Legalist Movement in China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Qin Dynasty, the Legalist movement sought to move Chinese society away from its Confucian tradition toward a philosophy that favored a strict code of justice.

Summary of Event

Much of ancient Chinese imperial history can be understood through the lens of Confucian political thought and philosophy. The dominance of Confucian beliefs was apparent in the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.). To the west of the Zhou territory, in the state of Qin (Ch’in), arose a new movement that eventually led to the overthrow of the Zhou and the founding of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.). This new political ideology was known as Legalism. Shang Yang Shi Huangdi Li Si

The Legalist movement in China was a reaction to the legal chaos that gripped the country during the Zhou Dynasty. The Legalists attributed this chaos to the Confucian belief in the natural harmony of the society and the practice of dividing power among many local governments. Therefore, the Legalists presented a competing view to that of the Confucians.

Legalists opposed the basis of Confucian law, which assumed that society was naturally harmonious and that it could be governed by a moral authority, or li, that would guide everyday actions and prevent people from disrupting this natural harmony. Therefore, Confucians preferred not to threaten or take punitive measures against lawbreakers but rather to rehabilitate criminals and bring them back into the natural harmony of society. Government officials were not to act as punishers but rather as moral guides who would be models on which ordinary citizens could structure their lives. Because of their high positions, government officials were expected to lead more moral lives and serve as examples.

The Confucian idea of li, which had a natural law element, differed from the Legalists’ view of the origin of laws. Because li represented the natural harmony of the universe, there was no need for government officials to enact artificial law codes. Instead, individuals would follow the law that was natural to their existence. Lawbreakers would be educated as to their faults and would reenter society and not disturb the natural harmony. Confucian law also had a distinct hierarchical flavor. Citizens were expected to remain within their political and social classes. Only by staying within those classes would the natural order continue and society flourish.

In contrast, the Legalists viewed law as a creation of humankind. Law was a necessary component of government, which used it to ensure that officials could maintain control of their subjects. Law was also a unifying tool. Confucian law tended to diffuse or spread political power among local feudal governments that would enforce the natural order with little direction from the central government.

Legalist theory and practice was developed by Shang Yang, a high adviser to the Qin leader for two decades. Shang Yang’s view of the law favored punitive punishments and equality in the eyes of the law. The Legalists’ views were that the law, fa, was central to maintaining order in a society. The Legalists believed that group punishment would serve as the best deterrent of criminal acts. People would be placed within groups of ten families who would live within a small area and report on everyone’s activities to the authorities. Failure to reveal wrongdoing would bring severe punishment, sometimes death. Shang Yang also applied the law equally to all people without regard to their rank in society.

The end of the Zhou Dynasty and its replacement by the Qin Dynasty caused a sudden shift in the government’s approach to law and the means of maintaining control of the population. The Zhou Dynasty had fallen because of the chaos and political divisions that seemed part of the Confucian system. The Legalists wanted to centralize power and, by doing so, to take control of the legal system from local officials and place it in the hands of the emperor. One of the initial actions of the first Qin emperor, Shi Huangdi, was to appoint governors to rule the many provinces. The emperor took power from local Zhou officials and appointed his own governors to various regions. These governors were given the task of imposing Qin legal ideas on the peasants and elite. Accompanying these governors were inspector generals, who reported directly to the emperor and supervised the governors.

Shi Huangdi was aggressive in eliminating the power of the nobility and exerting control over the population. The emperor, along with Li Si, the leader of the Legalists during the early Qin Dynasty, sought a broad-based change in Chinese society. They built roads and defensive walls, regulated the weights and measures of China, and standardized the currency and the writing system. This desire to completely change many basic parts of Chinese society made the old Confucian ideas, which tended to maintain the status quo, dangerous.

To combat the population’s adherence to Confucian ideas and establish control over all learning and philosophy, Shi Huangdi developed a totalitarian state that attempted to destroy all the old knowledge and those who taught it. His adviser Li Si ordered the destruction of texts that opposed the Legalist interpretation of the law. Local governors were ordered to conduct mass book burnings and to imprison anyone who refused to destroy the texts or tried to prevent the burnings. The reeducation of Chinese society took a grisly turn when Shi Huangdi ordered that more than four hundred Confucian scholars be buried alive to prevent them from teaching their philosophy to future students. This savagery, although possibly fabricated or exaggerated by later writers, decreased the emperor’s popularity and heightened the possibility of revolt if government control ever slackened.

Part of the Legalist plan was the compilation of a law code to be used throughout the empire to establish Qin control over Chinese society. Both Shi Huangdi and Li Si sought strict limitations on individual behavior that would replace the vague commands of Confucian philosophy. Many Chinese disliked the Legalist code, viewing the restrictions to be too great and the punishments too severe.

The Legalists were effective at controlling Chinese society during the reign of Shi Huangdi. However, the emperor’s erratic behavior and the brutal means of control used by the Legalists produced greater and greater disenchantment among the people. The crashing of a meteor—a natural disaster usually interpreted as a prediction of a change in government leadership—was met by Shi Huangdi’s orders to execute those who opposed him. Shi Huangdi died shortly after this, and the Qin Dynasty was shaken by a series of revolts and the execution of Li Si by the new emperor. The Legalists’ program ended with the death of the chief minister in 208 b.c.e., and the Qin were replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.).


The Legalist movement was tied closely to the Qin Dynasty. This dynasty, which marked the beginning of the imperial period in Chinese history, ended the chaos that had broken out during the Zhou Dynasty. The Legalist movement sought to expand the central power of the Chinese government and to change the Confucian tradition in law and politics. Led by imperial adviser Li Si, the Legalists in the Qin Dynasty attempted to rewrite history and enforce a strict code of conduct backed up with harsh punishments.

Although the Qin Dynasty was short-lived and the Legalists’ control of government fell with the dynasty, the movement and its philosophy continued through subsequent dynasties, challenging the Confucian ideal. The Legalists had a modernizing influence on ancient China and continued this role, working in opposition to the feudal system of government throughout the many dynasties that followed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chin, Rinn-Sup, and Robert Worden. China: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988. An overall view of China that presents the historical background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Bary, William Theodore. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. A compilation of original sources that contains information on the Qin Dynasty and Legalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fu, Zhongyuan. China’s Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. An analysis of Legalism and how it worked as a system of government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, A. C. Graham. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Arguments in Ancient China. New York: Open Court Publishing, 1999. An examination of ancient Chinese philosophy, including Confucianism and Legalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Han Feizi. Han Feizi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewe, Michael. Cambridge Encylopedia of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A general reference on China with information on Legalism, Confucianism, and the Qin Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maisels, Charles Keith. Early Civilizations of the Old World: The Formative Histories of Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, India, and China. London: Routledge Press, 2001. A history of the ancient world that includes China.
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Hanfeizi; Shi Huangdi; Wudi; Xunzi. Legalism (China)

Categories: History