Shang Yang

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Shang Yang
Statue of Shang Yang.jpg
Statue of pivotal reformer Shang Yang
Chinese 商鞅

Shang Yang (Chinese :商鞅; c. 390 – 338 BCE), also known as Wei Yang (Chinese :衞鞅) and originally surnamed Gongsun, was a Chinese philosopher and politician. He was a prominent legalist scholar. [1] Born in Wey, Zhou Kingdom, [1] he was a statesman and reformer of the State of Qin during the Warring States period of ancient China. His policies laid the administrative and political foundations that would enable Qin to conquer all of China, uniting the country for the first time and ushering in the Qin dynasty. He and his followers contributed to the Book of Lord Shang, a foundational work of what has modernly been termed Chinese Legalism. [2]

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau, and in the Kangxi Dictionary. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han Dynasty, and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Chinese language family of languages

Chinese is a group of related, but in many cases not mutually intelligible, language varieties, forming the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the ethnic Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

Wey (state) ancient Chinese state

Wei, commonly spelled Wey to distinguish from the larger Wei (魏) state, was an ancient Chinese state that was founded in the early Western Zhou dynasty and rose to prominence during the Spring and Autumn period. Its rulers were of the surname Ji (姬), the same as that of the rulers of Zhou. It was located in modern northeastern Henan Province, east of Jin, and west of Cao.



Shang Yang is born as the son of a concubine to the ruling family of the minor state Wey (衛). His surname (氏, lineage name) is Gongsun and his personal name Yang. As a member of the Wey family, he is also known as Wei Yang. [3]

At a young age, Yang studied law and obtained a position under Prime Minister Shuzuo of Wei (魏, not the same as his birth state). With the support of Duke Xiao of Qin, Yang left his lowly position in Wei [4] to become the chief adviser in Qin. His numerous reforms transformed the peripheral Qin state into a militarily powerful and strongly centralized kingdom. Changes to the state's legal system (which were said to have been built upon Li Kui's Canon of Laws ) propelled the Qin to prosperity. Enhancing the administration through an emphasis on meritocracy, his policies weakened the power of the feudal lords.

Duke Xiao of Qin, given name Quliang, was the ruler of the Qin state from 361 to 338 BC during the Warring States period of Chinese history. Duke Xiao is best known for employing the Legalist statesman Shang Yang from the State of Wey (衛), and authorizing him to conduct a series of ground breaking political, military and economic reforms in Qin. Although the reforms were controversial and drew violent opposition from many Qin politicians, Duke Xiao supported Shang Yang fully and the reforms did help to transform Qin into a dominant superpower among the Seven Warring States.

Li Kui (legalist) Chinese philosopher

Li Kui was a Chinese hydraulic engineer, philosopher, and politician. He served as government minister and court advisor to Marquis Wen in the state of Wei. In 407 BC, he wrote the Book of Law, which was the basis for the codified laws of the Qin and Han dynasties.

The Canon of Laws or Classic of Law is a lost legal code that has been attributed to Lǐ Kuǐ, a Legalist scholar and minister who lived in the State of Wei during the Warring States Period of Chinese history. This code has traditionally been dated to the early fourth century BCE, but scholars now widely consider it to be a forgery from the fifth or sixth century CE.

In 341 BC, Qin attacked the state of Wei. Yang personally led the Qin army to defeat Wei, and eventually Wei ceded the land west of the Yellow River to Qin. For his role in the war, Yang received 15 cities in Shang as his personal fief and became known as the lord of Shang (Shang Jun) or Shang Yang. [5] According to the Records of the Grand Historian , with his personal connections while serving in the court of Wei, Shang Yang invited Gongzi Ang, the Wei general, to negotiate a peace treaty. As soon as Ang arrived, he was taken prisoner, and the Qin army attacked, successfully defeating their opponents. [3]

Yellow River second longest river in China

The Yellow River or Huang He is the second longest river in China, after the Yangtze River, and the sixth longest river system in the world at the estimated length of 5,464 km (3,395 mi). Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai province of Western China, it flows through nine provinces, and it empties into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong province. The Yellow River basin has an east–west extent of about 1,900 kilometers (1,180 mi) and a north–south extent of about 1,100 km (680 mi). Its total drainage area is about 752,546 square kilometers (290,560 sq mi).

<i>Records of the Grand Historian</i> historical record of ancient China

The Records of the Grand Historian, also known by its Chinese name Shiji, is a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by the Han dynasty official Sima Qian after having been started by his father, Sima Tan, Grand Astrologer to the imperial court. The work covers the world as it was then known to the Chinese and a 2500-year period from the age of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han in the author's own time.

Mark Edward Lewis once identified his reorganization of the military as responsible for the orderly plan of roads and fields throughout north China. This might be far fetched, but Yang was as much a military reformer as a legal one. [6] Yang oversaw the construction of Xiangyang. [7]

Mark Edward Lewis is an American sinologist and historian of ancient China.

Xiangyang Prefecture-level city in Hubei, Peoples Republic of China

Xiangyang is a prefecture-level city in northwestern Hubei province, China and the second largest city in Hubei by population. It was known as Xiangfan from 1950 to 2010. The Han River runs through Xiangyang's centre and divides the city north-south. The city itself is an agglomeration of two once separate cities: Fancheng and Xiangcheng. What remains of old Xiangyang is located south of the Han River and contains one of the oldest still-intact city walls in China, while Fancheng is located to the north of the Han River. Both cities served prominent historical roles in both ancient and pre-modern Chinese history. Today, the city has been a target of government and private investment as the country seeks to urbanize and develop the interior provinces. In 2017, population of the prefecture-level city was 5.65 million, in which 3.37 million were urban residents.

The Shang Yang school of thought was favoured by Emperor Wu of Han, [8] and John Keay mentions that Tang figure Du You was drawn to Shang Yang. [9]

Emperor Wu of Han emperor Wu-Ti

Emperor Wu of Han, born Liu Che, courtesy name Tong, was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China, ruling from 141–87 BC. His reign lasted 54 years — a record not broken until the reign of the Kangxi Emperor more than 1,800 years later. His reign resulted in a vast territorial expansion and the development of a strong and centralized state resulting from his governmental reorganization, including his promotion of Confucian doctrines. In the field of historical social and cultural studies, Emperor Wu is known for his religious innovations and patronage of the poetic and musical arts, including development of the Imperial Music Bureau into a prestigious entity. It was also during his reign that cultural contact with western Eurasia was greatly increased, directly and indirectly.

John Keay British author

John Stanley Melville Keay FRGS, widely known as John Keay, is a British historian, journalist, radio presenter and lecturer specialising in popular histories of India, the Far East and China, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans. In particular, he is widely seen as a pre-eminent historian of British India. He is known both for stylistic flair and meticulous research into archival primary sources, including centuries-old unpublished sources.

Du You, courtesy name Junqing (君卿), formally Duke Anjian of Qi (岐安簡公), was a Chinese scholar, historian, and politician. He served as as chancellor of the Tang Dynasty. Du was born to an eminent aristocratic family in what is now Xi'an, Shaanxi, almost eighteen years before the abrupt rebellion of An Lushan, and received office for the privilege as administrator of Chi-nan commandery. Robert G. Hoyland considers him a "political thinker on a grand scale," comparable to Ibn Khaldun, but he is most often remembered for his thirty-six year compilation of the Tongdian, a historical encyclopedia of 200 sections (volumes) collecting laws, regulations, and general events from ancient times to his own.


He is credited by Han Fei, often considered to be the greatest representative of Chinese Legalism, with the creation of two theories;

  1. "fixing the standards" (Chinese :定法)
  2. "treating the people as one" (Chinese :一民)

Believing in the rule of law and considering loyalty to the state above that of the family, Yang introduced two sets of changes to the State of Qin. The first, in 356 BCE, were:

  1. Li Kui's Book of Law was implemented, with the important addition of a rule providing punishment equal to that of the perpetrator for those aware of a crime but failing to inform the government. He codified reforms into enforceable laws.
  2. Assigning land to soldiers based upon their military successes and stripping nobility unwilling to fight of their land rights. The army was separated into twenty military ranks, based upon battlefield achievements.
  3. As manpower was short in Qin, Yang encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands and immigration, favouring agriculture over luxury commerce (though also paying more recognition to especially successful merchants).

Yang introduced his second set of changes in 350 BCE, which included a new standardized system of land allocation and reforms to taxation.

The vast majority of Yang's reforms were taken from policies instituted elsewhere, such as from Wu Qi of the State of Chu; however, Yang's reforms were more thorough and extreme than those of other states, and monopolized policy in the hands of the ruler. [10] Under his tenure, Qin quickly caught up with and surpassed the reforms of other states.

Domestic policies

Yang introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved subjects as (state-owned) rewards for those who met government policies.

As manpower was short in Qin relative to the other states at the time, Yang enacted policies to increase its manpower. As Qin peasants were recruited into the military, he encouraged active migration of peasants from other states into Qin as a replacement workforce; this policy simultaneously increased the manpower of Qin and weakened the manpower of Qin's rivals. Yang made laws forcing citizens to marry at a young age and passed tax laws to encourage raising multiple children. He also enacted policies to free convicts who worked in opening wastelands for agriculture.

Yang partly abolished primogeniture (depending on the performance of the son) and created a double tax on households that had more than one son living in the household, to break up large clans into nuclear families.

Yang moved the capital to reduce the influence of nobles on the administration.

Yang's death

Deeply despised by the Qin nobility, [3] Yang could not survive Duke Xiao of Qin's death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the nine familial exterminations against Yang and his family, on the grounds of fomenting rebellion. Yang had previously humiliated the new duke "by causing him to be punished for an offense as though he were an ordinary citizen." [11] According to Zhan Guo Ce , Yang went into hiding and at one point Yang tried to stay at an inn. The innkeeper refused because it was against Yang's laws to admit a guest without proper identification, a law Yang himself had implemented.

Yang was executed by jūliè (車裂, dismemberment by being fastened to five chariots, cattle or horses and being torn to pieces); [12] [13] his whole family was also executed. [3] Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Yang. A number of alternate versions of Yang's death have survived. According to Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian , Yang first escaped to Wei. However, he was hated there for his earlier betrayal of Gongzi Ang and was expelled. Yang then fled to his fiefdom, where he raised a rebel army but was killed in battle. After the battle, King Hui of Qin had Yang's corpse torn apart by chariots as a warning to others. [3]

Following the execution of Yang, King Huiwen turned away from the central valley south to conquer Sichuan (Shu and Ba) in what Steven Sage calls a "visionary reorientation of thinking" toward material interests in Qin's bid for universal rule. [14]

See also


  1. 1 2 Antonio S. Cua (ed.), 2003, p. 362, Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy "The fifth important legalist, Shang Yang (Wei Yang, c. 390–338 B.C.E.), was born in Wei; his original surname was Gongsun."
  2. Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 1.1 Major Legalist Texts,
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 商君列传 (vol. 68), Records of the Grand Historian , Sima Qian
  4. pg 79 of Classical China
  5. Bamboo Annals Ancient Text, Records of Wei
  6. Paul R. Goldin, Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese Legalism. p. 18
  7. John Man 2008. p. 51. Terra Cotta Army.
  8. Creel 1970, What Is Taoism?, 115
  9. Arthur F. Wright 1960. p. 99. The Confucian Persuasion.
  10. Creel, What Is Taoism? 107
  11. pg 80 of Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill and Jean W. Sedlar, Oxford University Press, 1970. LCCN: 68-8409
  12. 和氏, Han Feizi , Han Fei
  13. 东周列国志 , 蔡元放
  14. Steven F. Sage 1992. p.116. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China.

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