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China’s History of Literary Persecution

Literary inquisitions occurred throughout Chinese history


China’s History of Literary Persecution

Literary inquisitions occurred throughout Chinese history


The suffering of scholars is a theme throughout much of ancient Chinese history, as is censorship.

“Literary inquisitions” (文字狱 in Chinese, literally meaning imprisonment due to writings) and speech crimes took place in almost every dynasty in ancient times, which referred to persecution by the powers-that-be of intellectuals for their essays and speeches.

“Freedom of speech” was an alien concept. If the writings were considered offensive by the ruler, or contained rebellious thoughts, the writer could be sentenced to prison or even death.

The Qing Dynasty was particularly notorious for its crackdowns on dissenting voices, likely a product of the oppression and unease brought about by the Manchurian occupation, but actually the earliest persecution can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period.

In 548 BC, Cui Zhu, a powerful official in the State of Qi, killed the king, and a historian recorded it faithfully.

Cui was not pleased about this particular deed being immortalized in written form and had a very mortal solution for the historian—execution.

The historian’s two brothers then took on the task, but unfortunately they had the same idea as their deceased brother. For historians, they proved rather shortsighted—unsurprisingly, Cui executed them too.

You would think by this point a pattern had been reasonably well established, but no. The task was then handed to a fourth brother, who insisted upon writing down the truth, but in a surprising twist, Cui didn”t kill him. One supposes he was exhausted from killing all his brothers.

The brothers earned themselves a complimentary idiom “秉笔直书” (bǐngbǐzhíshū), which means to “write down the truth faithfully without fear or favor”.

Rulers persecuted scholars mostly because they had huge influence on the public. If the scholars’ speeches and writings were not in support of their reign, they prefer to eliminate them. This was famously the case with Emperor Qin Shihuang who burned books and killed scholars, though this is not usually defined as an example of literary inquisition. However, in some cases, some victims were actually loyal to the rulers, but just enraged them by presenting opinions too straightforwardly, or even in some cases just being framed by their enemies.

Yang Yun (杨恽), of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), was one of the earliest victims of a literary inquisition. Yang was a stubborn, upright official who often revealed the crimes of corrupt officials and gave direct admonishments to the emperor, which displeased many people, including that emperor. Finally, an official accused Yang of “making jokes about the emperor”, and Yang was then sent to jail and later removed from his position.

Yang’s crankiness in no way changed after his retirement. In a letter he wrote back to his friend Sun Huizong, he expressed his discontent to the emperor and the whole affair and defended himself against those accusations. Later, Yang was reported to “remain impenitent”, and the letter was found and presented to the emperor. The emperor was enraged so badly that he ordered Yang to be cut in two at his waist.

Yang’s case was just the tip of the iceberg, and plenty of Chinese emperors had very thin skins when it came to criticism. But behind some of these cases were conspiratorial political struggles. In the Song Dynasty the infamous Wutai Poem Case (乌台诗案), involved two men who were both poets and politicians—Sushi (苏轼) and Wang Anshi (王安石).

At that time, Wang Anshi had an important set of reforms underway, but Su was against many of these new policies, especially a government monopoly being imposed on the salt industry. He wrote some poems criticizing these reforms, but then his political enemies, ironically not Wang Anshi himself, claimed that he was criticizing the emperor. Many of Su’s poems were collected as evidence, with many of which being distorted on purpose. Su was then jailed for several months, which was probably getting off lightly.

Though the freedom of speech and publishing were luxuries in any dynasty, in Su Shi’s time, the punishments were not that severe. When it came down to the Ming Dynasty, literary inquisitions got a whole lot uglier.

Ancient China had what was called the “name taboo” which meant people could not utter the given name of the emperor or his ancestors. But in the reign of the founder and the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), many more characters became taboo. At that time , a phrase or just a single character could get you killed.

Zhu had previously been a monk, and then a beggar and later a member of an insurgent force in his early age. He despised certain characters related to his lowly background so much, he decided even homonyms weren’t acceptable. Once an official used the character “则”, which means “example” , in a missive sent to the Emperor. But Zhu thought that this character sounded like “贼”, which means “bandit”, and decided the official was insinuating that he had joined the rebel army. The official was executed. Since Zhu used to be illiterate, he became more paranoid about literary issues. In his reign, many people were punished just because Zhu misunderstood people’s writings or had suspicions about their intentions. Writers didn’t even know which words should be avoided.

In the Qing Dynasty, the darkest time in terms of the literary inquisition, such literary persecutions became more ideological. As ethnic minorities, the Manchu rulers imposed strict ideological controls over the Han people. Many intellectuals wrote articles in memory of the previous dynasty or to criticize Manchu rulers, with disguised satire.

The rulers took actions. Anything associated with the word “Qing” (清, the existing dynasty)” and “Ming” (明, the title of the preceding dynasty)” were considered sensitive, which was quite a problem given these were just common characters meaning “clear” and “bright”.

In the reign of Emperor Qianlong, an official named Hu Zhongzao (胡中藻) wrote a poem, with a line “一把心肠论浊清”, basically meaning that “I will speak of good and evil in this dynasty with my conscience”. But the emperor interpreted it literally. With “浊” meaning “dirty” preceding “清” , he decided that it was unforgivable that Hu referred his empire as a dirty dynasty. Hu was eventually beheaded.

At first, the literary inquisition began with isolated cases. The “Case of Ming History” in the reign of Emperor Kangxi was an infamous example. Zhuang Tinglong, a well-off merchant in northern Zhejiang employed some scholars to write a history book based on materials originally published in the last years of the Ming and sponsored the publication. After this was reported to the court, the investigation began . Many errors were found in these books, like the failure to edit out the former titles of the Ming period. And it also violated the naming taboo and was thought to imply that the Qing were illegitimate usurpers.

Finally, those involved in the publication, those who possessed a copy and the officials who failed in reporting it, were all rounded up, with around 70 ultimately killed and more exiled.

Image depicting the "Case of Ming History",from sina blog 百间楼主

Image depicting the “Case of Ming History” [百间楼主]

The literary inquisition began to take on a pattern. There were more than a hundred cases in the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Between 1772 and 1793, the emperor set out to get rid of works by Ming loyalists, which resulted in the loss of around 3,000 important works may have been lost. An estimated 151,723 volumes were destroyed.

The literary inquisition brought unimaginable loss to Chinese culture and history. In the shadow of it, many people compromised their disciplines and gave up their pursuit of freedom of speech. Of course, there were also martyrs, voicing their true opinions with admirable integrity and courage. But it was a tragedy that the conscience of a nation relied on the sacrifices of martyrs.


Cover image from seelishi.com