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Confucianism vs Legalism


bhchao
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Governments throughout Chinese history have either been predominantly Confucianist, Legalist, or a combination of both.

Confucius and Mencius both believed that men were born of a good nature. If the ruler was virtuous and just, he would set a good example for which most people would follow themselves. However Legalists have criticized this as too optimistic of human nature, and thus naive.

Legalist thought had its origins dating back to the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. Legalism may have originated from the hard Confucianist teachings of Xunzi. Xunzi believed that men was born bad, and have to be educated and made to conform to the laws of the state in order to be good. He believed that all men were born with a natural self-interest that dominates them at the time they were born, whether it be a desire for profit or an emotional desire for love that could drive people to make impulsive actions. People's own self-interest dictated their actions, and it is through education and government laws that enables people to accumulate virtue.

Xunzi's two most famous pupils, Han Fei and Li Si, took his teachings and altered it significantly. Xunzi believed that men's "evil" nature can be changed through strict training and education. However Han Fei, Li Si, and Legalists believed that a person's "evil" nature can never be changed. According to them, a man is always going to have this self-interest nature at the time they were born all the way until death. So there is no point in trying to change them, and they had to be dealt with through harsh punishments.

Han Fei had a hard time expressing himself verbally and often stuttered. So he put all his thoughts down on paper and compiled it in the Han Fei Tzu. Han Fei was more moderate than Li Si, who as Qin Shi Huang's prime minister forced Han to drink poison out of jealousy.

As prime minister, Li Si implemented Legalist practices. Examples included killing the entire family of someone who committed a crime, up to the 5th degree. Mutilation was practiced to keep criminals in check and those who commited crimes not only had their families exterminated up to the 5th degree, but were cut at the waist down. Any general and worker who reported late to duty was executed on the spot. All able men were required to toil day and night on state construction projects. It was on Li Si's recommendation that Qin Shi Huang ordered 460 dissenting Confucian scholars buried alive. Such draconian measures aroused animosity from the civilian population. Li Si met his fate through his own measures. After Qin Shi Huang died, Li Si and the court eunuch Zhao Gao vied for power. Li Si was made to go through his own "5 Torture Method", arms and legs cut off and then body cut at the waist.

A Legalist statesman during the Warring States period circa 343 BC before the Qin dynasty, Shang Yang, also met his fate through his own methods. He devised for the Qin state equally severe punishments. For example, if one member of a unit of 5 or 10 households committed an offense, the other 4 or 9 households were to be held responsible and punished as severely as the actual offender. When the Qin king he was serving died, Shang Yang lost favor and became a fugitive. He finally found refuge in a small inn operated by a longtime friend. The friend told Shang that according to Shang's own rules, an innkeeper was required to report to the authorities the name and status of every person who registered at the inn. Shang begged his friend not to report him, but the innkeeper had no choice. Shang was eventually taken by the authorities and executed by his own punishment method he devised for the Qin kingdom. His arms and legs were tied to 4 chariots and he was tore apart by the 4 horses being whipped in different directions. Soft and hard Confucians have viewed this as "You live by the sword, you die by the sword. You live as a dirty double crosser, you die from a dirty double cross"

The Qin dynasty was an example of a strongly Legalist government that governed harshly but unified China by conquering all of the Warring States. It lasted for only 25 years because its harsh rule alienated the populace. That is why revolts broke out all over the country as soon as the First Emperor died.

The rulers of the succeeding Han dynasty were determined not to repeat this same mistake. One reason why the Han dynasty lasted for so long, more than 400 years, is because the Han emperors combined Confucian ideals with soft Legalist practices. They integrated the two. Most of the mutilation punishments were eliminated and Confucianism began a revival. Han rule was authoritative, but lacking of the severity of the preceding Qin dynasty. The reign of Han Wudi was Confucianist on the surface, but "soft" Legalist in practice. During the first half of his reign, the economy prospered and the Chinese empire expanded into Korea, Vietnam, and into the western regions of Central Asia. State monopolies were started on the salt and iron industries, and heavy taxes were levied on wealthy landowners. Different ideas were tolerated and the first civil service examinations were started during the reign of Han Wendi, Wudi's grandfather.

Dissent was still viewed unfavorably though. For example, the great Han historian Sima Qian was given the option of either execution or castration by Wudi because he spoke out in defense of a general who defected to the Xiongnu. Fortunately, Sima chose castration so he could finish his Shiji. Otherwise, China would have lost a great historical resource.

The Han did try to learn about people from other cultures. Wudi sent Zhang Qian on an expedition west to gather more information from the people of Bactria or current-day Afghanistan. I would say the Han dynasty was the first "westernized" Chinese dynasty, but definitely not to the level reached by the Tang.

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This is an interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.

Han Fei had a hard time expressing himself verbally and often stuttered. So he put all his thoughts down on paper and compiled it in the Han Fei Tzu.

Not paper, more like bamboo ... :wink:

And "cosmopolitan" seems to be better than "westernised" ...

I suggest you add some Chinese names/terms to the post, like these -

儒家, 法家, 孔子, 孟子, 荀子, 韓非, 李斯, 商鞅, 腰斬, 五馬分屍, 漢武帝, 匈奴, 司馬遷, 史記, 張騫

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However Han Fei, Li Si, and Legalists believed that a person's "evil" nature can never be changed.
As prime minister, Li Si implemented Legalist practices. Examples included killing the entire family of someone who committed a crime, up to the 5th degree. Mutilation was practiced to keep criminals in check and those who commited crimes not only had their families exterminated up to the 5th degree, but were cut at the waist down. Any general and worker who reported late to duty was executed on the spot. All able men were required to toil day and night on state construction projects. It was on Li Si's recommendation that Qin Shi Huang ordered 460 dissenting Confucian scholars buried alive
quod erat demonstrandum :-?
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  • 1 year later...

That is one view of the Qin-Legalist legacy colored of course by the interests of the Han dynasty victors.

Another perspective is that the Qin laws were popular with the lower classes, because Shang Yang's system was probably the only one that supposedly meted out law to the high and to the low equally (which the Confucianists opposed: we gentleman scholars do not belong in the same class as the lowly peasants, we should not be punished so).

As for the oppressive tax system that weighed heavily on the peasantry, one wonders if this was also biased history. (The Qin economy was said to be systematic, organized, and efficient allowing it greater material (read: military might) output relative to its competitors. The Qin government was perceived to have pissed off the landed gentry/aristocrats who were threatened by the supposedly meritocratic system. Was it not they who actually revolted? (albeit, Liu Bang was not aristocratic, but I thought Xiang was)

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