Han FeiTzu

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Authors born between 400 and 200 BCE

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Contents

Introduction

A Country’s Strength Depends on Law

Promote Followers of the Law 

Beware of Promotion by Reputation or Partisanship

Civil Decay follows Punishment of the Innocent

Efficient Administration Depends on Upholding the Law

Let the Law Select Leaders

The Law Treats All Alike

Source

 

 

Introduction

 

Han Fei Tzu (280-233 BCE), a prince of Han, was a leading philosopher of the legalist tradition in China. A habitual stutterer, he concentrated his energy into written works, which gained favor with the king of Ch’in. When the king attacked Han, Fei was sent as a goodwill ambassador. Ch’in’s ministers argued that Fei would be disloyal, being from Han, and that it would be best to pass sentence on him for some offense. While the king was arranging this, the ministers, with a sad disregard for legalistic philosophy, had Fei sentenced to commit suicide by poisoning. The sentence was carried out in 233 BC.

 

The legalist school rejected Confucianism and Taoism, arguing that laws and their strict enforcement were what was needed for social harmony and a well-run state. In rejecting the past, it focused on the need for a government to demonstrate concrete results rather than to gain plaudits by following tradition. Unfortunately it saw suppression of civil rights and democratic institutions as an essential part of its program. The school’s most notorious achievement was the edict dictating the burning of all books under the Ch’in (or Qin) dictatorship, as described by Sima Qian. Their philosophy was rarely popular after this, although some commentators have detected a resurgence of interest in it in the Twentieth Century.

 

In his other writings, Han Fei Tzu covered a wide range of subjects. He argued that Mo Tzu, although wise in his philosophy, deliberately avoided eloquence in case the form of his words was remembered rather than their substance. He also showed a satirical touch that somewhat belied the severe tone of his legalistic philosophy. For example, he told a story of an artist who was asked by a king what was hardest to draw and what was easiest. The artist answered that dogs and horses were the hardest because people knew what they look like and no distortion was acceptable. On the other hand, nobody could see devils and demons, so it was easy to draw them.

 

 

A Country’s Strength Depends on Law

 

No country is permanently strong. Nor is any country permanently weak. If conformers to law are strong, the country is strong; if conformers to law are weak, the country is weak.

 

 

Promote Followers of the Law

 

Therefore, at present, any ruler able to expel private crookedness and uphold public law, finds the people safe and the state in order; and any ruler able to expunge private action and act on public law, finds his army strong and his enemy weak. So, find out men following the discipline of laws and regulations, and place them above the body of officials. Then the sovereign can not be deceived by anybody with fraud and falsehood. Find out men able to weigh different situations, and put them in charge of distant affairs. Then the sovereign cannot be deceived by anybody in matters of world politics.

 

 

Beware of Promotion by Reputation or Partisanship

 

Now supposing promotions were made because of mere reputations, then ministers would be estranged from the sovereign and all officials would associate for treasonable purposes. Supposing officials were appointed on account of their partisanship, then the people would strive to cultivate friendships and never seek employment in accordance with the law. Thus, if the government lacks able men, the state will fall into confusion. If rewards are bestowed according to mere reputation, and punishments are inflicted according to mere defamation, then men who love rewards and hate punishments will discard the law of the public and practice self-seeking tricks and associate for wicked purposes. If ministers forget the interest of the sovereign, make friends with outside people, and thereby promote their adherents, then their inferiors will be in low spirits to serve the sovereign. Their friends are many; their adherents, numerous. When they form juntas in and out, then though they have great faults, their ways of disguise will be innumerable.

 

 

Civil Decay Follows Punishment of the Innocent

 

For such reasons, loyal ministers, innocent as they are, are always facing danger and the death penalty, whereas wicked ministers, though of no merit, always enjoy security and prosperity. Should loyal ministers meet danger and death without committing any crime, good ministers would withdraw. Should wicked ministers enjoy security and prosperity without rendering any meritorious service, villainous ministers would advance. This is the beginning of decay.

    Were such the case, all officials would discard legalism, practicing favoritism and despising public law. They would frequent the gates of the residences of cunning men, but never once would they visit the court of the sovereign. For one hundred times they would ponder the interests of private families, but never once would they scheme for the state welfare of the sovereign.

 

 

Efficient Administration Depends on Upholding the Law

 

The law of the early kings said: "every minister shall not exercise his authority nor shall he scheme for his own advantage but shall follow his majesty's instructions. He shall not do evil but shall follow his majesty's path." Thus, in antiquity the people of an orderly age abode by the public law, discarded all self-seeking tricks, devoted their attention and united their actions to wait for employment by their superiors.

    Indeed, the lord of men, if he has to inspect all officials himself, finds the day not long enough and his energy not great enough. Moreover, if the superior uses his eyes, the inferior ornaments his looks; if the superior uses his ears, the inferior ornaments his voice; and, if the superior uses his mind, the inferior twists his sentences. Regarding these three faculties as insufficient, the early kings left aside their own talents and relied on laws and numbers and acted carefully on the principles of reward and punishment.

    Thus, what the early kings did was to the purpose of political order. Their laws, however simplified, were not violated. Despite the autocratic rule within the four seas, the cunning could not apply their fabrications; the deceitful could not practice their plausibilities; and the wicked found no means to resort to, so that, though as far away from His Majesty as beyond a thousand li, they dared not change their words, and though as near by His Majesty as the courtiers, they dared not cover the good and disguise the wrong. The officials in the court, high and low, never trespassed against each other nor did they ever override their posts. Accordingly the sovereign's administrative routine did not take up all his time while each day afforded enough leisure. Such was due to the way the ruler trusted to his position.

 

 

Let the Law Select Leaders

 

Therefore, the intelligent sovereign makes the law select men and makes no arbitrary promotion himself. He makes the law measure merits and makes no arbitrary regulation himself. In consequence, able men cannot be obscured, bad characters cannot be disguised; falsely praised fellows cannot be advanced, wrongly defamed people cannot be degraded. Accordingly, between ruler and minister distinction becomes clear and order is attained. Thus it suffices only if the sovereign can scrutinize laws.

 

 

The Law Treats All Alike

 

The law does not fawn on the noble; the string does not yield to the crooked. Whatever the law applies to, the wise cannot reject nor can the brave defy. Punishment for fault never skips ministers, reward for good never misses commoners. Therefore, to correct the faults of the high, to rebuke the vices of the low, to suppress disorders, to decide against mistakes, to subdue the arrogant, to straighten the crooked, and to unify the folkways of the masses, nothing could match the law. To warn the officials and overawe the people, to rebuke obscenity and danger, and to forbid falsehood and deceit, nothing could match penalty. If penalty is severe, the noble cannot discriminate against the humble. If law is definite, the superiors are esteemed and not violated. If the superiors are not violated, the sovereign will become strong and able to maintain the proper course of government. Such was the reason why the early kings esteemed legalism and handed it down to posterity. Should the lord of men discard law and practice selfishness, high and low would have no distinction.

    Hence to govern the state by law is to praise the right and blame the wrong.

 

 

Source

 

From "Having Regulations—A Memorandum" in The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, Volume I. Translated by W.K. Liao. Arthur Probsthain, London. 1939.

 

Introduction and selection of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003