Han Fei

Last updated
Han Feizi
BornUnknown, c.280 BC
Died233 BC
Cause of deathForced to commit suicide by drinking poison
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Chinese philosophy
School Legalism
Han Fei
Traditional Chinese 韓非
Simplified Chinese 韩非

Han Fei ( /hɑːn/ ; [2] traditional Chinese :韓非; simplified Chinese :韩非; pinyin :Hán Fēi; c.280 233 BC), also known as Han Fei Zi, was a Chinese philosopher or statesman [3] of the Legalist school during the Warring States period, and a prince of the state of Han. [4]


Han Fei is often considered to be the greatest representative of “Chinese Legalism” for his eponymous work the Han Feizi, [5] synthesizing the methods of his predecessors. [6] Han Fei's ideas are sometimes compared with Niccolò Machiavelli [7] and his book is considered by some to be superior to the "Il Principe" of Niccolò Machiavelli both in content and in writing style. [8] It is said that Shu Han's chancellor Zhuge Liang demanded emperor Liu Shan read the Han Feizi for learning the way of ruling. [9]

Sima Qian recounts the First Emperor as being presented with Han Fei’s works, going so far as to go to war with Han to obtain an audience with Han Fei, but is ultimately convinced to imprison him, whereupon he commits suicide. [10] After the early demise of the Qin dynasty, the philosophy of Legalism became officially vilified by the following Han dynasty. Despite its outcast status throughout the history of imperial China, Han Fei's political theory and the concept of Legalism as a whole continued to heavily influence every dynasty thereafter, and the Confucian ideal of a rule without laws was never to be realised. [6]

Han borrowed Shang Yang's emphasis on laws, Shen Buhai's emphasis on administrative technique, and Shen Dao's ideas on authority and prophecy, emphasizing that the autocrat will be able to achieve firm control over the state with the mastering of his predecessors' methodologies: his position of power (勢; Shì), technique (術; Shù), and law (法; ). He stressed the importance of the concept of Xing-Ming (holding actual outcome accountable to speech), coupled with the system of the "Two Handles" (punishment and reward), as well as Wu wei (non-exertion).


Han Fei is his name, while -Zi ( , lit. "Master") was often added to philosophers' names as an extra addition honorific. The title Han Feizi is also used to denote the book written by him.


The exact year of Han Fei's birth remains unknown, however scholars have placed it at around 280 BCE. [4]

Unlike the other famed philosophers of the time, Han Fei was a member of the ruling aristocracy, having been born into the ruling family of the State of Han during the end phase of the Warring States period. In this context, his works have been interpreted by some scholars as being directed to his cousin, the King of Han. Sima Qian’s Shi ji says that Han Fei studied together with future Qin chancellor Li Si under the Confucian philosopher Xunzi. It is said that because of his stutter, Han Fei could not properly present his ideas in court. His advice otherwise being ignored, but observing the slow decline of his Han state, he developed "one of the most brilliant (writing) styles in ancient China." [5] [6]

Sima Qian's biography of Han Fei is as follows: Han Fei was a prince of Han, in favor of the study of name/form and law/art, which Sima Qian dubiously espoused as taking root in the Huang-Lao philosophy. He was born a stutterer and was not able to dispute well, but he was good at writing papers. Together with his friend, Li Si, he served Xun Qing, and Si himself admitted that he was not as competent as Fei. Seeing Han was on the decline, he often remonstrated with the king of Han by submitting papers, but the king did not agree to employ him. At this, Han Fei was frustrated with the reality that, in governing a state, the king did not endeavour to refine and clarify the juridical system of the state, to control his subjects by taking over power, to enhance state property and defence, or to call and employ the wise by enhancing the state.

Rather, the king employed the corrupted and treacherous and put them in higher positions over the wise. He regarded the intellectuals as a disturbance to the law by employing their literature, and thought that knights violate the prohibition of the state by using armed forces. While the state was in peace, the king liked to patronise the honoured; while in need, he employed warriors with armour and helmet. So the cultivated men could not be employed and the men employed could not be cultivated. Severely distressed over the reality that men of high integrity and uprightness were not embraced by the subjects with immorality and corruption, he observed the changes in the gaining and losing of the past. Therefore, he wrote several papers like Gu Fen, Wu Tan, Nei-Wai Chu, Shou Lin, and Shei Nan, which amount to one hundred thousand words. However, while Han Fei himself knew well of the difficulty of persuasion and created the detailed writing, Shei Nan, he eventually killed himself in Qin. He could not escape the trap of words for himself." [11]

His works ultimately ended up in the hands of the thrilled Qin king, Ying Zheng, who commented, "If I can make friends with this person [Han Fei], I may die without regrets." and invited Han Fei to the Qin court. Han Fei presented the essay "Preserving the Han" to ask the king not to attack his homeland, but his ex-friend and rival Li Si—who was jealous of Han Fei—used that essay to have Han Fei imprisoned on account of his likely loyalty to Han. Han Fei responded by writing another essay named "In the first time of meeting Qin king", hoping to use his writing talent to win the king's heart. Han Fei did win the king's heart, but not before Li Si forced him to commit suicide by drinking poison. The Qin king later felt regret about the unfortunate death of Han Fei. [5] [6]

Xunzi formed the hypothesis that human nature is evil and virtueless, therefore suggesting that human infants must be brought to their virtuous form through social-class-oriented Confucian moral education. Without such, Xunzi argued, man would act virtuelessly and be steered by his own human nature to commit immoral acts. Han Fei's education and life experience during the Warring States period, and in his own Han state, contributed his synthesis of a philosophy for the management of an amoral and interest-driven administration, to which morality seemed a loose and inefficient tool. Han agreed with his teacher's theory of "virtueless by birth", but as in previous Legalist philosophy, pragmatically proposed to steer people by their own interest-driven nature.


Vietnamese authors

Phan Ngọc  [ vi ] in his foreword to the Han Feizi praised Han Fei as a knowledgeable man with sharp, logical and firm arguments, supported by large amount of practical and realistic evidence. Han Fei's strict methods were appropriate in a context of social decadence. Phan Ngọc claimed that Han Fei's writings has three drawbacks, however: first, his idea of Legalism was unsuited to autocracy because a ruling dynasty will sooner or later deteriorate. Second, due to the inherent limitation of autocratic monarchy system, Han Fei did not manage to provide the solutions for all the issues that he pointed out. Third, Han Fei was wrong to think that human is inherently evil and only seeks fame and profit: there are humans who sacrificed their own profit for the greater good, including Han Fei himself. [12] Trần Ngọc Vương  [ vi ] considered the Han Feizi to be superior to Machiavelli's Prince , and claimed that Han Fei's ideology was highly refined for its era. [13]


  1. ^ Watson, Burton, Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings. 1964, p. 2. The king in question is believed to be either King An (238–230 BC) or his predecessor, King Huanhui (272–239 BC).

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  1. "Leader Taps into Chinese Classics in Seeking to Cement Power". The New York Times. 12 October 2014.
  2. "Han". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary .
  3. 2018 Henrique Schneider. p.1. An Introduction to Hanfei's Political Philosophy: The Way of the Ruler.
  4. 1 2 Watson, Burton (2003). Han Feizi – Basic Writings. Columbia University Press. p. 2. ISBN   9780231521321. OCLC   796815905.
  5. 1 2 3 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-08-08. Retrieved 2015-07-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. 1 2 3 4 Hàn Phi Tử, Vietnamese translation by Phan Ngọc, Nhà xuất bản Văn học, HCMC 2011
  7. Nguyển Hiến Lê, Giản Chi (1995). Hàn Phi Tử. NXB Văn hóa thông tin.
  8. "PGS – TS Trần Ngọc Vương: Ngụy thiện cũng vừa phải thôi, không thì ai chịu được!".
  9. Pines, Yuri (10 December 2014). "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy".
  10. The biography by Sima Qian is presented in "The Biography of Han Fei Tzŭ By Ssŭ-ma Ch`ien" chapter of The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, translated by W.K. Liao, 1939, reprinted by Arthur Probsthain, 1959. https://books.google.com.tw/books?id=op8KAQAAIAAJ http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=xwomen/texts/hanfei.xml&style=xwomen/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=d1.4&toc.depth=1&toc.id=0&doc.lang=bilingual
  11. Tae Hyun KIM 2010 p.15, Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi
  12. Vietnamese translation, 2011, Nhà Xuất bản Văn Học
  13. "PGS – TS Trần Ngọc Vương: Ngụy thiện cũng vừa phải thôi, không thì ai chịu được!". Báo Công an nhân dân điện tử. Retrieved 2019-11-12.

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