Burning Books and Burying Scholars-焚书与坑儒

When external threats were stabilized and national policies were formulated, Qin Shi Huang began to feel headaches again about how to govern this vast country. Prime Minister Wang Wan led a group of ministers and officials to consult Qin Shi Huang about implementing the feudal system of the Western Zhou Dynasty, sending several princes to Yan, Wei, Zhao, Qi, and other places as kings. Wang Wan believed that doing so could consolidate the rule of the Qin Dynasty, as the unification of the country was recent, and the foundation of the Qin Dynasty was not yet very stable. At this time, someone stood up in opposition, and that person was Li Si. Li Si believed that the fundamental reason for the chaos in the vassal states during the Spring and Autumn Period was the feudal system. To firmly establish sovereignty, the emperor must have absolute power. If the Qin Dynasty continued to follow the feudal system, there would surely be another situation of chaos.

Qin Shi Huang greatly agreed with Li Si’s view. He used the prefecture system to govern the country and appointed Li Si as prime minister. In 214 BC, just eight years after the establishment of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang marched into Lingnan (present-day Guangdong and Guangxi), and then sent General Meng Tian north to drive away the Xiongnu. By this time, the Qin Dynasty had a total of forty prefectures, all directly under the control of Qin Shi Huang.

The painting “Burning Books and Burying Scholars” depicts the scene of Qin Shi Huang burning books and burying scholars. In the painting, Qin Shi Huang sits high on the court, while scholars kneel down tremblingly, pleading below. Outside the court, many scholars have already been tied up, buried in pits, or escorted to the edge of pits.

In the thirty-fourth year of Qin Shi Huang’s reign (213 BC), the eighth year of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang held a grand banquet in Xianyang Palace. Court official Chunyu Yue proposed his own governance policy at the banquet, requesting Qin Shi Huang to abolish the “prefecture system” at that time and reintroduce the feudal system, believing that only in this way could Qin truly become powerful. He also cited examples, saying that any country must handle things according to the experiences of the ancients. He had never heard of anyone who could go a long way by violating the teachings of the ancestors. Qin Shi Huang did not express approval or opposition after hearing this, but instead told the other ministers about Chunyu Yue’s proposal, wanting to know their opinions. Li Si strongly disagreed with Chunyu Yue’s statement. He believed that intellectuals should not be confined by outdated ideas. The wrong ideas of the ancients would lead to the decline and extinction of the country. Li Si requested Qin Shi Huang to strictly control the people’s thoughts. If left unchecked, it would eventually lead to disaster. Qin Shi Huang then asked Li Si for a better solution, and Li Si proposed several suggestions:

  1. All historical records outside of the “Qin Chronicles” should be burned, and books such as “Poetry” and “Books” in the homes of the people should be handed over and burned, with only books on medicine, divination, and agriculture being retained. If books were not handed over within a month, anyone found with them upon search would be subjected to tattooing and five years of hard labor.
  2. No one in the country could privately discuss the content of the banned books or propagate the ideas in them. Offenders would be sentenced to death. It was not allowed to discuss the current national policies, especially proposing to restore previous policies. Those who believed that current policies were not good would also be sentenced to death. Officials who discovered such situations were required to report them promptly. Failure to do so or concealment would result in death.
  3. People were not allowed to study the legal code privately. If someone insisted on studying it, they should request personal guidance from an official. Qin Shi Huang thought these measures were excellent. He also knew that after experiencing the situation of the Hundred Schools of Thought during the Spring and Autumn Period, the people inevitably held different ideological positions. Why not take this opportunity to unify the thoughts of the people throughout the country? This way, there would be no more opposition to him in the future. So he ordered that books with thoughts contrary to the ruling ideology be burned. Thus, many ancient books before the Qin Dynasty were turned into ashes, but Qin Shi Huang had already preserved duplicates in the imperial library.

The following year, in 212 BC, two alchemists, Lu Sheng and Hou Sheng, told Qin Shi Huang that they could find an elixir of immortality, which greatly delighted Qin Shi Huang. Because after unifying the country, Qin Shi Huang held absolute power, enjoying wealth and honor every day. He feared losing everything and fantasized about immortality, so that he could forever enjoy wealth and honor. He ordered the search for an elixir of immortality throughout the country. Lu Sheng and Hou Sheng appeared before Qin Shi Huang at this time. Qin Shi Huang gave them generous rewards, but they kept delaying the matter of the elixir. When the situation could no longer be delayed, they quietly fled. At that time, there was a clear law in the Qin Dynasty that those who lied and could not fulfill their promises or whose presented medicines had no effect would be sentenced to death. Lu Sheng and Hou Sheng also spread malicious gossip about Qin Shi Huang as they fled. The people learned from them that Qin Shi Huang was a decadent, cruel, autocratic, hedonistic, and power-hungry ruler. Qin Shi Huang, who believed he had already respected these alchemists, did not expect them to slander him like this. He was furious and ordered their arrest on charges of deceiving the people. He also arrested the alchemists and Confucian scholars in Xianyang City and tortured them severely, forcing them to reveal the whereabouts of Lu Sheng and Hou Sheng. The poor scholars, who were weak, were tortured to death. Finally, Qin Shi Huang ordered a large pit to be dug, and the 460 alchemists and Confucian scholars were all buried alive. This event is recorded in history as the “Burying of the Scholars.”

These two events are collectively referred to as “Burning Books and Burying Scholars.” Qin Shi Huang originally wanted to unify the thoughts and actions of the people across the country and suppress the revival of old thoughts, but the burning of books and burying of scholars brought about extremely adverse consequences. Firstly, many precious books from before the Qin Dynasty were destroyed, causing significant damage to Chinese culture. It also dealt a fatal blow to the thriving ideological movement after the Spring and Autumn Period, causing many schools of thought to disappear.