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In the year 221 BC, Ying Zheng (嬴政), ruler of the kingdom of Qin (秦), completed the conquest of his rival states, established a unified empire, and gave himself the title of First Emperor (始皇帝, Shi Huangdi).

Qin had achieved supremacy by implementing reforms according to the principles of Legalist advisors. Legalist philosophers believed in “the supremacy of authority and centralization of power in the person of the ruler,” characterized by the “unabashed insistence on the total subordination of the people to the ruler” (Fu 1993, pp. 38-39).

Ying Zheng had ascended the throne of the state of Qin in 247 BC, when he was only nine years old. Around that time, the Legalist philosopher Li Si (李斯, ca. 280-208 BC) travelled to Qin and obtained an official position at the ruler’s court. Rising through the ranks, Li Si was influential in shaping Qin policies, and he was eventually appointed chancellor. 

One of the most famous – and infamous – acts of the Qin government was the destruction of the books of all philosophical schools, with the exception of the works of the Legalists. Li Si had advised the Emperor to do so in a memorial, which we will discuss below. 

Almost all of the existing information that we have about Li Si comes from the “Grand Scribe’s Records,” written by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (司馬遷, c. 145 – c. 86 BC). As Goldin (2017) points out, our knowledge of Li Si “is inevitably colored by the biases of Sima Qian, who […] incorporated into his writings a peculiar view of the empire and its legitimacy” (Goldin 2017, p. 66). Some scholars have suggested that the account of Qin’s book burning was exaggerated or entirely fabricated (ibid., p. 71). 

Nevertheless, Sima Qian’s biography of Li Si is a deeply fascinating document. As with many ancient sources, its accuracy is debatable. But it is noteworthy that the story of Qin’s harsh and inhumane rule was the narrative that subsequent generations of scholars chose to record.

Table of Contents

  1. The Rise of Li Si 
  2. Li Si Denounces Feudalism 
  3. The Destruction of the Books
  4. Li Si’s Intrigues and the Fall of Qin
  5. Li Si’s Legacy 
Li Si’s name, written in seal script (©Aris Teon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Rise of Li Si 

According to “The Grand Scribe’s Records,” Li Si was born in Shangcai (上蔡) in the state of Chu (楚). When he was young, while serving as a minor officer in his commandery, he observed how people and dogs frightened away the rats that infested the officers’ quarters. When he entered the local granary, he saw that the rats were eating the stored grain, and were not worried about men or dogs. Li Si sighed and said: “A man’s worth or unworthiness is like a rat’s, it depends on where one is situated” (see Ssu-ma 2021, p. 631; 李斯列傳, 1, my translation).

Philg88 • CC BY-SA 3.0

Li Si became a student of the renowned Confucian scholar Xunzi (荀子). Afterwards, he decided to seek official employment in the state of Qin, which he admired for being the most powerful kingdom of his time (Ssu-ma 2021, p. 631).

Before leaving, Li Si told Xunzi: “Now the King of Qin desires to swallow the whole world and proclaim himself Emperor. This is the time for the common people to gallop forth; this is the season for the learned man to travel and offer his advice to the ruler … Giving oneself to non-action (自託於無為) is not the scholar’s disposition. Therefore, I shall go west to counsel the King of Qin” (Ssu-ma 2021, pp. 631-632; 李斯列傳, 2, my translation). 

Li Si arrived in the state of Qin in 247 BC, just as the young King Zheng ascended the throne. Li managed to become a protégé of minister Lü Buwei (呂不韋), who appointed him as an advisor (Ssu-ma 2021, p. 632). 


Li Si Denounces Feudalism 

The Legalists were opposed to the old feudal society, which they saw as a threat to absolute monarchy. Li Si was a fervent proponent of the abolition of feudalism. He urged King Zheng not only to defeat his enemies, but also to crush once and for all the power of the feudal clans: 

“Today the feudal lords have submitted to [Qin] as if they were its commanderies and counties. [Qin’]s might and your worthiness, Great King, are sufficient to destroy the feudal lords as easy as brushing off the top of a kitchen stove, to finally fulfilling the aspiration to emperorship, and to bring unity to the world. This is a single opportunity in ten-thousand generations! If you are negligent now and do not urgently move on this opportunity at once, the feudal lords will regain their might and join together …” (Ssu-ma 2012, p. 633).

The King appointed Li Si as Chief Secretary (長史), and later gave him the title of Foreign Excellency (客卿: a term describing a person from one feudal state serving as official at the court of another) (ibid.). 

By 221 BC, Qin had defeated all of its enemies and was in control of a unified empire. Following the advice of Li Si, the First Emperor dismantled the feudal system, refusing to divide up the territory among his own relatives and loyalists, because that would have weakened his central authority. As Sima Qian wrote:

“After more than twenty years, [Qin] finally united the world, honored its ruler as the August Emperor and made [Li Si] Chancellor. [The Emperor] leveled the city walls of the commanderies and counties and melted their weapons to show that they would not be used again. He caused [Qin] to be without a single foot of land in fief, and did not enthrone his sons and younger brothers as kings, nor invest the meritorious vassals as feudal lords …” (ibid., p. 639).


The Destruction of the Books

In 213 BC, during a feast in the imperial palace in the capital Xianyang, an official named Chunyu Yue advised the Emperor to enfeoff his sons, brothers and meritorious ministers, as had been the traditional custom, admonishing him that a successful ruler should “follow the ways of old” (師古) (Ssu-ma 2021, pp. 639-640). 

Li Si vehemently disagreed, and he submitted to the Emperor a memorial rejecting the teachings of the scholars who preached about the wisdom of past kings. Li Si advised the Qin ruler not only to ignore Chunyu Yue’s words, but also to destroy all influential books that could weaken his authority and lead to factionalism, i.e. to the proliferation of views that were in opposition to those of the Emperor. He wrote:

“In ancient times when the world was unorganized and disordered, no one was able to unify it; thus the feudal lords all arose. In discussions, they censored the present by invoking the past and confused the truth by embellishing empty expressions. Men valued that which they had learned privately and based on this criticized what their superiors had established. Now your majesty has unified and possessed the world, discriminated between black and white [i.e. issued laws to determine right and wrong behaviour], and founded a single authority. Yet there are those with private teachings who among each other criticize the regulations of the law and [imperial] instructions … They make their reputations through criticizing their ruler, exalt themselves through their heterodox thought (異趣以為高), and lead their followers in devising slanders. If such a situation is not prohibited, then the ruler’s authority will decline above, and factions will form below (如此不禁,則主勢降乎上,黨與成乎下) … Your servant requests that all those documents and records, the Book of Odes, the Book of Documents, and those sayings of the Hundred Masters should be destroyed and gotten rid of (臣請諸有文學詩書百家語者,蠲除去之). Those who have not discarded them within thirty days after the order is issued should be tattooed and sentenced to hard labor … Those who wish to study should take [government] officials as their teachers” (欲學者,以吏為師) (Ssu-ma 2021, pp. 640-641; 李斯列傳, 10, my emphasis). 

The First Emperor approved his proposal, collected and discarded the Book of Odes, the Book of Documents, and the sayings of the hundred schools to keep the people ignorant, so as to prevent the world from using the past to criticize the present. Clarification of the legal system and formulation of the laws and ordinances all were initiated by the First Emperor. He unified the legal documents and built separate detached palaces throughout the world. In the next year he again made a tour of inspection and drove out the barbarians of the four directions. [Li Si] contributed much to all of these” (Ssu-ma 2021, p. 641, my emphasis). 

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Li Si’s Intrigues and the Fall of Qin

In 210 BC, the First Emperor was succeeded by his oldest son Fusu (扶蘇). He had opposed his father’s policies as well as the influence of Legalism, including the destruction of books. 

Although Li Si had advocated for an all-powerful monarch, he conspired with the palace eunuch Zhao Gao (趙高) to kill Fusu and his favourite General, Meng Tian (蒙恬). Li Si and Zhao Gao fabricated an edict from the First Emperor, in which he denounced Fusu for being disloyal and unfilial, and ordered that he commit suicide. Through this forged edict, Li Si and Zhao Gao removed Fusu and installed as Emperor another son of Ying Zheng’s, the 21-year-old Huhai (胡亥). In 210 BC, he ascended the throne with the imperial title Qin Er Shi (秦二世; lit. ‘Second Generation of the Qin’). 

Sima Qian wrote: 

“[Li Si and Zhao Gao] planned things together, pretending to have received an edict from the First Emperor which ordered the Chancellor to establish the Emperor’s son [Huhai] as the Heir” (Ssu-ma 2021, p. 647).

Huhai soon became a puppet of Zhao Gao’s, whose influence made the Qin government ever more oppressive and cruel. According to Sima Qian, Zhao Gao advised the Second Emperor to “[m]ake the laws more severe and the penalties harsher, have those who have committed crimes implicate each other in their punishment and include their entire clans” (ibid., p. 649). 

Not content with the power he had gained, Zhao Gao turned against his former ally Li Si, accusing him and one of his sons of disloyalty. 

“[T]he Second Emperor had [Zhao Gao] handle the case against the Chancellor. He inquired into his crimes, accused [Li Si] and his son Yu of plotting rebellion, and arrested all his clansmen and retainers.” Zhao Gao had Li Si “beaten and whipped more than one-thousand strokes.” Unable to bear torture, Li Si confessed (ibid., p. 659). 

Yet Li Si still believed in his own eloquence and ability to persuade the Emperor, so he wrote a memorial. But the ruler never read it. Zhao Gao ordered the functionaries to destroy the memorial. Li Si was again subjected to torture, and out of fear he did not dare retract his and his son’s confessions. 

Persuaded of their guilt, in 208 BC the Second Emperor ordered that Li Si be sentenced to the “five punishments,” namely tattooing, slicing off the nose, cutting off the legs, castration and beheading; and that his body be cut in half at the waste in the marketplace of the capital Xianyang (ibid., p. 661). 

When he and his second son were taken to the marketplace, Li Si looked at him and said: “Even if I wished once more to go out the eastern gate of [Shangcai] with you, leading our yellow dog to chase a wily rabbit, how could I do it?” Having spoken those words, “father and son wailed together and his clan to the third degree [of relationship] was wiped out” (ibid.).

Zhao Gao’s treachery did not stop with the murder of Li Si, and he hatched a plot against the Emperor himself. While the latter was residing in one of his palaces, Zhao Gao summoned the imperial guards, ordering them to dress in unmarked clothes and point their weapons at the palace. Afterwards, he went to the Emperor and made him believe that those guards were bandits who had besieged the building. 

The ruler climbed to a look-out tower, and when he saw the armed men, he was terrified. Zhao Gao convinced him to commit suicide, and then he took the imperial seal. However, nobody would recognize him as the new ruler, so he installed on the throne the Second Emperor’s younger brother, Ziying (子嬰). But Ziying did not trust Zhao Gao. He conspired with another eunuch, Han Tan (韓談). Ziying summoned Zhao Gao, and when he arrived, Han Tan stabbed him. Then the Emperor “exterminated his clan to the third degree” (ibid., p. 662). 

Three months after Ziying’s ascension to the throne, rebel troops captured the capital Xianyang. Ziying, his wife and children surrendered, and later they were beheaded (ibid., p. 663). 


Li Si’s Legacy 

Sima Qian wrote of Li Si’s legacy that he, who “came from the back alleyways,” aided the First Emperor in “bringing the imperial enterprise to success.” However, he “did not devote himself to enlightened governance with which to remedy the ruler’s shortcomings.” He was “slavish” and “unscrupulous”, encouraged the Emperor to mete out harsh punishments, and “heeded [Zhao Gao]’s evil advice”. Only when the feudal lords revolted did Li Si remonstrate (ibid., p. 663, my emphasis). 

As mentioned previously, it is hard to know how accurate Sima Qian’s biography of Li Si is. What we can say is that Sima Qian’s account was the narrative which post-Qin society chose to hand down to subsequent generations.

In a future post I will discuss how, after the fall of Qin, Confucianism was re-evaluated; how Confucian ideals were used in order to create a more humane, institutionalized form of monarchy; and how the story of the First Emperor and his dynasty became a cautionary tale of the excesses of absolute rule.  

Thank you for reading!

If you have enjoyed this article, please consider supporting my work with a donation on Ko-fi. Alternatively, you can take a look at some of my books and translations:



Fu, Z. (1993). Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics.

Goldin, P. (2017). After Confucius.

Ssu-ma, C. (2021). The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume VII.