Biography of Han Fei Tzu

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Han Fei Tzu

Name: Han Fei Tzu
Bith Date: c. 280 B.C.
Death Date: 233 B.C.
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Chinese
Gender: Male
Occupations: statesman, philosopher

Han Fei Tzu (ca. 280-233 BC) was a Chinese statesman and philosopher and one of the main formulators of Chinese Legalist philosophy.

Elements of Chinese Legalist philosophy can be traced to the 7th century B.C., but it was Han Fei Tzu who developed the precepts of this political philosophy into its definitive form. He emphasized the complete submission of the individual to the state and stressed the importance of law in maintaining state control. His elaborate methodology of statecraft may have influenced the creation of authoritarianism by the Ch'in dynasty.

The main source of information on Han Fei's life is a short biography by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (145-86 B.C.) in his Records of the Historian. Han Fei was a member of the royal family of Han, a small state located in north-central China. During the 5th century Han, along with two other states, had seceded from the large state of Chin, and for the following 2 centuries Han was an important power in the Chinese state system. In the 3d century, about the time of Han Fei's birth, Han found itself confronted with a newly emerging power to the west, the state of Ch'in. Toward the end of the 4th century Ch'in embarked on an extensive military campaign to expand its territory. Since Han was Ch'in's main neighbor to the east, it was inevitable that the two states would come into conflict. Han Fei's career revolved around this rivalry between his own state and Ch'in.

Han Fei studied under the great Confucian philosopher Hsün-tzu, who had established a school in Lan-ling, a small city-state in southern Shantung Province. According to Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Han Fei stuttered and had difficulty expressing himself orally. Eloquence was an absolute requirement for a statesman of this period, for almost all of the court business was conducted orally. To compensate for his handicap, he developed skill as a writer and sent all of his opinions to the court in writing. Han Fei was one of the best writers of rhetorical prose of his time, and his prose is still admired by the Chinese.

Career in Han

Because he was from the royal family, Han Fei was able to acquire an influential position in the government, probably as one of the principal advisers to the Han king. Han Fei was particularly alarmed by the increasingly aggressive posture of Ch'in, and he sent a series of memorials to the Han ruler, enjoining him to strengthen the army, reform the laws, and dismiss incompetent and corrupt officials to counteract the Ch'in threat. The King refused to comply with his requests, and Han Fei reportedly became extremely bitter and resentful. He wrote several essays at this time declaring in blunt terms the chief reasons for the current difficulty in his state.

One of the most outspoken of the essays Han Fei wrote at this time was the "Five Vermin" (Wu tu), in which he blamed what he called the "vermin" (scholars, sophists, knights-errant, sycophants, and merchants and artisans) for the disorder and bad government in the state. In a second essay, "Solitary Indignation" (Ku fen), he complained that it was virtually impossible for a man of character and integrity to make his views known to a ruler because it was first necessary to go through the ruler's corrupt and incompetent subordinates. A third essay, on rhetorical techniques, "Difficulties of Persuasion" (Shui nan), described the different strategies a person should use in trying to persuade his ruler.

Han Fei in Ch'in

In 234 Ch'in attacked Han, and Han Fei was summoned back to service. In the following year he traveled to Ch'in to attempt to dissuade Ch'in from its aggressive policy. The King of Ch'in had received copies of his "Five Vermin" and "Solitary Indignation" and was favorably impressed with them. When Han Fei arrived in Ch'in, he submitted a memorial to the King proposing that it would be to Ch'in's advantage to attack the state of Chao instead of Han. The King was about to consent to Han Fei's plan, when Han Fei's former colleague, Li Ssu, prime minister of Ch'in, objected and wrote a long reply to Han Fei's memorial. Li Ssu then conspired with another court official to arouse the King's suspicion of Han Fei. They pointed out that he was a member of the Han royal house and that he was simply concerned about the welfare of his own state. They persuaded the King to imprison Han Fei until his loyalty could be investigated. As soon as Han Fei was placed in prison, Li Ssu sent poison to him, indicating that it would be best for him to commit suicide. Since he was held incommunicado and had no way of defending himself, he drank the poison.

His Legalism

Han Fei has traditionally been identified with the philosophical school known as the Fa-chia, or Legalist school. It is doubtful that Han Fei actually studied under a Legalist master, for the only teacher ever associated with his name is the Confucian Hsün-tzu. The primary emphasis of Han Fei's thought was not so much philosophical as political. Most of the writings attributed to him deal with the practical methods of statecraft, and particularly the maintenance and strengthening of the ruler's power. He encouraged the ruler to undertake a series of administrative reforms, such as appointing trained officials to replace the corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats who maintained their positions solely through special privilege. He sought to encourage more agricultural production, at the same time discouraging private commerce and craftsmanship. He advocated the drafting of an elaborate system of laws that would be strictly enforced and in which there was no room for mercy to the lawbreaker. This authoritarian system appealed to the Chinese despot, and many of the policies adopted under the Chinese Empire after 221 B.C. closely resemble ideas set forth by Han Fei.

Further Reading

  • A useful work is Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson (1964). The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, translated by W. K. Liao (2 vols., 1959), also contains a biography by Ssu-ma Ch'ien in volume 1. H. G. Creel, Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Mao Tse-tung (1953), discusses Han Fei Tzu in historical context. See also Hou Wai-Lu, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (1958).

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