The First Emperor of China was the first person to unify the country. Under his rule, the wealth and power of the separate states came into the hands of the central government. The First Emperor was very anxious to maintain his power. He said to his Prime Minister, “Even now I find that some people are cherishing opposing ideas. Where do these opposing ideas come from? How do they circulate?”
The Prime Minister said, “O Emperor, these ideas are embedded in our ancient books, which are known as the five Classics, and also in the works of Confucius and others. When people read these philosophical works from the Golden Age of the past, they learn about benevolence, righteousness and other moral precepts. That is why they criticise you.”
The First Emperor said, “I clearly see that the only way to extinguish these ideas is to burn all the books. Not only the books, but also those found reading the books must be burned!”
The Prime Minister, who was extremely ambitious, immediately agreed. He said, “That is an excellent idea! We shall keep aside only medical books and books about growing crops. All others will be burned to ashes. If anyone is found reading those ancient classics, we will burn a mark on that person’s face and send him to the frontier to build the Great Wall. In this way, the old works will lose all their prestige in the minds of the people.”
The Emperor was very pleased with the recommendations of his Prime Minister, and he issued orders for them to be carried out. Those who did not comply with the regulations received the terrible punishment of being branded on the face.
In spite of these brutal measures, some books did manage to escape destruction, for the priests very carefully hid them in the walls of houses. Some priests even committed the books to memory. When the First Emperor’s reign came to an end after just fifteen years, those priests were able to write out the old classics word for word. In this way, the ancient Chinese wisdom was preserved. Even now, the Chinese culture is taken as one of the world’s most precious sources of wisdom.