The Law of Shi Huangdi

The Law of Shi Huangdi, First Emperor of China

Like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Shi Huangdi conquered vast areas and unified diverse peoples under one rule. After becoming the first emperor of what is now China, he attempted to suppress the traditional Confucian way of governing by imposing a harsh legal system.

In 1974, near the city of Xian, Chinese archeologists unearthed almost 8,000 full-sized clay statues of warriors, horses, and chariots. Each clay warrior bore unique facial features along with a distinct hairstyle and armor showing his military rank. The archaeologists found the clay army buried on the approach to the still-unopened tomb of China's first emperor, Shi Huangdi, who died more than 2,000 years ago. Before his death, the emperor had ordered 700,000 workers to labor on his tomb. His ability to command many people to work on such projects flowed from his success as a military mastermind. But he also established a severe legal code that conflicted with traditional Chinese ideals.

Before Shi Huangdi became emperor, Qin's rulers followed the teachings of the philosopher
 Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucius believed in a well-ordered society tied to tradition and the past. He also valued learning and scholarship. In his view, the state resembled a large family guided by the righteous behavior of the ruler. The ideal leader ruled by compassion, not force, and avoided war while easing the burdens of the poor. According to Confucius, a ruler who failed to set the example of goodness for his subjects would lose the "Mandate of Heaven," and his reign would end in disaster.

Shi Huangdi, however, preferred another school of thought called Legalism. The Legalists believed that people were basically motivated by self-interest and therefore had to be controlled by a strong ruler and stern punishments. Han Fei-tzu, a Legalist and the tutor of Shi Huangdi, wrote, "The ruler alone should possess the power, wielding it like lightning or like thunder."

Li Si, the first emperor's grand counselor, was also a Legalist. He created a law code to govern the newly unified China. Under the Qin Law Code, district officials, all appointed by the emperor, investigated crimes, arrested suspects, and acted as judges. When arrested, criminal suspects were often beaten to get a confession. Those arrested were presumed guilty until they could prove their innocence. Trials took place before a judge with no jury or lawyers.

The Qin Law Code set specified harsh punishments for particular crimes. Penalties for less serious violations included fines, beatings with a stick, hard labor on public works, and banishment to frontier regions. For more serious offenses, lawbreakers faced bodily mutilation by tattooing the face, flogging….. Execution was normally by beheading.