Exploring Chinese History
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Legalism is an approach to the analysis of legal questions characterized by abstract logical reasoning focusing on the applicable legal text, such as a constitution, legislation, or case law, rather than on the social, economic, or political context.
In its narrower versions, legalism perpetuates the notion that the pre-existing body of authoritative legal materials already contains a uniquely pre-determined "right answer" to any legal problem that may arise; and that the task of the judge is to ascertain that uniquely predetermined answer by an essentially mechanical process.
This Western school of the application of laws has little connection to the Chinese philosophical school of the same name that is discussed from here on.

Chinese Legalism

In Chinese History, legalism (Chinese: 法家; pinyin Fǎjiā) was one of the four main philosophic schools in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (Near the end of the Zhou dynasty from about the sixth century B.C. to about the third century B.C.). It is actually rather a pragmatic political philosophy, with maxims like "when the epoch changed, the ways changed" as its essential principle, than a jurisprudence. In this context, "legalism" here can bear the meaning of "political philosophy that uphold the rule of law" and thus, distinguished from the word's Western sense. Hanfeizi believed that a ruler should govern his subjects by the following trinity:

Power Politics

Legalism was the central governing idea of the Qin Dynasty, culminating in the unification of China under the 'First Emperor' (Qin Shi Huang). This is the ruler featured in the 2002 movie Hero, and several other films.
Most Chinese philosophers and political thinkers have had very negative views toward Legalism blaming it for what today would be considered a totalitarian society. Many Chinese scholars believe that it was a reaction against legalism that gave Chinese Imperial politics its personalistic and moralistic flavor rather than emphasis on the rule of law. However, this view of the Qin may be biased, as most of the Chinese historical records were written by Confucian scholars, who were persecuted under the Qin.


In later dynasties, Legalism was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still have a role to play in government.
More recently, Mao Zedong, who had some knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy, compared himself with Qin Shi Huang and publicly approved of some Legalist methods. However, since the 1990s the related concept of the rule of law has gained currency.

Related Figures

The Confucian thinker Xun Zi is sometimes considered as being influenced by or having nourished Legalist ideas, mostly because two of his disciples (Li Si and Han Fei Zi) were strict Legalists.

Related Philosophies

Contrasting Philosophies

Korean Legalism

The history of Korea's legalism is traced to the Gyeonggukdaejeon, a law book compiled in the Joseon dynasty. There is a mixed perception of legalism within South Korean society, as the post-WWII military regime used the idea of legalism as a tool of its governance. The ideas are related to Chinese legalism, but often distinguished because of Korean distaste for what they see as Chinese use of legalism in attempting to legitimize Han imperialism.1



1- Song Dae-keun, "Use Legalism to Govern the Nation." Dong-a Ilbo, January 2, 2006


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