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Qin Shi Huang, Burning Books...and Scholars?

Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China and the man known for the unification of China. Born in 259 BC, he ruled for a mere 11 years (221 BC - 210 BC) before his death.  As the man who unified the warring states of China, Emperor Qin was the central figure in ending the Warring States period (475 - 221 BC).

Emperor Qin’s rise to power entailed some rather drastic and often ruthless methods to instil fear and respect for his governance. Emperor Qin begin his reign right after the Warring States period when much violence and chaos was still present. To prevent possible uprisings against his reign, it was important to Emperor Qin and his fellow advisors that actions were put in place to ensure the Qin dynasty will rule for an eternity. One of the most controversial acts he ordered was the alleged burning of books, along with persecuting (and even executing) scholars. It was found that much of China’s records, texts, literature and various written languages were lost in a fire. This seemed to have occurred under the command of Emperor Qin. Today, many still believe he was behind this heinous act, especially since he was also known for implementing a legalistic government system.

However, there are conflicting accounts of this event. Here, we will explore the variations and aim to understand how each variation alters our perception and understanding of the event.

In several sources it is noted that Emperor Qin himself orderedthe burning of books. He wanted a unified China and fought for it through the standardisation of written language, political and ethical beliefs. The books that were chosen to be destroyed had deviations from his beliefs and hence, he chose to remove them. Sources also suggest that many scholars during this period did not approve of his actions and his ruling methods. It has been recorded in these sources that those who opposed him were, sentenced to be buried alive. Through this brutal measure, 400 scholars lost their lives.

While sources claim that Emperor Qin was responsible for the book burning and executing scholars, there are other sources that question if Emperor Qin was indeed the one who initiated and hence, implemented the acts. In several accounts, Li Si, the Emperor's Grand Councillor, described as “a shrewd politician,... cold, calculating and eminently rational,” was the one who initiated the idea to the emperor himself as a means of strengthening the reign. In view of creating more balance within the empire, emperor Qin had turned his attention away from the external unrest and commanded laws and actions to be put in place to ensure the strengthening of his rule. He then turned to a trusted member of the council, Li Si, a scholar, who held an extreme utilitarian viewpoint. It was Li Si, according to these sources who sparked the idea in the Emperor's mind and ensured implementation was followed through. The sources go on to mention that it is Li Si too, who proposed the execution of the scholars who defied, a proposal that eventually got sanctioned as law.

While this source elaborates on the main perpetrator of the event, it still does not change the fact that Emperor Qin was the one ruling and had authorised the burning of the books. We believe that while the blame of who generated the idea may have shifted, the authoriser was the one who enabled this heinous act. Emperor Qin, in this case, may have still altered history through the eradication of information gathered before his time.

Other sources suggest that neither Emperor Qin nor his advisors were directly responsible for the burnings of books and burials of scholars.

These sources claim that Emperor Qin had consulted Confucian scholars on the best way to conduct the feng and shan sacrifices , which signified Heaven’s approval of the emperor’s rule.The Emperor was advised to store philosophical books and other relevant texts in an imperial library where they were made available only to scholars authorised by the government. While the act was done by the Qin dynasty as an act to control political thoughts, they never meant for the books and texts to be destroyed. In the year 206 BCE, Xiang Yu, one of the rebels responsible for ending the rule of the Qin Dynasty, burned down the imperial library and its contents as a means to sack the empire. 

One similarity observed in most sources with the three alternate views is that certain books were preserved and not burned. These books were on topics not related to philosophy, alternative political views or any other intellectual matters that the Emperor’s scholars deemed worthy of planting defiant thoughts in the minds of their people. In general, these books were of topics relating to astronomy, medicine, agriculture and other topics including the history of the Qin state.

Events that took place during his reign have altered the history we know today. Firstly, much of the Chinese history and other written texts from before the Qin dynasty has been lost due to the book burning. This lost information could have provided historians further insight into the Chinese culture and its origins. Secondly, how the book burnings occurred is also key to understanding China’s history. If Emperor Qin and his advisors were the ones who initiated the burning, we can then infer the influence of the political system in 200BC’s China. Such information can help us better understand law enforcement and implementation in both early and modern China. If the entire event was mere propaganda by the following dynasties to create hate towards the Qin dynasty, then we can observe how effectively it was implemented to have influenced history for a long period of time. While we would like to think that Emperor Qin was a vicious, success-driven man, sacrificing knowledge and people in his pursuit of power, this may not be the case at all. Future dynasties’ historians could have created these accounts in order to generate hate and dislike towards the emperor.

China’s history could have been altered by Emperor Qin because of the book burning, but what if the Emperor’s history was altered as well? We may never know the truth, for we do not know for sure what we have lost.