Li Ssu

Li Ssu or Li Si (李斯, Lǐ Sī, Li Ssu) (ca. 280 B.C.E. – September or October 208 B.C.E.) was the influential Prime Minister (or Chancellor) of the feudal state and later of the dynasty of Qin or Ch'in, between 246 B.C.E. and 208 B.C.E. Originally from the state of Ch’u, he served as Prime Minister under two rulers: Qin Shi Huang, king of Qin and First Emperor of China, and his son, Qin Er Shi. He utilized the political philosophy of legalism to formulate Ch'in state policies, including those on military conquest, draconian centralization of state control, standardization of weights, measures and the written script, and persecution of Confucianism. His policies were crucial to the establishment of the Ch’in dynasty, and set precedents that remained in place for the next two thousand years. Li Ssu was also a notable calligrapher.


When the First Emperor died in 209, Li Ssu became involved in a plot by the eunuch Chao Kao (Zhao Gao, 趙高) to place a younger son of the First Emperor on the throne instead of the rightful heir. Chao Kao then slandered Li Ssu and persuaded the Second Emperor to condemn him to be cut in half at the waist. Two years later, Qin Er Shi and Chao Kao were dead, and the Ch’in dynasty fell. Li Ssu is considered one of the most ruthless of Chinese historical figures.


Li Ssu was born ca. 280 B.C.E. in the state of Ch'u or Chu (楚) in the Yangtze Valley. As a young man, he served as a minor clerk in his home state of Ch’u. He, like Han Fei (韩非), was a student of Xunzi (Hsün Ch'ing, Hsün Tzu, 荀子). Hsün Ch'ing was a Confucianist who had synthesized legalism, a doctrine which advocated the use of rewards and punishments to control the populace and strengthen the position of the ruler, with the more humanistic values of Confucianism.

Service in Ch'in

At this time the Chou dynasty was weak, and the larger feudal states had conquered many of their smaller neighbors, drastically reducing their number. Li Ssu correctly perceived that his own state of Ch’u would ultimately be conquered by the Ch’in dynasty. In in 246 B.C.E., a thirteen-year-old boy, Ch'in Shih huang-ti (Qin Shi Huang), became king of Ch’in; and in 247 B.C.E., Li Ssu went to Ch'in, in western China, and joined the entourage of Lü Pu-wei, the prime minister. There he came to the attention of the king of Ch'in and future First Emperor, who promoted him to the office of senior clerk. Soon, Li Ssu was raised to the position of foreign minister, (a minister who was a foreigner).

In 237 B.C.E., under pressure from members of the royal family and powerful officials, the ruler of Ch’in issued an edict ordering the deportation of all foreigners on the grounds that they were unreliable. Li Ssu responded with one of his most prose works, In Advice Against the Driving Away of Guest Immigrants (谏逐客书, Jian Zhu Ke Shu), which argued that men should be employed according to their ability, not their origins. He encouraged the king of Ch’in to think of an empire that would encompass all states, and pointed out that foreigners like himself were essential to the fulfillment of such a plan. The king accepted Li Ssu’s advice and withdrew the deportation edict. Li Ssu remained in Ch’in for the remainder of his life, and devoted himself to the building of the empire. In 232 B.C.E., King Ch'in Shih huang-ti began a vigorous campaign to unify and centralize all the northern kingdoms.

Soon after submitting his memorial opposing the deportation of foreigners, Li Ssu was promoted to Minister of Justice. A staunch believer in bureaucracy, Li Ssu is considered to have been central to the efficiency of the Qin state and the success of its military conquest.

According to the Shi Ji, Li Ssu was responsible for the death of Han Fei, a minor prince in the state of Han, and 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 Ssu convinced him to commit suicide by poisoning.

Opposition to Feudalism

By 221, the state of Ch’in had completed its conquest of all the feudal states of China. Some of the king’s ministers advised him to enthrone his sons as kings of the outlying territories, thereby continuing the existence of the feudal system. Li Ssu disagreed, arguing that such an arrangement would lead to future disorder, and that in succeeding generations, the offspring of the kings would turn against the Emperor. The Emperor followed Li Ssu’s advice, and despite occasional attempts to restore Chou feudal institutions, China never again returned to a feudal system of government.

Li Ssu advised the Emperor to divide the empire into 36 regions (chün), each governed by a centrally appointed administrator, assisted by a commandant who controlled the military forces of the region and a secretary who oversaw the administration of the region and reported to the emperor. Each of the regions was subdivided into prefectures (hsien), also governed by administrators appointed by the central government.

Under Li Ssu’s guidance, the emperor standardized currency and weights and measures, and began construction of the Great Wall to keep out barbarians from the north. Li Ssu also helped systemize the written Chinese language by promulgating as the imperial standard the small seal script which was already in use in the state of Ch’in. To accomplish this, variant graphs within the Ch’in script were proscribed, as were variant scripts from the different regions which had been conquered. Contrary to popular belief, however, Li Ssu did not "invent" small seal script.

"Burning of the Books"

Between 219 and 213, Li Ssu was elevated to Prime Minister, the highest position in the Ch’in empire. In 213, at a palace banquet, a court adviser, tried to convince the First Emperor to reestablish feudalism by citing precedents from antiquity. Li Ssu rejected the suggestion and went on to argue that scholars and others ought not to be allowed to mislead people by citing records from earlier times. To prevent this, Li Ssu recommended the burning of all historical records except those of the state of Ch'in. All philosophical works, including the Confucian classics, were to be surrendered to officials who would destroy them. Only books dealing with practical subjects such as medicine, divination, and agriculture were excluded from the order. Violators of the law were to be branded and condemned to forced labor or in some cases executed.

According to Sima Qian, Li Ssu persuaded Qin Shi Huang to issue a decree suppressing intellectual dissent, and when Confucian scholars protested, 460 of them were buried alive. Li Ssu himself penned the edict in 214 B.C.E. which ordered widespread destruction of historical records and literature in 213 B.C.E., including key Confucian texts, which he thought detrimental to the welfare of the state. Many books were lost forever.

The Fall of the Ch'in

When the emperor died in 209, Li Ssu became involved in a plot by the eunuch Chao Kao’s (Zhao Gao, 趙高) plot 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. Within a year, rebels began to attack the government offices in eastern China. Chao Kao controlled access to the young Second Emperor, Qin Er Shi (Huhai, Erh Shih huangti), so that Li Ssu could not inform the ruler of what was happening. Chao Kao then slandered Li Ssu, who was thrown into prison. Li Ssu pleaded his innocence and pointed out his many contributions to the Ch'in empire, but the Second Emperor was completely dominated by the unscrupulous Chao Kao and in 208, he condemned Li Ssu to be cut in half at the waist.

Qin Er Shi then turned against Zhao Gao, who in turn killed the emperor in 207. The next emperor, Ziying, killed Zhao Gao, and then was killed himself as the dynasty collapsed. Not even one generation had passed between the unification of China and the fall of the Ch’in, but their accomplishment was so great that the name for China is derived from the Ch'in. The policies instituted under the guidance of Li Ssu remained in place for the next 2,000 years.

Preceded by:
Lü Buwei
Prime Minister of Qin
246 B.C.E.–203 B.C.E.
Succeeded by:
Zhao Gao


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