Location:Home Legalist Personages
Li Si: the most influential Prime Minister in China
By Xinfajia
2008-07-01 11:19:05

Li Si (Chinese: 李斯;  Wade-Giles: Li Ssu) (ca. 280 BC - September or October 208 BC) was the influential Prime Minister (or Chancellor) of the feudal state and later of the dynasty of Qin, between 246 BC and 208 BC. A famous Legalist, he was also a notable calligrapher. Li Si served under two rulers: Qin Shi Huang, king of Qin and later First Emperor of China -- and his son, Qin Er Shi. A powerful minister, he was central to the state's policies, including those on military conquest, draconian centralization of state control, standardization of weights, measures and the written script.

Early Life

Li Si was originally from Shang Cai (上蔡) in the kingdom of Chu. When he was young, he was a minor official in Chu. According to the Records of the Great Historian, one day Li Si observed that rats in the restroom were dirty and hungry but the rats in the barnhouse were well fed. He suddenly realized that "the values of people are determined by their social status." He made up his mind to take up politics as his career, which was a common choice for scholars not from a noble family during the Warring States Period. After having finished his education with the famous Confucian thinker Xun Zi, he moved to the most powerful state at that time - Qin and tried to advance his political career there.

Career in Qin

During his stay in the state of Qin, Li Si became a guest of the prime minister Lu Buwei (呂不韋) and got the chance to talk to the ruler of Qin - Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang was impressed by Li Si's view of how to unify China. Having adopted Li Si's proposal, the ruler of Qin spent generously to lure intellects to the state of Qin and sent out assassins to kill important scholars in other states.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian (史記), Li Si was responsible for the death of Han Fei. A minor prince in the state of Han, Han Fei was 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 Si successfully persuaded him into committing suicide by poisoning.


When Qin Shi Huang died while away from the capital, Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao suppressed the late emperor's choice of successor, caused the crown prince to commit suicide, and installed another prince, Qin Er Shi (229B.C-207B.C) in his place. During the tumultuous aftermath, Zhao Gao persuaded the new emperor to install his followers in official positions. When his power base was secure enough, Zhao Gao then had Li Si killed in 208 BC in a grisly manner -- being cut in half in public.


A staunch believer in a highly bureacratic system, Li Si is considered to have been central to the efficiency of the state of Qin and the success of its military conquest. He was also instrumental in systemizing standard measures and currency in post-unified China. He further helped systemize the written Chinese language by promulgating as the imperial standard the small seal script which had been in use in the state of Qin all along. In this process, variant graphs within the Qin script were proscribed, as were variant scripts from the different regions which had been conquered. Contrary to popular belief, though, Li Si did not "invent" small seal script.

Copyright: The New Legalist Website      Registered: Beijing ICP 05073683      E-mail: alexzhaid@163.com   lusherwin@yahoo.com