hundred or more might be arrested on a case to be tried or to be witnesses. Prison officials would beat the accused until they confessed. Many fled into hiding to avoid arrest and later would be charged with more serious crimes even though an amnesty may have been issued. Eventually 60,000 people had been arrested, and officials had found grounds for charging another hundred thousand. Du Zhou rose from a poor secretary to one of the top three ministers with sons and grandsons in high offices and several hundred million in cash.

In 99 BC Du Zhou was transferred to military command of the capital and prosecuted thieves, high officials, and even brothers of Empress Wei. This was the year historian Sima Qian was arrested for pleading on behalf of condemned general Li Ling. The historian was arrested and convicted but refused to commit suicide, because he wanted to finish writing his history. Not having sufficient funds to buy a commutation of the sentence, he suffered the humiliating punishment of castration, served as a eunuch palace writer, and continued the work that has given us so much knowledge of ancient China. He took the long view as indicated by the following proverb which he quoted:

If you are going to be in a place for one year,
then seed it with grain.
If you are going to be there ten years, plant trees.
And if you are going to be there a hundred years,
provide for the future by means of virtue.9

Sima Qian recounted how the harsh officials degenerated from those who decided right and wrong honestly to corrupted ones to the sycophants, who followed laws and regulations involving harsh penalties just to stay out of trouble themselves. Some of the governors in the provinces were even more cruel. In discussing the money-makers he noted that the desire for wealth does not need to be taught, because it is part of human nature. He felt that those who spend all their knowledge and abilities accumulating money never have strength left over to consider giving some of it away. Because of all its expenses, the government monopolized the sale of alcohol and controlled the salt and iron works. Levies were extended to wagons and boats and taxes to stock animals. In battles with the Xiongnu between 103 and 90 BC several times the Chinese commanders lost most of their men, numbering in the tens of thousands. In 91 BC tens of thousands were arbitrarily executed for witchcraft and black magic.

Sima Qian also passed on the life and work of the Daoist poet Sima Xiangru, whose satires of royal ways were nonetheless appreciated by Wu Di. "Sir Fantasy" makes fun of the imperial hunt and is a phantasmagoria of rich language. In merriment the son of heaven becomes lost in contemplation and decides to implement the traditional reforms of cultivating land, stocking lakes with fish for the people, caring for those in need, lessening punishments, and opening the classics. Everyone shares in the joys of this new hunt, and they are transformed to goodness. The poem concludes with criticism of those lords whose domains are almost all taken up with the hunting parks so that the people have no space to grow food. Emperor Wu accepted the poem but objected to and removed the extravagant language describing the hunting parks.

Xiangru served Wu Di by justifying the Chinese civilizing of barbarian lands with its virtuous ways while condemning those who abused their foreign missions by robbing and killing. He suggested that the western expeditions proved that Wu Di had the mandate of heaven, and he hoped that all could enjoy good fortune. He further glorified Wu Di in his poem on "The Mighty One" and in a poem he left after his death in which he encouraged the Emperor to carry out the auspicious Feng Sacrifice at Mount Tai.

Confucian China 87-30 BC

Before he died in 87 BC, Emperor Wu appointed his youngest son as his successor and, since Emperor Zhao was only in his eighth year, Ho Guang to run the government. Ho Guang managed to put down an attempted take-over by Wu Di's oldest living son, Liu Dan, who committed suicide. Ho Guang came from the common people and implemented reforms to revitalize the exhausted empire. Loans were made to the poor; payments and taxes were remitted in bad years or could be made in kind when grain prices were low. Horses were no longer demanded. Government was reduced, and imperial lands were distributed to the people. Japanese emperor Sujin ordered shipbuilding in 81 BC.

A public debate on the state monopolies was held in 81 BC, an account of which was published in the next reign by Huan Kuan as the dialog Discourses on Salt and Iron. Imperial monopolies of the salt and iron industries had been instituted in 119 BC when Wu Di needed to raise money because of the Xiongnu war expenses. Four years later officers were appointed to equalize distribution by purchasing cheap commodities and selling when prices were high, thus preventing prices from being too low or too high and maximizing profit for the government. Four years after that in 110 BC a bureau of equalization and standardization was established by Sang Hongyang. Although treasury deficits were eliminated and adequate stores supplied the armies on the frontiers, the people, forced to eat without salt because of its high cost or use inferior iron tools to farm, became discontent. Thus sixty scholars were summoned from around the empire to debate the issues.

In the dialog proponents of the government's current policies argued that they successfully provided iron tools to the peasants and increased trade and wealth. Criticizing this profiteering, Confucian reformers, emphasizing agriculture, wanted the use of money reduced with taxes collected in kind (grain or cloth). They found government harsh and oppressive, complaining of the disparities between the rich and poor. Critics also felt that expansion and foreign adventures had weakened China without maintaining safety. They argued the ancients had honored virtue and discredited the use of arms.

Now these virtuous principles are discarded
and reliance put on military force;
troops are raised to attack the enemy
and garrisons are stationed to make ready for him.
It is the long drawn-out service of our troops in the field
and the ceaseless transportation for the needs of the commissariat
that cause our soldiers on the marches
to suffer from hunger and cold abroad,
while the common people are burdened with labor at home.
The establishment of the salt and iron monopoly
and the institution of finance officials to supply the army needs
were not permanent schemes;
it is therefore desirable that they now be abolished.10

Government realists disagreed and, relying on laws and punishments, pointed to the success of Shang Yang; but critics countered that it was short-lived and that Qin policies were unscrupulous. The reformers emphasized moral principles and complained that government officials were using their positions to increase their incomes to incalculable levels, a practice Confucius disapproved. Sang Hongyang's family fortune was estimated at tens of thousands of gold. Those in power criticized the scholars for talking but not acting and asked them if they could devise a means to bring peace to the country and subdue foreign lands so that they would not raid and attack the frontiers. Both sides complained that people now had little honesty and that morals were decaying. The wealth of some led common people to try to imitate their luxurious ways. The debate revealed the clear divisions between the realistic legalists in power and the principled scholars who wanted reforms. The monopolies on salt and iron were retained by the government, but the one on alcohol was ended and replaced with taxation.

Relations with the Xiongnu had improved; but when Fan Mingyu was sent out to aid the Wuhuan against them and found that the Xiongnu had withdrawn, he decided his orders must be carried out by attacking the Wuhuan. He took 6,200 heads and was made a marquis. Thereafter the Wuhuan raided China's northeast border. On the northwest border Ho Guang sent an envoy to assassinate the Loulan king.

When Emperor Zhao died in 74 BC, one possible heir, Liu Ho, raced to the capital and was made Emperor, but forgetting about mourning while enjoying insatiable pleasures, he was removed from office after 27 days. Ho Guang and the ministers arranged for Xuan to become Emperor in his eighteenth year, arguing that he had been taught the Odes, Analects, and Filial Piety and that he was kind, benevolent, and loving to others. Ho Guang offered to resign, but he was retained and ran the government until his death in 68 BC. In the next two years the dangerous Ho clan was methodically and completely removed from power, and Emperor Xuan began to rule for himself.

Brought up as a commoner and having observed the people's sufferings, Emperor Xuan rewarded kind officials and demoted the harsh ones. Instead of punishing corrupt officials, he allowed them to resign. His consent was required for capital punishment, and he implemented numerous other legal reforms such as appointing special judges for difficult cases, pardoning those hiding relatives, investigating deaths in prison, exempting the elderly from punishment in most cases, and searching for and reporting unjust trials. An official who had used capital punishment so much that he was called "Uncle Butcher" was publicly executed for his cruel tyranny.

Emperor Xuan gave grants to the heirs of capable officials who died poor, exempted those in mourning from required services, abolished laws banning gatherings of people even at weddings, and increased salaries of lower officials to prevent extortion. During drought he reduced his own table and officials' salaries temporarily, while remitting taxes. Military garrisons were reduced; government land was loaned to the poor; royal preserves were opened to cultivation; and the price of salt was lowered. Heaven shone on these beneficent policies with abundant harvests. The Xiongnu struggled with civil wars, and one of their leaders, vying for support, visited the Chinese court; instead of resenting his imperial title Emperor Xuan honored him as a guest and sent him back with such rich presents that the other Xiongnu rival moved to the west.

For several years the Confucian classics were studied and clarified with the Emperor having the final word in 51 BC. Near the end of his reign Emperor Xuan issued an edict declaring that not prohibiting evil is not clemency nor is dismissing criminals the absence of tyranny, while those who consider tyranny and wrong capability have missed the mean as well. Noting that military service and forced labor have been reduced, he found that there was still poverty and corrupt officials, because they took the extra money given them to use in place of soldiers. This Emperor seems to have done his best to harmonize the virtues of legalistic discipline and Confucian benevolence.

Even when he was still only heir apparent Yuan criticized his father for applying laws too severely and suggested that he employ more Confucian masters. In 48 BC Emperor Xuan died, and 27-year-old Emperor Yuan selected Confucians to run his government. Modest reforms reduced expenditures and lightened punishments. The civil service examination system was expanded to include a moral component as well as the literary test. Emperor Yuan's adoption of Confucian rituals and principles led also to the favoring of relatives in the name of filial piety. Unfortunately the resulting nepotism and matriarchal influences contributed to the eventual fall of the Former Han dynasty in the next two generations. Under Yuan anyone who passed the examinations could become a student of a Confucian scholar, but soon the number was limited to one thousand persons.

Confucian influence was checked somewhat by the eunuch Shi Xien, the chief palace writer, who had many Confucians arrested and executed because they criticized him. Rather than go to jail, the most prominent Confucian committed suicide. Shi Xien outlived Emperor Yuan; but he was exiled after Emperor Cheng came into power in 33 BC. The office of palace writer was abolished so that eunuchs would not have such power. Like his father, Emperor Cheng put his maternal relatives into the prominent positions. While he enjoyed drinking, banqueting, and music, the Wang clan controlled the government. Through education and patient application Confucianism had gradually triumphed in China, although it was tempered by realist Legalists and subtle Daoists. Yet the Former Han dynasty was in decline, and would be replaced in the next generation.

Economic expansion during the Earlier Han dynasty led to prosperity for some but a concentration of land ownership employing convicts and debtors, mostly in large workshops as virtual slaves. Since the privileged landowners did not have to pay tax, this meant higher taxes for the peasants. Revolts by slaves in the government iron works and others began in 22 BC. Four years later Emperor Cheng (r. 33-7 BC) had to lower the price of court ranks, and he turned to omens and superstitions. His favorite wives, Zhao Feiyen and her sister, got the empress Xu deposed for black magic. Zhao Feiyen was declared empress in 16 BC; but she and her sister were childless, and their jealousy caused two of his sons by other women to be murdered, leaving no direct heir. Peasants revolted again in 14 BC, and they were soon joined by government slaves from the Shanyang iron works. During Cheng's reign the Wang family dominated the court in rivalry with three other families, but Wang Mang was dismissed from court in 7 BC. After Cheng Di died, Ai Di and Ping Di ruled for about six years each; but both emperors died young, making their deaths suspicious. Emperor Ai made his homosexual lover Dong Xian marshal and even talked of abdicating to him before his death. When Ai Di died, Dong Xian was degraded and committed suicide, as Wang Mang became marshal.

China 7 BC to 1279


1. Guanzi 11:32, tr. W. Allyn Rickett, p. 426.
2. The Book of Lord Shang 1, tr. J. J. L. Duyvendak, p. 169.
3. Ibid., p. 206.
4. Han Fei Tzu 5 tr. Burton Watson, p. 16.
5. Ibid. 10, p. 49-50.
6. Qin Dynasty by Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien), tr. Burton Watson, p. 46.
7. Ibid. p. 59.
8. The History of the Former Han Dynasty 4:17 by Pan Ku, tr. Homer H. Dubs, Vol. 1, p. 264.
9. Shih chi 129 by Ss-ma Ch'ien, tr. Burton Watson, The Age of Emperor Wu 140 to circa 100 BC, p. 492.
10. Discourses on Salt and Iron tr. Esson M. Gale, p. 6.

Copyright © 1998-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CHINA, KOREA & JAPAN to 1800. For ordering information please click here.

Shang, Zhou and the Classics
Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi
Daoism and Mo-zi
Legalism, Qin Empire and Han Dynasty
China 7 BC to 1279
Mongols and Yuan China
Ming Empire 1368-1644
Qing Empire 1644-1799
Korea to 1800
Japan to 1615
Japan 1615-1800
Summary and Evaluation

Qing Decline 1799-1875
Qing Dynasty Fall 1875-1912
Republican China in Turmoil 1912-1926
Nationalist-Communist Civil War 1927-1937
China at War 1937-1949
Korea 1800-1949
Japan's Modernization 1800-1894
Imperial Japan 1894-1937
Japan's War and Defeat 1937-1949


World Chronological Index
Chronology of Asia & Africa to 1800
Chronology of Asia & Africa 1800-1950
Chronology of East Asia to 1950

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