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Hanfeizi 韓非子

Jul 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Hanfeizi 韓非子 "Master Han Fei", originally called Hanzi 韓子 "Master Han" (the title was later changed to avoid confusion with the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) writer and politician Han Yu 韓愈), is the largest and most important of the treatises of the legalist school (fajia 法家) of ancient China. It was written by Han Fei 韓非 (c. 281-233), philosopher and politician of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE).

Life and philosophy of Han Fei

Han Fei was a member of the royal house of Han 韓 and a disciple of the Confucian philosopher Xun Kuang 荀況 (Xunzi 荀子), together with Li Si 李斯 (d. 208 BCE), the later Counsellor-in-chief of King Zheng of Qin, the eventual First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246-210 BCE). According to Han Fei's biography in the history book Shiji 史記, he several times tried to convince the king of Han to adopt reforms for the strengthening of the central government and the state, but the king refused. Han Fei thereupon started to write down his thoughts on the strengths of written administrative law. These are especially the chapters Gufen 孤憤, Wudu 五蠹 and Shuonan 説難 of the book Hanfeizi.

In 233, Han Fei left for Qin 秦, managed to get an audience with the king of Qin and convinced him to carry out government reforms. Yet he became victim of a slandering campaign by Li Si and Yao Jia 姚賈 and was forced to commit suicide.

His thoughts and writings are assembled in the book Hanfeizi. Han Fei was the first commentator on the Daoist book Laozi Daodejing 老子道德經. In the chapters Jie Lao and Yu Lao, he explains the meaning of the dao 道, the universal way, with regards to the ruler in a legalist state. The dao was a principle inherent to all things on earth and the reason for their being. All naturally occurring phenomena, like the four seasons or the human relationships in society, were based upon the dao. The dao was an objective natural law. It was, nevertheless, not possible that a society could function with the help of natural laws. For this reason, it was necessary to create universal laws that regulated the mechanisms within society. In this point, Han Fei follows the teachings of Xun Kuang, who supposed that man was by nature bad and therefore had to be civilized by means of ritual and ceremony (li 禮). Similarly, man could only be controlled by law (fa 法) and regulations.

The law was one of the three instruments of the ruler to control the state. The two others were the power (shi 勢) concentrated in his hands, and his skills (shu 術) to manage the state and control his ministers. While the last two were of no use in the hands of an incompetent sovereign, laws and regulations offered at least a chance that a dynasty survived in case that a ruler was unfit. Yet a really strong state could only be built up if all three instruments were successfully made use of. The ruler himself resembled the polestar around which the whole world was turning, while the polestar itself is immoveable. State officials and the society could be controlled by the implementation of law, especially administrative (lüling 律令) and penal law (xingfa 刑法). Laws were objective and had to be applied to everyone, even to the crown prince, should he commit a crime.

Unlike Confucianism, where personal affections like kindheartedness, piety and benevolence play an important role, legalist philosophy stresses that personal feelings and moral example did not play any role to control society. Within the officialdom, and in society, everyone had his predefined position and tasks, while the trespassing of the boundaries of competence resulted in punishment. This is the legalist interpretation of the Confucian theorem of "rectifying the names" (zhengming 正名), i.e. defining what was the concrete meaning of a position, and how should the related task be fulfilled. Once established, the laws and regulations would keep the state administration running like a perpetual motion, in other words, like the natural dao. Laws should therefore, as far as possible, not be changed frivolously.

The ruler's most dangerous enemies were his ministers and their intrigues (jian 奸). He thus had to keep a certain impersonal distance from them to prevent them from controlling him and his mind. Punishment (fa 罰) was one of the two handles (er bin 二柄) of the ruler. The other was reward (shang 賞), by which he would be able to entice his officials to serve him loyally. The "enlightened ruler" (mingzhu 明主) thus created an atmosphere of mutual benefit and attracted the most able servants. In a state based upon such a philosophical system, there was no place for contending approaches about the right way to govern a society. Other philosophical schools like Confucianism that stressed the personal moral example of the ruler, Mohism that emphasized the meaning of universal love, or Daoism that allowed man to withdraw from his social obligations, had no place in a legalist state. Useless books could be destroyed. This gave the king of Qin and his advisors the argument for the (alleged) burning of the Confucian books and his burying alive of the Confucian scholars (fenshu kengru 焚書坑儒).

Han Fei's view of history is that of a change. While Confucius tried to re-establish the alleged social order of a glorious past, the legalists stress that all ages had their different social, political and economical conditions, and therefore, modern state and society could not be managed by the same means as those of the past.

As a legalist writer, Han Fei was for a long time discredited by the Confucian-dominated literati class. Yet the complete survival of the book shows that it was always seen as a substantial writing of statecraft. In fact, the imperial Chinese state lived of a combination of Confucianism and legalism.

The book Hanfeizi

The Hanfeizi is a collection of different chapters authorship of which is attributed to Han Fei. In fact, many chapters are older and were only revised and collected by Han Fei. The chapters he had definitely compiled by himself are Gufen 孤憤 (11), Wudu 五蠹 (49), the Neichu 內儲 and Waichu 外儲 chapters (30-35), the Shuolin 說林 chapters (22-23), and Shuonan 說難 (12). The Former Han-period 前漢 (206 BC-8 CE) scholar Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE), who rearranged many Warring States-period writings, included some additional writings, like Chu jian Qin 初見秦 (1), Youdu 有度 (6), and Cun Han 存韓 (2), and created the transmitted version of the Hanfeizi in 55 chapters.

According to the imperial bibliography Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, the Hanfeizi was 55 chapters-long. This corresponds to the received version. Traditional editions are arranged in 20 juan.

The book includes writings by later scholars and other authors. The chapter Cun Han 存韓, for example, begins with the famous memorial to King Zheng of Qin 秦王政, the eventual First Emperor (Shang Qin wang shu 上秦王書), a part which is followed by a critique by Li Si and, finally, Han Fei's older memorial to the king of Han (Shang Han wang shu 上韓王書). The chapter Chu jian Qin narrates Han Fei's first audience with King Zheng, in which he suggests to annihilate the state of Han 韓, a proposal that is just the opposite of his idea to conserve the state of Han, as it was requested in the chapter Cun Han. It might therefore be that the suggestion to annihilate Han was an idea of the earlier counsellor of Qin, Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (d. 253 BCE), and not Han Fei.

The chapter Youdu 有度 is largely identical to the chapter Mingfa 明法 in the book Guanzi 管子, and the chapter Shiling 飾令 to the chapter Qinling 靳令 in the book Shangjunshu 商君書. The rest of the book Hanfeizi seems to have been written by Han Fei himself.

In his book, Han Fei exhibits a kind of "summa legista" (Moritz 1990), in which he assembles the main arguments of his legalist precursors: Written law and regulations (fa 法), the art of ruling by use of competent advisors (shu 術), and the undisputed authority of the ruler (shi 勢) are the three instruments of a strong state. To make his ministers obedient and loyal, reward and punishment were the most important tools of the ruler. Kindheartedness (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義), the highly emphasized moral virtues by the Confucians, are of no value for Han Fei. The ruler had to see to it that all his ministers and state officials acted according to the rules prescribed for the office they were entrusted with. The congruence of designation (ming 名) and reality (shi 實) was the paramount basis on which an empire could exist on. Only if the real shape and the law were consistent (xing ming can tong 形名參同), rewards and punishment could be properly applied. For these reasons, orders and their right and efficient exection had permanently to be checked (can yan 參驗).

The style of the book Hanfeizi is very enthralling by the extensive use of parables and stories from the past to demonstrate what the author wants to say. This is especially true for the chapters Shuolin 說林, Nei chushuo 内儲說 and Wai chushuo 外儲說. A very famous story is the origin of the Chinese word for "contradiction" (maodun 矛盾 "spear and shield"), telling of a man who sold weapons, at the same time praising his shields as impenetrable, and his spears as able to penetrate the strongest shield. Han Fei wants to demonstrate with this parable that many things had two characteristics contradicting each other. It was therefore important to analyze carefully which of the two was the most beneficial. This was all the more important because all things were subject to change over time. Yet all changes could be predicted if the whole structure was permanently and carefully observed, so that eventual dangers could be fended off.

The greatest part of these semi-historiographical stories is not recorded in any other books or has not been preserved. Han Fei quotes lost sources from the Shangshu 尚書, Lu Chunqiu 魯春秋, Jicheng 晉乘, Chu taowu 楚檮杌 and Qinji 秦紀. In his argumentation, Han Fei first exhibits his predication, then demonstrates the matter with examples, and then draws the logical conclusion. His argumentation is very clear and easy to follow.

The oldest surviving print dates from the Qiandao reign-period 乾道 (1165-1173) of the Song era 宋 (960-1279). It is unfortunately only preserved as a facsimile. There quite a few prints of the Hanfeizi from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), among which the version in the Daoist Canon 道藏 is one of the best. Others Ming-period publications are Hanfeizi yuping 韓非子遇評 by a Master Menwuzi 門無子, and Zhao Yongxian's 趙用賢 (1535-1596) print from 1582 (together with the Guanzi). The most widespread versions are the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) prints by Zhang Dunren 張敦仁 (1754-1834), Wu Zi 吳鼒 (1755-1821) from 1818 and that of the Shugu Studio 述古堂. Lu Wenchao 盧文弨 (1717-1795) published the Hanfeizi jiaozheng 韓非子校正, Gu Guangqin 顧廣圻 (1766-1835) the Hanfeizi shiwu 韓非子識誤, Yu Yue 俞樾 ((1821-1907)) the Hanfei pingyi 韓非評議, and Sun Yirang 孫貽讓 (1848-1908) the book Hanfeizi zhachi 韓非子札迻.

Another old print is preserved as a facsimile in the series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊. The Hanfeizi is included in the series Shuofu 説郛, Siku quanshu 四庫全書, Qinzaotang siku quanshu huiyao 摛藻堂四庫全書薈要, Shizi quanshu 十子全書, Zishu baijia 子書百家 (Baizi quanshu 百子全書) and Sibu beiyao 四部備要.

The late Qing-period scholar Wang Xianshen 王先慎 (fl. 1897) collected all commentaries of his time and published them in 1897 as Hanfeizi jijie 韓非子集解. Modern editions are Chen Qiyou's 陳奇猷 (1917-2006) Hanfeizi jishi 韓非子集釋 from 1974, Liang Qixiong's 梁啟雄 (1900-1965) Hanfeizi qianjie 韓非子淺解 from 1960 and Zhou Xunchu's 周勛初 (b. 1929) Hanfeizi jiaozhu 韓非子校注. Liu Shipei 劉師培 (1884-1919) published the Hanfeizi jiaobu 韓非子校補, Wu Rulun 吳汝綸 (1840-1903) the Hanfeizi duben 韓非子讀本, Gao Heng 高亨 (1900-1986) the Hanfeizi bujian 韓非子補箋, Liu Wendian 劉文典 (1889-1958) the Du Hanfeizi jianduan ji 讀韓非子簡端記, Yin Tongyang 尹桐陽 (1882-1950) the Hanzi xinshi 韓子新釋, and Yu Shengwu 于省吾 (1896-1984) the Hanfeizi xinzheng 韓非子新證.

In 1982, the Jiangshu Renmin Press 江蘇人民出版社 published the Hanfeizi jizhu 韓非子校注, in 1989 the Shanghai Guji Press 上海古籍出版社 published a Hanfeizi, in 1990 there was a joint publication of the Shangjunshu and the Hanfeizi by the Yuelu Shushe Press 岳麓書社. The most common versions are that of the series Zhuzi jicheng 諸子集成 and Wanyou wenku 萬有文庫.

There is a compete translation by W. K. Liao (1939), The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Legalism (London: Probsthain); a partial translation by Burton Watson (1964), Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press), and a complete translation into German by Wilmar Mögling (1994), Die Kunst der Staatsführung: Die Schriften des Meisters Han Fei (Leipzig: Kiepenheuer).

Table 1. Contents of the Hanfeizi 韓非子
1. 初見秦 Chu jian Qin The first interview with the king of Qin
2. 存韓 Cun Han On the preservation of the state of Han
3. 難言 Nanyan On the difficulty in speaking
4. 愛臣 Aichen On favourite ministers
5. 主道 Zhudao The Dao of the sovereign
6. 有度 Youdu Having regulations
7. 二柄 Erbing The two handles
8. 揚權 Yangquan Wielding the sceptre
9. 八姦 Bajian Eight villainies
10. 十過 Shiguo Ten faults
11. 孤憤 Gufen Solitary indignation
12. 說難 Shuonan Difficulties in the way of persuasion
13. 和氏 Heshi The difficulty of (Bian) He
14. 姦劫弒臣 Jian que shi chen Ministers apt to betray, molest or murder the ruler
15. 亡徵 Wangzheng Portents of ruin
16. 三守 Sanshou Three precautions
17. 備內 Beinei Guarding against the interior
18. 南面 Nanmian Facing the south
19. 飾邪 Shixie On pretensions and heresies
20. 解老 Jielao Commentaries on Laozi's teachings
21. 喻老 Yulao Illustrations of Laozi's teachings
22.-23. 說林上下 Shuolin 1-2 Collected persuasions A-B
24. 觀行 Guanxing Observing deeds
25. 安危 Anwei Safety and danger
26. 守道 Shoudao The way to maintain the state
27. 用人 Yongren How to use men
28. 功名 Gongming Achievement and reputation
29. 大體 Dati The principal features (of legalism)
30. 內儲說上七術 Neichu shuo shang: qi shu Inner congeries of sayings: Seven tacts
31. 內儲說下六微 Neichu shuo xia: Liu wei Inner congeries of sayings: Six minutiae
32.-33. 外儲說左上下 Waishu shuozuo 1-2 Outer congeries of sayings: Upper left
34.-35. 外儲說右上下 Waichu shuoyou 1-2 Outer congeries of sayings: Lower left
36.-39. 難一至四 Nan 1-4 (Criticisms of the ancients)
40. 難勢 Nanshi A critique to the doctrine of position
41. 問辯 Wenbian Inquiring into the origin of dialectic
42. 問田 Wentian Asking Tian
43. 定法 Dingfa Deciding between two legalistic doctrines
44. 說疑 Shuoyi On assumers
45. 詭使 Guishi Absurd encouragements
46. 六反 Liufan Six contrarities
47. 八說 Bashuo Eight fallacies
48. 八經 Bajing Eight canons
49. 五蠹 Wudu Five vermin
50. 顯學 Xianxue Learned celebrities
51. 忠孝 Zhongxiao Loyalty and filial piety
52. 人主 Renzhu The lord of men
53. 飭令 Shiling Making orders trim
54. 心度 Xindu Surmising the mentality of the people
55. 制分 Zhifen Regulations and distinctions
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