Han Fei lived at the time when the weakened State of Han was facing an imminent danger. On account of his remoteness in kinship to the ruling house, he could not advance his career and join governmental service. Witnessing the vices of the itinerants and diplomatists, who beguiled the lords of men and thereby sought for their own advantages, and the evils of the wicked and villainous people, who committed violence and outrage at their own pleasure and could not be suppressed, he bitterly criticized administrators of state affairs for their inability to exercise the powers vested in them, enforce penal laws definitely, forbid wicked deeds decisively, purge the government and the country from corruptions, and scheme for peace and order. He took the fate of the country as his own and pointed out the obstacles in its way. As there was left no chance for him to reform the surroundings, he wrote laboriously and thereby clarified his proposed remedies. Therefore, in thought he was vehement and in word informative, thus differentiating himself sharply from the rest of the thinkers and writers of the Era of the Warring States (403-222 B.C.).
After reading his literary remains in the present age and inferring therefrom the political trends of his times, everybody is inclined to maintain that aside from Han Fei's teachings, there could be no other ways and means to create order out of chaos in those days. Indeed, benevolence and beneficence are significant means of mass control, but are not ways of suppressing wickedness and outrage. Mencius had taught the rulers of his days benevolence and righteousness and abhorred any discussion on the problem of profit. According to Fei's sayings, however, "The learned men of the age, when giving counsels to the lord of men, do not tell them to harass the wicked and rapacious ministers with authority and severity, but all speak about benevolence, and compassion. So do the present-day sovereigns admire the names of benevolence and righteousness but never carefully observe their actual effects." As a matter of fact, what the then sovereigns admired was not what Mencius had called benevolence and righteousness only, but was, as the itinerants emphasized, "either benevolence and righteousness or profit." As regards the advice to employ authority and severity, nobody but Fei, a relative of the royal family, dared to utter it.
Han Fei's ideas and principles, no doubt, involve biases and bigotries. Yet his teaching that law should be made clear and penalty should be made strict to save all lives out of chaos, purge All-under-Heaven from calamities, prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, the many from transgressing the few, and enable the aged and infirm to live a happy ending and the young and the orphan to grow up to their best, is an emphasis on the utility of the legal code and on the propriety of severity and leniency, which in motive and purpose does not differ from Mencius's advice how to utilize ease and leisure and clarify the rules of political and penal administration.
After his theory had failed to take effect in Han, the legalism enforced by Ch`in happened to be identical with it, till she succeeded in exterminating the rest of the Warring States and annexed All-under-Heaven. Accordingly, Tung Tzŭ-nai said, "Ch`in practised Han Fei's theory." In the light of the facts that when Fei was appointed a good-will envoy to Ch`in, the state policy of Ch`in had already been well fixed and her supreme position in the world had been successfully established, and that no sooner had he entered Ch`in than he was put to death, how could it be said that Ch`in had acted on his theory?
His writings altogether cover twenty books. Hitherto few of the commentaries have succeeded in elucidating the whole text. It is not until my younger cousin, Hsien-shen, has collected all the commentaries, corrected the errors, supplied the hiatuses, and discussed the meanings and implications of dubious points, that the author's text appears lucidly readable. The Tao of the Sovereign and its following Works were most probably written during the lifetime of the author. The First Interview with the King of Ch`in and others at the opening of the text were subsequently added. In these memorials Fei attempted to persuade the Ruler of Ch`in not to ruin Han and thereby schemed for the preservation of the ancestral shrines of his people. His plan was extremely unique, wherefore every gentleman sees the more reason to sympathize with his patriotic cause.
Old Man of the Sunflower Garden,
Twelfth Month, Winter, 22nd Year of Kuang-hsü (January, 1897).