Shang Yang

From Academic Kids

Shang Yang (商鞅) (d. 338 BC) was an important statesman of Qin in the Warring States Period of ancient China. With the support of Duke Xiao of Qin, Shang Yang enacted numerous legalist reforms in the state of Qin that changed Qin from a peripheral, backwards state into a militarily powerful and strongly centralized state. He also changed the administration by emphasizing meritocracy and devolving power from the nobility.



Before Shang Yang's arrival in 361 BC, Qin was a backwards state. The vast majority of his reforms were taken from policies instituted elsewhere; however, Shang Yang's reforms were more thorough and extreme than those of other states. Under Shang Yang's tenure, Qin quickly caught up with and surpassed the reforms of other states.

After Duke Xiao of Qin, posthumously Qin Xiaogong, ascended to the Qin throne, Shang Yang left his position in Wei to become the chief adviser in Qin, where his changes to the state's legal system, which built upon Li Kui's Book of Law, propelled the Qin to prosperity. His policies built the foundation for Qin to conquer all of China, uniting the country for the first time and ushering in the Qin dynasty.

He is credited by Han Feizi with the creation of two theories;

  1. Ding Fa (定法; fixing the standards)
  2. Yi Min (一民; treating the people as one)

Legalist approach

Shang Yang believed in the rule of law and considered loyality to the state to be above that of the family.

Shang Yang introduced two sets of changes to the Qin state. The first, in 356 BC, were as follows:

  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. Stripped the nobility of land right and assiged land to soldiers based upon military success. The military was also divided in to twenty military ranks, based on battlefield success.
  3. As manpower was short in Qin, Shang Yang encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands, and favoured agriculture over commerce.
  4. Shang Yang burnt Confucian books in an effort to curb the philosophy's influence.

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

Domestic policies

Shang Yang introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers that exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers that failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved citizens as rewards for those who met government policies.

As manpower was short in Qin relative to the other states at the time, Shang Yang enacted policies to increase the manpower of Qin. 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 Yang passed 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 that worked in opening wastelands for agriculture.

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

Diplomatic intrigue

During Shang Yang's tenure, the state of Wei was a highly powerful neighboring state. During a battle during the 340 BC invasion of Wei, Shang Yang feigned interest in a peace treaty, met with the commander of the Wei army and captured him. Without their leader, the Wei army easily lost to the army of Qin and lost territory.

Shang Yang's death

Deeply despised by the Qin nobility, Shang Yang could not survive Qin Xiaogong's death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the execution of Shang Yang and his family, on grounds of rebellion. Shang Yang went into hiding and tried to stay at a hotel. Ironically, the hotel owner refused because it was against Shang Yang's laws to admit a guest without proper identification. Shang Yang is said to have been executed by being fastened to four chariots and pulled apart. Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Shang Yang.

Posthumous treatment of Shang Yang

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

Related topics


External links

ja:商鞅 zh:商鞅


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