Han Feizi: Total Bastard

Lately, besides my usual projects (blog, plus Korean studies), I’ve been reading a famous Chinese book called the Han Feizi (Burton Watson’s excellent translation).

Han Feizi (韓非子, 280–233 BC) was the foremost thinker in the Legalism school of Chinese thought and lived at the very end of the famous Warring States period in China (and under the new Qin Dynasty). The word “Qin” sounds like “cheen”, by the way. He lived after other contemporary masters such as Confucius, Zhuang Zi and Mozi, and was the only thinker who had been born into an elite family. He is often compared to Machiavelli in Western culture.

The Legalism school was a major rival of Confucianism, Taoism and Mohism, and was briefly the state religion under the Qin Dynasty. But because the Qin Emperor was so brutal, when the dynasty was overthrown, Legalism was never adopted again. However, Han Feizi’s writings still had a major influence on Chinese thought.

In pages 104-109 (section 49), Han Feizi summarizes Legalism nicely:

…For this reason, the best rewards are those which are generous and predictable, so that the people may profit by them. The best penalties are those which are severe and inescapable, so that the people will fear them. The best laws are those which are uniform and inflexible, so that the people can understand them. Therefore the ruler should never delay in handing out rewards, nor be merciful in administering punishments. If praise accompanies reward, and censure follows on the heels of punishment, then worthy and unworthy men alike will put forth their best efforts. (pg. 104)


The world calls worthy those whose conduct is marked by integrity and good faith, and wise those whose words are subtle and mysterious. But even the wisest man has difficulty understanding words that are subtle and mysterious. Now if you want to setup laws for the masses and you try to base them on doctrines that even the wisest men have difficulty in understanding, how can the common people comprehend them? …Now in administering your rule and dealing with the people, if you do not speak in terms that any man and woman can plainly understand, but long for doctrines of the wise men, then you will defeat your own efforts at rule. Subtle and mysterious words are no business of the people. (pg. 108-109)

Han Feizi was a real no-nonsense guy. Like other Legalist scholars, the emphasis was on two things:

  • Clear laws with clear rewards and clear punishments.
  • A ruler who was aloof and held total power.

Han Feizi spends a lot of time writing about how if you are the person with power, everyone around you wants to kill you, lie to you, or trick you into delegating power. That’s why he seems like such a cold bastard: he held a very pessimistic view of people. On the other hand, Han Feizi was very perceptive and his writing is very compelling and strong. Because he grew up in an elite family, he probably experience all the ugly power-struggles first-hand.

As he writes in the opening lines of section 17:

It is hazardous for the ruler of men to trust others, for he who trusts others will be controlled by others. Ministers have no bonds of flesh and blood which tie them to the ruler; it is only the force of circumstance which compels them to serve him….Moreover, whether one is a ruler of a state of ten thousand chariots or of a thousand only, it is quite likely that his consort, his concubines, or the son he has designated as heir to the throne will wish for his early death….They have no feeling of hatred toward the ruler; they merely stand to profit by his death. The ruler therefore must not fail to keep close watch on those who might profit by his death. (pg 85-87)

Somehow this reminds me of a quote from the original Dune novel by Frank Herbert, that talks about the Padashah Emperor:

We [the royal family] became adept, my mother, sisters and I, at avoiding subtle instruments of death. It may seem a dreadful thing to say, but I’m not at all sure my father was innocent in all these attempts. A Royal Family is not like other families.

Must of Han Feizi’s writings explore how people in general look for profit, and are essentially selfish though not evil. If they can profit by something, they will do what is necessary, even if it’s not always legitimate. He tends to assume that very few people are noble and high-minded, so instead, his solution is to carefully control all of them:

Hardly ten men of true integrity and good faith can be found today, and yet the offices of the state number in the hundreds….Therefore the way of the enlightened rulers is to unify the laws instead of seeking for wise men of good faith. Hence his laws never fail him, and there is no felony or deceit among his officials. (pg. 110)

Also, unlike the Confucians, Mohists and Taoists, he doesn’t spend much time glorifying the past, unless it served a useful lesson. As he writes in section 50:

Thus, since the death of its founder, the Confucian school has split into eight factions, the Mohist school into three….If we cannot even decide which of the present versions of Confucian and Mohist doctrine are the genuine ones, how can we hope to scrutinize the ways of Yao and Shun, who lived three thousand years ago?….Hence it is clear that those who claim to follow the ancient kings and be able to describe with certainty the ways of Yao and Shun must be either fools or imposters. (pg. 119-120).

Han Feizi is sarcastic, witty and pessimistic, but his writings are pretty compelling and he was quite intelligent. Also, at times, he often writes with a very “Taoist” style of writing that seems to contradict the sections above, but it shows that he was shrewd, but not narrow-minded.

Sadly, he was betrayed by fellow Legalist scholar, Li Si, and was put into prison. The Qin Empereor then sent him poison to kill himself and he died soon after. Still, his shrewd legacy lives on thousands of years later, and makes for a compelling read.

P.S. Burton Watson’s translation is great, but if you want to read it online, there are other versions available. Still, I found Watson’s quite readable, though abridged in some areas.

P.P.S. Ironically, Han Feizi was a student of the famous Confucian scholar Xunzi, whom I am reading right now. I hope to post on that soon. I like Xunzi’s writings quite a bit.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in China, Confucius, Literature, Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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