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For the contemporary Chinese painter Shang Yang, see Shang Yang (artist).
Statue of Shang Yang

Shang Yang (Chinese: 商鞅; pinyin: Shāng Yāng; Wade–Giles: Shang Yang, 390–338 BC) was an important statesman of the State of Qin during the Warring States period of Chinese history. Born Wei Yang (simplified Chinese: 卫鞅; traditional Chinese: 衛鞅) in the State of Wei, with the support of Duke Xiao of Qin Yang enacted numerous reforms in Qin. These were in accordance with his legalist philosophy as recorded in The Book of Lord Shang and assisted Qin in its change from a peripheral state to that of a militarily powerful and strongly centralized kingdom. He changed the administration of the state through an emphasis on meritocracy and devolving power from the nobility.


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

After Duke Xiao of Qin ascended the Qin throne, Shang Yang left his lowly position in the State of Wei (to whose ruling family he had been born, but had yet to obtain a high position in[1]) to become the chief adviser in Qin at Duke Xiao's behest. There his changes to the state's legal system (which were said to have built upon Li Kui's Canon of Laws) propelled the Qin to prosperity. His policies built the foundation that enabled Qin to conquer all of China, uniting the country for the first time and ushering in the Qin dynasty.

He is credited by Han Feizi with the creation of two theories;

  1. Ding Fa (定法; fixing the standards)
  2. Yi Min (一民; treating the people as one)


Shang Yang believed in the rule of law and considered loyalty to the state to be above that of the family.

Shang 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; codified reforms into enforceable laws.
  2. Stripping the nobility of land rights and assigning land to soldiers based upon their military successes. The army was also separated into twenty military ranks, based upon battlefield achievements.
  3. As manpower was short in Qin, Shang encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands and wastelands, favoring agriculture over commerce

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

Domestic policies[edit]

Shang introduced land reforms, privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, enslaved farmers who failed to meet quotas, and used enslaved subjects as rewards for those who met government policies.

As manpower was short in Qin relative to the other states at the time, Shang enacted policies to increase its manpower. As Qin peasants were recruited into the military, he encouraged active immigration 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. Shang 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.

Shang abolished primogeniture 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.

Shang moved the capital to reduce the influence of nobles on the administration.

Shang Yang's death[edit]

Deeply despised by the Qin nobility,[2] Shang Yang could not survive Duke Xiao of Qin's death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the nine familial exterminations against Shang 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."[3] Yang went into hiding and tried to stay at an inn. The innkeeper refused because it was against Yang's laws to admit a guest without proper identification, a law Yang himself had implemented.

Yang was executed by chelie (車裂, dismemberment, being fastened to five chariots or cattle and torn to pieces);[4][5] his whole family was also executed.[2] Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Shang. A number of alternate versions of Shang Yang's death have survived. According to Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, Shang Yang 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.

Confucian scholars were highly opposed to Shang Yang's legalist approach[citation needed].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ pg 79 of Classical China
  2. ^ a b 商君列传 (vol. 68), Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian
  3. ^ pg 80 of Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill and Jean W. Sedlar, Oxford University Press, 1970. LCCN: 68-8409
  4. ^ 和氏, Han Feizi, Han Feizi
  5. ^ 东周列国志, 蔡元放


Further reading[edit]

  • Li Yu-ning, ShangYang's Reforms (M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1977).

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shang_Yang — Please support Wikipedia.
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