An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Li Si 李斯

Oct 23, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Li Si 李斯 (d. 208 BCE) was a high minister at the court of the king resp. emperor of Qin 秦. He was born in the state of Chu 楚, one of the mightiest opponents of the raising state of Qin during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE).

Li Si was a disciple of the Confucian scholar Xunzi 荀子, with whom he studied the art of rulership.

Having moved to the state of Qin, he became a retainer of chancellor Lü Buwei 呂不韋. Lü helped him obtaining the position of a court gentleman (lang 郎) through which he gained access to king Zheng 政 (r. 246-210), the future First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221-210 BCE). Li Si persuaded the king to envisage the conquest of the other regional states to create a unified empire, as it has been the case in ancient times.

In 237, the king of Qin ordered to expell all foreign advisors (a famous memorial called Shang shu jian zhu ke 上書諫逐客) at his court. Li Si remonstranted against this decrete with the argument that the rulers of the remote western state of Qin since generations relied on foreign advisors. The king accepted Li Si's remonstrance. He was promoted to chamberlain for law enforcement (tingwei 廷尉).

After the unification of the empire in 221 Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) Wang Wan 王綰 and Censor-in-chief Feng Bo 馮勃, together with Li Si, suggested to the king adopting the title of emperor.

Yet Li Si contradicted the suggestion of Wang Wan to establish princedoms for the sons of the emperor, as was done at the founding of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th. cent.-221 BCE). The emperor followed Li Si's legalist proposal that the empire should be governed solely through commanderies (jun 郡) administrated by officials directly subordinated to the central government, and not to regional rulers.

In 213, a similar suggestion was made by Chunyu Yue 淳于越, and again Li Si prevailed. He was promoted to the post of Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相). In this position he carriedo out his great reforms and standardization of administrative and penal law, of weights and measures, and of the script.

He also launched a literary inquisition by which all books not being useful for the prosperity of the empire were to be prohibited. The Confucians later blamed him of having burned the Confucian books and having buried alive the scholars (fenshu kengru 焚書坑儒). The stone inscriptions made by the First Emperor on his inspection tours are said to have been written by Li Si (Mt. Yishan 繹山, Mt. Taishan 泰山, Langya Terrace 琅邪臺, Zhifu 之罘, Jieshi Gate 碣石門, and Guiji 會稽).

In 210, the First Emperor died. Li Si made a secret plot with the chief eunuch Zhao Gao 趙高. Instead of enthroning the oldest son Fusu 扶蘇, they faked an imperial decree ordering Fusu to kill himself. His younger brother Huhai 胡亥 was made emperor, with the title of Ershihuang 秦二世皇 "Second Emperor" (r. 210-207).

At that time a rebellion under Chen Sheng 陳勝 and Wu Guang 吳廣 began that soon spread to many parts of the empire. Li Si's son Li You 李由, governor (taishou 太守) of Sanchuan 三川, was unable to quell the uprising. The repressive politics of the Qin government increased under this situation.

Zhao Gao, who wanted to gain more control, slandered Li Si and his son with the statement that both cooperated with the rebels. The emperor ordered to investigate the case, Zhao Gao himself presided, and Li Si was condamned to the death penalty. He was cut in two on the market place in the capital of Xianyang 咸陽, and three generations of his family were extinguished (see sanzu 三族).

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