This is one of a series of pages discussing Classical Chinese philosophy during the period from before Confucius (ca 650 B.C.) to the early Han dynasty (ca 200 B.C.). This page provides an intellectual biography of the 3rd century "Legalist" philosopher Han Fei and excerpts from two of his most important works.
A tiger carved into a hollow brick from the Han Dynasty.
Han Fei was a prince of the royal family of Han. He and Li Si studied with the philosopher Xun Kuang. Li Si, who later became chancellor of Qin under the First Emperor, felt that he was not the equal of Han Fei. But Han stuttered and could not present his ideas in court, which was a serious impediment. He overcame this by developing one of the most brilliant styles in ancient China.
Han Fei saw the gradual, but constant, decline of the state of Han and tried on several occasions to persuade the king to follow different policies, but the king proved incapable of following his advice. He witnessed with increasing despair how rulers of his day were beguiled by Ru and Mohist philosophers who prattled endlessly about moral virtues and by roving bands of knights-errant who performed acts of daring in contravention of the laws. Both caused the increasing disorder of society and distracted rulers from the real tasks of governing. "When the state is at peace, rulers support scholars and knights-errant, but when troubles arise they employ men of arms. Thus they support people they do not need and do not support those they do need."
Ultimately, Han Fei's works made their way to Qin where the future First Emperor saw them and wanted to meet the man who wrote them. Li Si identified the writings as those of his classmate Han Fei, and Han Fei did come to Qin in 234. But even though the First Emperor was pleased with Han Fei's advice, he did not fully trust him. Yao Jia, who had been censured by Han Fei for his conduct, and it is said Li Si as well, played on the suspicion that, being a member of the royal family of Han, Han Fei could never be entirely loyal to the interests of Qin, noting "that it is the nature of human feelings that he will always work for the interests of his native Han and not for those of Qin." The First Emperor accepted Yao's conclusion and had Han Fei imprisoned for a crime. Han Fei tried to defend himself, but he could not get an audience. So Li Si sent him some poison so that he could commit suicide. The First Emperor later regretted his condemnation of Han Fei and was going to pardon him, but Han was already dead.
When he died in 233, Han Fei was still a young man, but he had already established a reputation because of his brilliant writings. Some 55 of his books survive collected together in the Hanfeizi by Li Xiang about 25BC. Among the most famous of them are "Five Vermin" which castigates the rulers of the day for pandering to useless people like Mohist and Ru scholars and knights-errant who disrupt the court and weaken the country and "Eminence in Learning" which discusses the eight schools into which the Ru philosophers had divided in his day and the three schools of the Mohists.
In the present age those eminent for their learning are the Ru and Mohist.1 The Ru pay their highest honor to Confucius, whereas the Mohists pay theirs to Mo Di.2 Since the death of Confucius the Ru schools of Zizhang,3 Zisi,4 the Yan family,5 Mencius,6 Qidiao,7 Zhongliang,8 [Gong]sun [Nizi],9 and Yuezheng10 have developed. Since the death of Mo Di, the Xiangli,11 Xiangfu,12 and Dengling13 schools have developed. Thus, since the death of Confucius, the Ru have split into eight schools, and since the death of Mo Di, the Mohist have divided into three factions.14 What they accept and reject of the heritage is different and even contradictory, and yet each claims to represent the true teachings of Confucius or Mo Di. Since Confucius and Mo Di cannot be brought back to life, who will determine which of the present versions of their doctrines is right? Further, Confucius and Mo Di both claim to follow the Dao of Yao and Shun, but what they accept and reject is different and each claims to be following the real Yao and Shun. But since we cannot bring Yao and Shun back to life, who will determine which of their doctrines is authentic?
1The LSCQ, "Dangran," 2/4.7: "Though both [Confucius and Mo Di] died long ago, their followers are still growing in number and their disciples have flourished so abundantly that they fill the whole world. The heirs of the learning of Confucius and Mo Di who have attained eminence and glory in the eyes of the world number into a multitude. The number is so great as to be uncountable, for everything which influenced them attained the proper standard."
2According to the Shiji (74.2350), Mo Di was "probably a grand officer of Song skilled at defensive warfare and the economical use of resources. Some say that he lived at the same time as Confucius, others after him." Sun Yirang dates him to 468-376, Qian Mu to 479-381, and Fang Shouchu to 490-403. Sun Yirang, Mozi jiangu, "Postface," 629ff., examines the theories of his origins. Chen Qiyou (p. 1081, n.2) offers evidence that Mo Di's family came from Song.
3Xunzi, "Fei shier zi," ¶6.13, calls the followers of Zizhang "base Ru." He also mentions separately, but also as "base Ru," the followers of Zixia and Ziyou.
4The Shiji (74.2343) says that Mencius was taught by a disciple of Zisi, generally identified as the grandson of Confucius. Xunzi, "Fei shier zi," ¶6.7, associates Mencius with Zisi. Confucius' grandson, Zisi, is credited with a work in 32 bamboo bundles in the Hanshu, "Bibliography," and is said to have been a contemporary of Duke Mu of Lu. There was, however, another Zisi, the disciple of Confucius Yan Xian (b. 525 B.C.). He is mentioned in the Analects (14.1) and is said to have been a recluse (Zhuangzi, "Rangwang," 9.13b; Shiji, 67.2208).
5There were eight disciples of Confucius with the surname Yan: Yan Wuyu, Yan Hui, Yan Xin, Yan Gao, Yan Zu, Yan Kuai, Yan Zhipu, and Yan He. The most famous of these is Yan Hui (Ziyuan), his favorite disciple, but as he predeceased the Master, it is unlikely that he could be the founder of this school, so the identify of the founder(s) of this school cannot be established. The Shengxianqun fulu says that this school transmitted the Odes and specialized in remonstrance by ridicule.
6The natural interpretation of this passage is that it refers to the school of Mencius. But it seems odd that separate schools are listed for Zisi and Mencius if their relations were as close as implied in the Xunzi and the Shiji.
7The Qidiao school derives from the disciple Qidiao Qi. The Hanshu "Bibliography" records a book of 12 bamboo bundles written by the followers of Qidiao Qi. His school is widely mentioned in the literature.
8The Zhongliang School is of uncertain origin. Liang Qichao identifies it with a Chen Liang, a native of Chu, mentioned in the Mencius (4B.4) who came north to study the learning of the Central States, is cited as an example of a barbarian who converted to Chinese ways. Chen Xiang and Xin who studied under him are excoriated from giving up civilization to follow the "barbarian" doctrine of Xu Xing who preached the Dao of Shennong. Chen Qiyou rightly doubts this theory. There is a Master Zhongliang who is a contemporary with King Xiang of Qi, and thus to be dated to after Mencius. This Master Zhongliang is cited in Han commentaries to the classics.
9Gu Guangqi takes this school to be that of Xun Kuang. This interpretation is also followed by Liang Qichao. More plausibly, Ikeda argues that the text is defective and that the original reading was gongsun. Chen Qiyou concurs, noting that the Shengxianqun fulu says that the school of Gongsun specialized in the Changes.
10There were two persons with the surname Yuezheng who could be identified as the founder of this school. One was Yuezheng Zichun, a disciple of Zeng Shen; the other was Yuezheng Ke, a disciple of Mencius. Chen plausibly suggests that it is the disciple of Zeng Shen who should be taken as the founder of this school.
11The Yuanhe xingcuan quotes a passage of the Hanfeizi (missing in the present text), saying that Master Xiangli was an ancient worthy who wrote a book comprising seven bamboo bundles. The Zhuangzi, "Tianxia," ¶33.2d, identifies him as Xiangli Qin and associates his disciples with the followers of Wu Huo.
12Of the Xiangfu school, nothing whatever is known.
13The school of Dengling was of southern origin and included Ku Hou and Ji Chi as well as Master Dengling, according to the Zhuangzi, "Tianxia," ¶33.2d.
14It is generally believed that these three schools are represented in the three sets of chapters on each of ten theses of classical Mohism. Liang Qichao notes that in addition to these three schools, there was also the school of Song Xing and Yin Wen which has many points in common with the Mohists.
Now over 700 years have passed since Zhou succeeded the Yin and more than 2000 since the Xia dynasty succeeded the Yu dynasty of Shun.1 We are incapable of determining which are the real teachings of Confucius and Mo Di, so how, today, will those who desire to judge even the truth about the Dao of Yao and Shun--now more than 3000 years ago-do so? Obviously it is impossible to ascertain anything! Those who claim to know something with certainty but lack any corroborating evidence are fools; and those who rely on what we cannot know with certainty to make further claims are knaves. Thus, it is clear that those who rely on the former kings for their claims and profess certain knowledge about Yao and Shun are knaves if they are not utter fools. The learning of fools and knaves, and conduct that is unprincipled and contradictory, will not be accepted by the enlightened ruler.
1These figures are definitely wrong, so various scholars have proposed emending the figures to make them "historically" accurate, but there is little reason to believe that Han Fei intended to be precise.
Today Ru and Mohists alike praise the early kings for their universal love of the world, saying that they looked after their people the way parents do a beloved child. What do they use to prove that this is so? They say: "Whenever the Director of Crime applied the punishments, the lord would cancel his musical performances because of that and when he heard the announcement of an execution he would shed tears over it." This is what they praise about the early kings. If you require that the relation between ruler and minister be like father and son and make it the condition necessary to produce order in government, the implication is that there is no such thing as unruly fathers or sons. By inborn nature, nothing surpasses the love of parents for their children. But even though all parents have expressed their love their children, this love has never resulted in all their children being well-behaved. And even if parents were to love the unruly child even more, would that prevent it from being unruly? The love of the early kings for their children could not surpass the love of parents' for their children, so if parents love does not inevitably result in their children not being unruly, how can the love of kings make their people orderly? Moreover, if when the laws are applied to punish people the lord weeps about it--this may exemplify humaneness but it is not a way to create orderly government. Shedding tears and not wanting to punish may be humaneness but, however that may be, that the punishments cannot but be applied is a matter of law. If the early kings let their laws triumph and did not heed their tears, it is obvious that practicing humaneness cannot be used to create an orderly government.
Besides, by nature people submit to authority, but only a few are capable of cherishing moral principles. Confucius was the world's sage. He cultivated his conduct, clarified his Dao, traveled across the lands within the seas, but in all those places only 70 men rejoiced in his humaneness, admired his moral code, and were willing to become his disciples. To be sure, to prize humaneness belongs to the very few and to be capable of his moral code is a difficult thing. Thus, in the vastness of the world there were only 70 men who became his disciples and there was only one man who became humane and moral.
Duke Ai of Lu was an inferior ruler, but when he faced south as lord of his country, not a single man within the borders of his state would dare refuse to be his servant. So since people by nature submit to authority, when a person holds a position of authority it is easy to cause others to submit. Thus it was that Confucius contrary to expectations remained a servant and Duke Ai, in contrast, remained lord. It was not a matter of Confucius cherishing the Duke's morality but of his submitting to his authority. Thus if it was based on morality Confucius would never have submitted to Duke Ai, but because he wielded authority Duke Ai made Confucius his servant. Today scholars advise rulers that they should strive to conduct themselves with humaneness and morality so that it will be possible for them to become universal kings. They do not advise that they wield their authority which is certain to triumph. This is to make it necessary for rulers to reach the level of a Confucius and that all his subjects should act like Confucius' disciples. Such a policy is certain to fail.
Ru scholars use their literary skills to destroy law and knights-errant use their military skills to violate prohibitions, yet rulers universally treat them with special courtesies so there is general disorder. Those who deviate from the law should be regarded as criminals but instead all these learned teachers are chosen for office for their literary accomplishments. Those who violate the prohibitions should be punished but instead every knight-errant is given a living for using their swords to further private interest. Thus, what law condemns the lord chooses and what officials punish their superior patronizes. Law and the ruler's personal inclinations, superior and subordinate are in contradiction. Where nothing is fixed, even ten Yellow Emperors would be incapable of governing. Thus those who practice humaneness and morality should not be those who are praised, for to praise their conduct is to harm military readiness. Men of literary accomplishment should not be given office, for giving them office brings confusion to the laws.
To reward those who cut off enemy heads and yet esteem acts of compassion and kindness; to provide emoluments and noble titles to those who capture cities and yet put you trust in persuasions which advocate universal love; to strengthen armor and sharpen weapons in order to be prepared to meet any kind of trouble and yet admire the ornamented robes and belts of the civil gentry; to try to enrich the country through agriculture and ward off the enemy with trained soldiers and yet prize scholars for their literary accomplishments; to disdain people who treat the ruler with reverence and respect the law and instead patronize knights-errant who travel from court to court wielding their swords on behalf of private interests-those who recommend such conduct make it impossible for the state to be either well governed or strong. When the state is tranquil, it can nurture Ru scholars and knights-errant, but when difficulties arise, it must use armed knights. But in the present case, those who would benefit the state are not employed and those who are employed provide no benefit. This is precisely why those charged with particular responsibilities are negligent in carrying them out and the number of traveling scholars increases by the day. This is what causes the disorder of our age.
Accordingly, in the country of an enlightened ruler there is no literature written in books and on bamboo strips, for they use the laws for instruction. There is no discussion of the early kings, for they employ officials as their teachers. There is no wielding of swords in acts of private vengeance, for beheading enemy soldiers are the only acts of valor. In this way as they speak everyone is sure to stay within the framework established by the laws, when they act everyone is certain to aim at real accomplishments, and when they perform acts of valor, they are always in the service of the army. On account of this, when there is no threat the country is rich and when there is a threat the army is powerful. These are called "royal resources." Accumulate the royal resources and wait for the enemy to present an opening. To surpass the Five Emperors and rival the Three Kings you must uses this model.
For these reasons, the milieu of disintegrating states includes: 1) scholars who cites the Dao of early kings in order to pretend to be humane and moral and who adorn their manners and dress and polish their arguments and persuasions in order to cast doubt on laws of the present times in order to make the ruler be of two minds about them; 2) rhetoricians who manufacture treacherous schemes and avail themselves of the power of foreign governments in order to realize their private interests at the expense of benefitting the altars of soil and grain; 3) swordsmen who gather bands of followers which they discipline and drill in order to make their reputation more eminent but violate the prohibitions of the Five Bureaus; 4) those wanting to escape military service who gather about the gates of influential men, offering them bribes, to use their influence at court to keep them from toiling like beasts of burden in battle; and 5) merchants and craftsmen who disguise and repair broken and shoddy goods, who collect wasteful luxury goods, accumulate stores awaiting the best time to sell them, and cheat farmers out of their profits. These five are a country's vermin. If a ruler does not wipe them out and instead supports resolute and determined knights, it should then come as no surprise that everywhere within the four seas states break apart and perish and ruling houses are decimated and annihilated.
For the Chinese text of these passages, click button .
Chen Qiyou, Hanfeizi jishi, Shanghai, 1958.
2 vols. The standard modern critical edition.
Liang Qixiong, Hanzi qianjie. Beijing, 1960. 2 vols.
Shao Zenghua, Hanfeizi jinzhu jinshi. Taibei, 1982. 2 vols.
Zhou Xunchu. Hanfeizi zhaji. Jiangsu, 1980.
Hanfeizi soyin. Beijing, 1982. A concordance and critical edition of the text.
W. K. Liao, The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu.
London, 1939-59, 2 vols.
Burton Watson, Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. Columbia, 1964.
Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. London, 1939.
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