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Born 390 B.C.; died 338 B.C. Ancient Chinese state figure and reformer; a founder of the Legist school (seeFA-CHIA).
A scion of an impoverished aristocratic family, Shang Yang in 361 B.C. entered the service of the Ch’in king Hsiao Kung and rose to become his chief adviser. From 359 to 348 he carried out a series of reforms that helped to consolidate central authority and strengthen the Ch’in state. As a result of Shang Yang’s reforms, the right of private ownership of land was legalized for the first time in China’s history, and the purchase and sale of land were officially permitted. In other reforms, land cultivation was encouraged, freedom to engage in trade and handicrafts was restricted, and some artisans and petty merchants were made slaves of the state. The aristocracy was deprived of the right to inherit administrative posts, and its system of hereditary landholding was abolished. The territory of the state was divided into 31 prefectures, large (patriarchal) families were forcibly split up, and a system of mutual responsibility and spying was introduced in the villages.
Shang Yang’s reforms aroused the displeasure of the hereditary aristocracy, at whose insistence he was put to death. Many of the changes aimed at strengthening central authority were applied throughout the country after the unification of China by the Ch’in state in 221 B.C.