Han Fei (韓非) (ca. 280 B.C.E. – 233 B.C.E., Pinyin Hanfeizi) was the greatest of China's Legalist philosophers. Along with Li Si, he developed Xun Zi's philosophy into the doctrine embodied by the School of Law or Legalism. Han Fei was a member of the ruling family of the state of Han during the end of the Warring States Period. His works have been interpreted by some scholars as being directed to his cousin, the King of Han.; when his verbal advice was not heeded, he put it down in writing. Han Fei's entire recorded work is collected in the 55 chapters of Han Feizi, which is also important as the only surviving source for numerous anecdotes from the Warring States Period.
Han Fei’s philosophy was primarily a political strategy which centered on the authority of the leader, who was to maintain firm control using three concepts: his position of authority (勢, Shi); certain administrative techniques (術, Shu), and laws (法, Fa). The ruler’s responsibility was to create ideal laws which would ensure the smooth functioning of his government. Legalism assumed that everyone acts according to one principle: the desire to avoid punishment while simultaneously trying to achieve benefits. Thus, the law must reward those who obey it, and severely punish any unwanted action. His philosophy was very influential on the first King of Qin and the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who adopted its principles after seizing power in 221 B.C.E.. Confucianism gained prominence and Han Fei's philosophy was officially vilified during the following Han Dynasty, but both ancient and modern Confucian observers of Chinese politics have argued that some legalist ideas merged with mainstream Confucianism and still play a role in government.
Little is known about the life of Han Fei. He was a member of the ruling aristocracy, born around 280 B.C.E. into the ruling family of the state of Han, one of the weaker states during the end phase of the Warring States Period in China. He studied for a time under the Confucian philosopher Hsün-tzu (Xún Zǐ, 荀子; b. Zhao c. 310 – 237 B.C.E.), then began to develop another school of thought that seemed better able to solve the social and political problems accompanying the collapse of the feudal system. When his advice to his cousin, the ruler of Han, was unheeded, he began to put his ideas into writing. It is also thought that he had a speech impediment, a habitual stutter, and turned to writing as a way of making himself understood.
Han Fei was an excellent writer whose essays reached the attention of the king of Qin. When Qin made war on Han, Han Fei was dispatched as a diplomatic envoy to Qin. Li Si, a former fellow student who envied Han Fei's intellect, persuaded the Qin king that he could neither send Han Fei back (as his superior ability would be a threat to Qin) nor employ him (as his loyalty would not be to Qin). He recommended that Han Fei be accused of some offense and sentenced to prison. As a result, Han Fei was imprisoned on a charge of duplicity, and Li Si convinced him to commit suicide by drinking poison. In 208 B.C.E., Li Si himself died in a gruesome manner after involving himself in a power struggle among successors to the throne.
"Han Fei" is his personal name, while "Han Feizi" (韓非子) most commonly denotes the book written by him. However, as "zi" is often added to philosophers' names as an honorific (meaning "Master"), "Han Feizi" is also used in reference to the person. Hanfeizi, was also called "Bobina" in his later days by the priests in China because of his bravery, courage, and the fact that he remained celibate.
Thought and Works
Han Fei's entire recorded work is collected in the 55 chapters of Han Feizi. Han Fei's philosophy borrowed Shang Yang's emphasis on laws, Shen Buhai's emphasis on techniques, and Shen Dao's ideas on authority and legitimacy. The other main source for his political theories was Lao Zi's Daoist work, the Tao Te Ching, which he interpreted as a political text, and on which he wrote a commentary (chapters 20 and 21 in his book, Han Feizi). He saw the Dao as a natural law that everyone and everything was necessarily forced to follow. Parallel to this, he believed that an ideal ruler made laws, like an inevitable force of nature, that the people could not resist.
Han Fei wrote on a wide range of subjects. He suggested that the philosopher Mo Tzu deliberately avoided eloquence, so that the form of his words would not take precedence over their meaning. His sense of humor sometimes belied the severity of his political philosophy. In one of his anecdotes, a king asked an artist what subject was the hardest to draw and what was the easiest. The artist replied that dogs and horses were the hardest to draw, because people knew what they should look like. Devils and demons were easy to draw because no one could see them.
The Han Feizi is also important as the only surviving source for numerous anecdotes from the Warring States Period.
Confucianism advocated the ideal of “government through virtue,” and sought to learn from the examples of previous rulers. Han Fei believed that it was a mistake to cling to the methods of the past, and that political institutions should adapt to changing historical circumstances and social patterns. Social patterns and human behavior, he said, were not determined by moral and ethical beliefs, but by economic conditions. For example, during a famine people do not offer food even to their relatives, but in times of plenty they offer feasts to casual visitors. This behavior does not signify a change in character, but simply a change in the amount of food available. In ancient times, when goods were abundant, people did not value them highly, but in the present times of scarcity, people had become aggressive and greedy. A ruler, said Han Fei, should not attempt to make men good, but to prevent them from doing evil. Nor should he waste his energy trying to win the people over, because people did not know what was in their best interests, and their minds were as undependable as an infant’s mind.
Confucianism taught that virtue conferred the right to rule on a king, and abuse of power removed that right. Han Fei insisted that the moral qualities of a ruler were immaterial; possession of authority (shih) gave a ruler the right to rule. According to Han Fei, “Subject serving ruler, son serving father, and wife serving husband” constituted “an immutable principle of the world.” Duty to the nation came before any other duty. About a soldier who ran away from battle because he thought that if he were killed, he could not serve his father, Han Fei said, “A filial son to his father can be a traitorous subject to his ruler.”
Han Fei taught that authority should not be wielded arbitrarily, but through laws (fa) that the ruler propagates and all must obey. An intelligent ruler will use the law to select men for public office, and will not make appointments using his own judgment, but let the law measure a person’s merit and qualifications. The ruler himself should obey his own laws, though he has the authority to abrogate them. To protect his authority and ensure that his government ran smoothly, a ruler must employ shu (“administrative techniques” or “statecraft”). Any person appointed to a government post should be required to perform his duties satisfactorily, and the ruler should punish anyone who is derelict of duty or oversteps his authority. Good behavior on every level of society should be maintained by a system of harsh punishments and rewards, regulated through laws and enforced without exceptions "Good" and "bad" was defined by whatever was in the interest of the ruler. According to Han Fei, the interests of the ruler and the ruled were not compatible. “Superior and inferior wage one hundred battles a day.” Therefore, a ruler should trust no one; be suspicious of those who were overly subservient; permit no one to gain undue power or influence; and be alert for plots against the throne.
Once his authority was secure and his empire in order, a ruler could proceed to expand his realm through the use of military power. Han Fei considered military power to be the deciding factor in relations between states. The military and agriculture were the only productive occupations; Han Fei discouraged scholarship. He also believed it was unfair to tax the rich in order to help the destitute, as that was robbing the diligent and frugal and indulging the extravagant and lazy.”
Han Fei (韓非) (c. 280 -233 B.C.E.), together with Li Si (c. 280- 208 B.C.E.) developed Xun Zi's philosophy into the doctrine embodied by the School of Law or Legalism. In an era of political chaos and the disintegration of the traditional feudal system, legalism was conceived of primarily as a mechanism for establishing order and achieving political stability. Without reference to a greater metaphysical framework, legalist ethics were based on the interests of the ruler of a state, who was to maintain firm control using three concepts: his position of authority (勢, Shi); certain administrative techniques (術, Shu), and laws (法, Fa). Legalism assumed that everyone acts according to one principle: the desire to avoid punishment while simultaneously trying to achieve benefits. Thus, the law must reward those who obey it, and severely punish any unwanted action.
Han Fei's philosophy was very influential on the first King of Qin and the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, becoming one of the guiding principles of his political policy. After the early demise of the Qin Dynasty, Han Fei's philosophy was officially vilified by the following Han Dynasty. Confucianism gained prominence, and legalism ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern Confucian observers of Chinese politics have argued that some legalist ideas merged with mainstream Confucianism and still play a role in government. The Confucian ideal of a rule without laws was never realized in practice. Many Chinese scholars believe that the reaction against legalism caused Chinese Imperial politics to emphasize personal relationships and morality rather than the rule of law. The philosophy of imperial China can be described as Confucianism externally (along with Buddhism during the Sui and Tang dynasties) and legalism internally (儒表法裏).
Han Fei's philosophy experienced a revival under the rule of the Communist Party during the leadership of Mao Zedong, who personally admired some of its principles.
- Burton Watson. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. 1964, 2. The king in question is believed to be either King An of Han (238–230 B.C.E.) or his predecessor, King Huan-Hui. (272–239 B.C.E.)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Pu-hai, Shen. “Appendix C: The Shen Pu-hai Fragments.” Shen Buhai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C.E., Translated by Herrlee G. Creel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974. ISBN 0226120279
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All links retrieved January 21, 2024.
- Full text of Han Feizi (Chinese).
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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