Hai Rui ?? (1514–1587) was a scholar and bureaucrat who served in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He was known for his stern ethical positions and his unswerving rectitude, remaining an icon of political incorruptibility for the rest of Chinese history.

Hai Rui was a civil official of the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644), famous for his uncompromising moral stance and his Spartan lifestyle. In an era when civil servants commonly enriched themselves through their official positions, Hai was hailed as a paragon of the idealistic Confucian values of incorruptible service to the people and the state. According to his official biography, he was so frugal that his purchase of some pork for his mother’s birthday was treated as sensational news. A minor figure in Ming history, Hai Rui remained a model of public-minded virtue for the rest of Chinese history.

Hai Rui never passed the highest level of the civil service examinations, and it was rare for a scholar to rise in the bureaucracy without doing so. His promotions were based largely on his moral reputation. After serving as a schoolteacher, he was appointed to a magistrate’s position in Shun’an County in Zhejiang Province, an important crossroads for commercial activity. As such, the region was prone to exploitation of the local populace by local officials and by high-ranking travelers who expected luxurious treatment. Hai earned a reputation for challenging and shaming prominent figures who sought special treatment in his jurisdiction.

Hai was soon promoted to a minor post in the Ministry of Revenue at the capital. In 1565, Hai got into trouble for writing a scathing admonition to the emperor, attacking his personal morals, accusing him of misrule, and urging him to reform his ways. For Hai’s lese-majeste (crime committed against a sovereign power) he was imprisoned and only narrowly escaped execution. After his release Hai Rui continued to be appointed to prominent positions in the bureaucracy, although he was given mostly sinecure positions that limited the reach of his stern moralism.

In 1569, after begging the emperor to give him a more substantial position, Hai was assigned to the post of governor of the Southern Metropolitan District, the prosperous region around Suzhou and Nanjing. Again he quickly lived up to his reputation, imposing a stern regimen of austerity and moral rectitude on his new jurisdiction. Official business was conducted with great frugality, and the manufacture of luxury goods was forbidden. In his zealous efforts to fight the exploitation of commoners, Hai launched campaigns against exploitive practices by wealthy landlords, many of whom had ties to the most prominent political families in the empire.

The memory of Hai Rui resurfaced in the late 1950s when Wu Han (1909–1969), a prominent historian and deputy mayor of Beijing, wrote the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui, which was performed in 1961 in Beijing. Hai Rui was portrayed as a moral official willing to speak truth to a power hierarchy that was out of touch with the common people, a clear and harsh allegorical indictment of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Official criticism of Wu and his play began in 1965, and his scholarly circle was purged and imprisoned the next year in the opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

Hai Rui Scolds the Emperor

In his 1959 essay “Hai Rui Scolds the Emperor” the historian Wu Han quoted the 1566 petition that Hai Rui wrote to the Jiajing emperor which harshly criticized the emperor’s governance and proposed drastic reform:

How would you compare yourself with Emperor Wen Di of the Han dynasty? You did a fairly good job in your early years, but what has happened to you now? For nearly twenty years you have not appeared in the imperial court, and you have appointed many fools to the government. By refusing to see your own sons, you are mean to you own blood; by suspecting court officials, you are mean to your subordinates; and by living in the Western Park refusing to come home, you are mean to your wife. Now the country is filled with corrupt officials and weak generals; peasants begin to revolt everywhere. Although such things happened when you were enthroned, they were not as serious as they are today. Now Yan Gao has resigned [as Grand Minister], but there is still no sign of social reform. In my judgment you are much inferior to Emperor Wen Di…

The dynasty’s officials know that the people have been dissatisfied with you for some time. By engaging in occultism and searching for immortality, you have confused yourself. Your shortcomings are numerous: rudeness, short-temperedness, self-righteousness, and deafness to honest criticism. But worst of all is your search for immortality… You should realize the impossibility of achieving immortality and repent past mistakes. You should attend the imperial court regularly and discuss national affairs with your court officials. This is the only way to redeem yourself. By doing so you may still be able to make yourself useful to the country during your remaining years.

The most urgent problems today are the absurdity of imperial policies and the lack of clarity of official responsibilities. If you do not tackle these problems now, nothing will be accomplished.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Lufrano, R.. (2000). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 472–473.

Further Reading

Huang, Ray. (1981). 1587, a year of no significance: The Ming dynasty in decline. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fang Chaoying. (1976). Hai Jui. In L. Carrington Goodrich & Fang Chaoying (Eds.). Dictionary of Ming biography, vol. 1 (pp. 474–479). New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Ditmanson, Peter B. (2009). HAI Rui. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 973–974. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

HAI Rui (H?i Ruì ??)|H?i Ruì ?? (HAI Rui)

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