Legalism

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Robert Reid
1/23/2012
Philosophy of Chinese Legalism
Legalism is a philosophy of ancient China developed and utilized mainly during the Warring States period and the Qin Dynasty. In essence, Legalism’s goal was to strengthen the state without empowering the state’s populace, and to uphold the rule of the law. I found myself attracted to the topic of Legalism because, while bearing some similarities to modern systems of ruling, the root concept of such a philosophy is vastly different compared to Western and other philosophies of government generally looked at and examined today. To begin to fully describe Legalism, an overview of its history is necessary. Legalism had its roots in what is referred to as the Warring States period: the term for roughly the second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 – 256 BC), which lasted from 403 – 221 BC. In this Warring States period, what had previously been feudal domains of Zhou in the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (referred to as the Spring and Autumn period) became independent states; states which then attempted to conquer their neighbors. By 453 BC, the three most powerful states remaining were Qin to the west, Qi to the east and Chu to the south. Eventually however, the state of Qin proved to be the strongest competitor, taking control over the other states’ territories and thus unifying China under the Qin Dynasty by the year 221 BC. Qin’s successful conquest could be directly attributed to the fact that, out of the warring states, Qin utilized the Legalist doctrine most prevalently. The source of this was the work of Lord Shang, who was chief minister of Qin. Lord Shang had said that he borrowed many of his Legalist ideas from the Canon of Laws by Li Kui from the Wei state. He created what is considered the first of the two important Legalist treatises, and directly applied this work to Qin’s politics. In this treatise, Lord Shang sharply criticizes the use of tradition in ruling a state. Along with...
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