Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

My colleague Chhay Lin Lim has an excellent article on Chuang Tzu, Taoism, and living libertarianism as a philosophy of life rather than a mere political philosophy. You can find it here.

His post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Chinese Legalism. For those not in the know, Legalism was a school of thought that competed with Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, and other ideologies during the Warring States Period of Ancient China. It attained its greatest prominence under the Qin dynasty, after its compiler, Han Feizi, contracted himself to then-prince, Shi Huang.

What is most notable about Legalism is that it is the most notable extension of Taoist life philosophies into the sphere of rulership, an example of when quietism becomes political. The book he wrote, often titled simply Han Feizi, details a variety of methods rulers might understand their people, attain leadership, and maintain it in perpetuity. In a chapter titled “The Way of the Ruler,” Han Feizi describes the attributes of the prudent ruler, and then the state he will naturally develop from his personality and his penetrating insight into the nature of things. He begins with a poem of several very cryptic sentences:

  1. The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong.

  2. 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.

  3. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement.

  4. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover.

  5. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty it is to act will produce results.

  6. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

In (1) and (2), Han Feizi argues that the ruler must know the conditions of the world in order to govern properly, because it is those conditions that provide the basis for his laws. There is no such thing as a transcendental morality for Han Feizi. He compares the ruler who attempts to implement laws based in supposed eternal truths to a “farmer of Song,”[1] who had serendipitously caught a rabbit when it hit a tree stump on its land, broke its neck, and died. The farmer “…laid aside his plow and took up watch beside a stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way,”[2] but he failed, and was consequently mocked by all the people of the land. Attempting to govern by old rules is similar, for the ruler does not possess the fortunate conditions of his forebears, and so he cannot use the same tools that they did. To know the measure of things, then, is to understand the present and act accordingly, to “bring together the ideas of the pattern (li) of the universe, and the law (fa) of the ruler in order to produce a harmonious society.”[3] This marks out Han Feizi’s political economy as one of balance, with the realities of the modern world on one hand tallied exactly with the movements of the ruler on the other. If reality is neglected in favor of nostalgic idealism or futuristic novelty, the ruler will not “mind the measure,” his actions will be out of balance, and therefore so will the state.

To understand (3), we must begin by understanding Han Feizi’s Legalism. His system fundamentally depends on a sharp distinction between those who obey the law, or fa, and those who rule by the policies and methods of power, or shu. The ruler, “who is the author of law and outside and above it,”[4] operates under a different set of rules because the basis of the state is firmly set in his ability to exercise power, which by definition is not limited by anything but his own material ability to act. While his subjects must obey the limits he has prescribed in the law, which are firm and unyielding, he must himself obey the unwritten laws of power, those “policies and arts which he applies in wielding authority and controlling the men under him.”[5] Part of a leader’s shu is not only to be a shrewd political manipulator, but also to understand the limits of his power as constrained by the fundamental laws of existence: “there is nothing inherent in the commands of the sovereign, not in the laws that he promulgates, that necessitate their according with the pattern of the universe.”[6] However, if they do not accord with the pattern, then the laws will be useless, and so the ruler will be powerless because of them.

The distinction between fa and shu is not between men who ought to be led on the one hand, and men who ought to lead on the other, for Han Feizi’s dim view of human potential caused him to conclude that most people are utterly without merit. Rather, it is solely between the man who has found himself in a position of power, and the mass of men, women, and children he must exercise that power over. If the distinction depended on merit, then the kingdom would in turn be hamstrung by the lack of meritorious men to run it. Instead of being dependent on the vagaries of human ability, the nature of fa is to self-perpetuate what it contains within the apparatus created by the ruler through shu. The world, its people, and those who minister to it are like the waters of a river, and the laws are like a dam that controls the movement of the waters. The ruler is the gate of the dam, and he alone causes the waters to move in a certain way, whether to rise and form a reservoir, or to be released and form a continuous river.

But if they overflow the dam, the gate must open, and the ruler must act. This is the concept of xingming, or ‘names and forms,’ that Han Feizi refers to in (3), which represents the overarching concept of Legalist governance. The ‘names’ are the promises of men in the service of the ruler, or the roles they are expected to fulfill, while the ‘forms are the deeds in actuality that correspond to those promises and roles. If the two aspects of xingming are at equilibrium, “the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed,”[7] as with (6). However, if those aspects do not match, the ruler can “correct the mover,”[8] as with (4). To do either, he must be “empty and still,” for in emptiness alone can he “comprehend the true aspect of fullness,” which is nothing but the movement of the Way – the changing circumstances of the times – and the functioning of the state qua ruler in response to it. The ministers of the state “will come forward to name themselves,” thereby setting up their precise roles within the apparatus of government, and then “those whose duty it is to act will produce results,” fulfilling the exact role within that government they have been assigned. Names and forms tally only if the ministers do not go above or below their station, but they are in discord if the ministers transgress their bounds by doing too much, usurping the power of the ruler, or too little, thereby defying him. The true purpose of xingming, then, is to subordinate the self-interest of the minister, and perhaps of the ruler himself, to the overarching plan of the state – as people only do things for “selfish reasons… [for] abundant material benefits,”[9] the ruler must be selfless in his pursuit of the interests of the state, which are equivalent with his own but simultaneously beyond them.

What I find quite interesting is where this intersects with Chuang Tzu and Chhay Lin, but also diverts from them. Chhay Lin writes:

Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

Han Feizi laughably rejects this. To him, there is no such thing as a transcendent human nature that, if left to its own devices, would assert itself as a lover of harmony and spontaneous order. Man is made by the age, culture, and circumstances in which he finds himself, far more than any essential nature bubbles up in the age in which he lives. Behold Han Feizi’s beginning to the chapter “The Five Vermin”:

In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.

In the age of middle antiquity, there was a great deluge in All-under-Heaven, wherefore Kung and Yü opened channels for the water. In the age of recent antiquity, Chieh and Chow were violent and turbulent, wherefore Tang and Wu overthrew them.

Now, if somebody fastened the trees or turned a drill in the age of the Hsia-hou Clan, he would certainly be ridiculed by Kung and Yü. Again, if somebody opened channels for water in the age of the Yin and Chou Dynasties, he would certainly be ridiculed by T’ang and Wu. That being so, if somebody in the present age praises the ways of Yao, Shun, Kung , Yü , Tang, and Wu, he would, no doubt, be ridiculed by contemporary sages.

That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.

For Chuang Tzu, it seems that spiritual quietism ought to be reflected in political quietism as well. Leaving the people to govern themselves, thereby creating a society of spontaneous order, is superior to governing them like a band of corralled horses with brands and bridles.

Han Feizi rejects this because he represents a different form of political quietism. His philosophy is one of balance between the ruler and the forces he must deal with. If the people are angels, then the ruler’s yoke will be light, or even non-existent, for this is the greatest exponent of xingming. However, if the ruler is faced with an unruly, thieving, murderous people, then he must reign them in to restore the balance they have caused. He argues that people are products of their time, and in so doing dismisses any imputations of agency – they cannot be controlled by appealing to the better angels of their nature, but by beating that nature into submission.

The point of Han Feizi’s reliance on reward and punishment is to accept the realities of human nature, that by default they are lazy, weak, and reprobate, and change that behavior without changing its basic conditions: “when properly applied, [punishment and favor] can change the way that people act on their desire and interest sets without the need to actually change those sets.”  If a man loiters in his property, does not till his crops, and does not pay taxes, his inherent personality will never change. However, his behavior stemming from that personality may be changed through reward or punishment, which must be commensurate to the sin or the virtue – if not, with a punishment an “individual may prefer to loiter doing nothing even when subject to the punishment.”

Indeed, the ruler only corrects their incorrect course, and though he is called harsh, he is only conforming to the natural pattern of the world, so it is simultaneously true that the ruler “deferred [questions about] right and wrong to rewards and punishments” and that “the Way is the guideline of right and wrong.”  Knowing the Way allows the ruler to know proper rewards and punishments, for without knowing the way of things there is no way to “mind the measure,” for the measure is relative to the Way! Although xingming is often implicitly referred to as an aspect of fa, it is evident that even the ruler himself is a part of it, for his own actions must tally with his role, lest he lose his ability to exercise power effectively, and thus become weak – “if you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there.”  This is ultimately because xingming is also a cosmic concept, with the tally of names and roles being only a particular instance of a complete balance between the state and the pattern of the universe.

Ultimately, Chuang Tzu and Han Feizi are not different, but their emphases – at least as articulated by Chhay Lin and myself – are on different movements in political development, and more fundamentally, on human nature. Chuang Tzu questions the very nature of the state, and argues it is a useless and even harmful appendage to the proper flourishing of the human being. Han Feizi believes the state is a necessary outgrowth of cosmic imbalances, which are cyclical and unstoppable, because human beings develop in cyclical and unstoppable ways. Only the ruler’s machinations, handed down by the decrees of heaven, can possibly halt the imbalances and restore order to the world.

What we’re dealing with are two competing worldviews: the world as full of promise because people are so, and the world as fallen, degraded, and in need of redemption because people are so (forgive me if this has overtones of Christianity and grace. I am only a Westerner, after all). Humanity deserves liberty when it proves itself worthy of it, and it deserves strict rule and terrible punishments when it shows itself in need of them. The world of Chuang Tzu is in balance, and so is Han Feizi’s. What’s fascinating is the extremely different conclusions they can come to, not just in terms of personal liberty, from the very same source.

[1] Han Feizi. Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): 99

[2] Ibid.,99

[3] Eirik Lang Harris, “Is the Law in the Way? On the Source of Han Fei’s Laws,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011): 76

[4] Han Feizi 8

[5] Ibid., 8

[6] Harris 77

[7] Han Feizi 15

[8] Ibid., 15

[9] Paul R. Goldin, “Han Fei’s Doctrine of Self Interest,” Asian Philosophy 11.3 (2001): 152

3 thoughts on “Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

  1. Excellent article, Matthew! Reading this article was a nice way to start my day. I like how you clearly point out Han Feizi’s and Chuang Tzu’s common ground, and how they diverge in their conclusions :).

  2. This is such a great post, Matthew. I hope to see more of them in the near future!

    An indirect point I’d like to make is that the “Warring States period” and the flourishing of ideas happened in tandem. This was no accident. The decentralization of power in what is now China, coupled with the ruthless competition that states faced with each other, led to that outpouring of intellectual achievement.

    The theory that China fell behind Europe because of a lack of political decentralization is the one I find most convincing when it comes to that sort of discussion. I think that – when push comes to shove – it even trumps the geographic argument (though the two theories aren’t mutually exclusive).

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