Shang Yang
Statue of pivotal reformer Shang Yang

Shang Yang (Chinese: 商鞅; c. 390 – 338 BC), also known as Wei Yang (Chinese: 衞鞅) and originally surnamed Gongsun, was a statesman, chancellor and reformer of the State of Qin. Born in the Zhou vassal state of Wey during the Warring States period,[1] he took up office in the Qin state, where his policies laid the administrative, political and economic foundations that would eventually enable Qin to conquer the other six rival states, unifying China into a centralized rule for the first time in history under the Qin dynasty. Scholars consider it likely that both he and his followers contributed to The Book of Lord Shang, a foundational philosophical work for the school of Chinese legalism.[2]


Shang Yang was born as the son of a concubine to the ruling family of the minor state Wey (衞). His surname (氏, lineage name) was Gongsun and his personal name Yang. As a member of the Wei family, he was also known as Wei Yang.[3]

At a young age, Yang studied law and obtained a position under Prime Minister Shuzuo of Wei (魏, not the same as his birth state). With the support of Duke Xiao of Qin, Yang left his lowly position in Wei[4] to become the chief adviser in Qin. His numerous reforms transformed the peripheral Qin state into a militarily powerful and strongly centralized kingdom. Changes to the state's legal system (which were said to have been built upon Li Kui's Canon of Laws) propelled the Qin to prosperity. Enhancing the administration through an emphasis on meritocracy, his policies weakened the power of the feudal lords.

In 341 BC, Qin attacked the state of Wei. Yang personally led the Qin army to defeat Wei, and eventually Wei ceded the land west of the Yellow River to Qin. For his role in the war, Yang received 15 cities in Shang as his personal fief and became known as the lord of Shang (Shang Jun) or Shang Yang.[5] According to the Records of the Grand Historian, with his personal connections while serving in the court of Wei, Shang Yang invited Gongzi Ang, the Wei general, to negotiate a peace treaty. As soon as Ang arrived, he was taken prisoner, and the Qin army attacked, successfully defeating their opponents.[3]

Gongsun oversaw the construction of Xianyang.[6] and Mark Edward Lewis considered reorganization of the military as potentially responsible for the orderly plan of roads and fields throughout north China. This might be far fetched, but Yang was as much a military reformer as a legal one.[7]

The Shang Yang school of thought was favoured by Emperor Wu of Han,[8] and John Keay mentions that Tang figure Du You was drawn to Shang Yang.[9]


He is credited by Han Fei, often considered to be the greatest representative of Chinese Legalism (法家), with the creation of two theories;

  1. "fixing the standards" (Chinese: 定法)
  2. "equality before the law" (Chinese: 一民)

Believing in the rule of law and considering loyalty to the state above that of the family, Yang introduced two sets of changes to the State of Qin. The first, in 356 BC, were:

  1. Li Kui's Book of Law was implemented, with the important addition of a rule providing punishment equal to that of the perpetrator for those aware of a crime but failing to inform the government. He codified reforms into enforceable laws. The laws were stringent and multitudinous reformed by Yang and the punishments were strict.[10]
  2. Assigning land to soldiers based upon their military successes and stripping nobility unwilling to fight of their land rights. The army was separated into twenty military ranks, based upon battlefield achievements. The reform of military made Qin citizens willing to join the army and helped the Qin dynasty build the military power necessary to unify China.[11]
  3. As manpower was short in Qin, Yang encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands and immigration, favouring agriculture over luxury commerce (though also paying more recognition to especially successful merchants).

Yang introduced his second set of changes in 350 BC, which included a new standardized system of land allocation and reforms to taxation.

The vast majority of Yang's reforms were taken from policies instituted elsewhere, such as from Wu Qi of the State of Chu; however, Yang's reforms were more thorough and extreme than those of other states, and monopolized policy in the hands of the ruler.[12] Under his tenure, Qin quickly caught up with and surpassed the reforms of other states.

Domestic policies

Yang introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved subjects as (state-owned) rewards for those who met government policies.

As manpower was short in Qin relative to the other states at the time, Yang enacted policies to increase its manpower. As Qin peasants were recruited into the military, he encouraged active migration of peasants from other states into Qin as a replacement workforce; this policy simultaneously increased the manpower of Qin and weakened the manpower of Qin's rivals. Yang made laws forcing citizens to marry at a young age and passed tax laws to encourage raising multiple children. He also enacted policies to free convicts who worked in opening wastelands for agriculture.

Yang partly abolished primogeniture (depending on the performance of the son) and created a double tax on households that had more than one son living in the household, to break up large clans into nuclear families.

Yang moved the capital from the city of Yueyang to Xianyang, in order to reduce the influence of nobles on the administration. Xianyang remained Qin's capital until its fall in 207 BC.


Yang was deeply despised by the Qin nobility[3] and became vulnerable after the death of Duke Xiao. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the nine familial exterminations against Yang and his family, on the grounds of fomenting rebellion. Yang had previously humiliated the new duke "by causing him to be punished for an offense as though he were an ordinary citizen."[13] According to Zhan Guo Ce, Yang went into hiding; at one point Yang was refused a room at an inn because one of his own laws prevented admission of a guest without proper identification.

Yang was executed by jūliè (車裂: dismemberment by being fastened to five chariots, cattle or horses and being torn to pieces);[14][15] his whole family was also executed.[3] Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Yang.

A number of alternate versions of Yang's death have survived. According to Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, Yang first escaped to Wei. However, he was hated there for his earlier betrayal of Gongzi Ang and was expelled. Yang then fled to his fiefdom, where he raised a rebel army but was killed in battle. After the battle, King Hui of Qin had Yang's corpse torn apart by chariots as a warning to others.[3]

Following the execution of Yang, King Huiwen turned away from the central valley south to conquer Sichuan (Shu and Ba) in what Steven Sage calls a "visionary reorientation of thinking" toward material interests in Qin's bid for universal rule.[16]


A. F. P. Hulsewé considered Shang Yang the "founder of the school of law", and considers his unification of punishments one of his most important contributions; that is, giving the penalty of death to any grade of person disobeying the king's orders. Shang Yang even expected the king, though the source of law (authorizing it), to follow it. This treatment is in contrast to ideas more typical of archaic society, more closely represented in the Rites of Zhou as giving different punishments to different strata of society.

Hulsewe points out that Sima Tan considered equal treatment the "school of law's" most salient point: "They do not distinguish between close and far relatives, nor do they disriminate between noble and humble, but in a uniform manner they decide on them in law."[17] The Han dynasty adopted essentially the same denominations of crimes, and conception of equality, as Shang Yang set down for Qin, without collective punishment of the three sets of relatives.[17]

Shang Yang appeared to act according to his own teachings,[17] and translator Duvendak (1928) references him as being considered "like a bamboo‑frame which keeps a bow straight, and one could not get him out of his straightness", even if spoken of by some pre-modern Chinese in ill regard with the fall of Qin. Duvendak believed that Shang Yang should be of interest not just to Sinologists, but Western Jurists as well.

Despite traditional history's dim view, Sima Qian recounts the immediate effect of his policies as such: After [the ordinances] had been in effect for ten years, the commoners of Qin were delighted; no one picked up articles lost on the road, there were no bandits or thieves in the mountains, households were well provided for and the people were well off. The commoners were brave in the duke’s battles but cowardly in private feuds and the townships and cities were in good order. (Sima Qian 1994a, 90)[18]

In fiction and popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Antonio S. Cua (ed.), 2003, p. 362, Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy [1] "The fifth important legalist, Shang Yang (Wei Yang, c. 390–338 B.C.E.), was born in Wei; his original surname was Gongsun."
  2. ^ Pines, Yuri, "Legalism in Chinese Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 1.1 Major Legalist Texts,
  3. ^ a b c d e 商君列传 (vol. 68), Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian
  4. ^ pg 79 of Classical China
  5. ^ Bamboo Annals Ancient Text, Records of Wei
  6. ^ John Man 2008. p. 51. Terra Cotta Army.
  7. ^ Paul R. Goldin, Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese Legalism. p. 18 [2]
    • Sanctioned Violence in Early China, SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture (Albany, 1990), 63
  8. ^ Creel 1970, What Is Taoism?, 115
  9. ^ Arthur F. Wright 1960. p. 99. The Confucian Persuasion
  10. ^ Sanft, Charles (2014). "Shang Yang Was a Cooperator: Applying Axelrod's Analysis of Cooperation in Early China". Philosophy East and West. 64 (1): 174–191. doi:10.1353/pew.2014.0003. ISSN 1529-1898. S2CID 144996247.
  11. ^ Sanft, Charles (2014). "Shang Yang Was a Cooperator: Applying Axelrod's Analysis of Cooperation in Early China". Philosophy East and West. 64 (1): 174–191. doi:10.1353/pew.2014.0003. ISSN 1529-1898. S2CID 144996247.
  12. ^ Creel, Herrlee Glessner (1982-09-15). What Is Taoism?: And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-12047-8.
  13. ^ pg 80 of Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill and Jean W. Sedlar, Oxford University Press, 1970. LCCN: 68-8409
  14. ^ 和氏, Han Feizi, Han Fei
  15. ^ 东周列国志, 蔡元放
  16. ^ Sage, Steven F. (1992-01-01). Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-1037-0.
  17. ^ a b c Hulsewé, Anthony François Paulus (1955). remnants of han law. Brill Archive.
  18. ^ Shang, Yang (2003). The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of Law. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-58477-241-5.


Further reading