Ancient China was one of the world’s great fonts of art, literature, economic productivity, and religion, but it was also a time and place marked by a tremendous outpouring of political thought. In this discussion, students will explore many complexities of early Chinese political philosophy through the long conflict between Legalism and Confucianism. Students will of course encounter Confucius and Legalist Han Fei Tzu, as well as a wide variety of other figures like Shang Yang, Mencius, and Xun Kuang. Modern writings include selections from philosopher Roderick Long’s Rituals of Freedom and historian Valerie Hansen’s The Open Empire. The discussion will be led by the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Stephen Davies.


Session I: The Analects and Confucianism: Human Nature, Spontaneous Order, and the Minimal State. What accounts of human nature and individual moral responsibility emerge in the Analects? Does Confucius’s descriptive account comport the notion of spontaneous order, and if so, does this diminish the need for an authoritative central state? How does Confucius assess the success of a state or the wealth of a nation––in terms of resources held by the government, the prosperity of its citizens, or the rate of military expansion? What is the fate of freedom in Confucianism given its appeal to fate, its use of ritual, and its apparent social hierarchy?

  • Long, Roderick T. Rituals of Freedom: Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism. Auburn, AL: The Molinari Institute, 2016. Chapter 1, “Confucianism: The Unknown Ideal”(pages 1-4), Chapter 2, “Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend”(pages 5-9), and Chapter 3, “Power and Market”(pages 11-25).
  • Confucius. Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. Book One (pages 1-7), Book Two (pages 8-16), Book Thirteen (pages 138-152), and Book Fourteen (pages 153-173).

Session II: Lord Shang and Legalism: Human Nature, Coercion, and the Strong State. What are the contours of the relationship between a citizen and the state? How is the conception of a strong state, rule by law and punishment, intended to respond to the violent anarchy of the Warring States period? To what extent is Lord Shang rooted in the reality of historical change and in political realism compared to Confucianism? Whereas Analectsarticulates criteria for revolt of the populace through a Mandate of Heaven and provides historical precedent, under what conditions does legalism permit revolution?

  • Shang Yang. The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of Law. Chicoutimi, Quebec: J.M. Tremblay, 1928, 1974, 2005. Chapter 1 (pages 91-106), Chapter 2 (pages 107-119), selections from Chapter 3 (pages 120-122 and 126-136), Chapter 4 (pages 137-149), selections from Chapter 5 (pages 153-165), and notes (pages 191-211).
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 3, “The Creation of Empire (221 B.C. -A.D. 200)”(pages 100-104).

Session III: Mencius and Confucianism: Human Nature, Freedom, and Rulership. What can be inferred from Mencius’s accounts about the purposes and limits of the state? What is Mencius’s position about the morality of profit-seeking? To what degree are his views informed by historical realities and to what degree are they informed by his views on the nature of righteousness and benevolence? What is Mencius’s account of human nature, and how is it different from the accounts in Confucius and Lord Shang?

  • Mengzi with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Bryan W. Van Norden. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008. Book 1A (pages 1-15), Book 2A (pages 33-49), selection from Book 3A (pages 65-68), selection from Book 3B (page 83), selection from Book 4A (pages 96-97), and selection from Book 6B (pages 165-170).
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 2, “The Age of the Warrior and the Thinker: Double Ears and Confucius (770 B.C.-221 B.C.)”(pages 79-89).

Session IV: Xunzi: Political Philosophy Between Confucianism and Legalism. What is Xunzi’s account of human nature, and how does it influence his account of the state and its proper power over citizens? Are Xunzi’s taxation policies comparable to classical liberal notions of taxation? Is virtue the choice of altruism over self-interest, or the choice of a sophisticated form of self-interest over a base form?

  • Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Volume II, Books 7-16. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990. Selections from Book 9 (pages 94-102, 109-111, and 120-130) and Book 11 (pages 149-170).
  • Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Volume III, Books 17-32. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994. Selections from Book 23 (pages 150-157).
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 2, “The Ageof the Warrior and the Thinker: Double Ears and Confucius (770 B.C.-221 B.C.)”(pages 89-95).

Session V: Han Fei Tzu on State Authority and Rulership. What is Han Fei’s conception of the state, the limits of its power, and its relationship to the people? How does he propose a ruler motivate citizens to comply with the law? What freedoms do citizens have in the legalist state?

  • Han Fei Tzu. Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. Section 5, “The Way of the Ruler”(pages 16-20), Section 6, “On Having Standards”(pages 21-29), Section 8, “Wielding Power”(pages 35-42), and Section 49, “The Five Vermin”(pages 96-117).

Session VI: Discourses on Salt and Iron: State Monopolies, Tax Policy, and Economic Freedom. Eventually legalist scholars held sway over the Emperor and put in place state monopolies on key industries, but what was their justification for these monopolies? How do the two political philosophies contrast in regard to their tax policies, views on military expansion, and agricultural policies? How close do the Confucians come to a defense of individual economic liberty and free markets?

  • Discourses on Salt and Iron: A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China. Translated by Esson M. Gale. Taipei, Taiwan: Ch’eng Wen Publishing Company, 1973. Chapter 1, “The Basic Argument”(pages 1-11), Chapter 2,“Hold Fast the Plough”(pages 12-17), Chapter 7, “In Criticism of Shang Yang”(pages 40-49), Chapter 14, “The Ratio of Production”(pages 85-91), and Chapter 17, “The Poor and the Rich”(pages 106-111).
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 3, “The Creation of Empire (221 B.C. -A.D. 200)”(pages 112-117 and 130-135).
  • Long, Roderick T. Rituals of Freedom: Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism. Auburn, Alabama: The Molinari Institute, 2016. Chapter 8, “The Machinery of Freedom”(pages 71-80).ProposedCo-Sponsored Project CXX-XXXX“Liberty and the Struggle for the Early Chinese State”Page 3the state? What is Mencius’s position about the morality of profit-seeking? To what degree are his views informed by historical realities and to what degree are they informed by his views on the nature of righteousness and benevolence? What is Mencius’s account of human nature, and how is it different from the accounts in Confucius and Lord Shang?Mengzi with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Bryan W. Van Norden. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008. Book 1A (pages 1-15), Book 2A (pages 33-49), selection from Book 3A (pages 65-68), selection from Book 3B (page 83), selection from Book 4A (pages 96-97), and selection from Book 6B (pages 165-170). Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 2, “The Age of the Warrior and the Thinker: Double Ears and Confucius (770 B.C.-221 B.C.)”(pages 79-89). Session IV -Discussion: Xunzi: Political Philosophy Between Confucianism and Legalism.What is Xunzi’s account of human nature, and how does it influence his account of the state and its proper power over citizens? Are Xunzi’s taxation policies comparable to classical liberal notions of taxation? Is virtue the choice of altruism over self-interest, or the choice of a sophisticated form of self-interest over a base form?Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Volume II, Books 7-16. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990. Selections from Book 9 (pages 94-102, 109-111, and 120-130) and Book 11 (pages 149-170). Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Volume III, Books 17-32. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994. Selections from Book 23 (pages 150-157). Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 2, “The Ageof the Warrior and the Thinker: Double Ears and Confucius (770 B.C.-221 B.C.)”(pages 89-95). Session V -Discussion: Han Fei Tzu on State Authority and Rulership.What is Han Fei’s conception of the state, the limits of its power, and its relationship to the people? How does he propose a ruler motivate citizens to comply with the law? What freedoms do citizens have in the legalist state?Han Fei Tzu. Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. Section 5, “The Way of the Ruler”(pages 16-20), Section 6, “On Having Standards”(pages 21-29), Section 8, “Wielding Power”(pages 35-42), and Section 49, “The Five Vermin”(pages 96-117). Session VI -Discussion: Discourses on Salt and Iron: State Monopolies, Tax Policy, and Economic Freedom.Eventually legalist scholars held sway over the Emperor and put in place state monopolies on key industries, but what was their justification for these monopolies? How do the two political philosophies contrast in regard to their tax policies, ProposedCo-Sponsored Project CXX-XXXX“Liberty and the Struggle for the Early Chinese State”Page 4views on military expansion, and agricultural policies? How close do the Confucians come to a defense of individual economic liberty and free markets?Discourses on Salt and Iron: A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China. Translated by Esson M. Gale. Taipei, Taiwan: Ch’eng Wen Publishing Company, 1973. Chapter 1, “The Basic Argument”(pages 1-11), Chapter 2,“Hold Fast the Plough”(pages 12-17), Chapter 7, “In Criticism of Shang Yang”(pages 40-49), Chapter 14, “The Ratio of Production”(pages 85-91), and Chapter 17, “The Poor and the Rich”(pages 106-111). Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Selection from Chapter 3, “The Creation of Empire (221 B.C. -A.D. 200)”(pages 112-117 and 130-135). Long, Roderick T. Rituals of Freedom: Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism. Auburn, Alabama: The Molinari Institute, 2016. Chapter 8, “The Machinery of Freedom”(pages 71-80).