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Han Fei’s Ten Lessons

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own politicians.

Han Fei was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school. In his short life he wrote 55 books – short essays we would probably call chapters today – assembled into the Han Feizi.*

One of the few English-language versions of Han Fei Tzu is Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964). Reading it today, I am fascinated at the relevance of these ancient words to today’s politics. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of his books was called The Ten Faults, and I reproduce here the opening synopsis of that book from Watson:**

These are the ten faults:

  1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  4. To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  5. To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  8. To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  10. To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… you can see how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my modern analysis of Han Fei’s words.

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