Shang Yang (390-338 BC) was an important statesman of Qin in the Warring States Period of ancient China. It was he who enacted numerous reforms, and promoted Qin into a militarily powerful and strongly centralized state.
Before Shang Yang’s arrival in 361 BC, Qin was a peripheral, backwards state. After Duke Xiao of Qin, ascended to the Qin throne, Shang Yang left his lowly position in Wei to become the chief adviser in Qin, at Duke Xiao’s behest. It was the time of agitation of political reforms in almost all the states, and Shang Yang’s advocacy of reform was appreciated by the Qin State. He accomplished reforms twice, the vast majority of which were taken from policies instituted elsewhere; however, Shang Yang’s reforms were more thorough and extreme than those of other states. For example, he demanded all his countrymen to learn and observe the law. For another example, he practiced strict legalities and severe penal code and punished the aristocrats who committed violation of the laws. In addition, Shang Yang guided his countrymen to devote major efforts to developing agricultural economy and preparing for war. There his changes to the state’s legal system propelled the Qin to prosperity. Under Shang Yang’s tenure, Qin quickly caught up with and surpassed the reforms of other states, which greatly enhanced the national economy and strengthened the military force of the state, thereby established the foundation of a powerful state. His policies finally enabled Qin to conquer all of China, uniting the country for the first time and ushering in the Qin Dynasty.
Deeply despised by the Qin nobility, Shang Yang could not survive Duke Xiao’s death. The next ruler, King Huiwen, ordered the execution of Shang Yang and his family, on grounds of rebellion; Shang had previously humiliated the new Duke “by causing him to be punished for an offense as though he was an ordinary citizen.” Shang Yang went into hiding and tried to stay at a hotel. Ironically, the hotel owner refused because it was against Shang Yang’s laws to admit a guest without proper identification. Shang Yang is said to have been executed by being fastened to four chariots and pulled apart. Despite his death, King Huiwen kept the reforms enacted by Shang Yang.