- The writings of Han Feizi (c. 280-233 BCE) include fifty-five treatises which are collected into twenty books and which are mainly concerned with what the ruler of a state should do in order to acquire and maintain political power. The treatises describe the strategies which a ruler may employ in order to maintain control over the legislative functions of government. The treatises also describe the actions which a ruler may take in order to prevent usurpation of power by other government officials, and discuss the tactics which a ruler may employ in order to maintain supreme authority.
Legalism was a philosophy of administration in ancient China. Upon first acquaintance with this system it seems no more than a rationalization by political administrators for their having total political control of their societies. And perhaps this was the way Legalism arose, but over time the Legalist administrators and advisers formulated enough tenets and principles that their ideas had at least the semblance of a philosophy of political and social administration.
Han Fei saw the gradual, but constant, decline of the State of Han and tried on several occasions to persuade the king to follow different policies, but the king proved incapable of following his advice. He witnessed with increasing despair how rulers of his day were beguiled by Ru (Confucianism) and Mohist philosophers who prattled endlessly about moral virtues and by roving bands of knights-errant who performed acts of daring in contravention of the laws. Both caused the increasing disorder of society and distracted rulers from the real tasks of governing. "When the state is at peace, rulers support scholars and knights-errant, but when troubles arise they employ men of arms. Thus they support people they do not need and do not support those they do need."
The main source of information on Han Fei's life is a short biography by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (145-86 B.C.) in his Records of the Historian. Han Fei was a member of the royal family of Han, a small state located in north-central China. During the 5th century Han, along with two other states, had seceded from the large state of Chin, and for the following 2 centuries Han was an important power in the Chinese state system. In the 3d century, about the time of Han Fei's birth, Han found itself confronted with a newly emerging power to the west, the state of Ch'in. Toward the end of the 4th century Ch'in embarked on an extensive military campaign to expand its territory. Since Han was Ch'in's main neighbor to the east, it was inevitable that the two states would come into conflict. Han Fei's career revolved around this rivalry between his own state and Ch'in.