When I was going to primary school in Communist China in the early 1970s, a political movement started, called "ping fa pi ru" (evaluate the Legalists and criticize the Confucians). On the surface, the movement glorified the Legalists in Chinese history, especially Shang Yang and Han Fei, who were considered to have contributed to innovative legal reforms, whereas the Confucians were condemned because they looked backward to a golden age of the past and wanted to "pull the wheel of history backward," to use a typical phrase from the People's Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party. Shang Yang was celebrated as a martyr, as after his reform fell through, he was subjected to the cruelest form of punishment by his political opponents: having his four limbs tied to four horses riding in four different directions. The real purpose of the political movement was actually to use an attack on ancient Confucians to allude to the so called present-day Confucians in the Communist Party who were, by the standards of political radicals, not radical or revolutionary enough and should be ousted. This is just an example of how the Confucians and the Legalists mattered two thousand years afterwards.
Doctrine-wise, the Legalists obviously differed from the Confucians in their emphasis on a naturally selfish human nature. Wisdom, to them, did not lie in the human heart, but in the rational application of laws to the people. They shrugged off the Confucian ideas of moral cultivation, and dismissed an emphasis on etiquette and rituals as empty and useless because they did not touch upon the basics of human life--the material conditions and economic well-being. Here we will just concentrate on the writings of Shang Yang and Han Fei Zi, as well as Li Si, who started the "burning Confucian books" movement in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), the first unified empire in Chinese history. The question to ask is, why did the Confucians eventually triumph over the Legalists in the following Han Dynasty(202 B.C.-220 A.D.)?
The passages of Sun Zi will not be discussed here. The reading of Sun Zi is optional, although he is interesting to read. His advice on military strategies were followed even in the 20th century in the Chinese Communist Party's guerrilla warfare first against the Japanese in World War II and then in the Chinese Civil War. Today, Sun Zi is widely read in corporate America as his advice on military warfare is said to offer good insight into corporate competition. You are not required to read Li Si, either, although it is useful to remember that he was the Legalist adviser to the first Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang (previous ones were kings) to burn the Confucian books.
1. Shang Yang (d.338 B.C.) and his advice to the duke of Qin (the state that ultimately unified China in 221 B.C.)
From Shang Yang one can see some exemplary characteristics of the Legalists:
To him, law is based not on tradition, but on something called realpolitik in European politics: politics based on a realistic appraisal of the situation and of human nature. Unlike the Confucians who believed in ethical human nature, the Legalists believed humans were naturally selfish and self-seeking. Rulers therefore need to take that into consideration. And a talented ruler should not be "enslaved" by rites and tradition.
Connected with his view on human nature, since officials could not serve as moral exemplars for their people (to Shang Yang, officials and commoners alike shared the same nature), clear laws served as almost the only guidance for good official conduct: "The way to administer a state well is for the laws regulating officials to be clear; one does not rely on men to be intelligent and thoughtful..."
Because of his emphasis on real politics, agriculture and war, instead of moral cultivation, became Shang Yang's tools to achieve peace and stability. Agriculture and other practical trades, therefore, should be encouraged instead of the trade where only words are used, meaning the literati, or shi, who were extensively employed by rulers during the time of Confucius and the Warring States Period that Shang Yang lived in.
Because national strength ultimately depended on agriculture and war, enforced on a daily basis by law, other "softer" and more ambiguous forms of enforcing policies, such as manipulations of words, rituals and music, ethical principles such as kindness and humaneness, promoted deviations from a clear adherence to laws. Here one gets a good view of how Shang Yang viewed the people, who could be governed best only through clear and unambiguous laws dictating to them what to do.
Shang Yang's views on human nature was reflected in his emphasis on strict rules to instill fear in people. Since human nature tends to be self-seeking, which is in violation of the centralized rule of the state. People should be kept weak if the state wants to be strong.
2. Han Fei Zi and his views on Confucian learning.
Han Fei Zi (again, the Zi was a respectful way of addressing Han Fei, an eminent scholar by all standards) (d.233 B.C.), like Shang Yang ahead of him, served the state of Qin before its final unification of China. In his writings he pointed out that public and private interests, unlike what the Confucians said, were irreconcilable: that a son who confessed the father's sins served the public good but violated filial piety, and filial piety may be performed at the expense of the state (201). Therefore, along the lines of other Legalists, Han Fei emphasized the importance of "uniform and inflexible" laws (201), since the Confucian emphasis on moral self-cultivation could not naturally lead to the benefit of the state/nation.
Like Shang Yang, Han Fei believed people were by nature self-seeking and would find an easy way out if they could, therefore they should not be provided with any alternatives except for clearly laid out laws. (203)
In other words, in order not to "mislead" the people, teachings must be in accord with the laws, otherwise they should not be taught. Confucian learning should not be recommended also because of the added problem that it took into consideration only tradition and the past, and not the present situation that laws are based upon. (205)