It was a belief that all men were born evil and that education couldn’t improve them. The law should be supreme and there should be a strong centralised government exercising absolute power by means of harsh punishments. For this to work, the state needed to be powerful and wealthy with the leader being an autocrat. However there should be equality before the law – no-one was to be punished more severely because of their station in life. Other philosophies should be denigrated and their books burned and teachers executed. All people should have occupations that materially benefitted others such as farming or weaving. Anyone trying to make money through other occupations would be taken into forced labour (slavery).
Other beliefs were that groups of families should be responsible for each other’s good behaviour & sharing each other’s punishments; anyone denouncing a wrongdoer would be rewarded whilst anyone who failed to denounce one would be cut in two.
Han Fei Tzu was one of the ruling family of the Han Dynasty. He was a keen law student and did much writing as he had a speech impediment. He criticised the Confucians for wasting time in pointless discussion and that too many scholars meant too few people producing food. The Confucian Han ruler didn’t agree with his ideas so, in frustration, he wrote a book, ‘Han Fei Tzu’, which laid out the main points of Legalism. The Qin ruler read it and called him to serve in his government. Unfortunately jealousy from other officials led to his being imprisoned and finally to his suicide.
Legalism, however, ended up as being self-defeating. People began to revolt and local officials did nothing about it as they were afraid that if they told the higher authorities it might be seen as criticism of the government and would end up with their being executed. Thus the government didn’t discover about the rebellions until too late and the government and Legalism ended.
Although, ultimately, legalism failed and was later demonised, it did succeed in uniting China and many of their ideas have appeared at various times during Chinese history, most recently under Chairman Mao.