Main content

Chinese Legalism

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rise of Chinese Legalism under the First Emperor, its relationship with Confucianism and its legacy today.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins and rise of Legalism in China, from the start of the Warring States Period (c475 - 221 BC) to the time of The First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (pictured), down to Chairman Mao and the present day. Advanced by the Qin statesman Shang Yang and later blended together by Han Fei, the three main aspects of Legalism were the firm implementation of laws, use of techniques such as responsibility and inscrutability, and taking advantage of the ruler's position. The Han dynasty that replaced the Qin discredited this philosophy for its apparent authoritarianism, but its influence continued, re-emerging throughout Chinese history.


Frances Wood
Former Curator of the Chinese Collections at the British Library

Hilde de Weerdt
Professor of Chinese History at Leiden University


Roel Sterckx
Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge.

Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Available now

43 minutes

Last on

Thu 10 Dec 2015 21:30


Hilde De Weerdt at Leiden University

Roel Sterckx at the University of Cambridge

Chinese Text Project

Legalism in Chinese Philosophy - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Legalism (Chinese philosophy) - Wikipedia



Ssu-Ma Ch’ien (ed. William H. Nienhauser Jr.), The Grand Scribe’s Records, volume 1, The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China (Indiana University Press, 1995)

Jeanne-Marie Gescher, All Under Heaven: China’s Dreams of Order (Kaduba House, 2015)

Paul R. Goldin (ed.), Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei (Springer, 2012)

Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, (W. W. Norton, 2000)

A. F. P Hulsewe, Remnants of Ch'in Law: An annotated translation of the Ch'in legal and administrative rules of the 3rd century BC, discovered in Yun-meng Prefecture, Hu-pei Province (Brill, 1985)

Jean Levi (trans. Barbara Bray), The Chinese Emperor: A Novel (first published 1987; Penguin Books, 1990)

Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Michael Loewe, A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin periods (221 BC - AD 24) (Brill, 2010)

Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilisation to 221 BC (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Yuri Pines, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Gideon Shelach, Robin D. S. Yates (eds.), Birth of an Empire; The State of Qin Revisited (University of California Press, 2014)

Yang Shang (trans. J. J. L. Duyvendak), The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of law (first published 1928; Lawbook Exchange Ltd, 2011)

Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe (eds.), The Cambridge History of China, volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires 221 BC - AD 220 (Cambridge University Press, 1986)

Han Fei Tzu (trans. Burton Watson), Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings (first published 1964; Columbia University Press, 2003)

Frances Wood, The First Emperor of China (Profile Books, 2007)

Frances Wood, Picnics Prohibited: Diplomacy in a Chaotic China during the First World War (Penguin, 2016)


Role Contributor
Presenter Melvyn Bragg
Interviewed Guest Frances Wood
Interviewed Guest Hilde de Weerdt
Interviewed Guest Roel Sterckx
Producer Simon Tillotson


  • Thu 10 Dec 2015 09:00
  • Thu 10 Dec 2015 21:30

Featured in...

In Our Time podcasts

In Our Time podcasts

Every episode of In Our Time is available to download.

The In Our Time Listeners' Top 10

The In Our Time Listeners' Top 10

If you’re new to In Our Time, this is a good place to start.

Arts and Ideas podcast

Arts and Ideas podcast

Download the best of Radio 3's Free Thinking programme.