The Book of Lord Shang, by ‘Shang Yang’
The Book of Lord Shang, a classic Chinese work of political theory, has a fascinating history and relevance for such an obscure book. The classic treatise on Legalism, a particularly harsh Chinese ideology that disparaged trade and culture, sought to burn and destroy books, and force all Chinese to become farmers to make China a strong nation devoted to a rigid egalitarianism, which seems too close to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to be coincidental, is a notable work in this particular time for at least a couple of reasons. First, times of great chaos and confusion invite harsh ideologies that promise strength through unity and end up oppressing the common people and setting up autocratic governments. Second, China’s government is about to be taken over by the children of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, and they might seek to solve the problems of China’s corrupt trade practices and their internal effects on China’s people by the strictures of Legalism that led to the Cultural Revolution run by their fathers. This would have severe consequenes for the outside world.
The Book of Lord Shang is ascribed to a politial scholar of towering ambition but not a particularly large strain of long-term wisdom, who achieved power in the Ch’in state but alienated the crown prince by punishing him and ended up killed by a targeted military strike when that prince took the throne. His philosophy and lack of success seems somewhat aligned with the pessimistic and amoral strictures of Machiavelli. What is most striking about Lord Shang’s advice is his single-minded hostility to Confucianism and religion and his related hostility to all pursuits but agriculture and war. There is no room in Legalist philosophy for an appreciation of the arts (a negative in my viewpoint), though on the positive side of the ledger is a remorseless hostility to parasitic aristocratic elites who eat of the labor of the workers and gain power and influence through sophistry and corruption, as well as a complete absence of partiality in the enforcement of the law. Legalism, as harsh as it is, is a response to a genuine problem of chaos through aristocratic rivalry and feuding fiefdoms through the establishment of one-man autocratic rule that while flexible in specifics is remorseless and harsh in practice. This style of leadership, however Satanic, is certainly appealing to many, and not just in China.
It is important to remember that much of the advice in this book seems paradoxical, such as the apparent inverse relationship of the strength of the people and their government (and this book clearly takes the side of government). A libertarian philosophy would argue the opposite position from the same premises, though. Other aspects of advice in this book are simply diabolical, like placing evil officers over people in order for laws to be enforced, in the belief that those who are virtuous are often weak, or deliberately shaming and disgracing people so that they will be hardy and tough. Additionally, motivation is strictly on the “carrot and stick” plane in this ugly philosophy. This is political philosophy as practiced by Satan’s children. Let us not forget, though, that Satan’s children are very numerous on this earth, but ultimately, and thankfully, weaker by far than God’s family.
To make some notes on the text, there appear to be some corruptions and some missing sections of material. That material which is present shows a very consistent thought, but more elegance as one progresses through the material, which some take as evidence that the book was added to over a period of about 100 years or so, during the last hundred years of the Warring States period. Considering that the Ch’in (Qin) dynasty, builders of the Great Wall and destroyers of who knows how much culture, were the ones who (apart from the Communists) used this advice the most thoroughly, it is an important book to be familiar with even given its corruption of a different kind.