The Ancient Chinese Visionary Of Legalism, Lord Shang, Used A Simple Pole To Display His Idea Of Meritocracy


Gongsun Yang, the man who would later become Lord Shang, left the Kingdom of Wei around 361 BCE to join the court of Duke Xiao of Qin (r. 361-338 BCE). After impressing the duke and his ministers, Gongsun Yang was hired by the state of Qin to streamline the country’s laws for stability, efficiency and strength.

The new minister, however, was worried that the people of Qin would not understand his government philosophy. Although the rulers of ancient China were already heavily authoritarian, Lord Shang’s ideas were even more extreme. He wanted to restructure society and rewrite the laws, and he proposed that rank and power should be doled out by merit, instead of lineage. To make sure the laws were followed, he wanted to impose shared criminal responsibility, incentivizing the people to report on their neighbor’s unlawful activity. Failure to report a crime could often lead to execution. Yet, Lord Shang was not hypocritical with his laws—he also held the nobility to the same standard; to him, no one was above the law.

Lord Shang, in particular, was supposedly worried about the Qin population being confused about the idea of meritocracy, where rank and power depended on how much or how little benefit a person could provide to the government. Lord Shang thought he needed to demonstrate to the average population that everyone, not only the nobility, could be rewarded under his government philosophy. Therefore, Lord Shang mysteriously erected a pole by the southern gate of the market in the Qin capital city. He announced that the person who could move the pole from the market’s south gate to its north gate would receive a prize of 10 pieces of gold. The crowd in the market was baffled by the proposed task and feared that the whole scheme was somehow a malicious trap. Sensing their fear and caution, Lord Shang raised his proposed prize to 50 gold pieces. Finally, a single unnamed man took up the pole and successfully planted it by the north gate. Once the task was complete, Lord Shang gave the man his promised 50 gold pieces, demonstrating to the crowd that, under his system, initiative and effort would be well rewarded.

According to the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the laws of Lord Shang were put into place shortly after the demonstration with the pole was completed. His laws were said to have made the government deadly efficient. All households supposedly received what was needed to survive, and banditry, feuding and public disorder were stamped out through harsh punishment. Yet, it was a bittersweet success. The commoners were fearfully resentful of Lord Shang’s law code, and the nobles were furious that they were held just as accountable to the laws as the peasants. Therefore, after Duke Xiao died in 338 BCE, the next regime that took power in the state of Qin easily hunted down Lord Shang and executed him before the end of the year.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (figure painted by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849) in front of “Along the River During the Chinese Qingming Festival,” section painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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