15 July 2019

Discourses on Salt and Iron - Part 2, Chapters 55 and 56

I'll probably talk about the inaccuracies behind labels like Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism in part 3.
This is part two of my post on the Discourses on Salt and Iron, which I'm planning on making into a 3-parter. The two chapters I've translated here mostly debate the true purpose and meaning of law and how to actually promote an orderly society. It's a little redundant in the sense that each side essentially makes the same point over and over again, but it's pretty funny how each time, they try to turn around the analogy or expression their opponent just used against them. Also, there's nothing quite like reading expressions in different languages that are purely the product of differing cultural references.

The upcoming third and final part won't have any translations but will be just my thoughts on the rhetoric and historical background regarding the debate points I've translated. For the translation, I'd say I tried to be 80% literal so I could preserve a lot of the colourful expressions, parallelisms, and syntax. The quotations from the Book of Odes are from James Legges' translation but everything else is my translation which means that there may/will be some errors since I'm no expert in classical Chinese.

Ch 55: 刑德 Punishments and Morality


The dafu (grandee/counsellor 大夫) said thus: “Edicts (ling ) are the means by which one educates the people, and laws (fa ) are the means by which one looks out for criminality. When edicts are strict, the people are prudent, and when laws are established, criminality is checked. When nets are loosened, the animals escape, and when laws are slackened, crime runs loose. When crime runs loose, the people run amok and make light of prohibitions. When prohibitions are not compulsory, even the timid will become reckless, but when punishments are substantial, even the likes of Robber Zhi and Zhuang Qiao will not violate prohibitions. Therefore the ancients created the five punishments such as tattooing the flesh so that the people did not tread upon the law.”


The literati said thus: “When roads and trails are many, the people do not know which way to go. When laws and edicts are many, the people do not know what they are permitted to do. Hence when a king creates laws, he makes them as bright and clear as the sun and moon so that the people do not lose direction, and as broad as a great highway so that the people are not confused. In doing so, even those dwelling in remote and distant corners will know the laws, and even maidservants, children, wives, and the ignorant will know what they are permitted to do. Thereupon, laws and edicts are not violated, while jails and prisons are not needed. In the past, the laws of Qin were more numerous than the autumn reeds, finer and more minute than a clump of congealed fat. However, both superiors and inferiors alike avoided them, deviancy and deceit took sprout, and even if an officer tried to administer them, like trying to help a man from a brightly raging fire, he would be unable to prohibit violations. This was not a case of slackening the nets of law so that crime ran loose, but rather discarding propriety and righteousness and instead entrusting punishments and penalties. In the present, the penal and administrative laws (lüling ) spill out over a hundred chapters of paragraphs and paragraphs. Names and types of crimes overlap, and so confused are the commanderies in employing them that some apply it too lightly and others too heavily. If even the learned officials do not know, how much worse off is the uneducated populace! The legal codes are gathering dust and being eaten by weevils in warehouses and offices. If even the officials cannot read through all of them, how much worse off is the uneducated populace! This is the reason why criminal hearings are increasing, as are the number of people violating prohibitions. ‘Deemed fit inmates for the prisons! With a handful of grain I go out and divine, how I may be able to become good?’ This line [from the Book of Poetry] refers to such cases of too many penal laws. There may be exceedingly many types of clothes for mourning relatives, but if one trims the top and bottom outliers, the main types of mourning clothes do not number more than five. There may be three thousand offences that can warrant the five punishments, but if one trims the top and bottom outliers, the offences do not number more than five. Therefore, the way to govern people well is sincerely striving to morally educate them and nothing more.”


The dafu said thus:  “The literati have said that a king, when establishing laws, makes them as broad as a great highway. The path that the people presently traverse is not small, yet they openly violate the law, and this is due to the levity of punishments for crimes. A height of 1000 ren (8000 Chinese feet) cannot be easily climbed, and a weight of 1000 jun (3000 Chinese catties) cannot be easily lifted. When Shang Yang punished even the act of littering the roads, the people of Qin became well governed. Thus to put horse-thieves to death and cattle-thieves to the sword are the means by which one respects the roots and severs the source of careless offences. Similarly, giving rank and food to soldiers are also the means by which one aids the frontier and respects military readiness. That theft and assault are dealt the same as murder is the means by which one reprimands a man’s heart and scolds his mind. This is analogous to Lu using Chu’s army to attack Qi, which the Spring and Autumn Annals criticized. Thus there is a reason to why light offences are dealt with heavily, and why shallow offences are treated deeply. The minute details of law is certainly not something that which the masses must know.”


The literati said thus: “In the Book of Poetry, the line, ‘The way of Zhou was like a whetstone, and as straight as an arrow,’ speaks to its ease while the immediately succeeding line, ‘The superior men traversed it and the inferior men looked upon it’ speaks to its clarity. Thus when virtue illuminates the path, it is easy to follow, and when the laws are concise, it is easy to carry them out. Presently, the roads that the people traverse might be straight or winding, and be on hilly or flat terrain in encircling the whole realm. Consequently, the 10,000 li of roads become pitfalls for the people. Like casting bird-nets in ravines, setting up trapping pits and waiting nearby, or preparing arrows tied to strings and shooting them up into the sky, how could the people not be ensnared? By hoarding all desirable things and opening up all profitable ventures, benevolence and justice die slowly by a thousand cuts, so how could the people avoid treading upon the law? Thus the end of our present course will lead to the people being driven to lay siege to cities and break in to strip valuables in storehouses and steal goods from ancestral temples. So how can one speak of 1000 ren or 1000 jun with regards to present affairs!? Guanzi says, ‘Without enlarging the four cornerstones, even the likes of Gao Yao is unable to be a shi.” Thus when moral instruction is discarded while lies and deceit are conducted, when propriety and righteousness are destroyed while wickedness and iniquity flourish, this situation is said to lack benevolence and justice. Humaneness is the manifestation of love. Justice is appropriateness in executing affairs. Thus the junzi loves benevolence and extends it to all things, first governing well those that are nearby to then extend it to those afar. Thus it has been transmitted, ‘Among all living things, none are as valuable as people, and among that which is valued by lords, none are as critical as people.’ Thus all things in this world have been brought to existence to serve people, and lords love their people to accord with Heaven.


The dafu looked up and down, but did not respond.


The yushi (Imperial Counsellor 御史) said: “Commands and laws are the bridles and bits of a state, while penalties and punishments are its ropes and oars. Thus when bridles and bits are not outfitted, even the likes of Wang Liang (famous charioteer during the Spring and Autumn period) would be unable to drive a horse very far. When ropes and oars are not equipped, even a skilled oarsman would be unable to cross the waters. Han Fei detested those rulers who possessed a state but were unable to clarify its laws and authority, control his ministers, enrich his state, and strengthen his soldiers to thereby overpower his enemies and suppress any difficulties. He loathed those rulers who, deluded by the writings and expressions of the foolish Ru-scholars, doubted the strategies of wise men, employed frivolous and obscene men, and raised such insects even above those with real merit and talent. To commit such blunders and yet desire for a state to be well-governed is to let go of ladders and yet want to climb up high, or to do without bridles and bits but attempt to control a rough horse. Presently, when punishments and laws are employed, the people still violate them, so how much worse would things be without any laws at all? Chaos would surely be inevitable!”


The literati said thus: “Bridles and bits are tools of control, but one must also have a skilled specialist to control. Law and authority are tools of governance, but one must also have wise men to morally transform the people. If he who grabs the bridle is not skilled, then the horse will still run wild, and if he who holds a rudder’s pivot is not accustomed, the boat will flip over or be damaged. In the past, Wu once ordered its chancellor Pi to hold the rudder’s pivot, who then crashed the boat. Qin once made Zhao Gao take the bridle, who then overturned the carriage. At present, you discard the techniques of benevolence and righteousness, and entrust matters to the follower of the forms and names (刑名). This is to repeat the mistakes of Wu and Qin. One who acts as a lord must model himself on the Three Kings, one who acts as a chancellor must model himself on the Duke of Zhou, and one who acts as a scholar must model himself on Confucius. This is the Way that remains unchanged for a hundred generations. Han Fei disparaged the kings of antiquity and did not follow them. He discarded proper edicts and did not comply with them. In the end, he stepped into a trap, became incarcerated, and died abroad in Qin. To not comprehend the Great Way but understand petty rhetoric was sufficient for his self-destruction.”

Ch 56: 申韓 Shen Buhai and Han Fei


The yushi said thus: “Were a ruler to wait for a Duke of Zhou to have a chancellor, there would hardly be any states in this world. Were a person to wait for a Confucius to be educated, neither Ruism nor Mohism would exist in this world. When robes are a little frayed, one can mend it with bits of fabric or wait until a whole new set of robes are acquired to replace it. When governance is a little frayed, one can use edicts and laws to secure it or wait for the ritual music (ya ) and odes (song ) and then administer the issue. To insist on the latter is to cast away a doctor nearby and seek a Yu Fu (legendary doctor during the time of the Yellow Emperor) before treating an illness, or to discard water from a dirty pond and seeking a river or ocean before putting out a fire. When one traverses an indirect and winding path rather than head straight, and misses the crux of the matter and does not attend to the issue, one may attempt to teach and order, but none will follow and governance will be in disarray. A man who is good at governance patches holes and plugs leaks. Thus Wu Qi used laws to govern Chu and Wei, as did Shen Buhai and Shang Yang use laws to strengthen Qin and Han.”


The literati said thus: “A ruler can choose among the masses to employ the worthy, and a scholar can read widely to choose the best, so why wait for only a Duke of Zhou and a Confucius!? Thus we say one need only to model themselves after them. When Shang Yang strayed from the path of sages, he disordered the customs of Qin and thereafter its governance descended to chaos and was unable to be ruled, for what has once been lost cannot be recovered, much as how thickets and marshes razed by foolish people cannot grow back again, or how hornets and scorpions that sting humans may die but their venom does not dissipate. When any troubles are halted and any agitations are calmed, then both those high and low will suffer from toil, and the disorder will only grow worse. Therefore, a sage’s moral transformation shines like the sun and moon upon those high and flows like the heaven and earth with those low. How can you speak [in reference to your actions] of small mendings!?”


The yushi said thus: “When clothes are frayed and not mended, then they grow worse by day. When dikes leak but are not sealed, they leak worse with each day. When the dikes are damaged upstream the Yellow River at Huzi, the leaking was slow and gradual at first, but it eventually turned into a great flood that harmed all the central states. It ravaged Liang and Chu, wrecked Cao and Wey, demolished city walls, and carried away all belongings and valuables. The people survived by perching on trees, and for a thousand li not a single dwelling remained, so that orphans and widows had nothing to rely upon while the old and the weak had nowhere to return to. Thus the former Emperor, distressed and grieving this calamity, carefully inspected the dikes and carried out what Yu the Great had done to restore the river’s flow and make the lands of Cao and Wey peaceful once more. The people exalted his accomplishment, extolled his virtue, and sang ‘The river blocked at Xuanfang; fortune now abounds.’ Governance is like this, so how can one not speak of small mendings!?”


The literati said thus: “When the dikes of a river first leaks, the leak is like a small mouth of a jar, but it eventually grows to destroy a thousand li. But what of when the dikes of ritual leaks? Surely the harm it will wreak is even greater! At present, the number of penal cases adjudicated per year numbers some ten-thousand cases, and still the legal violations continue to grow more numerous, so how could this calamity only affect the lands of Cao and Wey!? While you know that blocking the river at Xuanfang will lead to fortune, you do not know that blocking the source of disorder will lead to the realm’s good governance. The Zhou, however, employed this method and did not use punishments, and thus the commoners became as orderly as the changing of four seasons each year, and Heaven did not abandon them. The Odes say, ‘You comfort me into old age, and aid me with manifold blessings.’ The fortunes received in this ode were not small in the least bit! Had you sincerely believed in rituals and righteousness as you believed in Xuanfang, the great task would already be fulfilled, the ruler could fold his arms and need not do anything. What mending need an officer do then? What sealing need laws and edicts do then?”


The yushi said thus: “Sharp hoes are beneficial for growing the five grains but harmful to the weeds. Clear reason and proper laws are loathed by evil-doers but are blessings to good people. Thus the crooked tree detests the straight ruler, as do evil-doers despise proper laws. Therefore, the sages judged right from wrong, evaluated order from disorder, and then established clear laws and laid down strict punishment to prevent mistakes and correct errors, just as how yinkuo 隱括 and fujin 輔檠 straightens warped bows. As water is used to prepare against possible fire, laws are used to prevent depravity from occurring. Without laws and authority, even the worthy man is unable to govern well; without arms and armour, even a Sun Tzu or Wu Qi is unable to defeat enemies. That is why even when Confucius led the way in benevolence and righteousness, the people instead followed popular customs, and when Bo Yi withdrew to Shouyang, the people were not morally transformed.”


The literati said thus: “Laws are able to punish humans but unable to make them honest. They can kill humans but cannot make them benevolent. Good doctors are valued because they examine their patients’ respiration and can expel foul qi , not because they use bian stone needles to poke skin. Good officials are valued because they uproot evil before it sprouts to prevent their growth, not because they put people in prison and execute them. Those whom you call good officials today know laws so minutely as to ruin the people and are so forceful as to harm those subject to them. They do not root the laws upon the principles it arose from, but rather solely upon their cruel hearts. They borrow the law to ensnare the innocent and burden the blameless, so as to incriminate the father on account of his son, and to embroil the older brother on account of the younger brother. Thus when one man is guilty of a crime, the whole neighbourhood is alarmed and startled so that 10 families flee. It is like how boils fester into abscesses, or how attractiveness invites lustfulness. The moving of a single part ends up shaking a hundred branches. The Book of Poetry says, ‘Let alone the criminals, lest indiscriminately involve [the innocent] in ruin,’ in reference to this harming of the blameless and burdening them. Rather than worry about the hoes not being sharp, one should leave aside the weeds and instead worry about the harvesting of grains. Rather than worry about that which are not flat and level, one should leave aside warped things and instead worry about applying the fixing-line to things that are straight. When those who are near and dear err, to not necessarily punish them severely is to not [necessarily] use the hoe, and when those who are distant and unfamiliar are to accomplish some merit, to not necessarily reward them is to not [necessarily] nourish the sprouts. Thus the world will not worry about lawlessness, but rather worry about laws that are always followed not existing.”


  1. This was a pleasure to read, thanks! Looking forward to part 3

  2. Thank God for modern social science.