Qin Shihuangdi
Memories of the First Emperor
1. something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, etc., as a monument or a holiday.
2. a written statement of facts presented to a sovereign, a legislative body, etc., as the ground of, or expressed in the form of, a petition or remonstrance.
The Evolution of Legalism
A striking contrast to the ideal of minimalist government advocated by both Cofucians and Daoists is provided by the third great school of classical Chinese thought: Legalism (Fajia). As the name implies, Legalism emphasized techniques of government based on written law — clearly codified and strictly enforced. Legalism was even less of a formal academic philosophical “school” than Confucianism. ... Against Confucian morality and idealism, the Legalists are sometimes said to have offered realism. Though the virtuous example of a Sage King may, or may not, impel a few people to correct themselves, as the Confucians hoped, genuine Sage Kings are in practice rare. All people, however, are naturally driven by their pursuit of self-interest, and their behavior can therefore be modified, as desired, by drafting clear laws, backed by the poewrful incentives of fixed rewards and punishments. ... The single-minded commitment to the state goals of building a “rich country and a strong army,” as the slogan had it, helped transform the Qin Kingdom, where Lord Shang served as prime minister in the fourth century BCE, into the most poweful of the Warring States, and eventually enabled it to unite all the other kingdoms into the first Chinese Empire. (HEA, 42-3
Shang Yang
c. 390-338 BCE
The Book of Lord Shang
The way to adminster a state well is for the laws regulating officials to be clear; one does not rely on men to be intelligent and thoughtful. The ruler makes the people single-minded so they will not scheme for selfish profit. Then the strength of the state will be consolidated, and a state whose strength has been consolidated is powerful, but a country that loves talking is dismembered. (HEA, 43)

Punishments should know no degree or grade, but from ministers of state and generals down to great officers and ordinary folk, whoever does not obey the king’s commands, violates the interdicts of the state, or rebels against the statutes fixed by the ruler should be guilty of death and should not be pardoned. Merit acquired in the past should not cause a decrease in the punishment for demerit later, nor should good behavior in the past cause any derogation of the law for wrong done later. If loyal ministers and filial sons do wrong, they should be judged according to the full measure of their guilt, and if among the officials who have to maintain the law and to uphold an office, there are those who do not carry out the king’s law, they are guilty of death and should not be pardoned, but their punishment should be extended to their family for three generations. Colleagues who, knowing their offense, inform their superiors will themselves escape punishment. In neither high nor low offices should there be automatic hereditary succession to the office, rank, lands, or emoluments of officials. Therefore I say that if there are severe penalties that extend to the whole family, people will not dare to try [how far they can go], and as they dare not try, no punishments will be necessary. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 197)
Han Feizi
c. 280-233 BCE

Memorial to the King of Ch’in (Qin)
Thy servant has heard: “Who knows not but speaks, is not wise. Who knows but speaks not, is not loyal. Any minister, if not loyal, must be condemned to death. If what he speaks be not true, he must be condemned to death, too.” However, thy servant begs to speak all he has heard and entreats Your Majesty to convict him of whatever crime. ... In these days, Ch’in has a territory, which, if the wider places are cut off to fill up the narrower places, extends over several thousand square li, plus a famous army counting by hundreds of thousands. In regard to the rewards and punishments carried out by her commands and orders as well as the advantages and disadvantages presented by her topographical features, no other country in All-under-Heaven can be compared to her. On coping with the world in the light of such gains, she can conquer and hold All-under-Heaven at her feet. Therefore thy servant has in the face of the death-penalty prayed to have an audience of Your Majesty and speak of the right way whereby to break up the Perpendicular Union of All-under-Heaven, to take Chao and ruin Han, to subject Ching and Wey, to befriend Ch’i and Yen, in order thereby to secure the title of Hegemonic Ruler and lay all the neighbouring feudal lords under tribute. May Your Majesty therefore lend ear to this memorial! Should at one effort the Perpendicular Union not be broken, Chao not taken, Han not ruined, Ching and Wey not subjected, Ch’i and Yen not befriended, the title of Hegemonic Ruler not secured, and all the neighbouring feudal lords not laid under tribute, would Your Majesty behead thy servant as a warning to the whole country on a charge of disloyal counsel to the sovereign? (The First Interview with the King of Ch’in: A Memorial)

Li Si
c. 280-208 BCE
Abolishing Feudalism
The chancellor Wang Wan and others stated the opinion that, since the feudal rulers had just recently been defeated and the regions of Yan, Qi, and Jing were situated far from the capital, unless kings were set up in such regions it would be impossible to control them. They therefore requested that sons of the ruler be set up, if the emperor would be so kind as to give his approval.
       The First Emperor referred the proposal to the ministers for deliberation. The ministers all indicated their approval. But the commandant of justice Li Si voiced his opinion: “Kings Wen and Wu of the Zhou dynasty enfeoffed a great many of their sons, younger brothers, and other members of their own surname. Later, however, these men became increasingly estranged and even fell on one another like sworn enemies, and when the feudal rulers attacked each other in this manner, the Zhou Son of Heaven was helpless to restrain them. Now, thanks to the spiritual might of the sovereign, all the area within the seas has been united under a single rule and made into provinces and districts. If the sons of the ruler and the ministers who have won merit are rewarded with generous gifts from the public taxes, that will be quite sufficient. They can be easily controlled, and the world will be without dissension. This is the correct method for insuring peace. To establish feudal rulers would not be expedient.
       The First Emperor said, “It was because of the marquises and kings that the world suffered so long from unending strife and warfare. Now thanks to the aid of the ancestral spirits, the world has at last been pacified. If the feudal states are re-established, this will encourage the use of arms. To hope for peace and tranquility under such circumstances will be difficult indeed! The view of the commandant of justice is correct.”
Thus the empire was divided into thirty-six provinces [a.k.a. commanderies], each province provided with a governor, a military commandant, and a superintendent. The common people were renamed “black-headed ones”. There was great feasting. Weapons from all over the empire were confiscated, brought to Xianyang, and melted down to be used in casting bells, bell stands, and twelve men made of metal. These last weighed 1,000 piculs each and were set up in the palace. All weights and measures were standardized, the gauge of wheeled vehicles was made uniform, and the writing system was standardized. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 44-5)
In former times when the world, torn by chaos and disorder, could not be united, different states arose and argued from the past to condemn the present, using empty rhetoric to cover up and confuse the real issues, and employing their learning to oppose what was established by authority. Now Your Majesty has conquered the whole world, distinguished between black and white, set unified standards. Yet these opinionated scholars get together to slander the laws and judge each new decree according to their own school of thought, opposing it secretly in their hearts while discussing it openly in the streets. They brag to the sovereign to win fame, put forward strange arguments to gain distinction, and incite the mob to spread rumors. If this is not prohibited, the sovereign’s prestige will suffer and factions will be formed amongst his subjects. Far better put a stop to it!
       I humbly propose that all historical records but those of Qin be burned. If anyone who is not a court scholar dares to keep the ancient songs, historical records, or writings of the hundred schools, these should be confiscated and burned by the provincial governor and army commander. Those who in conversation dare to quote the old songs and records should be publicly executed; those who use old precedents to oppose the new order should have their families wiped out; and officers who know of such cases but fail to report them should be punished in the same way.
       If thirty days after the issuing of this order the owners of these books have still not had them destroyed, they should have their faces tattooed and be condemned to hard labor at the Great Wall. The only books which should not be destroyed are those dealing with medicine, divination, and agriculture. Those who want to study the law can learn it from the officers. (Mountain of Fame, 47-8; cf. HEA, 48)
[The First Emperor said:] “I confiscated all the books from the empire and got rid of all those that were of not use. ... I have also directed people to question the various scholars residing in Xianyang, and it appears that some are spreading dubious stories in order to mislead the black-headed people!” He then ordered the imperial secretary to subject all the scholars to investigation. The scholars reported on one another in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Over 460 persons were convicted of violating the prohibitions, and were executed [note:  the word translated here as “executed” is sometimes interpreted as “buried alive”] at Xianyang, word of it being publicized throughout the empire so as to act as a warning to later ages. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 58)
The emperor ascended Mount Tai, erected a stone monument and offered sacrifice to Heaven…The sacrifice to the Earth was offered at Mount Liangfu. And a stone monument was erected with this inscription:
The Sovereign Emperor came to the throne, made decrees and laws which all his subjects heeded;
In his twenty-sixth year the land was unified, all obeyed his rule;
He inspected the black-headed people in distant parts, ascended Mount Tai and viewed the eastern extremity;
His obedient subjects remember his achievements, trace them from the start and celebrate his virtue.
Beneath his wide sway all things find their place, all is decreed by law;
Great and manifest, his virtue is handed down to ages yet to come, to be followed without change.
The sage emperor who has pacified all under heaven is tireless in his rule;
He rises early, goes to sleep late, makes lasting benefits and offers wise instructions;
Wide spread his teachings, all far and near is well ordered according to his will;
High and low are set apart, men and women observe the proprieties, fulfill their different tasks;
Public and private affairs are clearly distinguished; peace reigned and will endure till a future age;
His influence knows no end, his will obeyed and his orders will remain through eternity.


The emperor had a tower built on Mount Langya and a stone inscription set up to praise the power of Qin and make clear his will. The inscription read:
A new age is inaugurated by the Emperor;
Rules and measures are rectified,
The myriad things set in order,
Human affairs are made clear
And there is harmony between fathers and sons.
The Emperor in his sagacity, benevolence and justice
Has made all laws and principles manifest.
He set forth to pacify the east,
To inspect officers and men;
This great task accomplished
He visited the coast.
Great are the Emperor’s achievements,
Men attend diligently to basic tasks,
Farming is encouraged, secondary pursuit discouraged,
All the common people prosper;
All men under the sky
Toil with a single purpose;
Tools and measures are made uniform,
The written script is standardized;
Wherever the sun and moon shine,
Wherever one can go by boat or by carriage,
Men carry out their orders
And satisfy their desires;
For our Emperor in accordance with the time
Has regulated local customs,
Made waterways and divided up the land.
Caring for the common people,
He works day and night without rest;
He defines the laws, leaving nothing in doubt,
Making known what is forbidden.
The local officials have their duties,
Administration is smoothly carried out,
All is done correctly, all according to plan.
The Emperor in his wisdom
Inspects all four quarters of his realm;
High and low, noble and humble,
None dare overshoot the mark;
No evil or impropriety is allowed,
All strive to be good men and true,
And exert themselves in tasks great and small;
None dares to idle or ignore his duties,
But in far-off, remote places
Serious and decorous administrators
Work steadily, just and loyal.
Great is the virtue of our Emperor
Who pacifies all four corners of the earth,
Who punishes traitors, roots out evil men,
And with profitable measures brings prosperity.
Tasks are done at the proper season,
All things flourish and grow;
The common people know peace
And have laid aside weapons and armor;
Kinsmen care for each other,
There are no robbers or thieves;
Men delight in his rule,
All understanding the law and discipline.
The universe entire
Is our Emperor’s realm,
Extending west to the Desert,
South to where the houses face north,
East to the East Ocean,
North to beyond Dahsia;
Wherever human life is found,
All acknowledge his suzerainty,
His achievements surpass those of the Five Emperors,
His kindness reaches even the beasts of the field;
All creatures benefit from his virtue,
All live in peace at home.
(Selections from Records of the Grand Historian, 169-72)

Memorilized in History
cf. HEA, 47-8
  • Established a standard currency
  • Unified weights and measures
  • Standardized wheel-span for carts
  • Standardized the Chinese written script
  • Established the commandery system of centralized government
  • Built a network of over 4,000 miles of roads, dug irrigation canals and connected existing walls to build the first “Great Wall of China”
In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mt. Li. When the emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mt. Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of an underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Replicas of palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion imitations of the hundred rivers, the Yellow river and the Yangtze, and the seas, constructed in such a way that they seemed to flow. Above were representations of all the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth. “Man-fish” oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 63)

Then Qin faced south to call itself ruler of the empire, which meant that the world now had a Son of Heaven to head it. The masses hoped that they would be granted the peace and security to live out their lives, and there was not one of them who did not set aside selfish thoughts and look up to the sovereign in reverence. ... But the First Emperor was greedy and short-sighted, confident in his own wisdom, never trusting his meritorious officials, never getting to know his people. He cast aside the kingly Way and relied on private procedures, outlawing books and writings, making the laws and penalties much harsher, putting deceit and force foremost and humanity and righteousness last, leading the whole world in violence and cruelty. In annexing the lands of others, one may place priority on deceit and force, but insuring peace and stability in the lands one has annexed calls for a respect for authority. Hence I say that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not depend upon the same techniques. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 81; cf. HEA, 49)

Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE)
Confucian Sage or Legalist Tyrant?