April 2014 Bar Bulletin
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April 2014 Bar Bulletin

An Overview of Legalist Rule in China

By Robert WM Zierman


Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince, at the chapter titled "Concerning Cruelty And Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared," writes: "a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples [of cruelty] he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which flow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst these executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only."1

Substitute "Prince" for "Ruler" - or better yet "Emperor" - and one may commence one's understanding of unified China's governmental history.

Legalism originated during the Chinese Warring States Period (approx. 475 BCE-221 BCE) and had three basic precepts, each identified by a single Chinese character (or word).

Law - The law must be clearly written and made available to the public. Everyone is subject to the law. The law - as opposed to the ruler - is its own arbitrator such that those daring to break the law are automatically punished.

Method - Methods, tactics and secrets are available for the ruler to use to assure that others do not take control of the state. In other words, whereas everyone else is to be governed by the law, the ruler is above it.

Legitimacy - The ruler's position - and not the individual holding that position - is the repository of power. From this it is posited that effective ruling requires proper analysis of the facts of the situation.

Though concepts of notice, equality and even legitimacy under the law are present, it doesn't take long to recognize this is pretty close to a game of rock, paper, scissors. Except that it adds a sufficient delay for the ruler to signal second and thus cover, cut or smash as the ruler deems appropriate.

In 221 BCE, Qin ShiHuang brought China out of the Warring States Period by defeating the sixth and final kingdom adjacent to his. His rule until his death in 210 BCE promoted the solidification of China by providing central rule, a common written script, uniformity of weights and measures, infrastructure, and a standardized Chinese currency. During all this one should not forget that there also was the setback associated with the banning of books and burying of the Confucian scholars.

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