Many scholars view Shang Yang as a philosopher of totalitarianism. This article argues for a reconsideration of that understanding. It is suggested that, despite Shang Yang’s reputation, elements of the governmental changes in the state of Qin that are credited to him would have promoted cooperation. To support this argument, this essay draws from Robert Axelrod’s analysis in The Evolution of Cooperation. An examination of the Shang Yang reforms in light of Axelrod’s suggestions for encouraging cooperation indicates that some of the most famous changes would have worked to do just that. The result may have been different from what the Qin rulers expected, as further analysis suggests that this cooperation likely contributed to the eventual fall of the Qin dynasty.


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pp. 174-191
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