Legalism in China Essay

Legalism in China Essay

Legalism is one of the most prominent philosophies in ancient China. While ancient Chinese rulers sought to establish a new atmosphere of law and ruthless autocratic power, legalism came to represent a system of philosophic beliefs that were completely different from the majority of earlier Chinese philosophies. It should be noted, that legalism signified a new era of social and economic development in China. Ch’in dynasty worked effectively to teach people the rule of law. Simultaneously, no other philosophy but legalism could shape the basis for continuous modernization and prosperity in the Chinese state – the modernization and prosperity that have later turned China into a powerful political and economic giant.

Legalism is one of the most prominent philosophies in ancient China. While ancient Chinese rulers sought to establish a new atmosphere of law and ruthless autocratic power, legalism came to represent a system of philosophic beliefs that were completely different from the majority of earlier Chinese philosophies. It should be noted, that legalism signified a new era of social and economic development in China. Ch’in dynasty worked effectively to teach people the rule of law. Simultaneously, no other philosophy but legalism could shape the basis for continuous modernization and prosperity in the Chinese state – the modernization and prosperity that have later turned China into a powerful political and economic giant.

To begin with, legalism was different from everything China had known before. Legalism was “a political philosophy that did not address higher questions pertaining to the nature and purpose of existence. It was concerned with the most effective way of governing society” (Shklar, 1986). Legalism was based on the premise that there was no tool of governing human behaviors better that law. Moreover, not oral traditions or rituals, but written laws and regulations had to establish a single system of behaviors and reactions to particular circumstances. Legalism was very different from Confucianism, which promoted the principles of virtue. Confucians always believed that people were inherently good. Legalism, on the contrary, positioned people as inherently evil, and only the rule of written law could limit the scope of evil in society and to promote obedience. Neither ethics nor virtue found their place in legalism, and only law and obedience that often bordered on ruthless autocracy could guarantee order and peace in society (Moody, 1997). It should be noted, that while legalism initially looked as a form of mere autocratic rule, it gradually expanded beyond the boundaries of legal regulations and has turned into a philosophy of contented society, where punishment and social satisfaction had to be well-balanced. Shih (power), shu (administration), and fa (the system of laws) were the thee pillars on which legalism in ancient China rested, and which also served as effective instruments of power and control in the state ruled and controlled by Ch’in dynasty (Moody, 1997).

The natural question is in why the principles of legalism were so appealing to Ch’in dynasty and why under their short-term but harsh rule legalism flourished and was actively promoted. The truth is that “legalism was held to be an ideology appropriate to the progressive feudal system as opposed to the old slave system to which the Confucians wished to return” (Brugger,1998). In other words, for Ch’in dynasty to promote the principles of legalism meant to promote progressive development of their society. Under Ch’in, legalism was the sign of the active social and economic development. Modernization of the legal system, and as a result, of human thinking was also associated with legalism. Finally, under the constant opposition with Confucians and with the need to preserve their political power and dominance, legalism worked to confirm the need for harsh, ruthless, autocratic ruling. Given the negative and evil nature of humans, there was no other way to establish law and order in the Chinese society but to use legalism as the undeniable source of political power. Obviously, the principles of legalism were perfectly well aligned with the principles of political rule under Ch’in, and although brief and painful, the rule of Ch’in dynasty exemplified a completely new form of the legal state, with law and professional administrative techniques at its basis.

Conclusion

Legalism was different from the majority of previous Chinese philosophies in that it did not seek to answer higher philosophical questions, but was designed as the set of principles used to govern society. The principles of law, order, and administration shaped a new vision of Chinese society – more progressive and prosperous than any other time in Chinese history. The principles of legalism were well aligned with the principles of ruthless and autocratic rule of Ch’in dynasty, which came to signify a new stage of active economic and social modernization in China.

References

Brugger, B. (1998). China: the impact of the cultural revolution. Taylor & Francis.

Moody, P. (1997). Opposition and dissent in contemporary China. Hoover Press.

Shklar, J.N. (1986). Legalism: law, morals, and political trials. Harvard University Press.

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