Around 280 BCE, Han Fei Tzu was born a prince into the Han Kingdom, of central China. Han Fei could sense that his country was going to fall if government reform was not put in place to improve the strength and efficiency of the Han Dynasty.
Unfortunately for Han Fei Tzu, he had no oratory skill—in fact, he had a horrible stammer. His speech impediment, however, did not deter him from spreading his ideas. Instead of speaking, Han Fei Tzu put his teachings on paper and managed to circulate his message throughout the region.
Han Fei Tzu’s philosophy was extreme legalism. He envisioned a state where law would direct every aspect of a person’s life—even religious texts and literary works would be replaced by legal code.
The Han Kingdom largely ignored Han Fei Tzu’s authoritarian ideas. Another king, however, did take notice of Han Fei’s philosophy. He was the king of Ch’in (also spelled Qin), who had risen to power in 246 BCE. He and his advisors began implementing the extreme legalist policies that could be found in the works of Han Fei Tzu. Under his rule, the Kingdom of Ch’in invaded Han in 234 BCE. The Han Kingdom was clearly losing the war against Ch’in, so they sent Han Fei Tzu to try to negotiate with the king of Ch’in. They thought that the king of Ch’in’s blatant admiration for Han Fei Tzu’s philosophy of authoritarian legalism would make Han Fei a perfect diplomat to win the favor of the Ch’in.
The king of Ch’in initially welcomed Han Fei Tzu with warmth, but soon the king had a change of heart—Han Fei Tzu was thrown into a dungeon. Accounts of that ancient time claim that the advisors of the king of Ch’in thought that Han Fei would remain loyal to their enemy, the Han kingdom, and that his authoritarian philosophy was too much of a threat to be allowed to spread to other kingdoms. In the end, Han Fei Tzu died of poisoning in the dungeon of the king of Ch’in.
Though Han Fei was dead, his philosophy lived on in the Ch’in Kingdom. The king in whose dungeon Han Fei Tzu died would use Han Fei’s authoritarian legalist philosophy to conquer much of China and be proclaimed, Emperor Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Colombia University Press, 1964.