Shen Buhai


Shu (Methods)

Legalist Wu-wei

Theory of delegation

Objective Statistics

Mystical Authoritarianism

Performance and Title

Is Shen a Fa-jia (Legalist?)

Shen Buhai, d. 337 BC was one of the three sources Hanfeizi credited with the key elements of Legalist thought. He championed the concept of shu (method/art/technique). History records that he was a rather successful chief Minister under the Marquis Zhao of Han until his death—successful in particular in that he appears to have died a natural death which is somewhat rare for those in the Legalist pantheon. He is also credited with writing a two chapter book, the Shenzi which scholars do not believe survived. Most of our information about his theories, therefore, comes indirectly from doctrines attributed to him by others.

Given Hanfeizi’s account, most scholars class Shen Buhai as a legalist. Other historical sources, however, say that he studied Huang-Lao—a religion that blends Daoism and Legalism. Much of the apocryphal book attributed to him patterns itself on the deliberate obscurity of Huang-Lao mysticism and doctrines attributed to him share key concepts with that political religious movement. We will, however, elaborate them here as if they were primarily concepts of government.

(Much of the content of this account draws on the detailed study by Hurlee Creel, who pieced together nearly every extant passage or idea attributed to Shen Buhai in an attempt to get an overall picture of his theory. Creel concluded that his focus was on bureaucracy and that Shen Buhai was not a legalist. This account will accept the former but depart from the latter, though the basis for it will be an altered view of the legalists.)

Strategy: Control of Ministers

Scholars almost universally agree that Shen Buhai’s shu (method) focused primarily on controlling the official bureaucracy—the ministers. Shen senses that the greatest danger to the ruler comes from within his own power structure. "The reason why a ruler builds lofty inner walls and outer walls, and looks carefully to the barring of doors and gates, is to prepare against the coming of invaders and bandits. But one who murders the ruler and takes his state does not necessarily force his way in by climbing over difficult walls and battering in barred doors and gates. He may be one of the ruler's own ministers, who gradually limits what the ruler is permitted to see and restricts what he is allowed to hear, until finally the minister seizes his government and monopolizes his power to command, possessing his people and taking his state."

At the same time, Shen Buhai apparently appreciated that a complex state can function only with a capable, responsible and powerful bureaucracy. The ruler has to find ways employ and control his ministers without letting them usurp his central ruling position. "The intelligent ruler is like the torso; the minister is like an arm." . . . The ruler controls the principles; the ministers carry them out in detail. The ruler holds the controls; the ministers carry on routine functions."

Another respect in which Shen Buhai appears like other legalists is in his serious worries about the vagueness of language and the dangers of verbal persuasion. The ruler must insist on having access to all channels of information, not merely ministers’ reports. These he has to view as "objectively" as possible. "One who sees things independently is called clear-eyed. One who hears things independently is called sharp-eared. He who can reach decisions independently is therefore able to be ruler of the whole world."

At the same time, Shen condemn trying to master all the details. That is the business of the ministers. The ruler must have access to information, but mainly to prevent ministers from deceiving him about the situation or their accomplishments. The reverse, however, does not apply. The ruler is not to communicate clearly with his ministers for fear they will get information about his personal views, desires, biases etc. which they can use in manipulating, flattering and ultimately controlling him.

Shu: Methods

The shu (method) thus concerned ways of controlling ministers in view of the vagaries of language. According to Hanfeizi, the key was to focus on reality or accomplishment, not fame or reputation (language) in appointment and dismissal. He was to attend primarily to the abilities and accomplishments of his ministers, not to the details of their duties. The power over life and death had to remain firmly in the ruler’s hands. Perhaps this meant that he could review, pardon, or reverse any juridical decision made by ministers as well as having the power to punish or execute them." The other techniques concerned ways the ruler prevents ministers from reversing the direction of control. One key, therefore, was that the ruler could no have a "favorite" or "controlling" minister since that would be to replace the ruler is all but name.

Wu-wei and hidden motives

The most famous method borrows a notoriously murky concept from Daoism—wu-wei (non-deeming action). Let us view a range of linked interpretations of this notion in Shen Buhai and legalism. An explanatorily satisfactory interpretation is that acting with wu-wei is acting in a way that does not reveal the ruler’s motives. A twist on this explanation is that the ruler has no motives other than those of the state itself. In "hiding his motives and conceals his tracks" the ruler makes it hard for ministers to manipulate him (except by doing what is in the interest of the state). If the king has formulae, policies, or particularly valued virtues or goals, the ministers will try to accomplish these rather than giving open, unguarded and objective advice.

Another interpretation focuses on the issue of delegation, discussed more fully below. The ruler should not use his own knowledge or conception of the way of government. He should concentrate entirely on the shu (methods) which make his decisions "operational" or "mechanical." That way the ministers have no incentive to try to divine the ruler’s heart-mind.

"The sage ruler depends upon methods, not on his sagacity. He employs technique, not theory."

Does not compete with ministers or handle details

The ruler must have full access to information, yet he should no bother with details! It is dangerous for a ruler to try to master all the information needed for every decision. A quotation attributed to Shen Buhai makes this point in terms reminiscent of Laozi: "Discard listening and do not use it to hear; then your hearing will be keen. Discard looking and do not use it to see; then your sight will be clear. Discard sagacity and do not use it to understand; then your knowledge will be all-embracing and your judgement impartial."

Nor should the ruler display his own insights and skills. Not only does this give ministers personal information to use in manipulating him, it also reveals his weaknesses. Trying to compete with his ministers in what they are to do best invites reciprocal competition—something the ruler does not want.


Creel theorizes the notion of shu (method) was conceptually linked with its homophonic shu (numbers) and that the idea of technique implicitly has roots in something like statistical or categorizing methods. He observes that managing financial resources, taxation, army logistics etc. all require numerical record keeping. This notion of numerical accuracy or objectivity may well have been carried over into the concept of shu (method) as applied to controlling ministers.

Going back to the flow of information to the ruler. This conceptual link suggests that the ruler will want numerical measures of accomplishment rather than evaluative adjectives from the ministers. It gives the ruler the capacity to judge accomplishment in a more operational way.

This focus on operational, effective, or mechanical decision making links Shen Buhai with the notion of fa (measurement standards) that started with the Mohists. They thought of fa as publicly accessible standards for the application of language:words in general.

Special mystical Xin-shu?

There is a more obscure and troubling interpretive possibility, however. The notion of shu (method) may be tied to the authoritarian doctrine of xin-shu (Heart-mind methods) Shen Buhai’s link to the mystical governing school of Huang-Lao and the obscurity and vagueness of his writing suggest this may be part of his notion. The comparatively "mystical" side of authoritarianism comes when they claim to be able to have cultivated "supernatural" epistemic states that allow one to know everything or to be perfectly responsive to events. One does this by a mystical process that transcends language and gives one immediate access to "the right decision." We find this position most famously in the Mencius and some recently famous chapters of the Goanzi.

Such a skill could underwrite one’s claim to a superior position over "ordinary" people who are limited by their perspectives or learned doctrines. It also excuses one from accountability for their decisions. Those who cultivate these heart-mind shu (methods) could not be expected to put their grounds of action into words nor could they expect the likes of us to comprehend them. So they can act quite arbitrarily in the comfortable knowledge they are "transcendentally" right.

Shen Buhai does not seem to have been concerned with justifying the ruler’s superior position and most commonly did not assume rulers were of higher intelligence or ability than others.

Xing-Ming: Performance and title.

Secondary sources often credit Shen Buhai with the development of one of Hanfeizi’s important doctrines: xing-ming. Hanfeizi’s own account of Shen Buhai’s shu (method) avoids these words but depicts it exactly and presents it as the essence of shu (method). However, as Creel notes, the term ‘xing-ming’ itself does not occur in the extant fragments of Shen's writings.

The character xing seems linked to punishment (carving or marking) or shape (perhaps the carved shapes??). Creel argues it may also mean behavior or performance. The notion of ming (names) was central to philosophical developments of the period especially the analysis of the source of the vagueness which Legalists so despair. It also, famously, could mean something like reputation or status. Creel understands the pair as "performance and title." We can understand why Shen Buhai would be credited with the doctrine even if did not use the words. Clearly his account of the mechanical basis for appointment and dismissal is one that gives the "status" for the "performance" (as determined by "terms" that are determined by objective results).

Fa: Operational Standards

As Creel correctly notes, Shen Buhai does not talk about fa (laws:standards), in fact, Hanfeizi criticizes him for ignoring it. This does not distinguish him from other fa-jia (School of laws:standards) other than verbally. Translators agree that fa often must be translated as "model" rather than "law." It is not clear that legalists change the use of the term at all. They advocate it as a disambiguating standard. Fa is objective, particularly operational or measurement-like standards for fixing the referents of names. Shen Buhai’s doctrine is broadly consonant with this and with the emphasis on using fa to control ministers more than the people. (See SHANG YANG.)

The important point which Shang Yang, Hanfeizi and Shen Buhai share is their focus on objective measurement of results for any decision—appointment, promotion, reward, punishment etc. They focus on names that are tied to explicit or objective categories and using these in recording and measuring situations and change. The rulers and ministers should be so controlled.


Chang, Leo S. and Wang Hsiao-po (1986). Han Fei's Political Theory (Monographs of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy No. 7. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Creel, Hurlee G. (1970). The Origins of Statescraft in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Creel, Hurlee G. (1974). Shen Buhai. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fung, Yu-lan (1952). History of Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hansen, Chad (1993). "Meaning Change and Fa/Standards:Laws." Philosophy East and West 44, no. 3: 435-88.

Hsiao, Kung chuan (1979). A History of Chinese Political Thought, Volume I: From the beginnings to the Six Dynasties. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Liang, Qichao (1930). History of Chinese Political Thought. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co..




Way, prescriptive discourse, course of action



Model, standards, law

Fa Jia

ªk ®a

School of Fa, legalists.

Xin Shu

¤ß ³N

Heart-mind methods

Xing ming

¦D ¦W

Peformance and title, punishment and name/rank



Method, technique



Number, statistics.


µL ¬°

Non-deeming action, non-purposive action, non-action