The Book of Lord Shang
(商君书, Shang Jun Shu
) is the most important and well-known text of the Legalist school of Chinese philosophy. It was written over a period of about 100 years during the Warring States Period, lasting roughly 400 BC to 200 BC. Though it is traditionally attributed to Shang Yang, and he did indeed appear to have written part
of it, the last few chapters refer to people and events which didn't occur until after his death.
The book expounds on how one should run a state. The main points are to keep the people occupied with agriculture, war, and nothing else. Trade should be heavily taxed to avoid people gaining money and merit by means other than farming and fighting. The law should provide far more punishments than rewards, and the punishments for minor offenses should be severe so as to discourage anyone from Jumping Off the Slippery Slope
into more serious crimes. However, there are some palatable arguments; the authors maintain that promotion and advancement should be based entirely on merit, and have nothing to do with one's family or other circumstances. They also advocate that all people, from the Emperor to the lowest peasant, should be treated equally by the law.
In direct contrast to the prevailing Confucian school, the Legalists believed that humans are naturally lazy, corrupt, petty, and wicked, hence the emphasis on punishment to be found throughout the book. It is worth noting that Legalism was the guiding philosophy of the Qin dynasty, which ruled over all China for just 15 years, from 221 to 206BC. After the Emperor died, they were replaced with the Han dynasty, who did make use of Legalist ideas, but extensively tempered them with Confucian notions.
Compare and contrast The Prince
The Book of Lord Shang provides examples of:
- All Crimes Are Equal: Advocates using this.
- Culture Police: Shang thinks they're a jolly good idea.
- Deadly Decadent Court: The authors are very much against this. People should only gain prestige by excelling in agriculture and war, not by currying the ministers' or Emperor's favor.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Intended to make the penalties of lesser crimes so horrible no-one would even contemplate greater crimes. Backfired when tried by the Qin dynasty, where it just created a huge mass of men who suddenly had nothing to lose in backing a rebellion. There isn't really a way to top (horribly painful) death as a punishment.
- Dystopia Is Hard: The sheer amount of effort required to rigidly control people to the extent posited in the book seems a lot harder than simply keeping them well-fed and happy would be.
- Gray and Grey Morality: Lord Shang didn't believe in objective goodness; what mattered was obedience to the law.
- Hobbes Was Right
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Shang Yang met his end under a punishment that he himself formulated into Qin law, one reserved for law enforcers who broke the law themselves, when he ended up being accused of treason by the new king of Qin (in revenge for abuse Shang heaped on the king when he was his tutor) and Shang and his entire family were sentenced to death. When he tried to hide out in a hotel, he was refused, as the strict laws he had enacted in Qin while in power made it illegal for a hotel owner to admit a guest without proper identification. He was later caught, followed by drawing and quartering by chariot.
- Wait, it gets better: It is theorised that one of the main reasons why he was accused of treason was revenge by the king for Shang's intransigence in punishing him for minor offenses when he was still a prince. Publicly whipping your future monarch isn't exactly considered a good idea by most people.
- Humans Are Bastards: Among other things.
- Misaimed Fandom: When Shang argues that the army should be at war whenever possible, he cites The Art of War in favor of his argument, apparently having missed the many parts where Sun Tzu specifically said that it is always and without exception better to resolve a conflict or dispute by diplomacy than by combat.
- Silly Reason for War: Shang advises that the army should be at war as much as possible to prevent the soldiers falling victim to such parasites as virtue and care for the elderly.
- Sins of Our Fathers: Since it is more important for law enforcers to obey the law than anyone else, it is advised that if they break it, then their children should be punished as well.
- And ironically, Shang and his family would suffer this very punishment when he was convicted of treason against King Huiwen of Qin (see Hoist by His Own Petard above). The practice of family extermination, called the "Nine Exterminations" for the nine categories that family members would be put into, would be reserved for only the most heinous of offenses against the state (treason and rebellion) in feudal China until its eventual abolishment by the Qing Dynasty in 1905.
- Spiritual Successor: If you want to see how a society in the modern world would look when run by similar principles, check out 1984.
- Utopia: This is how a China ruled by Legalist principles is presented. However, to many eyes, Shang's vision looks positively dystopic.
- Won the War, Lost the Peace: Since peace is to be outright avoided under Shang's philosophy, it's hard to keep the government together without a war on. Sure enough, the Qin dynasty basically ended this way.
- Working Class People Are Morons: The authors didn't just invoke this, they intended to enforce it.
- Yes-Man: Repeatedly warned against.