CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Han Fei as a Cure for Modern China | China Heritage Quarterly

Han Fei as a Cure for Modern China

Lin Yutang 林語堂

This essay on the relevance of the philosophy of the pre-Qin thinker Han Fei 韓非 in contemporary China as originally given as speech before the American University Club on 30 September 1930 at the Old Carlton, Shanghai. It was subsequently published in The China Critic, III:41 (9 October 1930): 964-967, and later collected in T'ang Leang-li's China's Own Critics, pp.86-94. Some minor stylistic changes have been made to the text in accord with in-house style, and section headings have been added.—The Editor

A Prophet for Modern China

Many cures have often been offered for the ills of modern China. I understand one of the cures offered by a distinguished American is that we should eat more Californian Sunkist oranges and more American hot-dogs. Some wiseacres at Williamstown are even suggesting that the best dose is armed intervention by the Great Powers, which is a sure indication that business is pretty rotten over there, unemployment in those latter countries must have reached an acute stage, and the Wall Street merchants are looking desperately for a better and wider market. In spite of the great variety of cures offered, however, a true solution for China's troubles, clearly visioned and clearly set forth so as to confound all the pessimists, is hard to find. I am unearthing today an ancient political philosopher of the third century before Christ and presenting him to you as a twentieth-century prophet and a sure cure for modern China. For Han Fei, the prince of Han, who was murdered by his classmate, Li Ssu, the prime minister of Tsin Shih Huang [Qin Shihuang—Ed.], is a modern of the moderns, and had he lived today in our midst, he could have talked to us in so modern a fashion that we would have understood him perfectly. In fact, the striking modernity of Han Fei is the best reason why I am taking him for the subject of today's talk, and why I am presenting him as a prophet for modern China. He lived in a China torn by civil wars and political chaos in no way different from modern China; the ills he saw in the political conditions of his days were the same as the ills we are confronting today; and his analysis of the symptoms was so cogent and his proposed remedy so convincing and so applicable to modern China that we should welcome him as a great contemporary spirit leading us out of the quagmire of chaos into a region of clear political thinking. In fact, the conditions and symptoms of his days were so similar to those of modern China that I believe, were he born today as our contemporary and faced with our contemporary problems, he would not have to change one whit of the political ideas that he wrote two thousand years ago.

Of Han Fei's life, we know very little. We know that he was prince of Han, one of the few remaining big kingdoms of Chou Dynasty, and the last to be conquered and amalgamated with the Tsin Empire. He was a fellow-student of Li Ssu, who later became the prime minister of Tsin Shih Huang, and who was so much calumniated for his policy of unifying the written language of the country. Both Han Fei and Li Ssu studied under the great Confucianist teacher Hsun-ts, but Li Ssu acknowledged himself to be inferior to Han Fei. The fact is, I suspect, Han Fei was a scholar and a thinker, while Li Ssu, who was not much good at his studies, was a better politician. Eventually, Li Ssu got jealous of him, and had him put in prison under some pretext. Han Fei asked for a permission to defend himself, but was denied that by the Tsin Shih Huang. In the meanwhile, Li Ssu sent him a dose of poison and asked him to make an end of his life. Han Fei probably took it in Socratic fashion and died just a little before Tsin Shih Huang changed his mind and was going to send for him. It is evident that Li Ssu was greatly influenced by the ideas of Han Fei, and Han's books, which enjoyed great popularity even during his lifetime, exerted a great influence on the thinkers of the Tsin and early Han days.

I am of course not going to give a systematic exposition of Han Fei's philosophy, for that lies beyond the purpose of the present speech. I wish only to present Han Fei as a modern prophet and point out the ideas which may be profitably studied and applied to modern China. Han Fei, as you already know, was a thinker of the legalist school; of this school, he was the last and also the greatest. As a legalist thinker, he believed in a government by law, rather than the Confucian government by benevolent rulers, and, as you will soon see, that is exactly what China needs. But there is something in his rejection of Confucianism and his analysis of the political evils of his days that is so strikingly appropriate for modern China, and his peculiar ideas of the government by law are so strikingly new that we shall be surprised how nearly he approached the western ideas of government.

The Rule of Gentlemen Crooks

Now, according to Han Fei, the beginning of political wisdom lies in rejecting all moral platitudes and shunning all efforts at moral reforms. I believe the sooner we stop talking about moral reforms of the people, the earlier shall we be able to give China a clean government. The fact that so many people persist in believing in moral reforms as a solution for political evils is a sign of the puerility of their thinking and their inability to grasp the political problem as a political problem. They should have seen that we have been talking about moral platitudes three hundred sixty-five days in the year for the past two thousand years without improving the country morally or giving it a cleaner and better government. They should have seen also that if moralizations would do any good, China would be a paradise of saints and angels today. In fact, I have a shrewd suspicion that the reason why moral reform talks are so popular, especially with out officials, is because they know they do nobody any harm. I suspect that all our moral uplifters have a bad conscience. I have found that General Chang Tsung-chang and others who want to restore Confucianism generally keep five to fifteen wives and are adepts at seducing young girls. We say 'Benevolence is a fine thing', and nobody is done any harm. On the other hand, I do not hear about any of our officials talking about government by law, because the people would reply, 'All right, we will prosecute you by law and send you to prison.' The earlier, therefore, we stop talking about morality and switch over to the subject of the strict enforcement of law, the sooner we make it impossible for these official moralists to dodge us and pretend to read the Confucian classics in the foreign settlements.

Briefly, we may say, therefore, there were two opposing conceptions of government in Han Fei's times as well as in our own times, the Confucian conception of government by gentlemen, and the legalist conception of government by law rather than by persons. The Confucian system assumes every ruler to be a gentleman, and proceeds to treat him as a gentleman. The legalist system assumes every ruler to be a crook and proceeds to make provisions in the political system to prevent him from carrying out his crooked intentions. I need hardly say that the first is the traditional view and the second the Western view, and also the view of Han Fei. As Han Fei says, we should not expect people to be good, but should make it impossible for them to be bad. That is the moral basis of the legalist philosophy. In other words, instead of expecting our rulers to be gentlemen and to walk in the part of righteousness, we should assume them to be potential convicts of the prison and devise ways and means of preventing these potential convicts from robbing the people and selling the country. You will readily see that the latter system is more likely to be effective as a check for political corruption than waiting for a change of hearts of these gentlemen.

In China, however, we have been doing exactly the reverse. Instead of assuming them to be potential crooks, we assume them to be gentlemen. In the good, old Confucian way, we expect them to be benevolent rulers and to love the people as their own sons. We even treat them like gentlemen. We expect them to be so honest that we say: 'Go ahead, spend what you like of the public fund, and we will not demand a public budget or a rendering of public accounts.' We say to our militarists: 'Go ahead, we trust you will love the people so much, that you will naturally tax the people according to your conscience.' And we say to our diplomats: 'Go ahead, we believe inherently in you patriotism that we will allow you to contract any and every sort of international treaty, without asking you to submit it to us for approval.' And to all officials, we say: 'In case you turn out to be gentlemen, we will erect stone pailous [commemorative arches—Ed.] in your honour, but in case you turn out to be crooks, we will not put you in prison.' Never in other countries was there such a liberal and gentlemanly treatment of the officials. Now Han Fei says this is all wrong: it is taking too many chances with their moral endowments. If Han Fei were living today, he would say: What we should do today it to hasten to assume them as crooks and say to them: 'We will not exhort you to the path of righteousness, and we will not erect pailous in your honour in case you turn out to be gentlemen, but in case you turn out to be crooks, we will send you to prison.' That seems to me to be a sounder and speedier system of putting an end to our political corruption.

I will quote a passage from Han Fei, in a rather free rendering. Han Fei says: 'You can expect generally about ten honest scholars in a country, (and that is a pretty good average). But there are on the other hand probably a hundred offices. As a result, you have more official positions than honest scholars to fill them, so that you have to take then honest men and ninety crooks to fill all of the positions. Hence there will be more likelihood of a general misrule rather than good government. Therefore the wise king believes in a system and not in personal talents, in method rather than in personal honesty. When we have an inviolable law, then it will be impossible for the officials to be corrupt.' Han Fei denied that a parental government would ever work because, he said, even parents do not succeed always in governing their children, and it would be unreasonable to expect the rulers to love the people more than the parents love their children. Han Fei coldly and humorously asked how many disciples Confucius got with all his tremendous benevolence and righteousness, and he asked, was not the fact that Confucius could obtain only seventy disciples among hundreds of thousands of people a clear proof of the futility of benevolence? Why did Confucius have to serve under Ai Kung (King of Lu), a very common person, instead of Ai Kung serving under Confucius? Was it not unreasonable to expect all rulers to walk in virtue like Confucius and all the subject to love virtue like the seventy disciples?

The Lack of Just Laws

The second point I like to touch upon is his description of the ills of his country, which so fittingly agrees with the political symptoms of today. In fact, so similar was the character of the officials and people of those days, that in reading him we might forget that he was not depicting modern China. He traced the corruption of the officials and the apathy of the people of his days to the lack of legal protection, to the fault of the system. Instead of moralizing about it, he preached that it was the system of government and the lack of public legal protection that was at fault. He said all troubles lay with the lack of a 'public or just law'. He hated the Confucianists of his days and called them a pack of gabbling fools, which might fittingly be applied to so many of our 'long-gown patriots' today. He said of the officials of that time that they were encouraged to practice corruption because there was no punishment for them. He said in these very words: 'Although their national territory is sacrificed, their families have got rich. If they succeed, they will be powerful, and if they fail, they can retire in wealth and comfort'—words that might have been written for a great part of the villadom that is living in retired life in the Shanghai concessions. He said that because of the lack of system, 'people were promoted according to their party connections, and were obliged to divert their attention to social entertainments rather than the fulfillment of the law.' How true these words are today, only officials and official candidates themselves know.

There was an important passage which contained the very interesting phrase 'public citizen' (kung min) and which tried to account for the general apathy and indifference of the people toward national affairs. He said in effect: 'Now you send people to fight. They will be killed whether they go forward or turn back. That is dangerous for them. You ask them to forsake their own private pursuits and devote themselves to the military service of the country, and when they are poor, those above do not pay any attention to them. Of course they become poor. Now who would like to be in danger and poverty? Of course they would try to keep away from you. Therefore they will all mind their own business and be interested in building their own houses and try to avoid war. By avoiding war, they will have security. By practicing official graft and bribery, they can become rich and secure themselves for life. Now who would not like to be wealthy and live in peace? And how could you prevent them from seeking peace and wealth? This is the reason why there are so few public citizens and so many private individuals.' It is still true today that we have too few public citizens and too many private individuals, and the reason is to be found in the lack of adequate legal protection. It has nothing to do with morals. The evil lies in the system. When it is too dangerous for a man to be public-spirited, it is natural that he should take an apathetic attitude toward the country, and when there is no punishment for greedy and corrupt officials, it is too much to ask of human nature to ask them not to be corrupt.


Hence Han Fei believed in the establishment of an 'inviolable law' which should apply to both ruler and the ruled alike, and here we come to the positive contribution of Han Fei to modern China. Han Fei believed that the law should be supreme, that all people should be equal before the law and that this law should be applied in place of personal preferences and connections. Here we have not only a conception of equality before the law that is almost western, but we have a type of thinking that strikes me as being most un-Chinese. It is strange that, in contrast to the Confucian dictum that 'ceremony should not be applied to the plebeians, and punishment should no be extended to the lords' 禮不下庶人,刑不上大夫, we have here a legalist who says that we should have a 'law that doesn't fawn upon the mighty, a rule that should be applied rigidly, so that wherever the law applies, the clever will submit and the powerful will not protest, that the nobility should not be exempted from punishment and rewards should not go over the heads of the humble' 刑過不避大臣,賞善不遺匹夫. Han Fei conceived of law, 'before which the high and the low, the clever ones and the stupid ones shall stand equal.'

What interests me more is that here we have a mechanistic conception of government by law pushed almost to the extremes, a theory that would be more typical of the German mind, than the Chinese way of thinking. For if there is one thing characteristic of Chinese thinking, it is a natural dislike for abstract ideas as such. Now Han Fei's conception of law is an abstract entity. In opposition to the Confucian doctrine of using 'talented persons', Han Fei's idea was to have a system so rigidly applied that it would not require any 'talented persons', but could be run by any average individual. Like his master Shen Tao, he believed in the abstract conception of a state. Shen Tao said: 'We should have kings for the purpose of the state, and not have a state for the purpose of the king… . We should have officials to fill the offices, and not create offices for the officials.' His system was pushed so far that Han Fei believed it would not be necessary to have a wise and intelligent ruler. Hence the Taoistic element in his system that the 'king should do nothing'. The king should do nothing, because he saw the kings couldn't do anything in any case, as the average run of kings goes, and there should be a machinery of government running so justly and correctly that it does not matter whether we have good or bad kings. The king, therefore, becomes a figurehead, as in the modern constitutional government. The English people have a king today to lay foundation stones and christen ships and knight people, but it is entirely unimportant to the nation whether they have a good or bad king, and intelligent king or a comparatively mediocre king. The system should run of itself. That in essence is the theory of Do-nothingism for the king, as interpreted by Han Fei, a theory which is today practiced with great success in England.

From 'The Little Critic':