What books did Qin Shi Huang burn?

de rebus sinicis

In 213 BC BC carried out the officials on the orders of the First Emperor (Qin Shihuangdi 秦始皇 帝) - and probably under the supervision of his Chancellor Li Si 李斯 [1] by a book burning, the dimensions of which were "possibly legendary exaggerated" in later times.

In order to sustainably counter the opposition to the standardization and reforms carried out in the various regions after the unification of the empire, a ban on private ownership of works from the fields of history, philosophy and literature was issued - under threat of the death penalty. Books on medicine and agriculture as well as pharmacopoeias and oracle books were exempt from the ban. A copy of the books to be destroyed went to the emperor, because "no one except the ruler deserves the trust of having a library."

The murder of numerous “scholars” is seen in close connection with the book burning. This context is made possible by the phrase fen shu keng ru 焚書坑儒 ("Burn books and bury scholars [alive]") clarified. These events led to the fact that after the end of the Qin dynasty (207 BC) the image of the First Emperor was marked extremely negatively by historiography, which was essentially Confucian. A change in the assessment only occurred after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Speaking at the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong mein said:

“What does the First Emperor of the Qin count? He only buried 460 Confucians alive while we buried 46,000 Confucians alive. Didn't we shave some of the counterrevolutionary intellectuals' heads during the suppression of the counterrevolutionaries? I once discussed this with democratic personalities: You insult us that we are like the First Emperor of the Qin - wrong, we have surpassed the First Emperor of the Qin by a hundred times. "[4]


  1. See chinaknowledge.de: Persons in Chinese History: Li Si. [↩]
  2. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer: History of Chinese Literature. From the beginning to the present (Munich: 2nd edition, 1999) 318. [↩]
  3. Quoted from: China's sensational find. Qin Shi Huang Di - the first emperor of China and his clay army, Exhibition Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, 23 May to 4 August 1985, Vienna 1985) 30. - Cf. also Jens Østergård Petersen: “Which books did the First Emperor of Ch’in burn?” In: Monumenta Serica 43 (1995) 1-52. [↩]
  4. Speeches at the 2nd session of the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of China, May 8, 1958. In: Mao Zedong texts. Vol. 3: 1958. Writings, documents, speeches and conversations. German adaptation and original Chinese version. Ed. Helmut Martin with the collaboration of Martin Krott (Munich / Vienna 1982) 121 f. [↩]

Book policy