Burning of the books and burial of the scholars
is a phrase that refers to a policy and a sequence of events in the Qin Dynasty
, between the period of 213 and 206 BCE.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian, after Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, unified China in 221 BCE, his chancellor Li Si suggested suppressing the freedom of speech, unifying all thoughts and political opinions. This was justified by accusations that the intelligentsia sang false praise and raised dissent through libel.
Beginning in 213 BCE, all classic works of the Hundred Schools of Thought — except those from Li Si's own school of philosophy known as legalism — were subject to book burning.
Qin Shi Huang burned the other histories out of fear that they undermined his legitimacy, and wrote his own history books. Afterwards, Li Si took his place in this area.
Li Si proposed that all histories in the imperial archives except those written by the Qin historians be burned; that the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, and works by scholars of different schools be handed in to the local authorities for burning; that anyone discussing these two particular books be executed; that those using ancient examples to satirize contemporary politics be put to death, along with their families; that authorities who failed to report cases that came to their attention were equally guilty; and that those who had not burned the listed books within 30 days of the decree were to be banished to the north as convicts working on building the Great Wall. The only books to be spared in the destruction were books on medicine, agriculture and divination.
Burial of the scholars
After being deceived by two alchemists while seeking prolonged life, Qin Shi Huang ordered more than 460 scholars in the capital to be buried alive in the second year of the proscription. The Crown Prince Fusu
counselled that, with the country newly unified, and enemies still not pacified, such a harsh measure imposed on those who respect Confucius
would cause instability. However, he was unable to change his father's mind, and instead was sent to guard the frontier in a de facto
The quick fall of the Qin Dynasty was attributed to this proscription. Confucianism was revived in the Han Dynasty that followed, and became the official ideology of the Chinese imperial state. However, many of the other schools of thought disappeared.
Remembrance in literature
In the Records of the Grand Historian
, Sima Qian
complained the book burning made his work very difficult, because the only history book he had at hand was that of the State of Qin
, which did not record dates properly and used sparse language which was vague on details. .
The events eventually became a Chinese Four-character idiom to describe general policies against educated people. Zhang Jie (章碣), a poet of the Tang Dynasty, wrote a poem that refers to this policy:
- 坑灰未冷山東亂 (pinyin: kēng huī wèi lěng Shāndōng luàn)
- 劉項原來不讀書 (pinyin: Liú Xiàng yuánlái bù dúshū)
- Even before the ashes in the burning pit became cold, riots had begun in Shandong;
- It turned out that Liu Bang and Xiang Yu did not read books.
The poet captures the irony that after all the troubles the Emperor had gone through to oppress scholars and the educated, it turned out that the two people who would end the Qin Dynasty, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, were not intellectuals of any kind.
The same event occurs in the Hong Kong television drama A Step into the Past
- but with an alternative motive. In order for Zhou Pan (Ying Zheng, the fake Qin Shi Huang) to keep the true identity confidential, he must "parricide" his master Hong Siu Long; however, killing Hong will also terminate himself as well because Hong is the "cause" for being the king. Without Hong's existence, the "effect" of being himself will cease to exist. Therefore, Qin Shi Huang decided to get rid of the evidence of the existence of Hong Siu Long by decreeing that the name Hong Siu Long shall never be mentioned again, and as a result burned books and buried scholars.