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Legalism was the official political philosophy of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Articulated and advocated chiefly by Han Feizi (d. 233 BCE) and Li Si (d. 208 BCE), Legalism rejected, or at least put aside, notions of Heavenly morality asserted by Confucianism and Taoism, advocating the governance of society based on practical, secular or mundane, concerns. Though typically represented as a coordinated ideology, some scholars suggest that fǎ jiā, typically translated as "a Legalist," should instead be translated as "an expert on statecraft," thus reflecting a broader and more diverse category of thought.[1]

Asserting that it is human nature to be selfish, to enjoy rewards and dislike punishments, Legalism advocated that the people, i.e. society, and the state, be regulated through systems of rewards and punishments. The philosophy admired productive farmers, and criticized profit-seeking merchants.

Confucianism gained ascendancy in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), and remained the dominant philosophy through the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Confucianists decried Legalism for placing human laws above Heavenly morality, but could never abandon entirely the valuable practical elements of legal systems of rewards and punishments.


  • Albert Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 21-23.
  1. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 57.