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3.4: Shang Yang’s Legalist Policies in Qin

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    The key figure in reorganizing the Qin state and society for war and against aristocracy was Legalist thinker Shang Yang (d. 338 BC), a Wey prince who had worked for Wei and then immigrated to Qin. There were other reformers before and after him, but his biography in the Shi ji and the record of policies in The Book of Lord Shang most clearly illustrate key changes. Duke Xian (r. 384-362 BC) appointed him Chief Minister of Qin. All other schools of thought looked back to an ideal distant past, but like other Legalists, Shang Yang rejected taking the past as a model. Shang Yang pointed to evidence in the Classics that as conditions had changed in the past, so had institutions: that the sage-kings Yao and Shun had different institutions from the Zhou kings, for instance. He told Duke Xian, “A wise man creates laws, but a worthless man is controlled by them; a man of talent reforms rituals, but a worthless man is enslaved by them.” The Duke let Shang Yang totally reorganize the Qin state to increase ducal power.

    Shang Yang drew on practices that had been developing in Qin and other states, on the new possibilities of iron technology, and on Legalist ideas, to overturn the feudal order in Qin and create a bureaucratic state and social structure. His reforms undermined, abolished, and destroyed the Zhou feudal aristocracy in the state of Qin and then everywhere else. They increased the control of revenue and labor of the Qin King and his central government. They finalized the creation of a new class, commoners, who were no longer serfs on feudal estates, but worked their own small farms. And they introduced meritocracy, which made it possible for those ordinary people to win honor, wealth, and even power based on effort and talent. The Qin regime’s power came precisely from its commoners, who served as soldiers and laborers.4 Would-be autocrats across East Asia returned again and again to the strategy of recruiting lower ranking people to work in government, in order to circumvent high-ranking men and women with sufficient social clout to oppose the ruler. Socially weaker people were more likely than aristocrats to obey the ruler and serve his interests.

    As I present Shang Yang’s reforms, I will also glance back at their longer-term origins. After 221 BC, Qin promulgated bureaucracy across the Zhou world to create the unified empire. Shang Yang’s reforms provided a model for all subsequent East Asian governance.

    This page titled 3.4: Shang Yang’s Legalist Policies in Qin is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.