Legalism has had a somewhat celebrated history given its place in the lineages of pre-Han philosophy. The ideas espoused by the paradigmatic legalists of the Qin dynasty such as Shang Yang (390-338) and Han Fei (280-233) were the subject of vitriolic attack by the Confucian orientated scholars of the Han era. Lu Jia (d.170 BC), for instance, saw the short-lived Qin dynasty’s (221-206) adherence to these figure’s harsh legalism as the reason for its collapse and a model of what not to be followed. However, this criticism takes the doctrine the Qin followed out of its context, ignoring the reality of the chaos of the Warring States. Legalist reform was often an answer to the question of how to establish order in an age of constant political upheaval and warfare. This article aims to establish the pervasive nature of the legalism of the Zhanguo Era and how the often ignored Li Kui was fundamental in the foundation of the legalist doctrine which transformed the era. Despite contemporary recognition of confucianism as the philosophical basis of the imperial Chinese state, legalism is arguably more important as a philosophy to understand the era.

Before discussing Li Kui’s reforms and their impact, it is first important to establish what can be conceived as the principles of legalist philosophy. Whereas Confucius saw the construction of a hierarchical moral order, and a return to the days of the Western Zhou (1045-771 BC) as a solution to the chaos the collapse of Zhou royal authority, the legalists took a more pragmatic, forward thinking view, wishing not to be ‘shackled’ by antiquity. For them, morality and humaneness wasn’t the way to bring about order, instead stern law was. For legalists, people were naturally self-serving and licentious, needing punishment and incentive to control them. In this way they opposed Mencius who thought that all people were naturally good. Their rhetoric is perhaps most aptly summed up in the third century BC legalist text the Shang Jun Shu which states ‘To benefit the people of All under Heaven, nothing is better than orderly rule’ and ‘The way of establishing the ruler is nowhere broader than in relying on laws… and eradicating the licentious ’. 

When Li Kui was appointed chief minister by Marquess Wen of Wei (445-396), the Zhou world was at an important crossroads of history, entering the Warring States era (475-221). The states were searching for a solution to the crisis of leadership that had emerged in the preceding Spring and Autumn era. This was the result of the enfeoffment of ministers in the 7th century, whose power eventually superseded that of the rulers of the regional states. It was from this that the state of Wei in modern Shanxi emerged, with the aristocratic houses of Wei, Han and Zhao partitioning the regional state of Jin after annihilating the ruling Zhi clan in 453, which had been the hegemonic force of the Zhou world in the middle of the Chunqiu period. Intent to avoid the same crisis, Marquis Wen (445-396) recognised the need for reform and appointed Li Kui as chief minister. The reforms of Li Kui transformed the state of Wei and created a model of drastic socio-political reform that would be followed by the majority of the other states. 

His reforms covered three main areas.. First, he established a bureaucracy where officials were selected on ability not lineage, and promoted/demoted based on performance. This included major figures such as Wu Qi, who would lead the military expansion of Wei and later engineer similar reforms in the state of Chu, and Ximen Bao. The titles they held were not inheritable, and for the first time records of officials’ performance were kept. Second, he established a comprehensive penal law system known as the Fa Jing (Canon of Laws), which everyone was subject to, regardless of social status. Finally, he strengthened the military, introducing mandatory military service for all males, and rewarding soldiers based on military performance. These reforms brought about a drastic transformation in Wei, with the demise of the old aristocracy, and the rise of a bureaucratic state that would become the first superpower of the Warring States era. His measures established a means of effectively controlling the population through restrictive laws, and maximising state control and efficiency of personnel at all levels of society. In the immediate aftermath, Wei expanded drastically, invading Qin and creating the Xihe commandery (administrative region). Wei would remain the predominant superpower in the region until its defeat at Maling at the hands of Qi in 342 BC.

The impact of these reforms was not just in Wei. Li Kui had created a model of socio-political reform that would be followed by the entirety of the Zhou world. Li Kui’s reforms created a pattern of geopolitics that was followed by most polities of the Warring States era, in which, first, Legalist reform was undertaken, and then military expansion took place. This resulted in an era of escalating warfare, as the reformed states were able to much more effectively harness their populations, raising massed armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and wage devastating wars against their neighbours for the purpose of territorial gain. By the end of the fourth century, all states had undertaken legalist reform based on the model created by Li Kui, and legalist philosophy had truly engulfed the Zhou world. Li Kui had systematically brought about a new era. Legalism became the modus operandi for states, with the death of the old elite and the rise of new bureaucratic state apparatus revolving around a ruthless legalist doctrine. His Fa Jing served as the foundation for the paradigmatic reforms of Shang Yang in Qin that eventually enabled the state to form China’s first imperial dynasty. It also contributed to the death of the interstate order. No state, in its perceived preeminence following the reforms, would be willing to acknowledge the superiority of another state and form an alliance that could unify the Zhou world, as had been the case in the Spring and Autumn period. This was the true impact of Li Kui, the first true legalist statesman and the ideology he espoused: an ideology revolving around a highly centralised state; one able to exert huge political power over its people; able to summon fearful military power over its neighbours; a ruthless doctrine of socio-political transformation in which, for the first time, law was the binding force of society.