Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

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Chinese Legal Thought: The Legalist School

  • Leïla ChoukrouneEmail author
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_92-2


While apparently largely accepted in Chinese philosophy and international scholarship, the term “Legalist” remains controversial if not misleading. The “Legalist school” (fa jia 法家) is indeed part of the many schools of thought that have flourished at the end of the Springs and Autumns period (770–453 BCE) and the beginning of the infamous Warring States (453–221 BCE) when a major political crisis was threatening the integrity of the State. The Legalist school of thought does not relate to one particular individual as in the case of Confucius 孔子 (551–479 BCE) or Mozi 墨子 (ca. 460–390 BCE), but to a variety of intellectual productions which were later gathered and coined as “Legalist” during the Han 漢dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The Legalists departure from the past and previous intellectual traditions as well as their unique approach to the law in the construction of a strong, centralized, and rather repressive State has often been analyzed as one of the first Chinese contributions to the theorization and practice of authoritarianism.

Definition and Philosophical Foundations

First of all, it is important to distinguish the Legalist school from a pure reference to the law (fa法) as the Chinese signification of “fa” is manifold and can cover as much as standards, regulations, norms, and other more personal rules. According to the Han imperial Catalog, two texts are of major influence in the development of the legalist though: the Book of Lord Shang (Shang jun shu 商君書), attributed to Shang Yang (aka Gongsun Yang 公孫鞅 or Lord Shang 商君) and the Han Feizi 韓非子 attributed to Han Fei whether or not the entire book had been penned by him. In addition, two other texts have been largely studied while only partially readable as not well kept over the years: the Shēnzi 申子 attributed to Shen Buhai (a chancellor of the state of Hán 韓) in the middle fourth century BCE, and another text, the Shènzi (慎) written by Shen Dao (慎到 300 BCE) and of whom very little is known.

In response to a conflicting context, the Legalists proposed to reach peace and stability by achieving unity of “All-under-Heaven” (tianxia 天下) through measures of stabilization devoid of moral considerations and so departing from tradition and previous thinkers such as Confucius, Mozi, or Laozi 老子 (fourth century BCE).

The Legalists and the Building of the Chinese State

Pragmatic, grounded, and oriented toward the elaboration of concrete measures to radically reform the State, the Legalists appreciation of the human nature revealed severe and certainly pessimistic. They dismissed the possibility of an ethical elite able to overcome its natural selfishness and truly support the ruler’s political tasks. Hence the law was seen as coercion and a mean to protect social order through primarily punitive rules and a fierce control by the State of its subjects, including the bureaucracy on whose it relies to achieve its goals. From rewards to punishments, the righteous Legalists thinking on the construction of the imperial bureaucracy proved influential and participated to the consolidation of a monarchistic regime in which the omnipotence of the ruler could not be challenged. For Han Fei, in particular, the monarch was the sole guarantor of a political stability envisaged as the unique and so necessary basis of socioeconomic prosperity.


In this perspective, it is interesting to recall that the rich and complex Legalist thought was rediscovered in the twentieth century in a context of growing nationalist pride and State building. Whether controversial as referred to by Lin Biao in the 1970s to oppose Confucianism, or more balance as in today’s Chinese scholarship, the Legalist school of thought deserve to be reinvested for it is a major contribution to Chinese intellectual history, which influence is still visible today.



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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Professor of International Law and Research and Innovation Theme Director, Portsmouth University (UK)MaastrichtNetherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Patricia Mindus
    • 1
  • Sebastian Andres Reyes Molina
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden