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Literature / The Book of Lord Shang

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The Book of Lord Shang (商君書/商君书, Shāng Jūn Shū) is one of the most important and well-known texts of Legalist Chinese philosophy. It was written over a period of about 100 years during the Warring States Period, lasting roughly 400 BC to 221 BC (when Qin established the first Chinese empire). Though it is traditionally attributed to Shang Yang, and he does 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. Unfortunately Lord Shang later bit the end of this when he was painfully executed, along with nine generations of his family, by the new King Huiwen (in fact, the first ruler of Qin to style himself as "king") for having previously advocated treating him as a common criminal. Shang attempted to flee this fate but was apprehended when he was unable to stay at any inns without identifying himself, also a law that he had implemented.

In contrast to more prevalent 'Confucian' thought from thinkers such as Mencius, the Legalists believed that humans are naturally lazy, corrupt, petty, and wicked, hence the emphasis on punishment to be found throughout the book.

Also note that Legalism as actually practiced by Qin could differ considerably than Legalism as espoused by the book. When looking at Qin history, it's important to remember that every traditional work of history covering it has been written by someone with a good reason to villainize it (e.g. enemy state, successor state, member of the gentry...) and archaeological evidence from the last century paints a much more complex picture. Qin legal codes from later in the Warring States decreed a wide range of punishments, ranging from fines to state slavery to painful death, and contain some ideas much more sympathetic to modern eyes, such as forbidding wife-beating, placing strict regulations on interrogation techniques, and forcing people to help the victim of a crime in progress or be punished themselves, that were dropped for two thousand years once Qin fell. We also have bamboo slip letters written to and by common soldiers, suggesting that learning wasn't as suppressed in Qin as it's often claimed.

Compare and contrast The Prince and Zi Zhi Tongjian.

The Book of Lord Shang provides examples of:

  • All Crimes Are Equal: Advocates using this. Didn't work out so well in practice, for reasons highlighted in Disproportionate Retribution below.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: You need a whole lot of those to keep enforcing all the orders and laws Lord Shang proposes, and the text constantly stresses out the importance of the merit, rather than birth or connections as the way to select those. However, as history have shown, they very quickly turn into Obstructive Bureaucrats when they no longer have to whip people into either military mobilisation or at least some Pointless Civic Project.
  • Call to Agriculture: Very literally so. If for any reason soldiers aren't fighting in some war (and the book is written in a Forever War mindset), they should be turned into farmers to both decrease the costs of maintaining the army and create a food surplus for the next war. This also includes any kind of garrison that isn't currently mobilised. The ideal subject is a farmer-soldier (in that exact order), who works hard and follows orders, never asking questions. This is probably the only thing from the treaty that survived the test of time, as  Qin repeatedly managed to increase the size of their economy, farmland and agriculture output by applying this principle and instantly imposing it on every piece of land they've conquered.
  • Culture Police: Shang thinks they're a jolly good idea. It's probably no coincidence that Qin Shi Huangdi, whose policies were heavily informed by Legalist thinkers like Shang, infamously ordered all non-technical writing in his country burned.
  • 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, not to mention nepotism.
    • On a more meta level, as harsh as Lord Shang was to commoners, what really got him killed was daring to be equally harsh to the nobility and ruling family, and replacing the traditional aristocratic mode of governance with centralized bureaucratic and meritocratic rule.
  • Depending Upon the Undependable: While it might seem obvious from a modern perspective, one of the novel things proposed by Lord Shang was to stop doing this. If someone is incompetent, sack them, no matter who they are, what's their lineage or what kind of favour got them into their station in the first place.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Intended to make the penalties of lesser crimes so horrible that 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 gruesome 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, at least to modern eyes. Given the chaos of the Warring States, however, it should be noted that even philosophers grouped under Confucians by later generations wrote at least some grudging praise for Qin's orderly, meritocratic governance.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: Just about anything that Lord Shang proposes works semi-efficiently for the purpose of wartime mobilisation (especially when compared with other, contemporary philosophies), but turns into a complete mess once peace is achieved, creating a self-destructive dystopia full of Obstructive Bureaucrats enforcing a comically brutal law. It really speaks of qualities of Qin Shi Huangdi as a ruler that he managed to maintain the newly-fledged empire together during his reign despite, rather than because of imposing Legalism.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: Lord Shang didn't believe in objective goodness; what mattered was obedience to the law. It seemingly never occurred to him that said laws can be just as tyrannical and petty until he ended up on the receiving end of imposing them.
  • Hobbes Was Right: Shang was a firm believer in the notion that people were bastards that could only be kept in line with an iron hand. Ironically, he was executed over personal and petty grudges the new king had against him.
  • 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 the abuse Shang heaped on King Huiwen and his tutor back when King Huiwen was still the heir to his father's dukedom) and Shang and his entire family were sentenced to death. And even better, when he tried to hide out in a hotel to escape the above fate, 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.
    • And the Qin dynasty itself fell victim to the Legalist logic of blind obedience and horrible punishment for any misconduct. When All Crimes Are Equal and every crime is punishable by death, people have only two choices when they mess up: die or revolt. And once the revolt starts, there is no stopping, because the blindly followed law offers no other punishment than painful execution.
    • One of the foremost rebels who overthrew the Qin Dynasty, in fact, was Liu Bang, who later became the Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty. He started as essentially a local sheriff transporting prisoners; when some escaped, however, he decided it was better to free the rest and become an outlaw than face certain death under Qin law.
  • Honor Before Reason: The authors strenuously objected to this mode of conduct, citing it as one of the main reasons no-one had yet successfully united China.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Among other things. This stance is used to justify treating everyone who isn't a ruler as a cog in the machine of the country, and to be replaced whenever faulty.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Shang's laws were brutal and ultimately inefficient, he did make some good points about the virtues of meritocracy, and the need for innovation over blind adherence to old traditions. (Though it should be noted that he wanted the people to blindly adhere to the new traditions he proposed.) The biggest issue with his philosophy isn't so much that he was wrong per se, but rather that it is completely inapplicable to any country that isn't embroiled in constant warfare and internal decay (or is simply big).
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: The book as a whole, and to some extent Legalism, faced a reality check of just how in practice the system works when imposed to all of China. Namely, a Full-Circle Revolution.
  • Misaimed Fandom: invokedWhen 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.
  • Motivated by Fear: Half of the treaty is spend on repeating like a mantra how great, awesome and effective it is to make everyone fear their ruler and his bureaucrats. It worked for about as long as there was a war to fight. And since Shang never anticipated the fact Qin will manage to conquer all of China eventually, the system quickly turned against itself once peace was achieved.
  • Nepotism. Nope. Large sections of the treaty are dedicated to portraying it as the worst thing that can happen to any country and just how much it complicates running it when you have to deal with people who got their posts simply due to inheriting them rather than being in any way qualified. The impact of this logic was so strong, it left a permanent mark on other Chinese schools of philosophy and eventually on China itself.
  • The Peter Principle: Legalism as espoused by the treaty worked well when implemented on a limited scale (i.e. when Qin was still just Qin), but when scaled up and expanded to cover the entire newly forged empire, the system totally broke down.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: The extent of meritocracy Lord Shang suggested means that the ruler might be hereditary, but he sure as hell should be a proactive politician, good manager and supreme commander of his armies (but maybe not a Frontline General). This is in sharp contrast with both Daoism and Confucianism, where the ruler should merely exist and let things flow on their own in accordance with the concept of wu wei. Given how Qin turned from a fringe, frontier backwater to the unifier of China within a single century might have something to do with this sort of mindset.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The treaty proposes a harsh, restrictive society ruled by fear and discipline, both achieved with a hefty use of Disproportionate Retribution, while portraying people as corrupt, lazy and scheming whenever they aren't under someone's boot. It also portrays basic humane behaviours like compassion or remorse as wasteful weaknesses that should be rooted out, as they stand in the way of effectively following orders.
  • 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 abolition by the Qing Dynasty in 1905.
  • Utopia: This is how a China ruled by Legalist principles is presented. However, to many eyes and like many pre-modern examples, Shang's vision looks positively dystopian.
  • We Have Reserves: Among other things advocated by Shang is the insistence that killing people not only will motivate the rest of subjects, but that there is always a reserve to draw from. Keep in mind that outside of the memetic status of the "Chinese hordes", Shang wrote the treaty when Qin was a rump state at the verge of collapse, without any reserves to draw from.
  • 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, by actively seeking ways to prevent "common people" from learning anything other than the practical skills of their trade. Knowledge of any kind is treated as a well-guarded secret that should only be passed to those who manage to elevate themselves by their natural cunning from their low standing.
  • Written by the Winners: The reputation of Shang is mostly coloured by his opponents who survived him, and tearing apart the content of his treaty was a favourite past-time of Confucian scholars for the next two millennia. This obviously affects the sort of reputation both gained over said millennia, as if the content of the treaty wasn't contentious already.
  • Yes-Man: Repeatedly warned against. This does create a significant dissonance, as on one hand, everyone should display both blind obedience (thus be the very Yes-Men the treaty warns against) and at the same time offer critique to any kind of bad ideas of their superiors, in the hopes they won't be punished for disobeying a direct order.