Chinese Calligraphy Artworks and Masters – Li Si (李斯 / Li Ssu): Minister of Qin

A Brief Biography of Li Si (李斯/Li Ssu)

In the history of the Chinese written language, few individuals have had as deep or lasting impact as Li Si. While it is unknown exactly when he was born, Li Si would, at a remarkably young age, become a figure central to the chaotic era that saw the first unification of China. Receiving instruction from the great Confucian philosopher Xun Zi (荀子/Hsun Tsu), Li Si moved to the state of Qin and was accepted as a counsellor of King Zheng (glossary: Qin Shi Huang) who would go on to conquer the other Chinese states and become the first Emperor.

The political tactics of Li Si were as direct as they were absolute. Li Si believed that the unificiation of China could only be completed if all philosophies, histories and even songs that might compete with Imperial doctrine were eliminated. As a result, Li Si promoted, and succeeded in affecting, an extensive project of book burning designed to eliminate the incredible diversity of thought that the later Warring States had produced.

Although Li Si was vehement that no literature should compete with Imperial ideology, he also took a strong hand in formulating that ideology. Li Si is credited with the first systematic standardization of Chinese characters. More than simply standardizing script, Li Si’s Canjie Pian (倉頡篇/Ts’ang Chieh P’ien) is the first recorded Chinese language primer. He is also credited with the drafting of memorials to the legitimacy of Qin that would be inscribed on the Qin Stelae.

Li Si (李斯/Li Ssu) and the Political Standardization of the Script

Taken together, the standardization of Script and the proscription of historical and philosophical texts expose a great deal about the political ideology of Li Si. In Chinese thought, it was often claimed that truthful ideas need not be rationalized, or argue with inferior positions. Furthermore, argumentative exposition and partial debate was claimed by some thinkers to be misleading insofar as distracted the listener or reader from true statements. As such, the Hundred Schools were often criticized for their partiality. It was Li Si’s belief that the State, as the center and governor of society, must have a monopoly on truth. It was for these reasons primarily that Li Si targeted all ideas and writings that might be even potentially critical of state thought. Likewise, the creation of a standardized script was accomplished to ensure that regional variations could not compete with the totalizing Imperial voice. While the standardization of script was certainly helpful in communicating within a centralized bureaucratic system, its more political motivations of control must be recognized.

The Qin Stelae: Monuments of a New History

Due to the extreme antiquity of Li Si’s time, none of his calligraphy survives to the present day. Nevertheless, Si Ma Qian (司馬遷/Ssu Ma Ch’ien) attributed the Qin Stelae, some of which survive either in situ or by way of rubbings, to him. The Qin Stelae were designed as monuments to the rule of Qin as a virtuous and legitimate ruler. While the stelae may be thought of as ritual artifacts, they are also clearly political. That is, their positioning at important ritual sites through China asserted the Qin’s dominion over the new Empire. As you can see from the excerpt pictured, the writing on Qin stelae was not yet expressive of brush and ink work. Nevertheless, the Xiao Zhuan style provides clarity, both orthographically and pictographically, even more than two millennia after their production