According to traditional dating, Lord Shang was born in the ancient Chinese state of Wei around 390 BCE. At the time, as he was not yet a lord, he went by the name Wei Yang or Gongsun Yang. He began his career of law and education in his homeland of Wei, but eventually traveled to the dukedom of Qin, where his teaching would leave a lasting legacy.
Wei Yang began his political rise as an advisor to Duke Xiao of Qin (r. 361-338 BCE). He focused his advice on making the Qin state’s military, agriculture, and taxing systems more efficient. Most important, however, was Wei Yang’s vision for the law code of Qin. He envisioned a system of laws and penalties that had no exceptions and no exemptions, applicable to both peasantry and royalty. His teachings, published as The Book of Lord Shang, would serve as a foundation and standard for the government philosophy of Legalism.
Wei Yang’s policies gave the state of Qin a visible advantage in the tumultuous time of the Warring States Period, an age when numerous Chinese states battled continuously for centuries in pursuit of great power. As Wei Yang’s policies continued to shape the dukedom of Qin into an efficient and streamlined empire-building machine, Duke Xiao also promoted the advisor higher and higher in the ranks of the Qin state. Eventually, Wei Yang personally led Qin armies on campaigns, usually targeting the state of Wei. He proved himself to be a sound military strategist, successfully besieging opposing cities, and capturing rival military leaders. With his accomplishments growing, Wei Yang was granted a noble title equivalent to that of a marquis, after which he was thereafter known as Lord Shang (or Shang Yang).
Nevertheless, even though Lord Shang’s laws were strengthening Qin and he had achieved a noble title for his work, his popularity among the other nobles in the Qin court (especially the heir apparent) was abysmal. After all, Lord Shang wanted the nobility to be held just as accountable to his strict laws as the peasantry. As such, when Lord Shang’s patron, Duke Xiao, died around 338 BCE, the reforming lord quickly found himself surrounded by bitter enemies. Lord Shang tried to flee from his enemies in Qin, but Duke Huiwen, the new ruler of the Qin state, apprehended the lord and brought him back to face the angry nobility. The nobles of Qin (much like Lord Shang’s laws) showed no mercy. He was allegedly executed by being gruesomely pulled apart by horse-drawn carriages or chariots.
Even so, Lord Shang had left his mark. Legalism would survive in the state of Qin and would be a vital tool utilized by Shihuangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who emerged victorious from the Warring States Period in 221 BCE. Yet, just like Lord Shang, the Qin Dynasty and its Legalist policies met an early end—it collapsed around 207 or 206 BCE. The Han Dynasty that succeeded the Qin Dynasty reinstituted the Confucian view of government, but gladly kept diluted ideas from Legalism in place.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Terracotta army soldier, [Public Domain] via pixabay.jpg).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.