Submerged by Absolute Power: The Ruler’s Predicament in the Han Feizi

Yuri Pines*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

12 Scopus citations


This paper explores one of the major paradoxes in Han Fei’s (韓非 d. 233 B.C.E.) ideology. On the one hand, more than any other known thinker, Han Fei remained resolutely committed to safeguarding the ruler’s interests; and many of his pronouncements can be read as supportive of concentration of absolute power in the monarch’s hands. On the other hand, he remained soberly aware of the potential inadequacy of the monarch, and was skeptical of the possibility of improving the ruler’s functioning. As a result, despite his unequivocal commitment to the strengthening of the monarchic institution, Han Fei sought to limit an individual ruler’s interventions in everyday policy-making to the degree of the complete depersonalization of the monarch. In practice, this meant that everyday government tasks would be maintained by the members of ministerial stratum, precisely those treacherous men whose scheming and deceitfulness Han Fei mercilessly exposed. Probably aware of this fundamental contradiction in his policy recommendations, Han Fei made a curious shift in argument: in a few chapters he insists that amid “treacherous, larcenous, and murderous ministers” there are exceptions: “the possessor of techniques” (youshu zhe 有術者), who can be relied upon to maintain the affairs in the ruler’s stead. Thus Han Fei, an unequivocal opponent of ministerial power, ended with the same recommendation as most of his ideological opponents: the ruler should be omnipotent as an institution but nullified as an individual, while intellectuals of Han Fei’s ilk would display their utmost respect to the monarch—but rule the realm in his stead.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationDao Companions to Chinese Philosophy
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media B.V.
Number of pages20
StatePublished - 2013

Publication series

NameDao Companions to Chinese Philosophy
ISSN (Print)2211-0275
ISSN (Electronic)2542-8780

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.


  • Filial Piety
  • Meritorious Aide
  • Myriad Thing
  • Orderly Rule
  • Warring States Period


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