China Beat Archive



K. E. Brashier

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December 17, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright December 17, 2017 K.E. Brashier. Used by permission.


The story of Qin may vaunt grandiose armies and new empires that encompass all under heaven, but it also extends to more humble images:

Li Si, [the chief minister of Qin], was a man of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth, when he was a minor clerk in the province, he noticed rats eating filth in the latrines of the clerks’ hostel; and if they approached a man or dog, they were generally scared of them. But when Si entered a granary, he observed that the rats in the granary were eating the stored-up grain, living underneath the main chamber of the granary, and not being worried by either man or dog. At this Li Si sighed and said: “A man’s status is just the same as with rats. It simply depends on where one locates oneself!”

Excavated Qin legal statutes indeed allude to granary rodent problems in which three mouse holes equated with one rat hole, two rat holes warranted a beating and three or more a fine.[1] Yet the opportunist rat in these opening lines of the chief minister’s biography is intended to characterize the political entrepreneur Li Si in the Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.E.), an era that marked the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 B.C.E.). The biography’s author, Sima Qian, would elsewhere extend this trait of opportunism to the new ruler whom Li Si would serve. That is, Sima Qian took a dim view of the First Emperor of Qin and his advisors in general – much dimmer than does modern popular culture – and he brands the ruler as a cruel charlatan who, like Li Si, simply put himself in the right place at the right time.[2] Both Li Si and the First Emperor merely took advantage of the situation and didn’t endeavor to nourish the people through moral rectitude.