Ancient China Legalism

Throughout its history, China has been ruled by a government form called “dynasties.” This control meant that one family group made all of the decisions for the government over many generations.

There were sometimes one dynasty, but before the country was united, there were also many dynasties, each ruling a different area of China.

The families competed to get control of each other’s dynasties so that they would be more powerful.

This all changed when the country became united under the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi.
Code of Law

Qin’s Rules for Legalities

During Qin’s reign, he divided what we now know as China into thirty six different areas. He sent three officials representing the dynasty to each area for governing.

Each official had a specific purpose: one for control and organization of the army, one for organization of laws and taxes, one for communication of the orders of the emperor.

Additionally, Qin established a group of officials that were organized into levels and ranks of power. In this way, people could be rewarded with promotions.


The government of ancient China was based on the concept of “legalism.” This was a system that required absolute obedience to the rule of the emperor.

Some of the strange rules also included that the emperor wouldn’t allow people to criticize the current emperor or talk about good times or a positive life that they might have had under previous emperors.
Statue of Law


Crimes in ancient China were divided into severity, but punishment for many crimes was harsh. If there was a minor crime they considered a minor punishment to be beaten with a bamboo stick.

Someone that was caught as a pick-pocket was branded on their arms for the first and second time, the third offense brought them to the criminal court.

Armed robbery was an extremely serious crime and the criminal was punished with death. Convicted criminals could serve on barges for a period of years, some had their cheeks branded with hot irons that left scars, while others were banished for life.

Ancient Chinese Punishment
The worst crimes were those against the emperor. For these crimes, all possessions were taken away and they were not allowed any help from family or friends.

If the criminal was found to be guilty the punishment often included cruel torture followed by a same day execution.

Family Crimes

Fathers were responsible for the behavior of both children and servants. If any committed crimes that the father could have prevented, he was charged.

There was a very heavy importance placed on family crimes, specifically if it pertained to younger brothers stealing an inheritance that was to be shared among all of the brothers or male family members.

A girl that gave insult to her parents was strangled; if she caused a wound to her parents she was tortured. Those selected to do the punishment were often members of the military.

Attitudes about Human Life

Unlike how we try to think of value in human life, the ancient Chinese placed very little value on the lives of people.

They considered females to be the least valuable and male children only slightly more valuable.

During many of the dynasties it was quite common for an emperor to have an entire village or community killed when an order had been disobeyed.

  • Early Chinese laws were created so that the country would be a better place; however, etiquette was designed for the nobles and punishment for peasants, farmers, and slaves.
  • The Tang dynasty established the Tang Code which is Chinese law using Confucianism as the main method of keeping division, order and structure.
  • Ancient Chinese “official” law were those that came from the authority of the emperor.
  • Ancient Chinese “unofficial” law were those laws of the people that were more local or customary.


Who is the emperor that unified China and began setting out laws for the land?


What are the two types of laws in ancient China?

official and unofficial

How many areas did the first emperor divide the country into?


What was the punishment for disobeying an order from the emperor?

torture and death

Who were fathers responsible for in any crime in the family?

all children and servants

What is the name of the form of government established by the first emperor?