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The Legalist System of the First Emperor

The Qin Empire’s First Minister Li Si enforced a regime of almost Fascist oppression.

The man known as the First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng, ruled the Qin (or Chin) Dynasty between 221-210 BCE. He planned to inaugurate a dynasty that would last 10,000 years but it all unraveled within a few years of his death, a death that was bitterly contested by the First Emperor’s search for the elixir of immortality.

The Qin Dynasty is perhaps best well-known for its system of Legalism, which was closely associated with the extraordinary life and career of First Minister Li Si (280-208 BCE). Legalism required absolute obedience to the law. No one (apart from the Emperor, who was a divine creature in any case) would be free from the burden on obeying the law. Emperor and Minister understood that the main danger to the empire they had created through seemingly endless years of bloody warfare and secret plotting would come from within. The constituent parts of the empire had been longstanding states in their own right, each one with its aristocratic families and bureaucratic elites. Any show of favouritism ran the risk of igniting the desire among people for a return to their own country and to the freedoms they once had.

Li Si’s task was first to ensure the law existed in a comprehensive and coherent format. This necessitated standardization of the language – then as now, Chinese from different parts of the empire could scarcely understand one another’s spoken language. Li Si overcame this by ensuring that everyone used the same characters to represent the same words so that, if oral communication became problematic, then at least recourse to the written form of the word could resolve misunderstanding. At the same time, the Minister also reconciled all the different weights and measures systems in use across the vast territory of China. He assisted the Emperor in building the Great Wall to mark the limits of Chinese-ness in the north, while resisting the incursions of the northern nomadic barbarians. In the south, the Chinese yoke was thrown around the neck of the Nanhai people – perhaps as far south as Vietnam and Kunming.

Once the law was standard across China, then steps were taken to ensure that all people were judged by it impartially – that rather unfortunately meant without compassion and with little if any recourse to mercy. People were encouraged (i.e. obliged) to report on their neighbours if they broke any law and entire families could be held responsible for the wrongdoing of one individual, in accordance, it was occasionally claimed, with the thinking of Confucius. This was institutionalized terror on a grand scale. It is not surprising that the people hated it.

For more details, see Clements, Jonathan, The First Emperor of China (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2007).

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