Out of all the ancient Chinese philosophies, legalism is the most fun to teach. The best topics in social studies are the ones the create a guttural response from students, negative or positive. Legalism is the topic that will get the students thinking: 

Why would anyone think this philosophy is

So, what exactly is legalism? 

Legalism is the ancient Chinese philosophy created by various philosophers ( but the most well-known is Hu ). This philosophy believes there needs to be strict adherence to laws because humans are inclined to wrongdoing. 

If you are new to teaching this philosophy, you may think legalism is all about rules and punishment, but this philosophy is deeper.  Legalism is the philosophy that humans being are naturally selfish (some may include evil). This is why strict consequences and rewards need to be put in place because this will essentially keep humans in check.

From teaching this topic, I realized that is the surface level of the philosophy. My definition is: Legalism is the philosophy that human beings are naturally selfish, because they are naturally selfish, humans will work hard on their skill or craft. This is important for a government or empire because you can choose people based on skills. The second definition is important because it gives perspective into why Emperor Qin Shi Huang would adopt his philosophy in the Qin dynasty. 

How to start the lesson?

To get students hooked, I would highly recommend starting with a simulation. I adapted this simulation from the History Alive lesson on legalism. 

Simulation Instructions: 

  1. When students enter the room say “good morning”. Do not smile or answer any questions
  2. Tell students today they will learn about legalism and will practice this philosophy. 
  3. Project new rules in the classroom ( this is important because in legalism rules are posted for citizens to follow) 
  4. My rules are based on a 50 point grade. Students lose points for each rule they break.
  5. By this point, students are confused and this is when I will begin laughing or tell students this would be how a classroom would be if legalism was the philosophy of the school. 


Download the Simulation.

Want to use this simulation in your classroom? Download the simulation slides!

Click Here

How do I teach the lesson? 

  1. To teach the lesson, I start with a short (10 min) lecture on legalism and the founders. 
  2. Students then are given 3 main principles to read about the fu, shu, and shi 
  3. Students then analyze quotes about legalism and identify which principle applies.

This lesson is pretty straightforward and easy for the students. Legalism is easy for students to understand, so this lesson should take 40 mins. 

Colorful Cute Keep Fighting Art Canvas

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