Late Imperial China 22.2 (2001) 1-34
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Heresy and Persecution in Late Ming Society:
Reinterpreting the Case of Li Zhi1
One of the most controversial, and perhaps most misunderstood, figures in late imperial China is the late-Ming intellectual Li Zhi (1527-1602). Li Zhi lived the latter part of his life, and at the end died, in conflict, controversy, and persecution. His radical ideas, dramatic writing style, and unconventional life which ended in suicide in imperial jail made him a figure of great controversy and a ready-made symbol for people with various convictions. During the four hundred years since his death Li Zhi has remained as controversial, and his books have been constantly banned and yet reprinted. 2 Politicians and intellectuals alike have tended to use Li Zhi as a symbol for one thing or another. 3 Modern scholars have shown a similar tendency, taking him as symbol and making him martyr for various causes of their own convictions. They all, however, deem that Li Zhi's radical ideas were the cause of his persecution.
The intellectual historian Hou Wailu of the People's Republic of China argues, using a Marxist analysis, that Li Zhi represented the interests of a [End Page 1] newly rising urban bourgeois class against feudal rule and that his oppression by the feudal state was inevitable. 4 From a similar background of Marxist history, the Japanese scholar Shimada Kenji views Li Zhi as "the last and greatest thinker and writer of the left wing of the Wang Yangming school." 5 He deems that Li's cultural criticism of the Confucian moral authoritarianism and orthodox tradition from a position of modern rationalism based on Wang Yangming's concept of pure learning (liangzhi) provoked official oppression, which caused a setback of the early development of the modern mode of thinking in China. 6 K. C. Hsiao, the Chinese American scholar, praises Li Zhi as "a willing martyr" who died "for intellectual independence." 7 The Columbia University historian William Theodore de Bary contends that Li Zhi was an individualist who "died for his own convictions, not necessarily in the cause of intellectual freedom for all." 8 For de Bary, it was Li Zhi's scholarship on history, underlined by his individualism, that made him a true heretic to the Ming state. 9
More recently, Ray Huang saves Li Zhi from being a martyr for various political causes. He wrote: "The historical classification of Li Zhi as a 'martyr' is at best dubious. When he cut his throat with a razor blade in prison in 1602 he left no perceivable course for his admirers to follow." 10 But, like others, he too believes that Li's dangerous ideas were the cause of his persecution. After a brief discussion on how "the school of the mind tended to endanger Confucianism as an established institution" and hence "must be regarded as a serious threat to our empire," Huang contends: "Even though [Li Zhi] was later arrested on charges of immoral and disorderly conduct, during his trial those alleged offenses, fundamentally personal and therefore less damaging to the public, were never seriously considered. The trial judge was more concerned with his publication." 11 Thus, Huang returns to the conventional [End Page 2] view that Li Zhi's case was representative of the Wang Yangming school of thought and its downfall in the seventeenth century.
While modern studies of Li Zhi have been immensely interesting and fruitful, this article offers a different kind of reading of Li Zhi's case. As much as Li Zhi's ideas and their significance in intellectual history remain a valuable topic, my primary interest here is to get closer to the historical Li Zhi and late-Ming society by reconstructing a flux of local events that informed Li's development and articulation of his ideas as well as led to his persecution. 12 The place was Macheng, in modern Hubei province, where Li Zhi dwelled for about twenty years. Those were the crucial years when Li Zhi...