The Book of Lord Shang

Nobody likes Shang Yang. Since the Han dynasty, the infamous instigator of the Qin state’s brutal, coercive policies has been a bugbear for Chinese historians. It was Lord Shang, so the story goes, who so heartlessly threw away the chivalrous ideals of the Zhou dynasty, masterminding a fascist state on a permanent war footing, an engine of conquest that would eventually roll over the whole of what is now China. Brought down by his own policies and executed by his patron’s vindictive heir, Shang Yang would not live to see the culmination of his ideas a century later: the crowning of his patron’s great-great-great grandson, the ruler of Qin, as the overlord of “All Under Heaven”, the infamous First Emperor.

The Book of Lord Shang has become something of an orphan work in Chinese history. With five chapters lost from its original 29 (including the tantalising “Essentials of Punishment” and “Protecting from Robbers”), it was ignored by most literati for the next millennium, and suffered through being rarely cited nor even competently edited until the late middle ages. When textual critics did eventually get around to reading it, many derided it as, if not a forgery riddled with anachronisms, then as a far-from-adequate summary of the thoughts of Lord Shang – better, perhaps, to simply read of his deeds in The Records of the Historian. Even today, it rarely gets to be published in its own right – instead it’s tacked on to The Art of War or Sima Qian’s biography of the First Emperor. The Qin regime itself enjoys a mixed modern heritage; for the general public, it’s known chiefly for its iconic Terracotta Army. Even some China specialists swallow the party line of the Han dynasty, that Qin was some terrible totalitarian experiment never to be repeated, and Shang its dastardly architect, laughing from beyond the grave at its rise and fall. It is hence welcome indeed to see Yuri Pines’ The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China, which not only presents an excellent translation of Shang’s work, but places it in its broader historical context.

Pines’ clear and rational introduction sets up the environment in which a hundred schools of thought would contend. He points to the fact that iron was gradually worming its way into the technology of what had formerly been a Bronze Age regime. While the sovereigns of the Zhou dynasty whiled away their days in their central capital, their nobles out on the marchlands gained the technology to clear new lands, to dig better wells and make smoother chariot wheels. Iron led to a sudden expansion of people and territory. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, it began to undermine the old rules of engagement. Although it would be centuries before anyone properly capitalised on it, the days of the chariot were over, and with it, the days of limited warfare. The new “Spring and Autumn” era now favoured the foot soldier, and with it, a broader, more meritocratic footing.

For Pines, such technological concerns are vital to understanding the politics of the age. The great sage Confucius, pre-emptive nemesis of Shang’s Legalist ideas, might have complained about the decline in morals and the collapse of the old order, but in Pines’ well-argued thesis, he didn’t realise that his very rise to prominence was itself a symptom of that decline. The old aristocracy had annihilated itself on the battlefield, creating a vacuum that favoured the lower-born “gentleman-scholar”. Meritocracy might have made sense to Confucius, but it also made sense to the beleaguered dukes and marquises of the Spring and Autumn period, who loved the idea of administrators and officials who had no ties to the old noble families, and hence could not lean on their support in palace coups or putsches.

Pines’s Lord Shang sees a bigger picture – not merely the decline of old values, but their substitution with an entirely different worldview. In a prolonged blueprint for social engineering, he wants to militarise every element of the state in order to ensure that there is a loyalty scheme in place to reward otherwise reluctant conscripts. War, for Pines’s Shang, is a “bureaucratic procedure”, in which a general throws overwhelming manpower at any problem, expecting someone among the contending minions to get it right in the hope of a bonus. Money buys ranks and also legal immunity, in a state where the administration is, in theory, happy to take labour, or slave-labour, or the monetary value of slave labour in atonement for any misdeeds. Money talks; a Legalist state is all about the numbers, and Lord Shang regards his population statistics as simple figures on a balance sheet, no more or less important than the holdings in state granaries or the supplies of draft animals. Pines’s book reclaims Lord Shang as an influential and provocative thinker, whose ideas are all too chillingly familiar to the modern world.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The First Emperor of China and The Art of War: A New Translation.