Li Li served as Prime Minister from 246–208 BC under two rulers: Qin Shi Huang and the Second Emperor.

Li Si was originally from Shang Cai (上蔡) in the State of Chu. As a young man he was a minor functionary in the local administration of Chu. According to the Records of the Great Historian, one day Li Si observed that rats in the outhouse were dirty and hungry but the rats in the barn house were well fed. He suddenly realized that “there is no set standard for honour since everyone’s life is different. The values of people are determined by their social status. And like rats, people’s social status often depends purely on the random life events around them. And so instead of always being restricted by moral codes, people should do what they deemed best at the moment.” He made up his mind to take up politics as a career, which was a common choice for scholars not from a noble family during the Warring States period.

After having finished his education with the famous Confucian thinker Xunzi, he moved to the State of Qin, the most powerful state at that time in an attempt to advance his political career. Li Si indicated that he admired and utilized the ideas and technique of Shen Buhai and Han Fei.

During his stay in Qin, Li Si became a guest of Prime Minister Lü Buwei and got the chance to talk to the ruler of Ying Zheng who would later become the first emperor of a unified China.

Li Si expressed that the Qin state was extremely powerful, but uniting China was still impossible if all of the other six states united to fight against Qin. Qin Shi Huang was impressed by Li Si’s view of how to unify China. Having adopted Li Si’s proposal, the ruler of Qin spent generously to lure intellectuals to the state of Qin and sent out assassins to kill important scholars in other states.

Li Si, who envied Han Fei’s intellect, persuaded the Qin king that he could neither send Han Fei back (as his superior ability would be a threat to Qin) nor employ him (as his loyalty would not be to Qin). As a result, Han Fei was imprisoned, and in 233 BC convinced by Li Si to commit suicide by taking poison.

After Qin Shihuang became emperor, Li Si persuaded him to suppress intellectual dissent. Li Si believed that books regarding medicine, agriculture and prophecy could be ignored but political books were dangerous in public hands. It was hard to make progress and change the country with the opposition of so many “free thinking” scholars.

As a result, only the state should keep political books, and only the state run schools should be allowed to educate political scholars. Li Si himself penned the edict ordering the destruction of historical records and literature in 213 BC, including key Confucian texts, which he thought detrimental to the welfare of the state.

It is commonly thought that 460 Confucian scholars were buried alive, from the well-known historical event “Burning Books and Burying Confucianists”; however, this was a mistranslation in later historical texts. In reality, the 460 people who were buried alive by the Qin emperor were mainly priests and shamans who were alleged to be depriving the emperor of resources and wealth while looking for medicines that would grant eternal life.

When Qin Shihuang died on his inspection tour, Zhao Gao persuaded Li Si to betray the last wish of the First Qin Emperor, tricking the Crown Prince Fusu into committing suicide, and installed another prince, Qin Er Shi (229 BC – 207 BC) in his place.

When his power base was secure enough, Zhao Gao betrayed Li Si and charged him with treason. Qin Er Shi, who viewed Zhao Gao as his teacher, did not question his decision. Zhao Gao had Li Si tortured until he admitted the crime. In 208 BC, Zhao Gao had Li Si executed via waist chop.

Achievements and Contributions of Li Si

Li Si assisted the first Emperor of Qin in unifying the laws, governmental ordinances, weights and measures, and standardized chariots, carts, and the characters used in writing, and facilitated the cultural unification of China.

He “created a government based solely on merit, so that in the empire sons and younger brothers in the imperial clan were not ennobled, but meritorious ministers were”, and “pacified the frontier regions by subduing the barbarians to the north and south”. He had the weapons of the feudal states melted and cast into musical bells and large human statues, and relaxed taxes and the draconian punishments inherited from Shang Yang.

Believing in a highly bureaucratic system, Li Si is considered to have been central to the efficiency of the state of Qin and the success of its military conquest. He was also instrumental in systematizing standard measures and currency in post-unified China.

He further helped systematize the written Chinese language by promulgating as the imperial standard the small seal script which had already been in use in the state of Qin. In this process, variant glyphs within the Qin script were proscribed, as were variant scripts from the different regions which had been conquered. This would have a unifying effect on the Chinese culture for thousands of years.

Li Si was also the author of the Cangjiepian, the first Chinese language primer of which fragments still exist.

Stanford University’s John Knoblock considered Li Si “one of the two or three most important figures in Chinese history”. Having a clear vision of universal empire and “one world comprising all Chinese, bringing with universal dominion universal peace”, Li Si was “largely responsible for the creation of those institutions that made the Qin dynasty the first universal state in Chinese history”.

Edited by staff

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