In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Legalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reviews
  • Studies of the Term “Legalism” (Fajia 法家)
  • Legalism on Morality and Fa 法 (Law/Method)
  • The Concept of Xingming (Hsing-Ming 刑名)
  • Legalism and the Ruler
  • Rhetoric and Persuasion
  • Relationship with Confucianism
  • Relationship with Other Thinkers
  • The Commentaries to the Laozi Found in the Han Feizi
  • Comparative and Cross-Cultural Studies

Chinese Studies Legalism
Eirik Lang Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0079


Legalism (fajia 法家) is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to the ideas of a group of thinkers from the Warring States period who had a common interest in developing systems by which the ruler could effectively rule and order the people, leading to a strong and prosperous state. The term first arose several hundred years after the thinkers themselves, and at various times and in various texts, different thinkers have been called Legalists. Given that the name arises from the term fa 法, which can mean law, and the fact that the English translation of fajia is usually “Legalism,” it is easy to misunderstand the Legalists as being primarily interested in laws. However, in classical Chinese, the term fa had both broad and narrow meanings. At its broadest, it refers simply to method, though it is also used in the sense of laws. Certainly laws were one of the methods that arguably found favor among all of the Legalists, but they were aware of a range of other political tools useful for ordering the state, and also turned their attention to the ideas of positional power (shi 勢) and political techniques (shu 術) among others. Indeed, given the ways in which they approached questions of politics, it may be more useful to think of the Legalists as “Realists,” “Methodists,” “Administrators,” or perhaps “Philosophers of State.” For the purposes of this bibliography, the main members of the Legalist “school” will be taken to include the following figures and texts: Shen Dao (慎到 Shen Tao, Shenzi, Shen Tzu), c. 395–315 BCE, is associated with the fragmented passages most commonly known as the Shenzi Fragments. Shen Buhai (申不害 Shen Pu-hai, Shenzi, Shen Tzu), d. 337 BCE, is associated with another set of passages even more fragmented than those of Shen Dao. Shang Yang (商鞅, Gongsun Yang 公孫鞅, Lord Shang), 390–338 BCE, gave his name to the text known as the Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書). Finally, the text known as the Han Feizi (韓非子, Han Fei, Han Fei Tzu) is credited to the statesman of that name who died in 233 BCE. It should be noted, however, that it is a matter of controversy who (if anyone) is appropriately categorized as a Legalist. In addition, while this bibliography refers to individuals and the work credited to them interchangeably, it should be noted that there is much controversy over who wrote what. Finally, there are other thinkers and portions of other texts that are often taken to be Legalist but which could not be included here for reasons of space. Those interested in finding out more about such thinkers and chapters are encouraged to examine the entries in the General Overviews section as a starting point.

General Overviews

To date, there have been few monographs dedicated to the Legalists and Legalism. The first in a Western language, Vandermeersch 1987 is particularly valuable, because while Vandermeersch classifies several thinkers as Legalist, he is very careful to examine their views individually in order to understand their differences as well as their similarities. Xu 1995 is the second French volume on the Legalists, arguing that they are unified in their advocacy of absolute power for the ruler. Fu 1996 is noteworthy mainly as the sole English-language monograph on Legalism and unfortunately is hindered by the fact that it does not clearly differentiate among the thinkers covered, usually treating them as espousing the same set of ideas. Other useful overviews of Legalism include Schwartz 1985, whose analysis is particularly acute and recognizes the social-scientific and model-building aspects of their thought. Graham 1989 focuses on the fact that good government depends not on the moral qualities of individuals but rather on having appropriate functioning institutions in the state and emphasizes that the Legalists were unique in early China in beginning their analysis not from how society should be but rather from how it actually is. Hsiao 1979 is useful for its demonstration of how various Legalist thinkers drew on the ideas of their predecessors, while also demonstrating their unique contributions. Li 1997 gives a Marxist-inspired account of the development of Chinese scholarship in this area that provides a range of perspectives on Legalism not available in Western languages. Liu 1996 provides an analysis of how Legalist thought developed, focusing on its political significance.

  • Fu, Zhengyuan. China’s Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

    The only English-language book dedicated to Legalism as a whole, written by a former Chinese political prisoner. Unfortunately does not engage with other literature on Legalism. The most interesting chapters deal with the influence of Legalism on the later imperial state and its relationship to the Marxism-Leninism of the 20th century.

  • Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Chicago: Open Court, 1989.

    Chapter 3 (“Legalism: An Amoral Science of Statecraft”), pp. 267–292, from one of most impressive scholars of Chinese philosophy in the West, provides an introduction that focuses on the amoral aspects of Legalism and the fact that the Legalists think of human nature in sociological terms.

  • Hsiao, Kung-Chuan (Xiao Gongquan 蕭公權). A History of Chinese Political Thought. Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Sixth Century A.D. Translated by Frederick W. Mote. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    Excellent work of intellectual history including discussions of the various Legalist thinkers throughout. Particularly useful in relating the ideas of these thinkers to those of others in their intellectual milieu. Translation of Zhongguo zhengzhi sixiangshi (中國政治思想史). Taibei: Lianjing chubanshe, 1982 [1945].

  • Li Haisheng 李海生. Fa xiang zunyan: Jin xiandai de xian Qin fajia yanjiu (法相尊严: 近现代的先秦法家研究). Shenyang, China: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe, 1997.

    Investigates the scope of Legalism and provides an overview of Chinese scholarship on Legalism from Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738–1831) through the 20th century. Analysis of the development of this scholarship is done from a Marxist perspective.

  • Liu Zehua 劉澤華, ed. Zhongguo zhengzhi sixiangshi (中國政治思想史). Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 1996.

    Chapter 4 (“Fa jia yi fa, shi, shu wei zhong xin zheng zhi xi xiang (法家以法、势、术为中心的政治思想)”), Vol. 1, pp. 260–346, examines the ideas of Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, Shang Yang, and Han Feizi is part of a wide-ranging study of early Chinese political thought.

  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1985.

    Chapter 8 (“Legalism: The Behavioral Science”), pp. 321–349, is an impressive social scientific analysis of the Legalists that notes their similarity to certain 19th- and 20th-century social scientific model builders in the West. Perhaps the most insightful chapter in Schwartz’s important study of early Chinese thought.

  • Vandermeersch, Léon. La formation du légisme: Recherche sur la constitution d’un philosophie politique caractéristique de la Chine ancienne. Paris: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 1987.

    Excellent study of the main Legalist thinkers that analyzes the development of ideas and foci, as well as their relationship with Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and the School of Names. Carefully distinguishes between the ideas of each of the thinkers he addresses.

  • Xu Zhen Zhou. L’Art de la politique chez les légistes chinois. Paris: Economica, 1995.

    Argues that the Legalists were unified insofar as they all desired absolute power on the part of the ruler and deemed this power essential for the strength and prosperity of the state.

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