Chinese History: The First Imperial Period
Throughout history, nations have employed many different philosophies of ruling. Republics, Theocracies, Monarchies, and others have delivered equal amounts of success and failure to leaders. Governments may fail for a number of reasons, but these reasons are ultimately linked to their treatment of the masses. The rise and fall of the Legalist government of the Qin dynasty in China is no different.
How did this philosophy extract order from the chaos of the Warring States period? How did the law and order rule of Legalism eventually lead to the demolition of the government it helped to build? We'll explore these topics further throughout this work.
Before we start, perhaps it would be beneficial to know where we are starting from: what is Legalism? Ultimately, Legalist philosophy focuses on how rulers can best govern their lands. Legalist texts emphasize leaving morality behind in favor of consolidating and maintain total control of power. Power is achieved through a system of strict laws. Punishments and rewards are doled out, only by the Emperor mind you, according to the laws. The ruler sits alone in his proud tower, distancing himself from his subjects in order to create the aura that he is above the rest and must be obeyed. This also creates a barrier between himself and those under him, as, according to Legalist thought, everyone operates will ulterior motives to further their own plans. Had they the opportunity, anyone would do what they could to attain the power the ruler holds. This includes assassination of the ruler.
Many will find instant connections between Legalist texts, especially Han Fei Tzu's works, and Niccolo Machiavelli's main body of work, The Prince. Both advocate the same sort of paranoid, heavy-handed philosophy of ruling that we see used during the Qin dynasty.
The radical thought of Legalism was certainly a product of its times. Scholars like Han Fei Tzu saw the chaos of the Warring States Period (480-222 BC). They wanted a realistic and pragmatic way of combating this anarchy. Legalist thought, which actually first became influential during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC) , was a practical way of combating that turmoil.
Legalism advised rulers to form a very strong central government that controlled all aspects of its citizen's lives. Qin struggled to bring all smaller states under its wing. With this accomplished, there would no longer be need for all of the warring and underhanded diplomacy that had been occurring between the states. There would also only be one state for subjects to pledge their loyalty to. Things could finally get accomplished in an efficient mannerin theory. The Qin state finally achieved this domination in 222 BC. The First Emperor did as Han Fei Tzu suggested, "The ruler himself should possess the power, wielding it like lightning or like thunder."
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's look at some of the good The First Emperor did.
The First Emperor of Qin set about implementing many rules and regulations as suggested by the Legalist scholars. Great and useful things were accomplished that benefited empires post-Qin. A standardized script was created to replace the many local scripts all through the empire. Weights and measures were also standardized. These regulations were one of the few things passed on to us by the Qin dynasty that did not come to us at a high cost of its subjects.
Great networks of roads and irrigation systems were constructed. Though these no doubt helped the common man that was not their main goal. The roads helped promote the centralization of the Empire. Large irrigation networks were built. Irrigation brought more food. This could always be used to feed a large work force or army, objectives central to Legalist ideas. The First Emperor commissioned other projects for his conscript forces as well.
Palaces were built for the First Emperor. A great lavish tomb was constructed for the First Emperor at a great expense of energy. Expeditions were sent far and wide to acquire mystical herbs for the First Emperor. These herbs would supposedly grant him immortality. Wishing for immortality is a common trait among megalomaniacs; this is something we have seen in two of the 20th centuries most notorious tyrants, Hitler and Stalin.
To keep the workers, or anyone for that matter, from over stepping the bounds of their position, draconian laws were implemented. According to Legalism, if one does less then they are asked they are being lazy and should be punished. If one does more than they are asked they are only trying to get into your good graces to influences you and usurp your power and they should be punished. A passage from Han Fei Tzu highlights this.
Once in the past Marquis Chao of Han got drunk and fell asleep. The keeper of the royal hat, seeing that the marquis was cold, laid a robe over him. When the marquis awoke, he was pleased and asked his attendants, "Who covered me with a robe?" "The keeper of the hat," they replied. The marquis thereupon punished both the keeper of the royal hat and the keeper of the royal robe. He punished the keeper of the robe for failing to do his duty, and the keeper of the hat for overstepping his office.
The laws developed by the First Emperor were nearly as preposterous as the previous passage shows.
One is reminded of the old adage, "If you give an inch, they'll take a mile." Perhaps this was based on the teachings of Han Fei Tzu and the other Legalists.
Not only were there harsh rules in place to hold people in their positions, the Qin state attempted to impose laws to control their subjects personal lives. Of course, the obvious were outlawed, (murder, thievery, etc.) but also punishable were the offenses of engaging in a sexual act with another's wife, a woman sleeping with a slave, or being rude to her in-laws. The Qin government placed no faith that their subjects knew right from wrong, nor wanted them to. Left to their own devices, Legalism tells us, people would turn on those in power and seize every last bit they could get. They only know what the government tells them.
Some have said that ignorance is bliss. The First Emperor of Qin would certainly have subscribed to this. If your subjects don't know then they can't question. The Qin state went a step further. They took the objects of learning from the people. In 213 BC. The First Emperor had a wide variety of texts outlawed and burned. "He then abolished the ways of ancient sage kings and put to the torch the writings of the Hundred Schools in an attempt to keep the people in ignorance." This is a tactic used many times throughout history; one that some so-called democracies are just as guilty of as authoritarian governments. It is in human nature to question. There are those that would not bat an eye to actions such as these, but those that question most vigorously will begin to formulate their own answers. Soon their answers will be passed among their friends and neighbors. This is how dissent begins. In a time without very effective means of communication, dissent could spread like a devastating fire before it could be stopped, if it could be stopped at all.
All of these harsh laws and punishments weighed heavily on the people of the Qin Empire. The weight pushed perhaps most heavily on the conscript labor building the Great Wall. The strain of the labor projects on the workers reached a climax in 209 BC. The First Emperor had died the previous year. According to another scrupulous law, conscript workers could be neither late nor early to a job site. A group of peasants hiked toward their worksite. They were waylaid by a terrible storm. There was no way they would reach the site on time. This meant death.
Rather than facing a certain death at the hands of an executioner, the workers decided to fight back. With hammer and pick, they fought. Open rebellions soon broke out. As Confucian thought says, "Government is like a boat. Subjects are like water. Water can support a boat so it floats, but stormy seas can sink that some boat" The Confucian scholar Mencius also says, "If rulers treat people like pieces of dirt then their people will treat them as enemies."
People cannot live in a constant state of fear and paranoia. People will also allow their lives to be controlled only so much. People will not spill sweat and blood just because it is their "place" to do so. People can only stand such feelings for so long, before they must strike out against them. The Qin dynasty is a classic example of what happens to a government when it applies authoritarian laws and begins treating its subjects as something less than human beings.