Shang Yang

Shang Yang (ca. 390-338 B.C.) was a Chinese statesman and political philosopher. He was one of the founders of Chinese Legalism and organized the rise to power of the Ch'in dynasty.

The real name of Shang Yang was Kung-sun Yang; he was also known as Wei Yang. He was born in Wei, a state in north-central China. His mother was a concubine of a member of the Wei royal family. In his youth he specialized in criminal law and served as tutor to the Wei princes. He was a favorite of the Wei prime minister, who recommended to the Wei ruler that Shang Yang succeed to the ministry upon his death. This request was denied, and Shang Yang, feeling that he was not appreciated in Wei, journeyed to the western state of Ch'in, which had been seeking men who could offer practical advice on state affairs.

Becoming the confidant of Duke Hsiao, who was just then embarking on a program of military expansion and revitalization of the state, Shang Yang presented him with a comprehensive plan for the accomplishment of these ends. He proposed a complete reform of the political, social, and economic structure of the state. He advocated strengthening the judicial system and the imposition of severe punishments for crimes of all kinds.

There was to be a group sharing of guilt and punishment, and people were required to inform on lawbreakers. Those who failed to denounce a criminal were cut in two. Rank and position would be given only to those who distinguished themselves in military affairs. Membership in the Ch'in royal clan was denied to nobles who achieved no military success.

Central to Shang Yang's economic theory was an overwhelming emphasis on agriculture and a rejection of "nonessential" activities such as commerce and manufacturing. He proposed that anyone engaging in secondary professions be sold as slaves. His most famous economic reform was the abolition of the idealized system of land-holding known as the "well-field system," in which a section of land was divided into nine portions, tilled by eight families in common, with the produce from the ninth portion reserved for the overlord.

Shang Yang reportedly substituted for this system individual ownership of property and had new land brought under cultivation. He also introduced a poll tax and a produce tax. Actually, the well-field system may well have been abolished already, and Shang Yang may not have had anything to do with originating this reform.

Given a high military post, Shang Yang led an expedition against his home state of Wei, which he conquered in 350 B.C. He supervised the building of a new capital at Hsien-Yang. He applied his laws so strictly and impartially that even the crown prince was punished on several occasions, even having his nose sliced off. In 341 Shang Yang led another expedition against Wei and forced it to cede to Ch'in all of the land west of the Yellow River. For his services, Shang Yang was rewarded with a fief of 15 cities in Shang (modern Shensi), from which his names Lord Shang and Shang Yang are derived.

Duke Hsiao died in 338, and his successor was the crown prince whom Shang Yang had punished earlier. Shang Yang was then charged with plotting rebellion and forced to flee. One account states that he tried to take refuge in an inn but was refused entrance because the law of Lord Shang prohibited the lodging of fugitives! He tried to return to Wei, but he was sent back to Ch'in. Shang Yang was finally killed making a stand at his fief in Shang. His body was pulled apart by chariots and his whole family executed.

Shang Yang is credited with the authorship of the Book of Lord Shang (Shang-Chün shu), a collection of economic, legal, and political treatises, many of which are elaborations of the program he developed in Ch'in. It is doubtful that this book actually comes from his hand, nor is it the work of a single author. Because of its emphasis on law, this work is considered one of the major ancient Chinese works on Legalist philosophy.


Further Reading on Shang Yang

The best work on Shang Yang is J.J.L. Duyvendak, The Book of Lord Shang (1928). Some information on Shang Yang appears in Cho-yun Hsu, Ancient China in Transition: An Analysis of Social Mobility, 722-222 B.C. (1965), and Joseph R. Levenson and Franz Schurman, China: An Interpretative History—From the Beginnings to the Fall of Han (1969). For general background see Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1: East Asia: The Great Tradition (1958).