The basic difference between the Legalists and all other / schools of thinkers lay in the latters harking back to what they believed were historical precedents, especially back to a Golden Age, which they sought to revive. The Legalists’attitude is exemplified by a story told by their foremost exponent, Han Fei-tzu, about a farmer ploughing his field when he saw a hare rush against the stem of a tree, break its neck and die; whereupon the man deserted his plough and stayed by the tree waiting for another hare to be caught: ‘If you wish to rule the people of today by the methods of the early Kings, you do exactly as the man who waited by the tree.’The Legalists’ revolutionary idea was that history is a process of change. The breakdown of feudalism had created new circumstances and methods of government must be changed to meet them.
These methods consisted of the state being run solely on the basis of punishment and reward. Unlike the Taoists the Legalists believed that man is born not innocent but evil, with only a tiny minority of people doing good of themselves, wherefore the ruler must govern with the full rigour of the law. He need not be wise or, as Confucius would have him, a virtuous example to his people. Indeed, he should be as the Taoists would have him, entirely inactive save, said the Legalists, for exercising the authority of rewards and punishment once he had appointed people to the offices of state. If they properly carried out the duties attaching to their posts they were to be rewarded; if not, punished. Thus incompetence could not long survive. The citizen for his part had to have no idealistic aspiration to virtuous behaviour; Confucian virtue had nothing to do with the state, and the citizen had only one overriding duty - to obey the law. It was to be mercilessly enforced and all men were to be equal before it. In this respect the Legalists followed the revolutionary Confucian principle of ignoring class distinction; but instead of trying to elevate the common people to a higher standard of conduct, the Legalists aimed to reduce the nobility to a lower standard by relying solely on rewards and punishment for everyone alike.
The better to explain the emergence of the Qin as the victor of the Warring States period and the unifiers of China in 221 Be, a glance at their history is needed. Legends place the tribal origins of the Ctiin in the third millennium BC, but with certainty the story starts in 897 BC when a petty chieftain and skilled horse- breeder was given by the Chou King a small territory to raise horses for the royal household. The chief’s descendants were soon calling themselves dukes. It may be recalled that in 770 BC their then Duke helped rescue the Chou royal prince who went to the new (Eastern) Chou capital and was installed as King. He rewarded the Qin by making theirs a fully fledged principality which, like all the other principalities, evolved into states owing increasingly tenuous loyalty to the Chou Dynasty. Their lands on the Wei River west of its junction with the Yellow and the old Chou capital were protected by rivers and mountains, and from here in the succeeding centuries they waged wars against both the western and northern barbarian horsemen (Huns, variously called the Jung, the Hsiung-nu and the Hu) and their neighbours along the Yellow River, in the process steadily enlarging their territory.
Throughout their history up to the end of the Warring States period the Qin were regarded by other Chinese as semi?barbarians. They had many of the customs and beliefs of their barbarian neighbours, and their uncouthness was reflected in their alleged ignorance of traditional mores, relationships and virtuous conduct. Nevertheless they gradually adopted many of the institutions and cultural practices of the Chinese to the east of them. These included the important summer and winter festivals, and even human sacrifice when an important person died, which first happened upon a duke’s death in 678 BC and sixty-six men accompanied him to the grave. The practice was officially forbidden in 384 BC, although they were occasional instances in China until as late as AD 1398. Another kind of sacrifice copied from their eastern neighbours was the giving of a Qin princess as wife to the god of the Yellow River: a beautiful girl was selected annually to be decked in wedding finery and set afloat on a raft looking like a marriage bed, which would presently sink with its occupant.
Feudalism within the State and with it the power of the aristocracy was gradually eroded by advancing government organization. Thus in the fifth century BC a land tax was introduced for peasants to pay in grain to the state instead of performing labour services for their overlord. But it was in the following century that the Qin were infused with a new dynamism that was to carry them to the climax of their story.
The descendant of a minor royal’s concubine came from a neighbouring state in 361 BC to serve the Duke. He was a Legalist named Shang Yang; at his first interview the Duke fell asleep, but after several more encounters Shang won the Duke over. Later to be known as Lord Shang, he quite soon so gained in influence that over the next two decades he oversaw wide- ranging reforms based squarely on Legalist principles. His end came when the Dukes successor accused him of plotting rebellion, and upon his trying to flee he was slain and his corpse torn to pieces by chariots.
His reforms, however, endured. In 350 BC, the year that the Qin after establishing various capitals in the previous centuries finally settled on Hsien-yang, he divided the state into thirty-two counties, each administered by a centrally appointed non-hereditary magistrate in a further exclusion of the hereditary aristocracy’s power. Similarly his abolition of the ancient well-field system and its service for overlords made possible the sale and purchase of farmland, to the encouragement of both landowning and recruitment of peasants from other states to a still quite small population. He added to the pool of agricultural land by eliminating the web of paths between the well-fields and by promoting the appropriation of wasteland. But above all he concentrated on the Legalist obsession with rewards and punishment in relation to the law. That no one should be in doubt about the ordinances he promulgated, he had copies posted up in the capital on specially erected pillars in front of the palace gates. He divided the population into groups of five or ten families, with each having responsibility for all its individuals. A biography attributed to Lord Shang says:
Whoever did not denounce a culprit would be cut in two; whoever denounced a culprit would receive the same reward as he who decapitated an enemy; whoever concealed a culprit would receive the same punishment as he who surrendered to an enemy.
On the reward side of his Legalist measures he instituted a hierarchy of non-hereditary ranks awarded for meritorious conduct. Starting with military achievement 一 ‘He who cuts off one head is given one degree of rank’ 一 the ranks ranged from No. I, the lowest (‘Official Gentleman’)’to No. 18. Theycarried exemptions, varying from labour services to taxes, as well as for some ranks the conferment of land or office. They constituted a further step in the down-sizing of the traditional aristocracy. What Lord Shang aimed at was a powerful centralized state based on a tightly controlled bureaucratic administration, an industrious peasantry, and a highly disciplined peasant army. These were the peoples ‘primary occupation’； the ‘secondary occupation’ of trading and manufacturing luxury goods was discouraged, and indeed the merchant class (with a notable exception 一 see below) was through much of Chinese history to be denied prominence. Finally, reflecting his espousal of efficient administration, he standardized weights and measures.
In 325 Be, a few years after Lord Shangs death, the Duke followed his peers in most of the other states by calling himself King - indicative of the dwindling importance of the Chou ruling house (which in fact the Qin was finally to abolish in 256 BC). A little later the office of Chancellor was instituted, divided between the Chancellor of the Left holding the highest position after the ruler, and the Chancellor of the Right, the second highest.
During a period of a hundred and thirty years the Qin were engaged in no fewer than fifteen major wars or campaigns, inflicting casualties of a million and a half, though the accuracy of the figure has been questioned. Everywhere the bloody struggles and merciless intrigue of the Warring States intensified. By about 250 BC conquest had reduced their former number of about twenty-four to a mere seven. The Qin therefore now contemplated six rivals beyond the Yellow River and south of the Yangtze.
In that year a remarkable man called Lii Pu-wei became their Chancellor. He was the richest merchant of his time and is the only merchant in Chinese history to rise so high. His adroit manoeuvres resulted finally in the ascent to the throne of a concubines son named Cheng, then a boy but before long to begin ruling to some purpose. When he came of age in 238 BC, reacting to an affair between his mother and Lu (actually the resumption of an earlier affair of which, many believed, Cheng was the issue), he banished Lii who took poison and died. By then an even more remarkable man had appeared on the scene. This was Li Ssu’most notable of all Legalist statesmen. Arriving in 247 BC he was to achieve forty years of eminence, his offices including that of Chancellor of the Left.
The Qin’s army, grown so ruthless in defeating the barbarians and others on their borders as to earn for its Kingdom the sobriquet ‘the state of tigers and wolves’’was a strictly disciplined fighting machine with much experience. I heir homeland, girt by rivers and mountains, was almost impregnable. Their economy was flourishing - with commerce discouraged it was an agrarian economy sustained by the iron plough and ambitious canal and irrigation works. Their relative freedom from the cultural traditions of the other states, and their welcome to able men from other states, like Lord Shang and Lii Pu-wei and Li Ssu, readily allowed the continued introduction of radical innovations. These were effected by the promulgation of ordinances to give the state direction over every aspect of life, whether it concerned arable land, stables, parks, granaries, criminal acts or whatever. They were enforced by punishments that included execution, the cutting-off of the left foot or the nose, forced labour, fines or severe reprimands. Administrative efficiency was strictly enjoined on the bureaucracy: thus the instructions to officials included these:
When a request is to be made about some matter, it must be done in writing. There can be no oral requesting or requesting through a third person.
When documents are transcribed or received, the month, day and time of their sending and arrival must be recorded.
From the compilation of agricultural statistics to the specification for the quantity of seeds to be sown for different crops, little escaped attention. Yet the people seem not to have had any sense of oppression: they were, visitors reported, in awe of the officials, but the latter were conscientious ‘without displaying partiality or forming cliques’.
This, then, was the highly organized state of Qin which in 230 BC launched its armies eastwards against one after another of the surviving six Warring States. Within a single decade it conquered the lot. Confucius’ state of Lu had for some years been incorporated in a neighbour and now all the once formidable states of Chao’and Yen, and Ch’i, and Chut and Han, and Wei all came under the heel of the Qin. And so China was unified under King Cheng, whose first act was to adopt the reign title of Shih-huang-ti, August First Emperor, in 221 BC.
His country extended for a thousand miles westward of the Pacific shore and from the deserts of the north to the lush lands south of the Yangtze. This was the core China which despite periodic fragmentation and with substantial accretions of territory has subsisted as a country and a nation these two and a quarter millennia 一 one of the major political entities on earth 一 while innumerable other imperial entities have risen and fallen.
The First Emperor moved swiftly to consolidate the unification. His chief architect was Li Ssu. The states formerly governed by rulers, aristocracy and officials, were divided into magisterial counties as Lord Shang had done within the Qin state, and the counties were grouped into thirty-six commanderies, each administered by a centrally appointed, non-hereditary triumvirate of civil governor, military commander, and imperial inspector who represented the Hmperor. Through these commanderies and counties the central government could maintain close control to the furthest corners of the land. And just as after the Chou conquest the Duke of Chou had shepherded the defeated Shang aristocracy into his capital of Loyang, so were the rulers, aristocracy and officials of the former states shepherded into the Qin capital of Hsien- yang, where new palaces were built for them 一 120,000 of them, it was said, though again the figure is likely to have been more metaphorical than actual - where they could be kept watch on lest any plotted rebellion.
That most unifying feature of Chinese life’their script, was standardized, for in later Chou times many divergences had arisen: Li Ssu simplified and rationalized what had been called the Large Seal script of the early Chou, replacing it with the Small Seal script which, further developed in the next dynasty, held sway until the present century. Thus while dozens of different dialects were spoken all over China, the written language was everywhere understood by the literate elite - rather like, at a simpler level, we understand road signs regardless of the language of the country they are in. The standardization of weights and measures imposed by Lord Shang was, along with most of his laws, extended to the whole country. The width of roads was added so that the wheels of vehicles could everywhere fit the cart ruts, which was vital for travel across deeply eroded roads, not least those in the friable loess soil northwards. And, so important to the economy, the metal currency was standardized. Although metal coins had been in use for perhaps a score of years, all sorts of objects were also employed for exchange - pearls, jade, tortoiseshell, cowrie shells, silver, tin 一 but now there were to be only two kinds of currency, namely, gold and bronze circular coin with a square central hole which, called cash, was to remain standard for millennia to come.
A huge building programme was undertaken. A series of broad tree-lined imperial highways radiated in all directions from the capital, most notably a five hundred-mile north-south road called the Straight Road. Altogether it is estimated that the Qin imperial highways cover 4,250 miles in length (Gibbon estimated the Roman road system, from Scotland to Jerusalem, at 3,740 miles). They lasted the best part of five centuries before the development of waterways hastened their decline. But by far the Qin’s most famous building work was the Great Wall.
As noted before, the Chinese were great wall-builders. A number of walls already existed along some of the former states’northern frontiers to fend off the endless forays by the nomadic barbarians beyond. These were now incorporated in one continuous bulwark, over two thousand miles long, across mountains and semi-desert. The prodigious feat was accomplished in little over ten years under the leadership of the First Emperor’s commander-in-chief, Meng T’ien, who was also responsible for the simultaneous building of the Straight Road. 300,000 men were employed, and the ever- lengthening lines of supply in a sparsely populated country could scarcely have called for less; in the intense cold of winter and heat of summer untold tens of thousands died.
Besides the building of palaces for many miles along the Wei River above and below the capital to house the displaced aristocracy, whose original buildings were said to have been meticulously copied, the First Emperor started the building of a huge new throne hall called the Nearby Palace; and he continued the work already started on his immense mausoleum which, when partly opened in the present century, was to astonish the world. The ancient records speak of 700,000 men being employed on palace and mausoleum, though again scholars query the figure.
With only a few years’pause after unification, the Qin military machine went into action again. Campaigns to the north, including what is now Inner Mongolia, and well to the south of the Yangtze, added new territory which was divided into three or four commanderies to add to the original thirty-six. To facilitate the transport of grain in support of the southern campaign, a three-mile canal was built across mountains to link a tributary of the Yangtze with one of the West River It has remained in use to this day as part of a system subsequently developed to a total of 1,250 miles, an unparalleled length of internal waterways.
Hundreds of thousands of people were despatched to colonize the newly won lands. Some were ordinary civilians, volunteers induced by the award of ten to twelve years’ exemption from labour services or an advance of one degree in rank. Some went under duress, like convicts, or fugitives from military service, or (reflecting the prejudice against commerce) merchants, or bonded servants - sons of poor families made to work for creditor families and liable to enslavement if the bond were not repaid in three years. Others again were bureaucrats who had failed in their responsibilities and hence, on Legalist principles, were as liable to punishment as anyone else.
One of the most striking unifying events of the First Emperor’s reign was the imperial processions he made through the length of his domain. Scarcely a year passed without Shih-huang-ti travelling for some months, in the first instance westward and after that eastward to the sea, whence he returned in a wide arc, making as many of his far-flung people as possible aware of their subservience to a single ruler.
In all this process of consolidating the unification - including the administrative arrangements; the universal application of the law; the standardization of weights and measures, road-widths’currency and the script; the building of roads, canals and walls; and the acquisition and colonization of more territory 一 the record of the First Emperor and his Chancellor is much to be admired. So too is there in their establishment of an Academy of Learning to which seventy scholars were attached, enjoying the prestige of the original Academy of the Gate of Chi in the previous century. But in 213 BC there occurred an episode the like of which has ever been the hallmark of the totalitarian.
That year, at a banquet in the imperial palace, many academicians rose to wish the Emperor long life. One of them also praised him for bringing peace and maintaining it by the replacement of the former aristocratic regimes with commanderies and counties. Thereupon another scholar spoke up. Although the Empire was governed on Legalist principles, Confucianism together with Taoism and the Yin-Yang theories had never lost a place in the intellectual climate, and this speaker spoke as a Confucian. Previous dynasties, he said, had lasted so long because the kings gave fiefs to their sons and meritorious officials, whereas while ‘Your Majesty possesses all within the seas, yet his sons and younger brothers remain common men. Of affairs which, unless modelled on antiquity, can long endure I have not heard:
Chancellor Li Ssus response was devastating.There are some men of letters who do not model themselves on the present but study the past in order to criticize the present. They confuse and excite the ordinary people.’ If this was not stopped, he added, ‘the imperial power will decline above and partisanships will form below’.
And stopped, he was determined, it would be. An imperial decree ordered that while the historical records of the Qin themselves, the texts in the Academy of Learning, and works on medicine, divination, agriculture and forestry were exempt, all other historical records and writings of the various philosophical schools and all classical works’were to be brought to the commandery governors for burning; people so much as discussing the Book of Odes or the Book of Documents were to be executed and their bodies exposed to the public; not only those who ‘use the past to criticize the present’ but their relatives also were to be put to death; officials failing to report any violation of these regulations were to be considered equally guilty; and persons failing to burn the forbidden texts within thirty days would be tattooed and sent to do forced labour.
The loss to learning occasioned by this ‘burning of the books’’ although its worst effects were widely circumvented, created in later Chinese scholars a profound revulsion against the Qin empire. Nor was the Emperors posthumous reputation improved by his conduct after he fell under the influence of magicians, in particular one named Master Lu. The ideas of the Hundred Schools invariably affected the imperial mind for all that his government adhered so rigidly to Legalist principles. Thus on the stone tablets he caused to be set up at important places during his country-wide processions the inscriptions lauding his achievements often included Confucian sentiments, such as, ‘His sagely wisdom is humane and righteous’. From the beginning of his reign he paid more than lip service to the theory of the Five Elements or Powers, maintaining that their succession gave his dynasty the power of water, with its appended colour black and its number 6, so that his clothing, pennons and flags were that colour, while the dimensions of official hats and chariots were measured in units of six and chariots were drawn by six horses. But most appealing to him of all was Taoism, whose vocabulary he also invoked in the inscription referred to above, with the line, ‘He embodies the Way and practises its power’. What drew him, however’was less the philosophy of Taoism than its admixture of shamanism and sorcery which borrowed from the Five Elements’cosmologists’ search for the elixir of immortality. A cult had developed, mainly along the east coast, whose followers believed that if found or created such an elixir would enable its partaker to live indefinitely on certain supernatural mountains situated on islands off the mainland.
Following his initial procession to the west the Emperor on his first visit to the east made his acquaintance with these magicians. One implored him for permission to undertake a sea-borne expedition to explore for three supernatural island- mountains said to be inhabited by immortals. The Emperor assented and sent several hundred boys and girls with the expedition, which was never seen again. On a later procession to the east he sent four magicians including Master Lu on voyages in search of the elixir. Upon the Emperor’s return to his capital he was joined by Master Lu after voyages quite fruitless except for the revelation of a magic text which foretold that the barbarous Hu would destroy the Qin’whereupon the Emperor despatched his general Meng T’ien with a huge army to attack the Hu along the northern frontier. Master Lu was at it again a few years later when he advised that if the Emperor kept aloof from other people discovery of the elixir would be facilitated, upon which the Emperor ordered that two hundred and seventy palaces around his capital be linked by walled or covered roads so that he would not be seen when visiting; he condemned to death anyone disclosing his whereabouts, and indeed from then onwards no one knew his whereabouts.
Not long afterwards Master Lu and his fellows were overheard denigrating the Emperor and fell smartly out of favour. They fled but the Emperor visited the death penalty on four hundred and sixty scholars thought to have been associated with them. Such a dreadful deed has been doubted since apocryphal stories gather round most great historical figures. Another such is that when one of his processions was stopped at a mountain by a violent wind he was enraged by what he regarded as the malevolence of the god of the mountain, so he ordered three thousand convicts to strip it of trees and paint it red 一 the colour of convicts’clothing.
What is certain is that returning from a procession to the east in 210 BC he suddenly fell ill and died. He was forty-nine, having reigned for thirty-seven years, of which only for the last twelve had he been Emperor. But the imprint of his rule remained on the Chinese state for two thousand years and more.
His body was interred in the gigantic mausoleum which had been a-building since the start of tunnelling into Mount Li, thirty miles east of the capital, early in his reign. It was befittingly grandiose, being packed with rare objects and costly jewels, surrounded by underground rivers of mercury flowing to a Sea, lined with bronze, its vaulted ceiling picturing the heavenly constellations and its floor marked out with the extent of his empire complete with palaces, mountains and rivers modelled in quicksand, while mechanical crossbows were arranged to fire at anyone trying to break in. Candles of walrus fat were calculated to stay alight for a very long time. Numerous concubines were immolated and the workers on the tomb were buried with him to preserve its secrets. So much is recorded by China’s first great historian, but in 1974 a further and more astonishing dimension was added.
A chance dig in the loess soil a short distance from the tomb disclosed, at a depth of about twenty feet and over an area of more than three acres, an entire Qin military division made of terracotta. Some 7,500 life-size, realistically coloured soldiers were found in formation in passageways leading to the tomb. Visitors today speculate that the figures must have been modelled from life because the faces are all different, with individual expressions and variations in the way their hair is combed and whiskers trimmed. Their caps, belts, jackets, shoes, armour and weapons were seemingly meticulously reproduced. Some stand to attention and others kneel to fire crossbows; they are flanked by cavalry and charioteers driving chariots drawn by pottery horses. Since this army only occupies one of the four sides of the tomb, the possibility is that further digging will disclose a similar situation on the other sides, quadrupling the assembly of figures. But whether that happens or not, in the thirty-six years it took for the present known complex to be completed, many thousands not only of craftsmen and labourers, but of philosophers, diviners, sorcerers, civil servants and army officers must have been employed, coordinating their ideas and skills to create what would surely have ranked, had the West known of it, with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
When the First Emperor died’his eldest son was with the great General Meng T’ien on the northern frontier. Accompanying the Emperor at the time were Li Ssu and the Emperor’s favourite son Hu-hai, and also the first of a long line of eunuchs destined to cast a malign shadow over Chinese history. He was named Chao Kao, holder of the office of supervising the despatch of imperial letters and sealed orders. He persuaded the aged Li Ssu to support Hu-hai in a bid for the throne and to this end they withheld the late Emperor’s letter calling on his eldest son to succeed him, replacing it with a false decree appointing Hu-hai and ordering the eldest son and Meng T’ien to commit suicide, which in due course they did. Thus at the age of twenty-one Hu- hai ascended the throne as Second Emperor.
His most distinguishing characteristic was his gullibility, making him easy meat for Chao Kao. The latter instigated him in 209 BC to make the laws harsher and to execute a number of his siblings. Later that year a man in charge of taking nine hundred convicts to a penitentiary was delayed by heavy rain and knowing that under the draconian laws the penalty for lateness was death, he determined on rebellion. It immediately kindled a fire which over several months resulted in the widespread killing of commandery governors. Several other men contended for leadership of the growing bands of rebels, among them a minor police officer called Liu Pang, a name fraught with destiny. Extensive fighting continued into 208 BC.
By now Chao Kao had schemed his way into complete power at court and he persuaded the young emperor to arrest Li Ssu. The glittering career of the great statesman culminated in mutilating punishments ended only in the marketplace of the capital where he was cut in two at the waist; his close relatives were also killed. Amid increasing disorder in the country, Chao Kao presented the Emperor with a deer, calling it a horse; when the assembled courtiers endorsed this description the Emperor, doubting his sanity, withdrew into seclusion. There before long Chao Kaos further machinations induced him to commit suicide. The eunuch replaced him with one of the First Emperor’s grandsons, one Tzu-ying. The move served Chao ill, for upon calling at Tzu-ying’s apartments he was stabbed to death.
A few months later, a rebel army under the police officer Liu Pang broke through a southern pass and advanced on the capital. Tzu-ying went out and surrendered to him, but early in 206 BC a rival rebel leader sacked the city - probably destroying more valuable texts than the notorious ‘burning of the books’ had done - and executed the hapless Tzu-ying. The mighty ClVin power and empire were no more.