Han Feizi (韓非子, pinyin: Hán Fēizǐ, “Master Han Fei”, c. 280-233 BC), was an influential Legalist philosopher from the ancient Chinese kingdom of Han who lived during the latter part of the Eastern Zhou period (771–256 BC).
During that era, various philosophies developed and vied with one another in the kingdoms that occupied the central and northern parts of present-day China. The most important philosophical movements were Confucianism, Moism, Daoism, and Legalism.
Legalism (法家, pinyin: Fǎjiā) would play a key role in the founding of China’s unified empire by the King of the powerful state of Qin, who assumed the title of First Emperor in 221 BC. Legalist thinkers were instrumental in the strengthening of the state of Qin. The basic idea and goal of the Legalists was “the supremacy of authority and centralization of power in the person of the ruler,” characterized by the “unabashed insistence on the total subordination of the people to the ruler” (Fu 1993, pp. 38-39).
Han Feizi’s essays on statecraft were admired by the First Emperor, and the Second Emperor is said to have quoted from Han Feizi’s work “The Five Vermin” (Han 1964, p. ix). Han Feizi provided a theoretical and philosophical foundation for autocratic absolutism. Yet the collapse of the Qin dynasty, as well as his own downfall, are emblematic of the arbitrary harshness of unrestrained personal rule.
Table of Contents
- Han Feizi’s Biography
- The Way of the Ruler, Daoism, and The Doctrine of Non-action (無為, wuwei)
- The Five Vermin (五蠹)
Han Feizi’s Biography
Han Feizi was a prince of the royal family of the state of Han, and the only major Chinese philosopher of noble rank during the Zhou period (Han 1964, p. 1).
The small state of Han was located in modern-day central China. Its ruling dynasty descended from high ministers of the state of Jin. Alongside other ministerial families, they had usurped power and divided up the territory, creating the new states of Han, Wei and Zhao (see map below). In 403 BC, they received official recognition from the Zhou dynasty (ibid., pp. 1-2).
The rulers of Han originally held the title of marquises, but later assumed the title of kings. Their domain was relatively small and weak, situated in a mountainous and unproductive region. It was threatened by neighbours, especially by the mighty kingdom of Qin.
Han Feizi’s date of birth is unknown, though it might be presumed to be around 280 BC. He studied under the Confucian scholar Xunzi (荀子, pinyin: Xúnzǐ), probably when he was serving as magistrate in Lanling, in southern Shandong, around 250 BC. One of Han Feizi’s fellow students was a man named Li Si (李斯, pinyin: Lǐ Sī), another Legalist thinker who would later become minister of the state of Qin and play a pivotal role in Han Feizi’s life.
Han Feizi stuttered badly, which prevented him from making speeches. Concerned about the weakness of his state and the threats posed by its rivals, he submitted memoranda to the king, but he was ignored.
Being unable to explain his ideas in speech, he decided to write a book. Two of the essays contained in it are “The Way of the Ruler” and “The Five Vermin” (ibid., pp. 2-3), which we will discuss in the next chapters.
In his work The Grand Scribe’s Records, the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (司馬遷, pinyin: Sīmǎ Qiān, c.145 – c. 86 BC) provided a short biography of Han Feizi. Though it is difficult to verify its accuracy, it nevertheless remains an important and fascinating historical account. Below are some excerpts, which I have slightly adapted (the original version is available in: Ssu-ma 2021, pp. 47-53)¹:
“Han Feizi … was one of the Noble Scions of Han. He enjoyed the study of ‘punishments and their designations’ and ‘techniques of legal models,’ but his essentials were rooted in the teachings of Huang-Lao. Han Feizi was a stutterer and could not recite his own advice, but he was skilled at composing written works. He and Li Si both followed Minister Xun … as their teacher. Li Si himself felt he was not the equal of Han Feizi.
“Han Feizi saw the gradual waning of Han and admonished the King of Han in letters several times, but the King of Han could not use his advice. Thus Han Feizi came to loathe that in regulating the state [the king] did not labor to improve and clarify its laws and institutions, nor did he exercise his power to rein in his subjects, and that in enriching the state and strengthening its forces, when it came to seeking out men and employing the worthy, he instead raised up frivolous, dissolute parasites and placed them above those with merit and substance” (Ssu-ma 2012, p. 47).
Later someone brought Han Feizi’s works to King Zheng, ruler of the state of Qin. When he read the essays “Pent-up Emotions of a Solitary Man” and “The Five Vermin,” he expressed his admiration and desire to meet the man who had written them. His minister, Li Si, informed him that the author was none other than Han Feizi.
In 234 BC, King Zheng launched an attack against the state of Han. The King of Han, who had previously refused to listen to the Legalist philosopher’s advice on how to strengthen the state, decided to dispatch Han Feizi himself as ambassador to the Qin court to try to persuade King Zheng to stop the war (Han 1964, p. 3). Sima Qian writes:
“The King of Qin was pleased with Han Feizi, but did not yet trust him enough to employ him. Li Si and Yao Jia attacked and slandered him, saying ‘Han Feizi is one of the Noble Scions of Han. Your Majesty at present wishes to unify the lands of the feudal lords, but that Han Feizi will always be on Han’s side, not on Qin’s, is due to human disposition. If Your Majesty now does not employ him but sends him back after having detained him here for a long time, this is simply presenting trouble to yourself. It would be better to punish him for breaking a law.’ The king thought they were right and handed Han Feizi down to the officials to deal with him. Li Si sent someone to give Han Feizi poison, allowing him to kill himself. Han Feizi wished to present his case, but could not get an audience” (Ssu-ma 2021, p. 52)
The King of Qin later regretted his decision and sent someone to pardon him, but Han Feizi had already committed suicide. The year was 233 BC (ibid.; Han 1964, p. 3).
The Way of the Ruler, Daoism, and The Doctrine of Non-action (無為, wuwei)
Han Feizi’s ideas were in part influenced by Daoist principles, and notably by the concept of non-action (無為, wuwei).
According to Lai (2008), the Daoist idea of wuwei “derides conventional markers of success including social status, wealth and economic inequality as these produce conflict, disorder, envy and crime” (Lai 2008, p. 99).
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Daoism sought a return to simplicity and harmony with the natural world lost in the process of civilization. It promoted qualities such as ineffability, simplicity, pointlessness and insignificance (ibid., pp. 102-104).
Daoism was suspicious of learning. Daodejing (道德經), one of the foundational texts of Daoism, traditionally credited to the philosopher Laozi (老子), states in chapter 48:
“The pursuit of learning is to increase day after day.
The pursuit of Tao [=Dao, the Way] is to decrease day after day.
It is to decrease and further decrease until one reaches the point of taking no action [wuwei] …” (quoted in: ibid., p. 102).
The rejection of learning is tied to the distrust of language. “Wei” in Chinese also means “to deem”, and in this case, rejecting language entails rejecting conventional wisdom codified in how people use language. The goal is to “not deem” the world according to the arbitrary, passive and unthinking acceptance of conventional wisdom (ibid., pp. 102-103).
Wuwei also involves a rejection of government that oppresses and threatens the people, of corruption and of the imposition of unnecessary restrictions (ibid., p. 100).
However, Daoist ideas are quite ambivalent. While they can be interpreted as advocating for minimal government and individual self-determination, they also contain aspects that can be considered autocratic.
Daodejing, chapter 3, states:
“[I]n the sages’ peaceful and tranquil world,
People’s minds are calmed,
People’s stomach[s] are filled,
People’s aspirations are lowered,
People’s physiques are strengthened;
People are kept unknowing and undesiring,
And even the knowing ones will never dare to act,
Action without action (為無為).
There is nothing left undone.”
This passage can be interpreted in two ways. Either the sage government should promote a simple lifestyle according to nature; or the people should submit to authority, to sociopolitical order, and “go with the flow” (Lai 2008, p. 102).
In Laozi’s terminology, the sage is identical with the ruler. The sage, being in harmony with the Dao, treats the people just as nature treats all creatures (Fu 1993, p. 36).
Nature, however, is not compassionate. Nature regards “the myriad things as straw dogs”; “The sage does not care, He regards people as straw dogs” (Daodejing, chapter 5).
Daodejing’s ideal government is the one that governs least:
“Be righteous in ruling the country (以正治國)，
Be unpredictable in waging war (以奇用兵),
Be idle and gain the universe (無事取天下) …
The sage says：
I do not act and the people transform themselves (我無為而民自化)，
I am still and the people correct themselves (我好靜而民自正)，
I am idle and the people prosper by themselves (我無事而民自富)，
I am without desire and the people simplify themselves (我無欲而民自朴)” (Daodejing, chapter 57, my translation).
“Ruling a large country is like frying small fish (治大國若烹小鮮)” (Daodejing, chapter 60, my translation).
Daodejing is a multifaceted and complex text, and it should not be reduced to a justification of autocracy. But some Daoist themes were used by Legalists and reinterpreted in the context of absolutist statecraft.
A branch of Daoism developed into the so-called Huang-Lao school (the school of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi), a forerunner of Legalism (Fu 1993, p. 36). The Huang-Lao school was mentioned by the historian Sima Qian in the excerpt quoted above as an influence on Han Feizi.
In the following passage, we can see how Han Feizi adapted some Daoist themes to his theory of autocratic governance:
The Way of the Ruler (主道):
“The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong. Therefore the enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning in order to understand the wellspring of all beings, and minds the measure in order to know the source of good and bad. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty is to act will produce results. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.
“Hence it is said: the ruler must not reveal his desires; for if he reveals his desires his ministers will put on the mask that pleases him. He must not reveal his will; for if he does so his ministers will show a different face. So it is said: Discard likes and dislikes and the minister will show their true form; discard wisdom and wile and the ministers will watch their step. Hence, though the ruler is wise, he hatches no schemes from his wisdom, but causes all men to know their place …
“When the ministers stick to their posts, the hundred officials have their regular duties, and the ruler employs each according to his particular ability, this is known as the state of manifold constancy. Hence it is said: ‘So still he seems to dwell nowhere at all; so empty no one can seek him out.’ The enlightened ruler reposes in nonaction above, and below his ministers tremble with fear. This is the way of the enlightened ruler: he causes the wise to bring forth all their schemes, and he decides his affairs accordingly … Where there are accomplishments, the ruler takes credit for their worth; where there are errors, the ministers are held responsible for the blame; hence the ruler’s name never suffers. Thus, though the ruler is not worthy himself, he is the leader of the worthy; though he is not wise himself, he is the corrector of the wise. The ministers have the labor; the ruler enjoys the success. This is called the maxim of the worthy ruler …
“The Way lies in what cannot be seen, its function in what cannot be known. Be empty, still, and idle, and from your place of darkness observe the defects of others. See but do not appear to see; listen but do not seem to listen; know but do not let it be known that you know …
“If you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there. If you are not cautious in your undertakings, if you do not hide their true aspect, then traitors will arise. They murder their sovereign and usurp his place, and all men in fear make common cause with them: hence they are called tigers. They sit by the ruler’s side and, in the service of evil ministers, spy into his secrets: hence they are called traitors. Smash their cliques, arrest their backers, shut the gate … and the nation will be free of tigers. Be immeasurably great, be unfathomably deep; make certain that names and results tally, examine laws and customs, punish those who act willfully, and the state will be without traitors” (Han 1964, pp. 16-18, my emphasis).
We can see from these excerpts how Han Feizi reinterpreted Daoist themes such as non-action, stillness, and the Way within the framework of autocratic rule, of power politics within the court of the monarch.
Daodejing expresses a concern with limited government that does no harm to the people:
“When the master and the subjects bring no harm to each other,
Virtue can hence be returned to another” (Daodejing, chapter 60).
In Han Feizi, by contrast, non-action has a different purpose. It is a governing technique that allows the ruler to manage the officials below him, to protect himself from treason, to exploit their talents for his own aggrandizement, while punishing them for their flaws.
The Five Vermin (五蠹)
Another Daoist theme that we find in Han Feizi’s work is a suspicion of knowledge and learning. Once again, the Daoist idea of simplicity and return to nature is transformed into something different. In Han Feizi, knowledge and learning are dangerous because they pose a threat to absolute rule. Different schools of thought undermine the unity and conformity of the state, thus they must be stamped out.
According to him, the sage ruler should be practical and govern according to the circumstances of the time. He rejects the notion that good rule is motivated by benevolence:
“[W]hen men of ancient times made light of material goods, it was not because they were benevolent, but because there was a surplus of goods; and when men quarrel and snatch today, it is not because they are vicious, but because goods have grown scarce … When the sage rules, he takes into consideration the quantity of things and deliberates on scarcity and plenty. Though his punishments may be light, this is not due to his compassion; though his penalties may be severe, this is not because he is cruel; he simply follows the custom appropriate to the time. Circumstances change according to the age, and ways of dealing with them change with the circumstances” (Han 1964, pp. 98-99).
Han Feizi denies that benevolence and righteousness can be viable principles of statecraft:
“King Yen [Yan] practiced benevolence and righteousness and the state of Hsü [Xu]² was wiped out; Tzu-kung [Zigong]³ employed eloquence and wisdom and [the state of] Lu lost territory. So it is obvious that benevolence, righteousness, and wisdom are not the means by which to maintain the state” (ibid., p. 100, my emphasis).
Confucianism, and particularly its family ideology, is denounced by Han Feizi alongside Moism, another popular philosophical school of the era. In his preoccupation with order and power, he dismisses ethical norms of filial piety, benevolence and righteousness as the basis of governance, arguing that only rewards and punishments, as well as clearly and simply written laws, can turn the people into obedient subjects, secure the position of the ruler, and strengthen the state.
Han Feizi seeks to break any authority and power structure that is independent of the state and that can undermine the state’s wealth and power. In particular, he denounces the following five groups of people:
•The scholars (學者), because they sow doubt in the ruler and the laws;
•The speech-makers (言古者), because they conspire with foreign countries;
•The swordsmen, or knight-errants (帶劍者), because they engage in private feuds;
•The draft-dodgers (患御者), because they bribe officials to avoid military service;
•The merchants and artisans (商工之民), because they trade in luxury and “useless” items, hoard goods and exploit the farmers to make a profit.
These are the people whom Han Feizi calls the “five vermin of the state” (此五者，邦之蠹也) that the ruler must wipe out (除). Let us now read a few excerpts from the “Five Vermin”:
“Now the Confucians and Mo-ists all praise the ancient kings for their universal love of the world, saying that they looked after the people as parents look after their beloved child … [T]he people will bow naturally to authority, but few of them can be moved by righteousness. Confucius was one of the greatest sages of the world. He perfected his conduct, made clear the Way, and traveled throughout the area within the four seas, but in all that area those who rejoiced in his benevolence, admired his righteousness, and were willing to become his disciples numbered only seventy …
“Nowadays, when scholars counsel a ruler, they do not urge him to wield authority, which is the certain way to success, but instead insist that he must practice benevolence and righteousness before he can become a true king. This is, in effect, to demand that the ruler rise to the level of Confucius, and that all the ordinary people of the time be like Confucius’ disciples. Such a policy is bound to fail …
“[T]he love of parents is not enough to make children learn what is right, but must be backed up by the strict penalties of the local officials; for people by nature grow proud on love, but they listen to authority …
“[T]he best rewards are those which are generous and predictable, so that the people may profit by them. The best penalties are those which are severe and inescapable, so that the people will fear them. The best laws are those which are uniform and inflexible, so that the people can understand them …
“The Confucians with their learning bring confusion to the law … Those who practice benevolence and righteousness should not be praised, for to praise them is to cast aspersion on military achievements; men of literary accomplishment should not be employed in the government, for to employ them is to bring confusion to the law … [E]ven the wisest man has difficulty understanding words that are subtle and mysterious. Now if you want to set up laws for the masses and you try to base them on doctrines that even the wisest man have difficulty in understanding, how can the common people comprehend them? A man who cannot even get his fill of the coarsest grain, does not insist on meat and fine millet; a man with a short coat all in rags does not insist on waiting for embroidered robes. It is the same in government affairs; if you cannot find the solution to critical problems, you have no business worrying about unimportant ones. Now in administering your rule and dealing with the people, if you do not speak in terms that any man and woman can plainly understand, but long to apply the doctrines of the wise men, then you will defeat your own efforts at rule. Subtle and mysterious words are no business of the people …
“Therefore the way of the enlightened ruler is to unify the laws instead of seeking for wise men, to lay down firm policies instead of longing for men of good faith. Hence his laws never fail him, and there is no felony or deceit among his officials … If those who pursue wisdom are numerous, the laws will be defeated, and if those who labor with their hands are few, the state will grow poor. Hence the age will become disordered. Therefore, in the state of the enlightened ruler there are no books written on bamboo slips; law supplies the only instruction. There are no sermons on the former kings; the officials serve as the only teachers. There are no fierce feuds of private swordsmen; cutting off the head of the enemy is the only deed of valor. Hence, when the people of such a state make a speech, they say nothing that is in contradiction to the law; when they act, it is in some way that will bring useful results; and when they do brave deeds, they do them in the army …
“These are the customs of a disordered state: Its scholars praise the ways of the former kings and imitate their benevolence and righteousness, put on a fair appearance and speak in elegant phrases, thus casting doubt upon the laws of the time and causing a ruler to be of two minds. Its speech-makers propound false schemes and borrow influence from abroad, furthering their private interests and forgetting the welfare of the state’s altars of the soil and grain. Its swordsmen gather bands of followers about them and perform deeds of honor, making a fine name for themselves and violating the prohibitions of the five government bureaus. Those of its people who are worried about military service flock to the gates of private individuals and pour out their wealth in bribes to influential men who will plead for them, in this way escaping the hardship of battle. Its merchants and artisans spend their time making articles of no practical use and gathering stores of luxury goods, accumulating riches, waiting for the best time to sell, and exploiting the farmers. These five groups are the vermin of the state …” (Han 1964, pp. 101-117, my emphasis).
As we have seen in a previous post, Legalist teachings helped the state of Qin grow its power, conquer the rival kingdoms and create a unified empire. But when the First Emperor was succeeded by the less capable Ziying, the cruelty and personalistic nature of the Qin state led to a series of uprisings that toppled the dynasty. As the historian Sima Qian put it:
“[Han Feizi] snapped his plumb line, cut through to the truth of affairs, and made clear true from false, but carried cruelty and harshness to extremes …” (Ch’ien 2021, p. 53).
Ultimately, Confucianism and Daoism would be re-evaluated and used by subsequent dynasties to build a more humane and stable state, capable of lasting for hundreds of years.
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[¹] I have made minor adaptations to the original text. First, I have changed the Chinese transliteration from the now uncommon Wade-Giles system to the pinyin system used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has emerged as the international standard, though not uncontroversially. For example, I have changed the Wade-Giles spellings “Li Ssu” and “Ch’in” to the pinyin spellings “Li Si” and “Qin.” Second, I have removed some brackets to make the text more easily readable, and added the full name Han Feizi instead of Fei or Han Fei for the sake of consistency throughout the article.
[²] King Yan (10th century BC), of the state of Xu (徐), located approximately in northern Jiangsu and Anhui. Xu was conquered by the state of Wu in 512 BC.
[³] Zigong (子貢) was a merchant who became one of Confucius’s first disciples. He was employed as an advisor at the court of the state of Lu, where he convinced its ruler to summon Confucius.
Fu, Z. (1993). Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics.
Han, F. (1964). Basic Writings. Translated by Watson, B.
Lai, K. L. (2008). An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy.
Ssu-ma, C. (2021) The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume VII.