The Chinese statesman Li Ssu (c. 280-208 B.C.) was prime minister during much of the short but important Ch'in dynasty. His policies were of crucial importance to the dynasty and set precedents that were followed for the next 2, 000 years.
Li Ssu was a native of the state of Ch'u in the Yangtze Valley. As a young man, he was a minor clerk in his home state. He was a student of Hsün Ch'ing (often referred to as Hsüntzu). Hsün Ch'ing was a Confucianist, but he set new directions for Confucianism that made it much more compatible with Legalism than had theretofore been the case. Legalism, in essence, was a highly authoritarian doctrine which aimed primarily at strengthening the ruler and controlling the populace thorough rewards and punishments rigidly applied. It was devoid of the humanistic values of Confucianism.
At this time the Chou dynasty was utterly powerless, and the number of feudal states had been drastically reduced as the larger ones conquered their smaller neighbors. Li Ssu realized that before long one of the remaining states would eliminate all the others. He correctly felt that his own state of Ch'u would not be the ultimate victor but that Ch'in would be.
In 247 B.C. he therefore went to Ch'in, in western China, where he joined the entourage of Lü Pu-wei, the prime minister. Li Ssu came to the attention of Ch'in Shih huang-ti, the king of Ch'in and future First Emperor, who promoted him to the office of senior clerk. Shortly thereafter Li Ssu was advanced to the position of alien minister (meaning a minister who was himself an alien, not a minister who was concerned with aliens).
In 237, under pressure from members of the royal family and from highly placed officials of the state of Ch'in, the ruler ordered that all aliens be deported because they were unreliable. Li Ssu wrote one of his best-known pieces in response to this edict. He argued that men should be employed because of their worth, not because of their origins. He urged the king of Ch'in to think in terms of an empire that would include all people, not simply of a state among states. Aliens, such as Li Ssu himself, were essential if the ruler were to carry out his aim of conquest of the other states. Li's advice was accepted and the edict withdrawn. Li Ssu thus remained in Ch'in until his death, devoting himself to aiding his ruler in building the empire.
Shortly after submitting his memorial opposing the expulsion of aliens, Li Ssu was promoted to the position of commandant (or minister) of justice. Although there is no specific information concerning his activities in this capacity, he was probably instrumental in bringing about the death of Han Fei Tzu in 233 on the grounds that Han was trying to dupe the Ch'in ruler. Following this, there is an 8-year gap in the record of Li's life.
In 221 the state of Ch'in completed the conquest of all the other feudal states of China. Some of the ministers urged the Emperor to enfeoff his sons as kings of outlying territories; their enfeoffment would, in effect, have been to continue the existence of feudal institutions. Li Ssu argued that such a step would sow the seeds of future disorders, that in generations to come the offspring of the kings would turn against the emperor, and, therefore, that such political institutions ought not to be created. The First Emperor followed his advice.
The result of the Emperor's decision affected all subsequent Chinese history, for, in spite of occasional attempts to restore the revered Chou dynasty feudal institutions, China was never again governed in this manner. Instead of fiefs, China was now divided into 36 commanderies (chün). The head of each was a civil official called an administrator. There was also a commandant who controlled the military forces of the commandery. In addition, there was a supervising secretary whose duty it was to oversee the administration of the commandery and report on all activities there to the emperor.
The commanderies were divided into prefectures (hsien), which were likewise governed by appointees of the central government. Thus under the urging of Li Ssu the Chinese empire was ruled directly by the emperor and his appointees, not by autonomous feudal lords.
Sometime between 219 and 213 Li Ssu was elevated to the position of prime minister, the highest position in officialdom. Again there is a lack of information about his activities—until 213, when there occurred the famous incident of the "Burning of the Books, " an act for which subsequent Confucian historians condemned Li Ssu.
At a palace banquet a court adviser, who was probably a Confucianist, tried to convince the First Emperor, by citing precedents from antiquity, that he should reestablish feudalism. Li Ssu rejected the suggestion, but he did not stop there. He went on to argue that scholars and others ought not to be allowed to mislead people by citing records from earlier times.
The way to prevent this, Li Ssu said, was to order the burning of all historical records except those of the state of Ch'in. In addition, the works of the philosophers, including the texts that were to become the Confucian classics, were likewise to be surrendered to the officials, who would destroy them. Books dealing with medicine, divination, and agriculture were the only ones to be excluded from the order. Violators of the law were to be branded and condemned to forced labor or in some cases executed.
The First Emperor issued a decree incorporating these ideas. It is not known how many books were lost forever because of this order; however, many pre-Ch'in books did survive the burning. This was not the first time that such an order had been issued, and similar proscriptions were promulgated during later dynasties. In this case, it shows the Legalist mind at work. The people were generally supposed to be kept ignorant. Nothing should stand in the way of the Legalist ruler. And those who wanted to study were told to take the officials as instructors; the officials would teach them the laws, which is all they needed to know.
Li Ssu is notorious not only for "Burning of the Books" but also for his participation in a plot with the eunuch Chao Kao to cause the heir apparent, Fu-su, to commit suicide so that a younger son of the First Emperor could be placed on the throne. This occurred in 210, when the Emperor died. Within a year rebels had begun to sack government offices in eastern China. Chao Kao was able to control the young emperor, known as Erh Shih huangti (the Second Emperor), so that Li Ssu could not inform the ruler of what was happening. Finally, in order to protect himself, but with complete disregard for the Emperor or the empire, Chao Kao slandered Li Ssu, who was thrown into prison. Although Li Ssu attempted to plead his innocence and although he could cite his many contributions to the building of the Ch'in empire, the Second Emperor was completely dominated by the irresponsible and unscrupulous eunuch. In 208 the Emperor condemned Li Ssu to being cut in two at the waist. Within 2 years the Second Emperor and Chao Kao died, and the Ch'in empire ceased to exist.
Li Ssu's greatest contribution was his defense of the empire as a unified entity, ruled directly from the throne by salaried officials. Due to his insistence, China was never again ruled through a feudal system. His attempt to create uniformity in thought by burning books which did not agree with the Legalist philosophy was to earn him the undying hatred of later Confucianists; however, later Confucianists were almost certainly under his influence when they made Confucianism the only orthodox school of thought. And finally, Li Ssu's collaboration in deposing the heir apparent must be seen as a major factor leading to the downfall of the empire that he helped so much to create.
The standard work on Li Ssu is Derk Bodde, China's First Unifier: A Study of the Ch'in Dynasty as Seen in the Life of Li Ssu (1938). The best brief history of the period may be found in Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition, vol 1 (1958).