CHAPTER I. THE EARLY AGES
Great as an administrator, and successful as a soldier, Hwangti was unfortunate in one struggle that he provoked. At an early period of his career, when success seemed uncertain, he found that his bitterest opponents were men of letters, and that the literary class as a body was hostile to his interests and person. Instead of ignoring this opposition or seeking to overcome it by the same agency, Hwangti expressed his hatred and contempt, not only of the literary class, but of literature itself, and resorted to extreme measures of coercion. The writers took up the gage of battle thrown down by the emperor, and Hwangti became the object of the wit and abuse of every literate who could use a pencil. His birth was aspersed. It was said that he was not a Tsin at all, that his origin was of the humblest, and that he was a substituted child foisted on the last of the Tsin princes. These personal attacks were accompanied by unfavorable criticism of all his measures, and by censure where he felt that he deserved praise. It would have been more prudent if he had shown greater indifference and patience, for although he had the satisfaction of triumphing by brute force over those who jeered at him, the triumph was accomplished by an act of Vandalism, with which his name will be quite as closely associated in history as any of the wise measures or great works that he carried out. His vanquished opponents left behind them a legacy of hostility and revenge of the whole literary class of China, which has found expression in all the national histories.
The struggle, which had been in progress for some years, reached its culminating point in the year 213 B.C., when a Grand Council of the empire was summoned at Hienyang. At this council were present not only the emperor's chief military and civil officers from the different provinces, but also the large literary class, composed of aspirants to office and the members of the academies and College of Censors. The opposing forces in China were thus drawn up face to face, and it would have been surprising if a collision had not occurred. On the one side were the supporters of the man who had made China again an empire, believers in his person and sharers in his glory; on the other were those who had no admiration for this ruler, who detested his works, proclaimed his successes dangerous innovations, and questioned his right to bear the royal name. The purpose of the emperor may be detected when he called upon speakers in this assembly of his friends and foes to express their opinions of his administration, and when a member of his household rose to extol his work and to declare that he had "surpassed the very greatest of his predecessors." This courtier-like declaration, which would have been excusable even if it had had a less basis of truth than it unquestionably possessed in the case of Hwangti, was received with murmurs and marks of dissent by the literati. One of them rose and denounced the speaker as "a vile flatterer," and proceeded to expatiate on the superior merit of several of the earlier rulers. Not content with this unseasonable eulogy, he advocated the restoration of the empire to its old form of principalities, and the consequent undoing of all that Hwangti had accomplished. Hwangti interrupted this speaker and called upon his favorite minister Lisseh to reply to him and explain his policy. Lisseh began by stating what has often been said since, and in other countries, that "men of letters are, as a rule, very little acquainted with what concerns the government of a country, not that government of pure speculation which is nothing more than a phantom, vanishing the nearer we approached to it, but the practical government which consists in keeping men within the sphere of their proper duties." He then proceeded to denounce the literary class as being hostile to the State, and to recommend the destruction of their works, declaring that "now is the time or never to close the mouths of these secret enemies and to place a curb on their audacity." The emperor at once from his throne ratified the policy and ordered that no time should be lost in executing the necessary measures. All books were proscribed, and orders were issued to burn every work except those relating to medicine, agriculture, and such science as then existed. The destruction of the national literature was carried out with terrible completeness, and such works as were preserved are not free from the suspicion of being garbled or incomplete versions of their original text. The burning of the books was accompanied by the execution of five hundred of the literati, and by the banishment of many thousands. By this sweeping measure, to which no parallel is to be found in the history of other countries, Hwangti silenced during the last few years of his life the criticisms of his chief enemies, but in revenge his memory has had to bear for two thousand years the sully of an inexcusable act of tyranny and narrow-mindedness. The price will be pronounced too heavy for what was a momentary gratification.