History Lessons

Hai Rui

Honesty not always the best policy?

Hai Rui (1514-1587) started his political career as a school clerk during the Ming Dynasty. He won public support for his morality, honesty and bluntness.

Then, in 1565, he submitted a memorandum impeaching the Jiajing Emperor for being a poor father, husband and ruler.

Unsurprisingly, this led to his arrest. But Hai returned to favour to serve under two more emperors. One of these, Wanli, was on the receiving end of another stern Hai missive, this one recommending the severest punishment of official corruption.

Four centuries later, the scholar Wu Han wrote the play ‘Hai Rui Dismissed from Office’ based on Hai’s life story. It was so popular that Mao Zedong went along to see a performance. He enjoyed it enough to endorse it too: “The play is good, and Hai Rui was a good one!”

Not for long, it seems. In 1965, Yao Wenyuan – one of the “Gang of Four”– published an article in the Shanghai newspaper Wenhuibao accusing Wu of using Hai’s story to attack the regime.

In particular he alleged that Wu’s portrayal of the corrupt Ming emperor was a thinly-veiled attack on Mao himself. Upstanding Hai, on the other hand, was held to represent Peng Dehuai, a critic dismissed by Mao a few years before.

Wu was arrested and imprisoned. Historians see the campaign against him as the opening salvo in the Cultural Revolution, which would go on to wreak political and economic havoc in the final years of Mao’s government.


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