Shang Yang

For the contemporary Chinese painter Shang Yang, see Shang Yang (artist).
Shang Yang

Statue of pivotal reformer Shang Yang
Chinese 商鞅

Shang Yang (Chinese: 商鞅; pinyin: Shāng Yāng/Yǎng, 390–338 BCE, born Wei Yang Chinese: 衛鞅; pinyin: Wèi Yāng/Yǎng in the State of Wei)[1] was an important Chinese statesman of the State of Qin during the Warring States period. His policies laid the foundation that enabled 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 strain of what has modernly been termed Chinese Legalism.[2]

With the support of Duke Xiao of Qin, Shang Yang left his lowly position in Wei (to whose ruling family he had been born, but had yet to obtain a high position in)[3] to become the chief adviser in Qin. There 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, Shang's policies weakened the power of the feudal lords.


He is credited by Han Fei 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, Shang 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; codified reforms into enforceable laws.
  2. Assigning land to soldiers based upon their military successes and stripping unfighting nobility of land rights. The army was separated into twenty military ranks, based upon battlefield achievements.
  3. As manpower was short in Qin, Shang encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands and immigration, favouring agriculture over luxury commerce (though also paying more recognition to especially successful merchants).

Shang 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, Shang's reforms were more thorough and extreme than those of other states. Under Shang's tenure, Qin quickly caught up with and surpassed the reforms of other states.

Domestic policies

Shang 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, Shang enacted policies to increase its manpower. As Qin peasants were recruited into the military, he encouraged active immigration 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. Shang 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.

Shang 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.

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

Shang Yang's death

Deeply despised by the Qin nobility,[4] Shang Yang could not survive Duke Xiao of Qin's death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the nine familial exterminations against Shang 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."[5] Yang went into hiding and 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);[6][7] his whole family was also executed.[4] Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Shang. A number of alternate versions of Shang Yang's death have survived. According to Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, Shang Yang 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.

Confucian scholars were highly opposed to Shang Yang's legalist approach.

See also


  1. Antonio S. Cua 2003 p.693, Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy
  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. pg 79 of Classical China
  4. 1 2 商君列传 (vol. 68), Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian
  5. pg 80 of Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill and Jean W. Sedlar, Oxford University Press, 1970. LCCN: 68-8409
  6. 和氏, Han Feizi, Han Fei
  7. 东周列国志, 蔡元放


Further reading

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