Legalism and Confucianism in the Han Dyansty

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The idea of ruling a powerful government based on the principle of using two conflicting ideologies at the same time appeared foreign to most dynasties of early China. In early Chinese times, after the Period of the Warring States, two ideologies emerged: Legalism and Confucianism. Legalism stressed a strong central government that expressed harsh laws while Confucianism had a decentralized government, placing trust in conscientious and learned individuals to work together to solve political issues. These two schools of thought were in stark contrast to each other and, up until the Han dynasty, had never been combined with each other through government policy. The Qin dynasty, for example implemented a strict Legalist government while the Zhou dynasty applied a decentralized Confucianist government, which, as with the Qin dynasty, did not last long. As opposed to the Qin and Zhou dynasties, the combination of Legalist and Confucianist values led to a successful government in the Han dynasty because it gave way to a strong central government along with a rise in cultural and intellectual thinking while also checking each of the ideologies to prevent one from becoming too dominant.

Dynasties such as the Qin and Zhou dynasty showed how the practice of just one ideology in their government was the main catalyst leading to demise. Qin Shihuangdi of the Qin dynasty for example, ruled on the basis of Legalism. While Legalism created a strong centralized government with political organization, its harshness of laws and intolerance of criticism is what gave the Qin dynasty its weakness. In an effort to suppress the growth of intellectual criticism towards the Qin government, “Qin Shihuangdi ordered execution for those who criticized his regime, and he demanded the burning of all books of philosophy, ethics, history, and literature” (Bentley, 157). This utter disregard for any academic influence on the government and society left little room for improvement while also causing a disturbance among scholars, many of which were buried alive by the emperor the following year. On the other hand, the Zhou dynasty utilized a decentralized government, entrusting, “power, authority, and responsibility to subordinates who in return owed allegiance, tribute, and military support to the central government” (Bentley, 93). This idea of trust among the decentralized Zhou government reflects aspects of Confucianism such as ren, a Confucius teaching that emphasizes benevolence and the virtue of human nature (Herbst, 7 November 2012). The decentralized political system of the Zhou dynasty, however, was ephemeral. The kings of the Zhou dynasty found out that they had lost control over the decentralized government, as the subordinates ruled their land independent of central authority, and, “occasionally, they refused to provide military support or even turned their forces against the dynasty in an effort to build up their regional states” (Bentley, 93-4). Like the Qin dynasty, the lack of mediation between two ideologies proved destructive in the end. Upon the emergence of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang noticed that, “Zhou decentralization encouraged political chaos… because regional governors were powerful enough to resist the emperor and pursue their own ambitions … [while] Qin centralization created a new set of problems… because it provided little incentive for imperial family members to support the dynasty” (Bentley, 159) and acknowledged that a middle ground was necessary in order to lead a successful government.

Like the Qin dynasty, “the Han dynasty consolidated the tradition of centralized imperial rule that the Qin dynasty had pioneered” (Bentley, 159). Liu Bang, first emperor of the Han dynasty, realized the importance of a strong centralized government after seeing some of its success within the Qin dynasty; however, he also understood the harm it could cause in excess. Liu Bang’s successor, Han Wu Di, continued with the Legalist policy of...
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