During the Warring States Period, life in Ancient China was somewhat chaotic. You had many different warlords trying annex land onto their own kingdom and life in general was very chaotic. The people of China followed the tenets of Confucianism, which first appeared around 500 BCE. . Under Confucianism, you paid your parents and ancestors respect, were expected to live a humane and decent life, and be good to the people around you. Confucius was a social philosopher who lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE. He basically taught people that they were good at heart. If they made mistakes it was simply because the system of social laws had let them down.
But all of that changed during the Warring States Period. Suddenly, it was important for one strong ruler to be followed by the common people. Three individuals, Shang Yang, Han Feizi and Li Si wanted to make sure that the people followed a philosophy that would strengthen the government that was in power and cause people to follow the laws much more closely. The school of Legalism began to develop. It taught that people were, at their most basic level, evil instead of good. Under Legalism, one of the worst crimes that a person could commit was to be disloyal to their rulers. In order to curb the urge to do wrong, a rigid system of punishments were put into place. If someone were to exhibit behavior that was evil or selfish, they would be punished.
Under Legalism, it was the state or country that had to come first instead of individual wants or needs. The country was divided up into a number of administrative provinces, and the system of writing was standardized throughout the country. Family units were divided up into groups of ten. It was thought that many of these activities would make it easier to control the Chinese population and prevent someone from sowing dissent in the country.
Under Legalism, many important books were burned. It was believed that people did not need to read, and that the only guidance they needed was the series of laws that governed the country. Not all of the books were burned, however. Those that had been written on the topics of farming, weaving and divination were spared as they were believed to have some merit. Many scholars were also burned alive if they refused to give up their libraries.
There were some people who prospered under the Legalist system. Under older systems, it was difficult for someone to advance in social rank. Under the Legalist system, it was possible for someone to advance if they performed well at their job. Soldiers who fought well in battle could gain higher ranks, and it was also possible for someone to advance politically under the Legalist system. One example of a commoner who was able to advance under Legalism was Lu Buwei (291 to 235 BCE). He began life as a merchant but, under the Legalist system, was able to advance politically and become the Chancellor of China.
Legalism declined but there are some elements that are still used by the Chinese government today.