Qin Shi Huang (260 – 210 BC) is the most prominent of the Chinese emperors. He united China through conquest, began the Great Wall of China, and had the Terra Cotta warriors built. He’s significant to Confucianism – and especially the textual transmission of Confucius’ works – because toward the end of his reign he engaged in a process of burning books and burying scholars. The scholars that were allegedly buried alive were apparently Confucian scholars, and Confucian works were apparently largely destroyed by the Emperor’s decree.
The Qin dynasty ended shortly after Qin’s death, and was replaced by the Han dynasty. In A.D. 9, Wang Mang (45 BC – A.D. 23) usurped the throne from the ruling family and set up his own short-lived dynasty. During Wang Mang’s reign, it was alleged that some of Confucius’ writings had been rediscovered. Wang Mang apparently used these texts in an attempt to support his own reforms.
Robert Greene (in “The 48 Laws of Power,” p. 397) explains it this way:
Reigning from A.D. 8 to A.D. 23, the Chinese emperor Wang Mang emerged from a period of great historical turbulence in which the people yearned for order, an order represented for them by Confucius. Some two hundred years earlier, however, Emperor Ch’in had ordered the writings of Confucius burned. A few years later, word had spread that certain texts had miraculously survived, hidden under the scholar’s house. These texts may not have been genuine, but they gave Wang his opportunity: He first confiscated them, then had his scribes insert passages into them that seemed to support the changes he had been imposing on the country. When he released the texts, it seemed that Confucius sanctioned Wang’s reforms, and the people felt comforted and accepted them more easily.
While there is controversy (apparently to this day) about the nature and extent of Qin’s burning of books, and of Wang Mang’s (or others’) possible editing or forging of Confucian writings, these controversies were all made possible by the fact that Qin had control of the geographic area where Confucius’ works circulated, and the means for effectively destroying those works.
This parallels the history of the transmission of the Qur’an. The first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr, is said to have collected the Qur’an in A.D. 634. Nevertheless, various versions of the Qur’an were apparently circulating during reign of the third caliph, Uthman (reigned A.D. 644 – 656). Uthman created a standard text of the Qur’an and had the other copies burned. This was possible because Uthman had control of the geographic area where the Qur’an circulated and the means for effectively destroying competing copies.
There is, however, no close parallel in Christianity. Christianity rapidly spread copies of books of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) beyond the reach of the Roman Empire. Christianity had no centralized earthly ruler and by the time emperors like Constantine or Roman bishops tried to operate in such a capacity, the text of the New Testament was so well established and widespread that any attempt to edit or control the text would have been ineffective. While this uncontrolled transmission of the text may seem messy it is one of the means by which we can have confidence in the text today, without the need for a continued prophetic witness.