Shang Yang

The first of the fathers of Legalism was Shang Yang (c. 390 – 338 BC),, who became the actual organizer of the state of Qin and whose ideas were further developed by Han Fei Tzu (died 233 B.C.) Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Shang Yang's policies in Qin transformed the shape of Warring States society, and who may be regarded as the true “father” of the Legalist school. If we rely on the historical texts that have been left to us to determine the greatest turning point of Classical Chinese history, it would be the ministry of Shang Yang in the state of Qin. While it is undoubtedly true that the histories exaggerate his achievements, it is still likely that the reality was extraordinary. Shang Yang was a political thinker who reflected his times, and it may be that without his efforts, the same general outcome of Warring States chaos would have, in time, been brought about – another Shang Yang would have eventually arisen. But Shang Yang’s career is no less remarkable for that. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Because of Shang Yang’s historical importance, it is appropriate to discuss his career and his ideas in some detail here. Although there is an extant text that bears Shang Yang’s name (translated into English as “The Book of Lord Shang”), it is actually a post-Zhou forgery and cannot be used to elucidate Shang Yang’s original ideas. Our best sources from these actually come from historical texts, such as the Han period “Shiji” (Records of the Grand Historian). The following account is based on such sources. /+/

“Shang Yang’s exploits in Qin crystallized earlier tendencies that had arisen to create centralized states whose governments were managed both by the officers of a central court and by district officers whose appointments were made without reference to birth. Shang Yang also recognized that the benefits of such a system to the central government would only accrue if there were fashioned sophisticated systems of social control that would have the same effects as by the ducal court without requiring great additional 4 manpower and expense. In Qin, the law code and its enforcement became just such a tool of social control. /+/

“Although to later Confucians Shang Yang represented the epitome of political immorality, Shang Yang was actually a legitimist in the same sense as Confucius: he relied on the legitimacy of the Zhou.appointed ducal house, but otherwise sanctioned only criteria of merit rather than birth. His reforms had the predictable effect of drastically reducing the power of the patrician class, before this ultimate outcome was determined, the enmity of the patricians brought Shang Yang down.” /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religious Tolerance ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

How Shang Yang Came to Qin

State of Qin

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Shang Yang was born in the state of Wey about 390 B.C. to a patrician family descended from the Wey ruling house (he is also known as Wei Yang, or Prince Yang). Wey, which had been a significant political force among the Central States centuries earlier, had lost nearly all of its interstate influence by the fourth century. Nevertheless, as a young man, Shang Yang seemed on the way to a brilliant career in Wey. He became a clan retainer of the prime minister of Wey, who was greatly impressed with his abilities. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“It is said that when the prime minister fell ill, the duke of Wey visited him to consult on a successor, should one be needed. The prime minister startled the duke by naming Shang Yang, who, in the duke’s eyes was still an obscure youth. The duke not only ignored the recommendation, he ridiculed it. Consequently, Shang Yang came to the conclusion that his fortune would best be sought outside his home state. /+/

“In 362 B.C. the prime minister of Wey, having recovered his health, was captured in battle by the armies of Qin, and the following year a new ruler took the throne in Qin, Duke Xiao. Duke Xiao was intent on recapturing territories and influence that had slipped from Qin in recent centuries, and like other ambitious rulers of the time, he issued a proclamation inviting men of talent throughout China to travel to his court. With his future in Wey seeming bleak, Shang Yang responded to Duke Xiao’s call. /+/

“It seems to have taken Shang Yang some time to persuade the duke of his usefulness to Qin. Many of the reforms that he ultimately engineered were apparently proposals that he announced soon after his arrival in order to attract the duke’s attention and stand out from the crowd of learned men flocking to Qin in hopes of wealth and prestige. When the duke at length began to probe Shang Yang’s ideas in greater depth, traditionalists at his court voiced strenuous objections to the radical nature of his proposals. But Shang Yang kept his self-possession and continued to speak eloquently for his ideas. He was, after all, not only a brilliant man, but a cultivated patrician who had seen service as a key aide to a prime minister in Wey. /+/

In the end, the duke decided to adopt Shang Yang’s ideas and put him in charge of their implementation as prime minister of Qin. As the established power holders in Qin were adamantly opposed to this outsider’s programs, we may assume that the administrative staff that Shang Yang used to manage his reforms probably included many men not previously of high standing. Their loyalty towards Shang Yang would have been unusually strong, as their own careers were most likely tied tightly to his success. Thus because Shang Yang was denied a chance to join the political establishment of his small native state, he became instead the unusually independent head of government in one of the greatest states in China.” /+/

Shang Yang’s Reform Program

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Shang Yang was in power in Qin for about twenty years and during that time he made Qin into a completely new type of state. That state was characterized by centralized administration, new systems of taxation, government management of the economy, standardization of weights and measures (a major undertaking in those times), armament of a greatly enlarged army, and, what later writers most stressed, the implementation of a brutally draconian set of laws. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“To achieve centralized control of the state, Shang Yang divided the lands of Qin into counties, administrative units determined by the duke’s court rather than by tradition. The management of these counties was entrusted not to local power holders, but to magistrates whose talents were valued by the court and who were answerable to the duke and the prime minister for their actions. These were men who could be fired without repercussions – they did not represent powerful clans, only themselves, and there was no hereditary right associated with their offices. Their sole political loyalty was thus to the men who appointed them, and in this way, Shang Yang created the first true state-wide bureaucracy in China. /+/

“The patrician clans still retained rights to incomes from the lands that earlier dukes had bestowed upon them, and the aristocracy was by no means eliminated. In fact, Shang Yang himself received a patrimonial estate from Duke Xiao (it was the city region of Shang, which is why he is usually called Shang Yang, or sometimes Lord Shang). But the power of the patrician clans to influence the operations of both state and local government was sharply reduced. /+/

“The changes that Shang Yang effected in Qin were more than administrative, they were social as well. All families were registered, and groups of five or ten families living in a single village, neighborhood, or lane were designated as a “mutual responsibility” unit. Each member of the unit was a guarantor to the government for the behavior of the entire group. Thus if one member of the group broke the law, all members received punishment. /+/

“And the punishments were severe. Heavy punishments were decreed for crimes that might be considered relatively minor, and any who sheltered law breakers were sentenced to be cut in two. Rewards were similarly great, and good conduct could actually earn promotion to patrician status in a newly crafted system of sixteen social grades (another thorn in the side of the established patricians in Qin, who were equally dismayed to learn that law breaking could strip them of their ancient status under the new system). In practice, the punishments made a far greater impact on cultural memory than the rewards. /+/

“A second wave of reforms attacked the family structure of Qin still further. In order to discourage the formation of large family compounds that might become points of independent social influence, government policies encouraged the independence of the nuclear family unit. Fathers, married sons, and brothers were forbidden to occupy a single household once of a certain age. Families with two unmarried adult sons faced a double tax assessment. As families, the basic economic units of the state, were reconfigured in this way, the boundaries of fields were completely redrawn so as to reflect new realities. /+/

Impact of Shang Yang’s Reform Program

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Despite these pressures on social arrangements, which worked to the disadvantage of the less influential strata of society, Shang Yang’s reforms initially benefitted the peasant class at the expense of the patricians. The sharp limitations in the prerogatives of the patricians was complemented by the explicit designation of all farming families as independent units owing taxes directly to the Qin state. Over the portions of Qin where patrician claims were not clearly established, this act essentially gave farmers ownership responsibilities over their lands, and spelled the end of any expansion of patrician control of the peasant class, apart from control exercised directly from court. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“However, this system seems not to have benefitted the peasant class in the long run. Shang Yang’s laws also established the legality of the private purchase of land. Land was thus transformed into a marketable commodity of great value, substantially increasing the volatility of commerce in Qin. Under these circumstances, a process of land speculation appears to have occurred in which those with liquid assets, principally members of the merchant class, bought out poor peasants and accumulated substantial holdings of land. Although Qin had strong bars against members of the merchant class being awarded patrician rank, it does appear that the merchant class was the chief beneficiary of Shang Yang’s reforms. In time, it was widely acknowledged that Shang Yang had created a state that worked. The population was orderly, the harvests were huge, the markets were flourishing, and soldiers fought bravely. When Shang Yang exhibited the fairness of the laws by punishing high ranking courtiers as severely as commoners, he won grudging admiration. But when people began to praise his laws, he took further action. Desirous of suppressing the notion that independent evaluation of the duke’s legitimate government was permissible, regardless of the nature of the judgment, he had those who praised his reforms banished along with his opponents and passed a law forbidding any discussion of the laws whatever. /+/

“Shang Yang claimed that the sole values relevant to a state were its wealth and its military success. Since his political outlook was framed entirely from the perspective of the personal interests of the legitimate ruler, no other values were of importance. It was irrelevant whether the people of the state were content or not: whichever was more conducive to enlarging the duke’s treasuries and strengthening his armies was the one more desirable. Shang Yang’s state was an absolute tyranny, but like many well managed tyrannies, it purchased the toleration of the population by delivering to them the fruits of order: wealth and security. /+/

“The aspects of Shang Yang’s thought that became central to Legalism, apart from his foundational stress on the wealth and size of the state as its sole concerns, included his rejection of the criterion of heredity in office in favor of a government of bureaucratic term appointments, his goal of creating a fully centralized state, and most of all, his insistence on the absolute rule of law and the uniform application of rewards and punishments. /+/

Shen Buhai and Shen Dao

Shen Buhai

Dr. Eno wrote: The second founder of Legalism was a man named Shen Buhai, who was a minister to the state of Han and a contemporary of Shang Yang (he died in 337 B.C.). Shen Buhai was chiefly concerned with the art of manipulating people for political ends. He knew first hand of the wealth of interests, affinities, and enmities at a patrician court, and how difficult these were to control. His writings, most now lost, explored the ways in which a ruler could employ the greed and fear of ministers as tools to gain his own ends. Shen Buhai’s contribution to Legalism may be thought of as his code for successful personnel management. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The third man was Shen Dao (c. 350-275), about whom we know little. Shen Dao was impressed by the way in which the consequences of actions were often governed less by the intentions of the actors than by the contours of situational contexts, or “strategic advantage” (“shi”), a term we have encountered in Sun Tzu’s writings. Shen Dao wrote a handbook to help rulers envision these contexts as arrays of power relationships. He noted that identical actions under different circumstances of power will produce radically different results; for example, the ruler of a powerful state might become hegemon by launching an attack against a state with a record of recklessly coercing its neighbors, but if the ruler of a modest state did the same, he risked becoming a laughingstock or losing his state. /+/

“An example of Shen Dao’s thinking is cited at length in the “Han Feizi”, which, in this particular case, criticizes Shen Dao for the incompleteness of his ideas: Shen Dao says, “The flying dragon rides on the clouds, the leaping viper flies on the mist. If the clouds disperse and the mist clears, the dragon and viper are no different than the earthworm and ant; they have lost the vehicles on which they rode. When a worthy man is subordinate to an unworthy man it is because his weight of authority is light and his position is low. When an unworthy man is able to subdue a it is because his weight of authority is heavy and his position is high. If Emperor Yao had been a common peasant he could not have commanded three men, yet the Emperor Jie [the evil last emperor of the Xia Dynasty] was the Son of Heaven,and so brought chaos to the entire world. It is on this basis that I know that the strategic advantage (“shi”) of position is enough to rely on, and that wisdom and worthiness are not worth admiring. Though one’s bow is weak, if one shoots from a great height, one’s arrow will fly swifter than the wind. Though you are yourself unworthy, that your orders are carried out is due to the people’s duty to assist you. Were Yao to occupy the social rank of a slave, none would listen to him, yet when he faced south and ruled the world, what he ordered was done, what he prohibited was stopped. Looking at things this way, we can see that wisdom and worthiness are inadequate to subdue the people, while the strategic advantage of position is able to subdue worthy men.”

“There is a reply to Shen Dao’s arguments. The flying dragon rides on the clouds and the leaping viper flies on the mist, it is true, and I do not deny that they rely upon the strategic advantage of the clouds and mist. Nevertheless, if one were to give up on worthiness and simply rely on strategic advantage, could one create order? I have yet to see it! That they can employ the strategic vehicles of cloud and mist to fly is a product of the fine talents of the dragon and viper. Although the clouds may be dense, the earthworm cannot ride on them; although the mists are brewing thick, the ant can’t fly on them. That there may be the strategic array of dense clouds and thick mist but the earthworm and ant cannot take them as their vehicles is a product of the meager talents of the earthworm and ant. /+/

“Now, Jie and Zhòu [Zhòu was the evil last emperor of the Shang Dynasty] faced south and ruled the world, and they relied on the awesomeness of the office of Son of Heaven as their cloud and mist, yet the world was nevertheless plunged into chaos. This reflects the meager talents of Jie and Zhòu. Moreover, in the case of Yao, he employed his strategic advantage in order to bring order to the world; how his this strategic advantage different from that of Jie, who brought chaos to the world? Strategic advantage is not something that a worthy will inevitably make use of, but the unworthy man will not be able to make use of it. If a worthy relies upon it, the world will be ordered; if an unworthy man relies upon it, the world will be in chaos. /+/

Li Si

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Li Si (d. 208 B.C.) was, along with the Legalist philosopher Han Fei (d. 233 B.C.), a student of Xunzi (c. 310.c. 219 B.C.) and an official for the kingdom of Qin. When Qin conquered the remaining feudal states of the Zhou dynasty and built a new, centralized empire, Li Si was prime minister to the first emperor, Qin Shihuang. As prime minister, Li Si had the opportunity to bring Legalist political philosophy to bear on the task of uniting and ruling the patchwork of newly-conquered feudal states of the former Zhou kingdom.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Li Si, whom many regard as the true architect of the Qin conquest, was originally from the town of Shangcai in the state of Chu. He was a man of humble background, and as an ambitious youth he sought to better himself by traveling to Qi to study under the Confucian Xunzi, who was the senior master at Jixia. After some time spent in Qi, Li determined that the future lay with Qin rather than in his native Chu, and he traveled west to seek his fortune as a persuader. Like his “classmate” Han Feizi, he chose not to follow the idealistic program of Confucianism, with its dictum to avoid political engagement in times of immorality, and instead gravitated towards the doctrines and methods of Legalism, an appropriate set of wares to peddle in Qin.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Li Si arrived in 247 B.C., a year of transition in Qin. The young King Zhuangxiang, the former Prince Zichu, died that year, and the fortunes of Lü Buwei rose to new heights with the installation of the new boy king, Zheng. King Zheng was only thirteen upon his enthronement, and was under the thumb of his merchant prime minister (whom the “Shiji” identifies as his father). Lü Buwei was impressed with his newly arrived retainer Li Si and before long he introduced him to the king, who appointed him to a major government position. Over the next decade, Li became increasingly active in the Qin government, and his role at the Qin capital of Xianyang seems to have increasingly involved service to the king rather than to Lü Buwei. Thus when Lü met his downfall in 237 B.C., Li Si seems to have weathered the event well, initially suffering no ill effects. /+/

“But within months, the native patricians of Qin, long weak and subject to domination by alien ministers, made a move to regain power they had lost over a century earlier. The affair of Lü Buwei’s transgressions, combined with the state of Han’s attempt to sabotage Qin military preparedness through the affair of the Zheng Guo Canal, prompted the native elite to persuade the king to abandon the Qin tradition of recruiting foreigners to high positions. The danger of treachery had grown, they argued, and Qin would now need to rely on its own resources. /+/

“The king accordingly issued an order to banish all foreigners from Qin, and Li Si was caught in the net. However, Li Si promptly composed a long and eloquent memorial to the throne, reviewing the many goods that Qin had derived from its tradition of recruitment. This memorial, much admired by later writers, led the king to reverse his orders. Li was reappointed, and seems from this time on to have become indispensable to the king. Although he did not actually occupy the position of prime minister until after the unification of China in 221 B.C., from 237 B.C. on he appears to have had unparalleled influence. King Zheng was now twenty-two, and he and Li Si formed an energetic axis of political energy that brought the institutions of Qin to higher levels of efficiency than had ever before been achieved. The final campaign to conquer China began shortly thereafter. /+/

“Traditional histories have portrayed Li Si as one of the great villains of the Chinese past. Rather than marvel at the way that he was able to systematically apply Legalist principles to engineer the Qin conquest and the establishment of a revolutionary new form of government in the Qin Imperial state, they have quibbled over his slight misdeeds. For example, historians have deplored his treachery to his friend Han Feizi – whom he jealously slandered so that Han Feizi would be sentenced to execution – largely ignoring the fact that Li Si thoughtfully sent his jailed former classmate poison so that Han Feizi could die with honor (also sparing him the pain of learning who had slandered him). Or they have fussed over Li Si having persuaded the First Emperor of the Qin to order all non-Legalist texts, with a few exceptions, to be burnt, so that people would no longer have the understanding to challenge the government. They have even gone so far as to take him to task for the massive slaughter of Confucian scholars, who were, so it is said, buried alive in huge pits. /+/

“We should recognize, however, that without Li Si, the First Emperor would surely never have been able to channel his megalomaniac talents into so productive an outlet as the establishment of perhaps the largest successful tyranny ever seen, and the revolution of the Chinese state that the Qin Dynasty represented might never have occurred, or would at least have been seriously delayed. And in this regard, Li Si must surely be regarded as in a class by himself among the Legalists.” /+/

Legalists and the Qin Government

Emperor Qin Shihuang

Key Qin ideologists adhered to the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Although the early Legalist adherents in Qin did not possess sufficient power to destroy all the hereditary patrician clans of the state, in the century before the Qin unified China, they were able to strengthen the Qin monarchy greatly and diminish the role of the aristocrats. More and more Qin territory came under the direct control of the Qin rulers, rather than being aristocratic fiefs, and within those royal territories, officers of state were appointed directly by the ruler, on the basis of their qualifications, rather than the social standing of their families. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Legalists were also known for the stress they laid on well designed codes of administrative and criminal law. They believed that the well designed state did not need to depend on the virtue or good will of its citizens. Rather, if carefully structured legal codes were written to control people’s behavior, if the people were clearly informed of what the codes said, and if the codes provided absolute standards of reward for good behavior and strictly enforced punishments for violations, people would be so motivated by greed for rewards and fear of certain punishment that they would simply obey the law in all respects. The goal was, in essence, to design a state that would be entirely predictable, because all human initiative had been reduced to obedience to explicit rules, motivated by fear of certain punishment, and desire for reward. /+/

A famous example by a prominent Legalist thinker illustrates the way a Legalist ruler should enforce this type of system: Once Marquis Zhao of Han got drunk and fell asleep. The keeper of the royal hat, seeing that the duke was cold, laid a robe over him. When the marquis awoke, he was pleased and asked his attendants, “Who covered me with a robe?” “The keeper of the hat,” they replied. The marquis thereupon punished both the keeper of the royal hat and the keeper of the royal robe. He punished the keeper of the royal robe for failing to do his duty, and the keeper of the hat for overstepping his office. It was not that he did not dislike the cold, but he considered the trespass of one official upon the duties of another to be a greater danger than cold. /+/

“By enforcing narrowly framed rules in this way, without allowing personal sentiment or favoritism to influence the function of the system, the ruler, himself and through his officers, could control his state with little effort – so little effort, in fact, that some Legalists portrayed the art of rulership in the Legalist ideal state as a form of Daoist “wuwei”, despite the fact that this spontaneously functioning society was not guided by the natural forces of the cosmos, but instead by the well crafted legal policies of the state government. /+/

“Legalism was a highly mechanistic portrait of government. Its ideas and institutions were, in fact, the earliest fully developed form of bureaucracy in world history. Because it advocated a tightly designed hierarchy of governance and valued merit over heredity, it shared some features in common with Confucianism. However, Legalism had no use at all for ritual “li” or the precedents of history, and was a completely amoral philosophy, aiming not at ethically good people or even an ethically good government, but only at a large and powerful state and a ruling house with the wealth necessary to preserve and enjoy power. Where Confucians pictured a future utopia of good people ruled by sages, the Legalists pictured obedient subjects, working feverishly for their ruler’s own benefit out of fear of punishment and a greed for reward. For this reason, Confucians viewed Legalists as the enemies of the good. Even more distressing, the Legalist policies of Qin had yielded the results that the early Legalists had predicted. Qin had become a strong, wealthy, organized state, free of a self-serving aristocracy and obedient to the ruler’s direction.” /+/

Emperor Qin, Li Si and Abolishment of Feudalism

Dr. Eno wrote: After Qin’s conquest in 221 B.C., “the central issue was how the “empire”of Qin was to be related to the “state”of Qin. Now that King Zheng occupied the imperial throne, was he to revive the “feudal” structure of the Zhou and guide it towards its next historical stage, or was he to impose upon the empire the radically different political forms that had come to characterize the “Legalist” state of Qin?...At the time of the conquest, some ministers of Qin proposed to the king-turned-emperor that the only feasible way to administer a polity the size of China would be on the model of Zhou feudalism. These men urged the king to do what the Zhou founders had done 800 years earlier: establish his sons as kings in various realms at some remove from the capital and so begin the process of reviving the system of rule by dispersed clan leaders. / [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The minister Li Si, one of the most influential Legalist thinkers, opposed this plan in strident terms. He maintained that the system of bureaucratic autocracy that had been established in the old state of Qin a century before was fully adequate to administer the empire, and, moreover, he believed that only such a system could avoid the dispersion of power that had, in the end, brought down the Zhou and the more traditional ruling houses of the multi-state period: those of Jin and Qi. At the time of the conquest, Li Si did not yet occupy the highest position in the Qin government. His official position was Commandant of Justice; the prime ministership belonged to a man named Wang Wan, about whom we know virtually nothing. Wang proposed to the king-turned-emperor that the only feasible way to administer a polity the size of China would be on the model of Zhou feudalism. He urged the king to establish his sons as kings in various realms at some remove from the capital and so begin the process of reviving the system of rule by dispersed clan leaders.

In Li Si prevailed. capital itself was be relocated; the city of Xianyang, the royal seat of the Qin state, would become the capital of all China. Ironically, Xianyang was the approximate site of the Western Zhou capital, (near the modern city of Xi'an).

Qin Empire in 210 BC

Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States by Li Si

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The memorial below by Li Si was recorded by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (145?-86? B.C.). It may, therefore, reflect Han bias in either the choice made or the accuracy of the record. However, we have no alternative sources from which to compare the record and investigate the nature and extent of whatever bias may be present. This document must, then, stand as one of the best records we have as to the policies pursued by the Qin ruler in imposing unification on the fragmented Zhou polity. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The “Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) reads: “He who waits on others misses his opportunities, while a man aiming at great achievements takes advantage of a critical juncture and relentlessly follows it through. Why is it that during all the years that Duke Mu of Qin (659.621 B.C.) was overlord (“ ba”) among the feudal princes, he did not try to annex the Six States to the east? It was because the feudal lords were still numerous and the power of the imperial Zhou had not yet decayed. Hence, as the Five Overlords succeeded one another, each in turn upheld the House of Zhou. But since the time of Duke Xiao of Qin (361.338 B.C.) the House of Zhou has been declining, the feudal states have been annexing one another, and east of the pass there remain only Six States. [Source: Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 208-210; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Through military victories, the state of Qin has, in the time of the last six kings, brought the feudal lords into submission. And by now the feudal states yield obeisance to Qin as if they were its commanderies and prefectures. Now, with the might of Qin and the virtues of Your Highness, at one stroke, like sweeping off the dust from a kitchen stove, the feudal lords can be annihilated, imperial rule can be established, and unification of the world can be brought about.

“This is the one moment in ten thousand ages. If Your Highness allows it to slip away and does not press the advantage in haste, the feudal lords will revive their strength and organize themselves into an anti-Qin alliance. Then no one, even though he possess the virtues of the Yellow Emperor, would be able to annex their territories.”

Memorial on the Burning of Books by Li Si

Emperor Qin ordered all books burned except those that praised the emperors (one reason why historical records before the Qin Dynasty are scarce). Among the primary targets of this order were all books associated with the Confucians. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The “burning of books,” ordered in 213 B.C., was an effort to achieve thought control through destroying all literature except the Classic of Changes, the royal archives of the Qin house, and books on technical subjects, such as medicine, agriculture, and forestry. The measure was aimed particularly at the Classic of Documents and the Classic of Odes. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Burning of the books and burying of scholars Under Emperor Qin

The “Memorial on the Burning of Books” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) reads: “In earlier times the empire disintegrated and fell into disorder, and no one was capable of unifying it. Thereupon the various feudal lords rose to power. In their discourses they all praised the past in order to disparage the present and embellished empty words to confuse the truth. Everyone cherished his own favorite school of learning and criticized what had been instituted by the authorities. [Source: “Memorial on the Burning of Books” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian). “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 208-210; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“But at present Your Majesty possesses a unified empire, has regulated the distinctions of black and white, and has firmly established for yourself a position of sole supremacy. And yet these independent schools, joining with each other, criticize the codes of laws and instructions. Hearing of the promulgation of a decree, they criticize it, each from the standpoint of his own school. At home they disapprove of it in their hearts; going out they criticize it in the thoroughfare. They seek a reputation by discrediting their sovereign; they appear superior by expressing contrary views, and they lead the lowly multitude in the spreading of slander. If such license is not prohibited, the sovereign power will decline above and partisan factions will form below. It would be well to prohibit this.

“Your servant suggests that all books in the imperial archives, save the memoirs of Qin, be burned. All persons in the empire, except members of the Academy of Learned Scholars, in possession of the “Classic of Odes”, the “Classic of Documents”, and discourses of the hundred philosophers should take them to the local governors and have them indiscriminately burned.

“Those who dare to talk to each other about the “Odes” and “Documents” should be executed and their bodies exposed in the marketplace. Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death. Officials who fail to report cases that have come under their attention are equally guilty. After thirty days from the time of issuing the decree, those who have not destroyed their books are to be branded and sent to build the Great Wall. Books not to be destroyed will be those on medicine and pharmacy divination by the turtle and milfoil, and agriculture and arboriculture. People wishing to pursue learning should take the officials as their teachers.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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