Shen Buhai (ca.400 BC – ca. 337 BC) was the chief minister of the small state of Han. The legalist philosopher Hanfeizi (280 BC- 233 BC), a member of the Han ruling family, regarded Shen Buhai and his approximate contemporaries Shang Yang and Shen Dao to be the three main sources of legalist philosophy. Biographical data from that era is scanty and unreliable, but I think that we may conclude that Shen Buhai was two or three generations older than Hanfeizi and that he left writings that Hanfeizi regarded as significant. Shen Buhai’s doctrines were important in the early Han dynasty and probably also earlier during the Qin dynasty, but after Han Wudi established Confucianism as the state religion, followers of Shen Buhai were barred from public office. Partly as a result, few of his writings survive.
At the time when the Daodejing was thought to have been written by Laozi around 500 BC, it was assumed that Shen Buhai and Shen Dao had borrowed Laozi’s ideas, but now that we think that the Daodejing was written and edited in stages between about 350 BC and about 250 BC, mutual influence or influence in the other direction seems more likely, and that is my assumption here. My sources is H.G. Creel’s 1974 edition of fragments by and about Shen Buhai, but many of these are doubtful and in the end I used only passages from the chapter 大體 “Major Principles”, ascribed to Shen Buhai in Wei Zheng’s 羣書治要 Qunshi Zhiyao of 631 AD, plus two others from Tang dynasty works. (more…)