Li Si

Li Si

Li Si (zh-cpw|c=李斯|p=Lǐ Sī|w=Li Ssu) (ca. 280 BC - September or October 208 BC) was the influential Prime Minister (or Chancellor) of the feudal state and later of the dynasty of Qin, between 246 BC and 208 BC. A famous Legalist, he was also a notable calligrapher. Li Si served under two rulers: Qin Shi Huang, king of Qin and later First Emperor of China -- and his son, Qin Er Shi. A powerful minister, he was central to the state's policies, including those on military conquest, draconian centralization of state control, standardization of weights, measures and the written script, and persecution of Confucianism and opponents of Legalism. His methods of administration of China is seen by some as being an early form of totalitarianism.

Early life

Li Si was originally from Shang Cai (上蔡) in the kingdom of Chu. When he was young, he was a minor official in Chu. According to the "Records of the Great Historian", one day Li Si observed that rats in the restroom were dirty and hungry but the rats in the barnhouse were well fed. He suddenly realized that "the values of people are determined by their social status." He made up his mind to take up politics as his career, which was a common choice for scholars not from noble family during the Warring States Period. After having finished his education with the famous Confucian thinker Xun Zi, he moved to the most powerful state at that time - Qin and tried to advance his political career there.

Career in Qin

During his stay in the state of Qin, Li Si became a guest of the prime minister Lu Buwei (呂不韋) and got the chance to talk to the ruler of Qin - Qin Shi Huang. 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 intellects to the state of Qin and sent out assassins to kill important scholars in other states.

According to the "Records of the Grand Historian" (史記), Li Si was responsible for the death of Han Fei. A minor prince in the state of Han, Han Fei was an excellent writer whose essays reached the attention of the king of Qin. When Qin made war on Han, Han Fei was dispatched as a diplomatic envoy to Qin. 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 Li Si convinced him to commit suicide by poisoning.

According to Sima Qian, Li Si persuaded Qin Shi Huang to suppress intellectual dissent, and when Confucian scholars protested, 460 of them were buried alive. Li Si himself penned the edict in 215 BC which ordered widespread destruction of historical records and literature in 213 BC, including key Confucian texts, which he thought detrimental to the welfare of the state.


When Qin Shi Huang died while away from the capital, Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao suppressed the late emperor's choice of successor, caused the crown prince to commit suicide, and installed another prince, Qin Er Shi (229B.C-207B.C) in his place. During the tumultuous aftermath, Zhao Gao convinced the new emperor to install his followers in official positions. When his power base was secure enough, Zhao Gao then had Li Si killed in 208 BC in a grisly manner -- being cut in half in public. Zhao Gao in turn was killed by Ziying in revenge for Gao's killing of Ziying's uncle Emperor Qin Er Shi.

Li Si is mentioned in Elias Canetti's novel: Auto-da-fe (1935).


A staunch believer in a highly bureacratic 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 systemizing standard measures and currency in post-unified China. He further helped systemize the written Chinese language by promulgating as the imperial standard the small seal script which had been in use in the state of Qin all along. In this process, variant graphs within the Qin script were proscribed, as were variant scripts from the different regions which had been conquered. Contrary to popular belief, though, Li Si did not "invent" small seal script. [According to Academia Sinica philologist Chen Zhaorong, seal script not only already existed in the E. Zhou period, but was already undergoing a trend toward standardization at that time. Further standardization was carried out by Lĭ Sī and others, and this final standardized form became known to the Hàn people as small seal script. See Chen Zhaorong (2003), pp. 10 & 12, in References.]

ee also

*Burning of books and burying of scholars



* Chén Zhāoróng (陳昭容 2003) 秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察 Research on the Qín (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊 Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph. ISBN 957-671-995-X.

* Levi, Jean (1993). Han fei tzu (韓非子). In Loewe, Michael (ed., 1993). Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, pp.115-116. (Early China Special Monograph Series No. 2), Society for the Study of Early China, and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, ISBN 1-55729-043-1.

* Michael, Franz (1986) China through the Ages: History of a Civilization. pp.53-67. Westview Press; SMC Publishing, Inc. Taipei. ISBN 0-86531-725-9; 957-638-190-8 (ppbk).

* Nivison, David S.{David S. Nivison} (1999). The Classical Philosophical Writings, pp. 745-812. In Loewe, Michael & Shaughnessy, Edward L.. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.. Cambridge University Press.

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