History Lessons

Li Si

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Before Qin Shi Huangdi (China’s first emperor) unified the kingdom, the Warring States Period was marked by constant warfare between seven states. Originally a scholar from the state of Chu, Li Si saw the future lay with Qin.

Outsiders like Li came to hold high office in Qin and aroused jealousy among members of the local nobility. The King was persuaded that recent conspiracies were the work of foreigners, acting as spies for their own sovereigns. The King of Qin signed an order expelling all foreigners from Qin.

Li found his name among those who were to be banished. He wrote a letter to the King to plead against the ordinance. He started off by stating that his majesty’s most prized jade was not from Qin, nor were his most prized horses, and wrote that the old monotonous drum music of Qin had been replaced by the more melodic lilting tunes from the states of Zheng and Wei.

Li said there was a reason for this: “We choose whatever is best and pleases us most. However, this appears not to be the case when it comes to the selection of men. Without considering their qualifications or capability, let alone their honesty, non-Qin scholars are being stripped of their office and sent away.”

He concluded: “In the long run your ordinance [expelling foreigners] will harm your own people and strengthen your enemies.”

The King of Qin was greatly moved by Li’s letter and rescinded his order. Li Si went on to become prime minister and a pivotal figure in China’s history: being instrumental in unifying the country, as well as standardising China’s writing system and its weights and measures.

The lesson? The Financial Times recently reported that Bank of America has withdrawn job offers made to non-American MBA graduates – thanks to the TARP programme. On his CNN show Fareed Zakaria made much the same point as Li: such moves will make America’s economy weaker, not stronger.


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