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“Han Fei-Tzu” by Han Fei. Hanfei’s Political Philosophy

Han Fei was one of the leading theorists of the Legalism school in Ancient China. The main work of Han Fei titled “Han Fei-Tzu” includes the main idea that the treatise is devoted to analyzing state-building and the art of statecraft. Han Fei was a supporter of creating a centralized state and strengthening the power of the ruler. The work’s sections 5 and 6 reveal the issue of law importance and the nature of officials.

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The principles presented in these sections are considered in terms of effective government regarding the law rules. One of the passages is “a truly enlightened ruler uses the law to select men for him; he does not choose them himself. He uses the law to weigh their merits; he does not attempt to judge them for himself” (Han Fei, 1964, p. 24). The law is the most important means of achieving goals for the sovereign. It should be examined from the perspective of the theoretical and social context along with the general ideas of Han Fei’s teaching.

Theoretical Context

Han Fei’s work is based on the ancient Chinese ethical and political theory called Legalism. This school considers the supremacy of legal law in the state’s life; it is referred to as “fa” in Chinese (Schneider, 2018). Only an autocratic ruler can be the law’s creator; rules can be changed and revised by the moment’s needs (Schneider, 2018). Other fundamental aspects of legalism are the teachings of “shu” – a political technique controlling officials (Schneider, 2018). The component “shi” means power to guarantee a set of legal norms (Schneider, 2018). The philosophers of legalism have created a coherent idea of an authoritarian government functioning under the ruler’s unlimited power and individually leading a centralized administrative apparatus.

The principal pomits of this theoretical system are the commitment to the sovereign and impeccable orderliness, which should be considered the basis for assignment to positions. The “fa” element means law and standard, which form a code of rules of conduct composed by the ruler and obligatory for officials (Schneider, 2018). Han Fei-Tzu and representatives of the Legalism school focused on the fact that human beings are evil by nature (Schneider, 2018). Thus, a written law should serve as the particular model for correct behavior for people, substituting other rules and opinions, including those drawn from customs and rituals.

Social Context

Legalism as a philosophy was developing during the golden age of Chinese philosophy. This time is described as the Warring States Period; fragmented China was a set of continually conflicting state formations of various sizes, the feuds among which caused significant suffering to the Chinese nation (Schneider, 2018). Resources were spent on resolving internal conflicts instead of serving the Empire’s prosperity, the country’s development and establishing its dominance over the adjacent territories (Schneider, 2018).

Han Fei was strongly influenced by the period’s political situation, in particular, the chaos that prevailed in China after the final collapse of the Zhuo dynasty (Schneider, 2018). He focused on the art of statesmanship, determining the objectives of state policy. Therefore, the teaching of legalism was aimed at the state’s effective management to create a ruler’s strong power.


Since the focus of the teaching is the problem of maintaining power at the highest level, Han Fei applies an ideal dignitary model. The state’s problems arise due to the fact that “the ruler does not make important decisions on the basis of law but puts faith in whatever his subordinates do” (Han Fei, 1964, p. 24). Consequently, the ministers should be loyal to the sovereign and follow his orders. They also need to be intelligent and well-versed in the laws, understand matters clearly, and recognize others’ self-interest (Han Fei, 1964). They should possess the qualities of a far-sighted, powerful, unyielding fighter against an insidious enemy.

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The principal method to appoint the best officials is presented in the passage “A truly enlightened ruler uses the law to select men for him; he does not choose them himself. He uses the law to weigh their merits; he does not attempt to judge them for himself” means to understand statecraft (Han Fei, 1964, p. 24). Laws are written orders of the ruler observed in governing the nation. Additionally, the appointment of officials to a position should be made depending on their abilities and professional qualities and without regard to social origin and society’s status (Han Fei, 1964). Thus, the head of state needs a specific management system – a political technique.

Since a person strives for personal success, this should be used in public relations. Officials offer their abilities to acquire some valuable benefits in return; laws serve to regulate these relationships (Schneider, 2018). The lack of firmly established rules in the country leads to the situation that the subjects pay attention only to personal enrichment, thereby undermining the state’s fundamental components (Han Fei, 1964). People tend to pursue only self-interest, and even children’s birth and upbringing are associated with the parents’ long-term goals. For instance, it is stated that “the powerful families seek only to benefit each other and not to enrich the state” (Han Fei, 1964, p. 24).

Human egoism and the pursuit of personal advantages are the roots of political chaos. The passage “the high ministers seek only to honor each other; and the petty officials cling to their stipends and work to make influential friends instead of attending to their duties” proves this statement (Han Fei, 1964, p. 24). People have addictions and dislikes and strive to behave in such a way to receive privileges and avoid trouble.

Moreover, the ruler should ensure that each official should not possess the leader’s political authority. The quote “he must not reveal his will; for if he does so his ministers will show a different face” shows one of the possible behavior patterns (Han Fei, 1964, p. 16). The most important thing is that the ruler should be impervious to others; preferences should not be evident so that no one could abuse the power.


“Han Fei-Tzu” is one of the most valuable works in the complex of the Ancient Chinese thought, which served as the foundation of a great empire. The prominent place in the presented teachings is occupied by the socio-political concept of public administration’s nature based on the rule of law. In his work, Han Fei considers public administration as an entirely based system on regulations and the ruler’s authority. The enlightened ruler needs to master the art of managing people, including the selection of talented personalities and their appointment to positions where they can function most effectively. The head should learn how to appoint officials that obediently fulfill the ruler’s will and control their relatives, households, and aristocracy representatives.


Han Fei (1964). Han Fei Tzu: Basic writings. (B. Watson, Trans.). Columbia University Press.

Schneider, H. (2018). An introduction to Hanfei’s political philosophy: The way of the ruler (1st ed.). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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