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The 21th Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture: Burning the Books and Killing the Scholars: Representing the Atrocities of the First Emperor of China

Anthony Barbieri-Low delivers the 21st Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture on Chinese Archaeology and Art

Duration: 7:46

Lenart Auditorium

Fowler Museum of Cultural History
UCLA
Los Angeles CA 90095
CA

For centuries, the brutal and tyrannical reign of Qin Shihuangdi, First Emperor of China, was summed up by a four-character phrase, fenshu kengru, “He burned the books and buried the Confucian scholars alive.” This refers to two separate, largely unrelated, incidents that the historian Sima Qian tells us took place late in the reign of the First Emperor. He wove them into the historical narrative as evidence of the emperor’s increasing paranoia and as omens of his imminent loss of Heaven’s favor. In the first incident, the First Emperor decreed that private copies of the Book of Documents, Book of Songs, and the histories of the defeated rival states be banned and turned over to the authorities for destruction. This literary inquisition resulted in an enormous loss of historical knowledge and cultural heritage and earned the First Emperor the enmity of book-revering Confucian scholars for two millennia.

While there is abundant historical proof for the so-called “burning of the books,” the second atrocity, the alleged killing of 460 Confucian scholars, by burying them alive in a pit, has been greatly misinterpreted, and may have never occurred. Nevertheless, for over two millennia, authors and artists have linked these two incidents and used them in representations to vilify the First Emperor, and, on occasion, to praise him. This talk will examine how these atrocities have been portrayed in literature, monuments, and pictorial art from the Han Dynasty to the Cultural Revolution, with special focus on the political motivations behind these representations.

Anthony Barbieri-Low is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he specializes in the social and economic history of imperial China.