Home AI Genetics Space Time Nano Future xHuman Nature Origins Politics Comics Sitemap

Bookmark and Share

What is Transhumanism?
Who is a Transhumanist?
Flavors of Transhumanism
True Democracy
Chains to the Future
Posthuman Visions Part 1
East-West Philosophies
East-West Part One
East-West Part Two
Human Survival Risks
Comics for Cogitation
Website Methodology
Future Quotables
About us


Transhumanism - East/West Philosophies

Installment One from Ancient Lessons for Modern Futurists which contains selections from well known and deeply impacting writers from both Ancient China, representative of an Eastern philosophical tradition, as well as works by famous Western thinkers, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas, among others. In addition to their basic contents, introductions and commentary had been included to clarify points, making this a very valuable and informative resource for all curious readers.

:: The Importance of Severe Punishment

Han Fei Zi (d. 233 BC)
Translation, Selection, and Original Editing by Dun J. Li
From his book "The Essence of Chinese Civilization"
Minor Editing, Introduction, and Commentary by Jesse Chen


Han Fei Zi was a famous philosopher of the Legalist tradition who studied under Xun Zi (d. 237 BC). Both lived during the Warring States period, an era in ancient China marked by fierce civil war between seven rival feudal states after central imperial authority completely disintegrated. Xun Zi studied Confucianism, and promoted a realist view of Confucian ideals, which his disciple Han Fei Zi expands upon in this essay.

Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi believed in the innate selfishness and evil of human nature and sought ways to bring such tendencies under control in order to sustain an orderly society.

Ancient Chinese Torture

The strife that swirled in their times, the Legalists believed, was the direct result of a poor system of governance that only amplified the evils of human nature. Thus, they were termed Legalists for their focus on harsh and impersonal legal solutions to social issues.

Another famous philosopher, Meng Zi (d. 289 BC), also known as Mencius, interpreted Confucianism in an almost polar way in comparison with the views of Xun Zi. Meng Zi, saw innocent human nature as innately good, until twisted into evil by the corruption of an evil society.

Thus, both sides saw human nature as a standard set of characteristics, and is then molded by society. They saw that a written code gave a society the legal foundation for survival, even if the ruler proved to be mediocre.

They differ in that the Legalists saw society as reinforcing the evilness of human nature, while Meng Zi believed the evil in human nature as being redeemable.

A second disciple of Xun Zi, Li Si (d. 208 BC), eventually became the prime minister to Qin Shi Huang (d. 210 BC), or "The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty", who united China by emerging as the sole victor in the civil war.

Qin Shi Huang implemented the policies espoused by Xun Zi, Han Fei Zi, and Li Si, to the "problem" of human nature. Qin Shi Huang, advised by Li Si, also attempted and was largely successful in executing all rival philosophers, as well as the institution of the burning of all rival texts.

Dissatisfaction was widespread during this period, as the ruthless but well-intended policies of Li Si created enormous strain on all aspects of society. Farmers found grief in being coerced to work on grand projects such as the Great Wall, while the power of the nobility was stifled as the Qin emperor concentrated all power into a centralized, bureaucratic government with himself on top.

Han Fei Zi was murdered by Li Si, his peer and supposed friend. Han Fei Zi was summoned by the emperor for an audience, but Li Si feared that the influence of Han Fei Zi would eclipse that of his own. Li Si himself was eventually tortured in the very methods that he had promoted as legal policy, then executed in the aftermath of an unsuccessful power struggle against a palace eunuch after the death of Qin Shi Huang. The Qin dynasty subsequently fell shortly thereafter in 207 BC.

Section I

•  A person who is cowardly and fearful of death is likely to surrender himself to the enemy when placed on the battlefield; yet the world honors him and calls him a gentleman who values life.
•  A person who studies different philosophies and advances ideas of his own is likely to violate the law; yet the world honors him and calls him a gentleman of learning and literature.
•  A person who lives well and travels a great deal is in fact a parasite; yet the world honors him and calls him a gentleman of ability.
•  A person who is learned and knows how to play with words is likely to be a hypocrite; yet the world honors him and calls him a gentleman of wisdom proficient in the art of debate.
•  A person who is expert in swordplay and loves to attack and kill is a man of uncontrollable violence; yet the world honors him and calls him a gentleman of bravery and courage.
•  A person who has saved the life of a thief or hidden a violator of the law deserves no better fate than the death sentence; yet the world honors him and calls him a knight-errant, or a gentleman of magnanimity.

All of these--six kinds altogether--are the people whom the world glorifies.

On the other hand, a person who defies danger and risks his life for a principle in which he believes is likely to be a man of righteousness and integrity; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a man of temerity and indiscretion.
•  A person who knows little about academic learning but obeys the government's orders is likely a law-abiding citizen; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a shallow rustic.
•  A person who grows food by his own labor is a true producer; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a man of meager ability.1
•  A person who is innocent and sincere is likely to be a man of uprightness; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a man of ignorance and stupidity.
•  A person who views seriously the government's orders and is fearful when performing his duties is likely to be a loyal subject; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a coward.2
•  A person who helps the government to check wrongdoing and prevent conspiracy is an upright citizen; yet the world criticizes him and calls him a man of defamation and slander.

All of these--six kinds altogether--are the people whom the world criticizes. In summary, the world honors the six kinds of people who, being conspiratorial and hypocritical in nature, are worse than useless, while criticizing the six other kinds who till the fields, fight for their country, and are in fact extremely useful. This is what I call the "six reversals."

People honor a person in accordance with what he can do in the fulfillment of their own selfishness, and the emperor, unable to rise above the prejudice of the world, looks down upon him too. Contempt on the part of a monarch usually means harm to the person involved. As a result, honor and reward are bestowed upon those who, evil and selfish, should be punished, while harm is brought upon those who, being upright and public spirited, should be in fact rewarded.3 When the public has a set of values as that described above, how can a country become wealthy and strong?

An ancient proverb compares the governing of the people to the washing of one's hair. It is true that some hair will fall off as a result of washing; this, however, does not mean that we should not was our hair. How can hair grow without being washed? He who grudges the loss of a few hairs does not understand the meaning of power.

Cutting off a carbuncle causes pain, and taking medicine is by no means a pleasant experience. However, if a patient refuses either to undergo an operation or take medicine on account of the accompanying pain, he cannot recover from his illness, and in fact he may even die.

Section II

The relationship between a king and his subjects is not so close as that between parents and children. Such being the case, it is obvious that a policy of "love and righteousness" cannot be adopted in connection with the governing of the people.4

When a newly born baby happens to be of the male sex, its parents congratulate each other; if it happens to be a female, they kill her in many cases. Both babies are the children of their parents; yet, one is the cause of jubilation and the other meets death soon after its birth. Why? This is because the parents are thinking in terms of the potential advantages that their male children can bring to them. Since even parents measure their relationships with their children in terms of self-interest, how can one expect that a relationship based upon love and righteousness can exist between a king and his subjects?5

However, the scholars today continue to advise our rulers to replace "profit" with "love" as the proper attitude towards their subjects. This advice amounts to a demand that a king should be more loving towards his subjects than a parent is towards his children. Mistaking hypocrisy for genuine gratitude, these scholars have committed a very serious error indeed. It is no wonder that a wise monarch will not accept their advice.6

When a sage rules a country, he emphasizes the importance of law and the prohibitions prescribed under it. Only then can a successful government be established. Emphasizing the importance of law, he likewise stresses the usefulness of reward and punishment. Only when reward or punishment is impartially and strictly administered can the people's energy be fully utilized and will the officials faithfully perform their duties. The country will become wealthy and its military power will become strong. Then it will be easy for its ruler to achieve the deeds of a great arbitrator.

Nothing can be more advantageous to a ruler than to possess the omnipotent power of a great arbitrator. Holding this power in his hands, he can bring about the best kind of government. He appoints officials in accordance with their ability, and punishes or rewards without showing the slightest partiality.

He makes it clear to his subjects that if they do their best or even defy death to achieve worthy deeds, they will be rewarded with rank and salary, and that with rank and salary they will enjoy honor and wealth.7

Honor and wealth are foremost in the mind of every citizen since they are advantageous to him as the omnipotent power is to a great prince. Hoping to obtain them, he will risk danger to do what the ruler desires and will not regret even if he dies in the attempt. To become a great arbitrator does not require the ruler's "love" and the subjects' "loyalty" in the ordinary sense of these terms.

Section III

Before a conspiracy can be quelled, a ruler must know of its existence. To stop it from recurring, he should execute the conspirators once they are found. An hidden conspiracy will spread, and a conspirator left alive will carry out his conspiracy. Even the most virtuous man will be tempted to steal if he knows that he can get away with his thievery. On the other hand, the most notorious bandit will not touch a bag containing as much as one hundred pieces of gold that is displayed in the marketplace, conspicuous for all to see.

This shows that if the government does not make its penalty clear and immediate, even the most virtuous man will be tempted to steal; if it does, even the worst bandit will not touch a bag of gold.

To rule a country, a wise ruler stresses the importance of preventing crimes before they occur and inflicts heavy penalties upon those who have committed them.8 It is the strict enforcement of the law rather than the teaching of moralities that deters people from lawless activities.9

A son is twice as much loved by his mother as by his father. Yet he obeys his father's order ten times better than he does his mother's. A government official does not love his people nor is he loved in return, but his people obey his order ten thousand times better than they do their parents'. The more the parents' love accumulates, the less their son will listen to them. On the other hand, the harsher a government official is, the more the people will be obedient to him. It does not require great intelligence to know whether "love" or "harshness" is the more effective.

Moreover, what does a parent want for his son? He wants him to be secure, prosperous, and far away from any crime that may take place. What does a ruler want from his subjects? He wants them work hard for him in time of peace and die for him in time of war.

Yet a man turns a deaf ear towards his parents who love him, but obeys every word of his ruler who has no affection for him whatsoever. Knowing this truism, a wise ruler does not cultivate a sentiment of love or gratitude between him and his subjects; he merely increases his power and influence, so that his subjects will have no choice but to be obedient to him. A mother who piles love upon her child only ruins him; a father who is less loving and beats the child often is a better parent because it is he who commands the respect of the child and can influence him towards the good.

Consider the management of a household. If its members compete with one another in enduring cold and hunger and emulate one another in performing the hardest labor, they will have good food to eat and warm clothes to wear even in times of famine or war.

On the other hand, if habitually its members provide each other with food and clothing and concede to each other the moments of pleasure, they will be the kind of family that sells its wives and children in times natural disasters. The Legalists teach people to suffer first and then enjoy the fruits of labor for a long time to come. The Confucians, on the other hand, teach people to enjoy the moment, showing little concern for the evil consequences in the long run. Recognizing the difference between the significant and the unessential and the importance of producing the greatest good, a sage prefers the harshness exemplified in the enforcement of law to the womanly sympathy as expounded by the Confucians.

Section IV

Practically all scholars today advocate a policy of leniency in punishment, not realizing that this policy, if implemented, will bring about chaos or even destruction of the country as a whole. The purpose of reward or punishment is to encourage what the government wishes the people to do or prohibit what it does not want them to venture. Only when the reward is generous will there be quick response; only when the penalty is severe can the prohibition become absolute and inviolable.

Those who wish to reap advantages naturally detest what is disadvantageous, because the word "advantage" is the opposite of the word "disadvantage." How can they not detest disadvantage when it is the opposite of what they truly desire? Likewise a ruler who wishes to establish an orderly government naturally detests chaos, because the word "chaos" is the opposite of the word "order."

The more he wishes his government to be orderly, the more severe his penalties are. Those who advocate leniency in punishment neither detest chaos as they should nor love good government as they profess. What they advocate is not only theoretically unsound but also physically impractical.

In fact, generous reward and severe punishment are the two most reliable standards to measure a person's virtue or lack of it, his wisdom or ignorance. Severe punishment is not aimed at the person who has committed a crime; rather, it is a punitive act aimed at the crime for which he receives the death sentence in accordance with the law as enacted by an enlightened prince. Thus, to punish a thief is not to punish the thief as a person, but theft as a violation of the law. Since a thief will be executed anyway, to punish him is in fact to punish a dead person, an act that makes no sense. Likewise, the execution of a robber is not intended as a mere punishment of the robber as a person; rather, it is a redemption of robbery as a violation of the law.

Otherwise, it would not have made any sense to kill a person who, already in chains, cannot commit any more crimes. In short, the purpose of punishment is to stop punishment: to make the punishment so severe that other crimes will not occur. This is the principle of good government.10

Those who receive severe punishment are criminals; those who are fearful of it and consequently will not commit any crime are the law-abiding citizens. Such being the case, what is wrong with severe punishment?

The purpose of generous rewards is not merely to provide compensation for a particular deserving deed; more important, it is to encourage all the people in the nation to do likewise. While the rewarded person benefits materialistically, all the unrewarded persons wish to emulate his performance. Thus by rewarding one person, the whole nation is encouraged to duplicate his good deeds. Such being the case, what is wrong with generous rewards?

There are people who contend that severe punishment brings harm to the people while light penalties can stop crimes. Their contention indicates that they not only do not understand the meaning of good government but also have failed to look carefully into the issue involved. If a crime cannot be stopped by severe punishment, it is unlikely that it can be stopped by a lighter one; if a crime can be stopped by a light punishment, it can certainly be stopped by a more severe one.11

Section V

Thus, only when the government is willing to impose heavy penalties upon the wrongdoers can it stop all crimes. How can the people be harmed when all crimes cease to exist? Severe punishment reduces whatever advantage there is in violating the law and brings great advantage to the government that administers it. Since no man will risk severe punishment for small gain, crime will cease by itself. Light punishment, on the other hand, is of great advantage to the violators of the law while bringing little benefit to the government that enforces it. The people, seeing the benefit that accompanies the committing of crimes and belittling the small punishment if they were ever caught, will continue to commit crimes which in fact can never be stopped.

As one of our ancient sages says, "It is more frequent to stumble on a mound than on a mountain." Since a mountain is large and dangerous, the climbers are more careful. Since a mound is small and seemingly harmless, the climbers are inclined to be inattentive and reckless. If the severity of punishment is reduced, the people will be careless enough to violate the law. If a violator of the law is not executed, the whole country will be encouraged to follow his example. Moreover, to execute a person without warning him of severe punishment in advance amounts to an act of entrapment which a government should not do. Light punishment is in fact like a mound to a climber. It not only brings chaos to the country but also entices people to their death without their knowledge. It is absurd to say that it is beneficial.

The scholars today quote the beautiful words from the ancient writings while ignoring the reality of the present. They say that the government should love the people but does not, that taxes are too heavy, and that the people are complaining against the government because of the insufficient means of maintaining their livelihood. The suggest that the country can be successfully governed without invoking severe punishment if the rulers love their subjects enough and if the people are economically sufficient. Nothing can be further from the truth.

A person who is most fearful of severe punishment is usually a man of sufficient means. However, he, like others, will be tempted to violate the law if the severity of punishment is reduced, no matter how economically sufficient he is or how much his rulers love him.

Suppose, say, that a wealthy family has a son who is well loved by his parents. Since he has all the money he can spend, he attaches little importance to it and lives a life of great extravagance. Meanwhile his parents, because of the fact that they love him, let him do whatever he pleases, and such liberalism on the part of his parents makes him arrogant and reckless. Eventually his extravagant habits reduce him to the position of poverty, and his arrogant and reckless conduct leads him to the act of violence. Love and money bring him nothing but disaster in the end.

Our human nature is such that we do not wish to work hard if we have sufficient means already and that we tend to be indolent if our superiors are weak and lenient. Only a man like Shennong12 will remain industrious long after he has become wealthy, and only a sage like Zeng Shi13 can preserve his virtue even though the rulers are weak and lenient. Since ordinary people are inferior to these two men, it is obvious that love and economic sufficiency cannot bring about good citizenship.

Lao Zi once said, "A man who is content will not incur shame; a man who knows when to stop will not invite danger."

Only a man like Lao Zi is morally self-sufficient and does not require outward coercion to make him good. To say that people can be well-governed without the use of severe punishment is to regard all men as inherently virtuous as Lao Zi was. How is this possible? Although occupying a position as that of the Son of Heaven14 and having the wealth of the whole nation under his control, Jie15 still was not satisfied with what he had. Such being the case, how can one expect that ordinary people can be governed easily by merely making them economically self-sufficient?

An enlightened monarch encourages people to follow the seasons so as to produce the material goods they need. He taxes in such a way as to level the income between the rich and the poor. He is generous with ranks and salaries so that the virtuous and the able can serve to the best of their ability. He imposes severe penalties upon the wrongdoers so as to put an end to illegal activities. He makes sure that people become wealthy only through their own efforts and acquire fame via worthy deeds. As far as he is concerned, a bad man should be punished and a good man should be rewarded; and there are no such things as favor, love, or partiality. This, I believe, is the true principle underlying a good government.

People do not know that a blind man is among them if all of them are soundly asleep. Nor can they recognize a mute if they themselves remain silent. In the formal case, the blind man will be discovered when other people awake and find out that only he cannot see. In the latter case, the mute will be known when others begin to ask him questions.

Likewise, a man will not be known for his paucity in ideas if his words are not scrutinized, and an able man cannot be differentiated from an imbecile unless he has been tested in the performance of duties. If words alone are the standard to measure a man's worth, there is no way of telling the difference between a Wu Ho16 and an ordinary person. Ask them to lift up a heavy tripod17, and the difference will be immediately revealed. Governmental positions to an able scholar are like a heavy tripod to a muscled man. Give him an official position to hold, and one can immediately tell whether he is wise or ignorant.18 Thorough the test of performance will the degenerate and the useless be eliminated from the position of power and dominance.

Though their words are not taken seriously and they themselves have no official positions to hold, the degenerate and the useless continue to write to advance their arguments and conduct themselves in such an artificial and adorned manner so as to convey to others their sense of superiority.19

Our rulers of today, bewildered by the arguments of these people and wrongly impressed with their superiority, provide them with honor and prestige. This is equivalent to crediting a man with sound vision without testing him in advance and considering him logically sound even before he opens his mouth. We cannot discover a mute or a blind man this way. A wise ruler, on the other hand, tests a man's words against their practicability and measures his performance by the degree of his success in achieving results. It is only in this way that false, outdated ideas can be discredited. Only then will hypocritical conduct be denied refuge and be exposed for what it truly is.

Notes to Text

1: China has nearly always been an agricultural society; like many other ancient civilizations, its culture ultimately rested upon the shoulders of its farmers. Many Chinese philosophers have praised the farmer's contributions to society, but in socioeconomic reality, agricultural laborers of all kinds have always been seen as the lowest social class. Return

2: This comes at a time when the view that government is infallible has been widely circulated. Such a view was attacked by utilitarian realists of that turbulent era of Chinese history, as reality of central government having been disintegrated into civil war was contradicted. Return

3: The emperor did not have direct contact with the masses; the reference here is to the emperor's advisors. Selfish, scheming, and backstabbing ministers who played in palace intrigues were often elevated at the expense of their selfless, idealistic, and upright peers who did not employ such tactics. Return

4: Confucius had stated that filial love, as well as the love between ruler and subject, were among the most important aspects of human society. Han Fei Zi contradicts this: because there does not exist the same level of closeness between citizen and government, he advocates the application of his own methods. Return

5: The realities of killing female babies may seem barbaric to the reader today. However, the application of modern ethical standards against such a practice may be unfit for the background circumstances of the act. Individuals in China mattered less than the welfare of the a group as a whole; the individual's life was only made meaningful through their contributions to the group. Thus, the sacrifice of a family member for the sake of sustaining the family name carried by a male child and avoiding the 'dying out' of the line, to eventually have a man able to till the fields, and a number of other perceived advantages, outweighed sustaining the life of a female child who would not be able to do such things. Return

6: Qin Shi Huang, the man who made himself emperor after uniting China by defeating rival feudal domains, put the words of Han Fei Zi into action. However, the results of his experiment was disastrous, and eventually resulted in widespread civil disorder and the collapse of the regime. Return

7: This is, of course, assuming that the ruler is only at least as able as Han Fei Zi had envisioned. Here, Han Fei Zi is solely working to creating a cohesive society reinforced by his law, without complicating political theory by introducing additional philosophical discussion. Return

8. Or at least a ruler merely wise enough to carry the law out to the letter. Han Fei Zi does not write this to promote exceptionally talented individuals. Rather, he sees it realistic to only go as far as promoting consistency and impartiality as desirable virtues, knowing that rulers are also prone to the excesses of human nature. Return

9. Confucius, and later Meng Zi, believed the opposite in that the more natural teaching of morality is much more important than artificially created laws. Return

10. Remember: the ideal government Han Fei Zi had in mind exists solely to enforce social cohesion and order. Return

11. Light punishments include beatings, finite prison sentences, and fines. Examples of severe penalties include branding, loss of appendages, slow torture, public execution, and even the mass execution of entire extended families. The last form is relatively rare but effective in its message in the potential ramifications for the crimes of even a single individual. Return

12. A hero in traditional Chinese legends, immortalized for his contributions to the development of agriculture and horticulture. Return

13. Biographical details not found. Return

14. Another way to refer to the emperor; emperors popularize themselves as the "Son of Heaven," meaning that they are given Heaven's favor. Such a claim is not dogmatic; perhaps "Adopted Son of Heaven" is more appropriate. This propaganda can also backfire, however, with leaders of a rebellion able to put forth the counterclaim that the favor of Heaven has been rescinded from the current Emperor, and that they themselves being the righteous Son of Heaven. Return

15. The last emperor of the first recorded Chinese dynasty, Xia. According to legend, his mistreatment of the people and abuse of his position led to widespread and unusual natural disasters, which were considered signs of Heaven rejecting their earthly Son. Return

16. A legendary character renowned for his physical strength. Return

17. A heavy iron or bronze furnace used in ancient China for rituals and sacrifices. Return

18. Governmental positions were highly sought after as careers that would secure one's financial and social status in Chinese society. Han Fei Zi, like nearly all intellectuals of ancient China, were interested in this, and had submitted this essay with several others to the Qin emperor. Return

19. Han Fei Zi is specifically targeting Neo-Confucians with this statement. Return

Home | Nano | Time | Space | AI | DNA | Trans | Nature | Origins | Politics | Reviews