Burning of books and burying of scholars

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The burning of books and burying of scholars[1][2][3] (traditional Chinese: 焚書坑儒; simplified Chinese: 焚书坑儒; pinyin: fénshū kēngrú; literally: "burning of books and burying [alive] of [Confucian] scholars") refers to the burning of texts and slaughter of scholars during the Qin dynasty of Ancient China, between 213 and 210 BC.[4]

"Books" at this point were writings on bamboo strips bound together.[note 1] The event caused the historical loss of many philosophical theories of proper government (known as "the Hundred Schools of Thought"). The official philosophy of government ("legalism") survived.

Qin dynasty
Qin Empire in 210 BC
     Qin region
     Outlying regions

The "Burning of books and burying of scholars" was the latter part of what is known as the "Fires of Qin".[note 2][5][6] The Qin emperor died in 210 BC[note 3] and revolutions and war ensued.[7][8] However, despite the lack of a functioning central government to pursue this policy, what happened was further destruction of historical materials: the Qin capital city was sacked and burned in 207 BC,[note 4] destroying official copies of works which had been retained in the imperial library and official archives, together with the Qin's approved literary records. Together with the deaths of many scholars in these few years, the "burning of books and burying of scholars" resulted in some loss to the history of China, and to human knowledge in general.[9][10][11]

Characteristics and aspects[edit]

Ancient Chinese book events

'[1]' Book burning of the First Qin Emperor
'[2]' Wang Mang's capital Chang'an was attacked and the imperial palace ransacked. Mang died in the battle and, at the end, forces burned the national library of Weiyang Palace.
'[3]' At the end of the Han dynasty, the Three Kingdoms dissipation of the state library by upheavals that resulted from the Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳) contests
'[4]' At the end of Yang-Jia turbulence, dissipation of the state library by the upheavals of Western Jin.
'[5]' Emperor Yuan of the Liang dynasty surrounded by the Western Wei army in his castle; Yuan set fire to the collection of national records.

Book burning[edit]

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, after Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, unified China in 221 BC, his chancellor Li Si suggested suppressing intellectual discourse to unify thought and political opinion. This was justified by accusations that the intelligentsia sang false praise and raised dissent through libel.

Li Si proposed that all histories except those written by the Qin historians be burned so that they would not be available to the public; those in the imperial archives would be exempt. He also proposed 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 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 banished to the north as convicts working on building the Great Wall. The only books to be spared in the destruction were books on war, medicine, agriculture and divination.[12]

Later book burnings[edit]

At the end of the Qin, the Epang Palace's national records were destroyed by fire. Tang dynasty poet Zhang Jie (章碣), in a timely manner, wrote a poem about the policy of destruction as follows:


  • Chinese: 坑灰未冷山東亂; pinyin: kēng huī wèi lĕng shān dōng luàn
  • Chinese: 劉項原來不讀書; pinyin: liú xiàng yuán lái bù dú shū


Ash pit of burning before it gets cold, uprising broke out in Shandong.
Liu Bang and Xiang Yu's uneducatedness emerged.

Burial of the scholars[edit]

Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji; ca 100 BC) was one of the earliest works to claim that Jizi was enfeoffed by King Wu of Zhou as ruler of Chaoxian (Joseon).

After being deceived by two alchemists while seeking prolonged life, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered more than 460 scholars in the capital to be buried alive in the second year of the proscription, though an account given by Wei Hong in the 2nd century added another 700 to the figure. As some of them were also Confucian scholars, Fusu counseled that, with the country newly unified, and enemies still not pacified, such a harsh measure imposed on those who respect Confucius would cause instability.[13] However, he was unable to change his father's mind, and instead was sent to guard the frontier as a de facto exile.

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. Many of the other schools had disappeared.


Some scholars doubt that Sima Qian's account of the book-burning in the Records of the Grand Historian — the source of knowledge about this event — accurately reflects what precisely happened,[14] although no competing histories have appeared.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Government of the Qin and Han Empires: 221 BCE-220 CE. By Michael Loewe. ISBN 0872208184
  • Petersen, Jens Østergård. "Which Books Did the First Emperor of Ch'in Burn? - On the Meaning of Pai Chia in Early Chinese Sources." Monumenta Serica 43, (1995), pp. 1–52. Available on JSTOR.

Popular Culture[edit]

  • Jane Lindskold's The Land of Smoke and Sacrifice fantasy series is based on this event


  1. ^ Richard King, Sheng Tian Zheng, Scott Watson. Art in Turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Hong Kong University Press, 2010. p87
  2. ^ Ideological Conflicts in Modern China: Democracy and Authoritarianism. By Wen-Shun Chi. Transaction Publishers, 1992. p252
  3. ^ The history of religions. By Edward Washburn Hopkins. The Macmillan Company, 1918. p227
  4. ^ Chung-kuo Ta Lu Pao Chih Hsüan i, Issues 5545-5563. By United States. Consulate General (Hong Kong, China). 1974.
  5. ^ World Musics in Context. By Peter Fletcher. 2004. p334
  6. ^ Obscene Things: Sexual Politics in Jin Ping Mei. By Naifei Ding. Duke University Press, Jul 18, 2002. p72
  7. ^ "China". The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Volume 5. By Day Otis Kellogg, William Robertson Smith. Werner, 1902. p644. (Cf., ... "Urh-she Hwang-te ascended the throne, the wide-spread discontent broke out into tumults. Taking advantage of the confusion which thus arose, the princes who had been dispossessed by Che Hwang-te again attempted to regain the thrones they had lost.")
  8. ^ Pictorial Ancient History of the World. By John Frost. p357
  9. ^ The Book of Bad Things: A Sinister Guide to History's Dark Side. By Clive Gifford, Count Droffig. p8
  10. ^ Paradigms and Mathematics. Edited by Elena Ausejo, Mariano Hormigón. Siglo XXI de España Editores, Jan 1, 1996. p123
  11. ^ The Encyclopaedia Britannica: Volume 5. By Day Otis Kellogg, William Robertson Smith. p710
  12. ^


    Shiji Chapter 6. "The Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin" thirty fourth year (213 BC)

    English translation:

    Chancellor Li Si Said: "I, your servant, propose that all historians' records other than those of Qin's be burned. With the exception of the academics whose duty includes possessing books, if anyone under heaven has copies of the Shi Jing, the Classic of History, or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall deliver them (the books) to the governor or the commandant for burning. Anyone who dares to discuss the Shi Jing or the Classic of History shall be publicly executed. Anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed. Any official who sees the violations but fails to report them is equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be subjected to tattooing and be sent to build the Great Wall. The books that have exemption are those on medicine, divination, agriculture, and forestry. Those who have interest in laws shall instead study from officials.

  13. ^ In Chinese: "於是使御史悉案問諸生,諸生傳相告引,乃自除。1犯禁者四百六十餘人,皆阬之咸陽,使天下知之,以懲後。益發謫徙邊。始皇長子扶蘇諫曰:「天下初定,遠方黔首未集,諸生皆誦法孔子,今上皆重法繩之,臣恐天下不安。唯上察之。」", from Shiji chapter 6.
    English translation: The first emperor therefore directed the imperial censor to investigate the scholars one by one. The scholars accused each other, and so the emperor personally determined their fate. More than 460 of them were buried alive at Xianyang, and the event is announced to all under heaven for warning followers. More people were internally exiled to border regions. Fusu, the eldest son of the emperor, counselled: "The empire just achieved peace, and the barbarians in distant areas have not surrendered. The scholars all venerate Confucius and take him as a role model. Your servant fears if Your Majesty punish them so severely, it may cause unrest in the empire. Please observe this, Your Majesty." (1Punctuation and therefore translation is ambiguous here. Punctuation given here reflects the 1959 Zhonghua Shuju (中華書局) edition.)
  14. ^ See Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, The Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (University of Hawai'i Press, 2005): 151.; See also: Michael Nylan, The Five "Confucian" Classics (Yale University Press, 2001).


  1. ^ See: Early papermaking in China
  2. ^ See also: Warring States period, Qin's wars of unification.
  3. ^ See: Qin Shi Huang.
    Note: He died while on a trip to the far eastern reaches of his empire in an attempt to procure an elixir of immortality from Taoist magicians, who claimed the elixir was stuck on an island guarded by a sea monster.
  4. ^ See also: Battle of Julu, Collapse of the Qin

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