In the spring of the year 536 B.C., Tsz-ch'an, one of the leading statesmen in the Chinese Federal Union, decided to publish for popular information the Criminal Law which had hitherto been simply "declared" by the various rulers and their officers according to the circumstances of each case. At this time the different premiers and ministers used to visit each other freely, generally in the suite of the reigning prince who happened to be either receiving or paying a visit from or to some other vassal prince. The Emperor himself, now shorn of his power, was only primus inter pares amongst these princes. Shuh Hiang, one of the ministers at the neighbouring court of Tsin, addressed the following remarkable letter to the colleague above mentioned who had introduced the legal innovation. It is published in exteso in Confucius' own history of the times, as expanded by one of his pupils: -
"At first I used to regard you as a guide, but now all this is at an end. Our monarchs in past times were wont to decide matters by specific ordinance, and had no prepared statutes, fearing lest the people should grow contentious. Yet even so it was impossible to suppress wrong-doing; for which reason they employed justice as a preventive, administration to bring things into line, external formality to secure respect, good faith as an abiding principle, and kindness in actual treatment. They appointed certain ranks and emoluments with a view to encouraging their officers to follow the course thus sketched out for them, and they fixed certain stern punishments and fines in order to fill these officers with a dread of arbitrariness, fearing that otherwise they might fail in their duty. Thus admonition was given with every loyalty; fear was inspired by personal example; instruction was conveyed as occasion required; employment in service was accompanied by suavity; contact with inferiors was marked by a respectful demeanour; the executive arm was firmly applied; and decisions were carried out with virility. Yet, with all this, it was never too easy to secure wise and saintly (vassal) princes, clever and discriminating ministers, loyal and trusty officials, or kind and affectionate instructors. Under these circumstances, however, it was possible to set the people going, and China was at least free from revolution and misery.
"But when the people themselves become cognizant of a written law, they will cease to fear their superiors, and, moreover, they will acquire a contentious spirit. Having book to refer to, they will employ every device to elude the letter of the law. This will not do at all. It was only in times of anarchical rule that the founders of the Hia and Shang dynasties (2200 B.C. and 1760 B.C.) found it necessary to issue (to their officers) the collections of laws which still bear their two respective names; and it was also only in anarchical times (1000 B.C.) that one Emperor of our present dynasty found it necessary to publish (for his officers) the so-called Nine Laws. In other words, the advent of written law has on all three occasions connoted a decay in government. You, sir, are the chief minister of CHENG state (part of modern Ho Nan); you made a few years ago some new regulations about the parcelling of land; next you placed the system of your taxation on a fresh basis; and you now proceed to embody the three special collections just cited in a new popular code, which you have had cast in metal characters. If you are doing it with a view to pacify the people, surely you will not find this an easy matter? The 'Book of Odes' says: 'KingWen (the virtual founder, 2200 B.C., of the then reigning Chou dynasty) took virtue as his guide, and thus gradually pacified the four quarters of the world.' It also says: 'The methods of King Wu (son of the virtual founder) secured the confidence of all the other countries.' Where were the written laws in those times? When people begin to get the contentious spirit upon them, they will have done with the principles of propriety, and only stickle for the letter; they will haggle upon every tiny point accessible to knife's edge or awl's tip. We shall witness a flood of litigious accusations; bribery and corruption will be rampant. Do you think the state of Cheng will last out your life? I have heard it said: 'When a country is about to collapse, there are many conflicting administrative changes.' Will this apply to present conditions?"
The reply returned was:-
"With regard to what my honourable friend has been pleased to say, I am afraid my humble capacities are not sufficiently great to take the interests of posterity; my action has been taken in the interests of the state as I find it, and as I have to govern it. Though, therefore, I cannot accept tour commands, I shall be careful not to forget your kindness in proffering advice."