Han Fe Zi
Legalism is a school that greatly emphasizes law. The school upholds the "rule of law," and offers a set of theories and methods to realize this goal. Legalism provided the theoretic foundation for the centralization of power in the Qin Dynasty (221-207BC).
Legalism has made substantial contributions in the basic problems like the origin, essence, and significance of law, as well as the relationships between law and social economy, epoch requirements, state power, ethics, customs, natural environment, population, and human nature.
In China, Legalism, together with Confucianism and Mohism, attempted to put the Chinese society onto the right track with its own propositions and solutions after longtime tortures and chaos caused by war in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256BC).
Meanwhile, Legalism also exaggerates the significance of law, emphasizing the use of penalty, "punishing to stop more punishing." According to its theory, human nature is to pursue fame and interest, and thus government should guide people in a proper way. For instance, incentives like high awards or official positions should be given to those who have battle achievements, which may have well contributed to the mightiness of the Qin army.
While Legalism was the central governing idea of the Qin Dynasty, in later dynasties, it was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought. However, both ancient and modern observers of Chinese politics have argued that some Legalist ideas have merged with mainstream Confucianism and still have a role to play in government.
Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, and Shen Dao respectively advocated the notions of Fa (law), Shu (method), and Shi (legitimacy). Han Fei Zi integrated the three and believed that a ruler should govern his subjects by the following ideas:
Fa: law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler are equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish severely those who dare to break them, even if the result would on the face appear undesirable.
For example, said Han Fei Zi, if a gate guard (while on duty) goes to fetch a blanket for the king who has just dozed off, this guard neglects his official duty and deserves punishment. Thus it is guaranteed that every action taken is predictable. In addition, the system of law, not the ruler, ran the state. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
Shu: method, control, or art. Unlike other Chinese systems of thought, morality is not important in Legalism. Special methods and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure the ministers don"t take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the rulers" motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help them get ahead; except for following the laws.
Shi: legitimacy, power, or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, rather than the ruler, that holds the power.
After the Qin State united China, and ceased the longstanding social unrests and chaos, China began the thousand-year-long emperor autocracy, entering another phase of history. Legalism definitely contributed greatly to the unity of China at the time. The political systems and reforms in the following dynasties were all more or less guided and influenced by Legalism. However, while Legalism greatly advocated the power of the monarchs, it did not have a system to counterbalance it, resulting in the tendency of the "rule of men" in Chinese history.