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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

3 - Specter of the Past

  • Vincent S. Leung, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • pp 102-129


This chapter studies the fortune of historical knowledge under the rise of the Qin empire from the mid-fourth century to the end of the third century BCE. It begins with a discussion of the founding of the Qin empire, and how the infamous episode of the “Burning of the Books” points to its desire to exercise dominion not just over the space but also the time of the empire. Then, it turns to a discussion of the ambivalent, problematic role that history had long played in the Legalist tradition of political thought, as seen in writings by various prominent Qin officials, especially Shang Yang and Han Feizi. Then, under the Qin empire and the First Emperor, we saw not only an inheritance and forceful application of this Legalist vision of the state, but also a willful radicalization of its key principles. The Qin empire built on the Legalist legacy and finally arrived at a vision of itself as the effective “end of history,” a supposed cessation of all material change in human history henceforth that also worked as an effective dismissal of the entire historical field as ultimatley useless and irrelevant.