The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, is recorded as burning books (among other things). At the same time, the invention of paper is generally ascribed to the Han Dynasty, i.e., the dynasty after the Qin Dynasty.

I'm unclear how these two historical facts can both be true. I'm guessing "books" meant something unlike what we think today.

Question: How did Emperor Qin "burn the books" prior to the invention of paper?

  • 13
    It shuld be noted that "the books" is a modern translation; the Chinese character 'shu (書)' in this period meant "written on bamboo or silk", i.e. "documents". A more accurate translation would be "burned writings and buried scholars", although that was not the original record of the event either - the earliest we have said he ordered the burning of "all chronicles that's not the Chronicles of Qin, the Classic of Songs, the Classic of Documents, and the teachings of the various philosophers."
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 10:10
  • 2
    Europeans were making a whole lot of books for centuries without an ounce of paper. It's called parchment, and while it's not as flammable as paper, it'll burn.
    – Martha
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 20:00
  • Have another look at your second link, particularly under the section "How Did The Chinese Write Before Paper?"
    – J...
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 11:37

2 Answers 2


The Chinese term for the Qin emperor's "burning books and burying scholars alive" is 焚書坑儒 (character by character: burn/book/bury [alive]/followers of Confucius). The character for book or books here is 書.

According to the Chinese wikipedia article on pre-paper Chinese writing,


Wooden or bamboo tablets (簡牘) can be bound into books (書) with cords or leather strings.*

Since wood and bamboo both burn easily, it follows that books from such materials would also burn.

* but note that while the first (four-character) quote uses a very old interpretation of what 書 is, the second quote uses a modern one. They are probably quite similar, but not necessarily so. Cf. 火车 which nowadays means train and in pre-modern times meant something quite different.

  • 19
    I think the key point here is OP's assumption that "books" would be made of paper rather than some other material. Translation problems are secondary.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 14:00

Paper was invented in China, traditionally by court official Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD. It was actually invented around 3 centuries earlier, but not used for writing until the 1st century AD. Up until that point, characters had been painted onto wood or bamboo, or for the very wealthy onto silk. The wood was cut into strips 1 character wide. Multiple strips could be tied together so they could be fastened into a roll, or alternatively a hole was put in the top of each strip and a cord threaded through. The roll or bundle could be tied in such a way that the text faced inwards, with clay to secure the bundle and a seal applied to ensure the content was not read by unauthorised people. Tags were used to identify the contents of archived material.

Such bundles would of course burn well.

This information is from Michael Loewe: Everyday Life in Imperial China During the Han Period

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