Han Feizi: Can the State be Protected from Bad Rulers?

Han Feizi, a prominent social and political theorist, was not highly rewarded for his written works during his lifetime. In some way they even shortened his life, because Li Si, the prime minister of the state of Qin, as it appears, found Feizi too discerning and therefore dangerous to his power. The prime minister made every effort in order to slander his former schoolmate before the king and succeeded in this. The king stopped trusting Han Feizi and the thinker ended his days in prison where he committed suicide, finding this more preferable than a public execution. It is also worth mentioning that Feizi’s native state of Han was politically unstable and had many internal problems (corruption was just one of them). Besides, it was small, while the neighbor states were constantly ready to swallow it up. So it might answer the question why Han Feizi did not believe in the effectiveness of the Confucian and Mohist opinion that prescribed every next ruler to follow the way and moral values of his predecessors. Political and ethical methods of ancient kings, in his opinion, could not be equally useful in every possible historical situation. So Feizi suggested rulers not to rely on their experience too much. To him, every following historical period has its own unique problems and demands its own rules, which are to be determined in accordance with certain socioeconomic conditions. Inasmuch as he saw the weakness of the current government model in its “traditionality” and a reliance on the ruler’s righteousness, Feizi stressed in his writings that bad rulers can be neutralized through strong administration and enforceable laws could make the state stronger and protect it from typical political blunders.

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Han Feizi was not an idealist, he believed in effectiveness. He did not deny some pros of a righteous ruling but at the same time he insisted that such a ruler could not always protect his own state from ruining. For a continued survival of the state, a ruler must be a pragmatic person, and the model of government must be clear and easy to follow for any kind of king, both good and bad. If a political system is made in a proper way and runs like clockwork, even an occasional bad ruler cannot damage it too much, and mediocre ones are still able to be successful.

Han Feizi’s model of effective management had nothing to do with wisdom of a ruler or people and with it even bad rulers can be helped. Moral purity of a superior is secondary, as long as people are satisfied with his public politics. Not always he can be loved by everybody, but to be a good ruler does not necessarily mean to be a good (kind, merciful, generous etc.) person. The philosopher said, “[E]ven the most profound Virtue is not enough to stop disorder” (Han Feizi 341). He meant that when the ruler has real mechanisms of control and powerful administration than he is really able to influence the events in his country, whereas virtuousness only does good to the practitioners of rituals. By Han Feizi, the determination of a ruler’s “goodness” rather depends not on his personal qualities, but on the way he uses rules and laws.

Therefore, in order to be protected from bad rulers the state should have strict and effective laws, fully respected by the population. Standard-setting is crucial because without it people lose secureness, while a ruler loses the ability to examine gains and loses of his activity. Han Feizi believed that both administrative methods and governing through laws should be used. As the philosopher remarked, “[I]f a ruler abandons the law and relies on private judgments, the positions of superior and inferior will not be properly distinguished” (Han Feizi 307). He considered it inappropriate to undervalue any of these measures. While administrative methods allow a ruler to control officials, laws help him to punish and reward those who do something exceptionally good or bad. Therefore, laws should be equal to everybody and not very difficult to follow. Only the combination of these two systems can protect a state from chaos.

Inasmuch as Han Fenzi believed that a state can be governed even by a bad ruler should he follow the rules and laws, some conditions should be observed for success. First, the ruler should not reveal his real intentions to anybody. Ministers always tend to say what he wants to hear so they can base their arguments on the matters he believes in. It might mislead the ruler about their true motivations. The risk of being misled increases when many people articulate the same opinion. Han Feizi found it useful not to allow them “to speak with one another” (Han Feizi 298). This gives the ruler an opportunity to compare their words, figuring out where the truth lies. When people are not too close to the ruler and to one another, this is good. Also the ruler feels less influence from their side and thanks to that can judge every person by his deeds, not by his face. So the thinker suggests to “get rid of likes and dislikes” to see “the true character of ministers” (Han Feizi 298). When they do not know how they are expected to act, their intentions become plain.

Furthermore, the philosopher insisted on the importance of being “isolated,” “still,” and “empty,” because “affairs succeed when they are kept secret but fail when they are exposed” (Han Feizi 317). A superior’s goal is not to be good in managing all the important affairs himself, but to choose the right people who can do it the best way. Han Feizi compared ministers to a ruler’s hands. But to operate them properly one needs to understand how to make them do what a superior wants, without saying it directly. When a ruler does not propose anything himself, but allows his ministers to make their proposals, they take all the responsibility for their further actions. If such a minister succeeds, this looks like a ruler’s merit, as he had wisdom to approve his proposal. If a minister fails to carry out in a proper way what he proposed, this considers as his own fault, as he obviously was not diligent enough to do everything well. In this way a ruler never loses his reputation.
In order to hold all the power, a ruler of people should never give his ministers an opportunity to fully control the set of things, such as the ability to issue commands, to plant their men in positions of power, to control the benefits of the state, and to demonstrate their righteousness. Leaving these things without control a ruler loses the important handles of power and can be manipulated. The philosopher said, “If power and control are shared then a myriad of vices will flourish” (Han Fenzi 306). Han Fenzi held that ministers should narrowly fulfill their own obligations and do not prevent the ruler from ruling.

At the same time a ruler should be farsighted enough to punish and reward those people who really deserve this. He should never regard them in terms of their fame, wealth or closeness to him. Only their current errors or achievements should make sense, not their past or ranks. Those who are distant should be always rewarded for their good deeds, and those who are cherished should take responsibility for their crimes. Similarly, too frequent rewards can be as harmful as forgiving the crimes, because it makes people lazy and haughty. Han Feizi compared system of carrot and stick to rain and thunder. It means that the reward should be “generous, like the fall of timely rain,” while penalties to corrupt ministers should be “terrifying, like thunder and lightning” (Han Feizi 301).

Finally, Han Feizi also believed that a true effectiveness can be provided only if a state is cleared from so called “vermin” – five groups of people which contribute nothing useful for a state and just consume its resources (Han Feizi 296). In his opinion, a state cannot stand it if too many people do not participate into its development. Therefore, to stop wasting assets in vain, a ruler must get rid of “classical scholars (i.e., Confucians), wandering orators, private swordsmen, draft dodgers, and merchants” (Han Feizi 296). If a ruler wants to prevent his state from downfall, these people are to be liquidated entirely or at least to be reduced to an insignificant amount.

Though some of the thinker’s ideas might be perceived as mean or paranoid, others can be found useful even for the modern age. Hah Feizi strongly believed that the proper model of government in the long term can do much more for saving the state from a downfall than a certain person. And even a mediocre ruler can be successful if this model is strong and respected by people. Therefore, the main thing to protect a state from bad rulers is to set the clear administrative structure with a proper combination of rewards and punishments and make officials follow it. Another necessary thing is to get rid of those groups of people who do nothing useful for the state. Following such a scheme the result from bad governing can be less pronounced whereas a mediocre ruler can fall back on the achievements of the previous rulers and follow the clear blueprint. Hah Feizi was convinced that his ideas were supposed to work, assuming that a respected superior who followed the obviously efficient rules would enforce even next generations to follow them.

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