Li Zhi (philosopher)

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Li Zhi
Li Zhi
Traditional Chinese 李贄
Simplified Chinese 李贽
(courtesy name)
Chinese 宏甫
(art name)
Chinese 卓吾

Li Zhi (1527–1602), often known by his pseudonym Zhuowu, was a Chinese philosopher, historian and writer of the late Ming Dynasty. A critic of the Neo-Confucianist views espoused by Zhu Xi, which was then the orthodoxy of the Ming government, he was persecuted and committed suicide in prison.


He was born in Jinjiang, Fujian province (in modern-day Quanzhou). His ancestor by seven generations was Li Nu, the son of Li Lü, a maritime merchant. Li Nu visited Hormuz in Persia in 1376, converted to Islam upon marriage to a Semu girl ("娶色目女") (either a Persian or an Arab girl), and brought her back to Quanzhou.[1][2] This was recorded in the Lin and Li genealogy《林李宗谱》. However, the new faith did not take root in his lineage and the family stopped practising Islam during the time of his grandfather. His father made a living by teaching, and Li Zhi was therefore educated from an early age.

In 1551, he passed the village examinations, and five years later was appointed as a lecturer in Gongcheng (in modern Huixian, Henan Province). In 1560 he was then promoted to the Guozijian in Nanjing as a professor, but went into filial mourning, returning to his native Quanzhou. During this time he participated in the defence of the coastal city against Wokou raids. After returning from mourning in 1563, he was assigned to the Guozijian in Beijing.

In 1566, he served in the Ministry of Rites in Beijing, where he became learned in Yangmingism as well as Buddhist thought. He was then assigned as a prefect in Yunnan in 1577, but left his post three years later. After this, he took up a teaching post in Hubei on the invitation of Geng Dingli, but was attacked as a heretic by Dingli's brother, the scholar and official Geng Dingxiang, and eventually moved to Macheng. In 1588, he took the tonsure and became a Buddhist monk, but did not follow the ascetic lifestyle of other monks. Two years later, his work A Book to Hide was printed.

He travelled during the 1590s, visiting Jining and Nanjing, where he met with Matteo Ricci and discussed the differences between Buddhist and Catholic thought. Returning to Macheng in 1600, he was again forced to leave after attacks from the local magistrate for his philosophical views.

In 1602, after being accused of deceiving society with heretical ideas by Zhang Wenda and other officials of the Censorate, he was arrested and imprisoned, where he committed suicide.[3] Having heard that he was to be exiled to his native Fujian, he cut his throat with a shaving knife which he seized from a servant. After his death, he was buried in Tongzhou, where his grave still remains.


Li Zhi's philosophy was based upon Neo-Confucianism, though he was a staunch critic of the then-orthodox Cheng-Zhu School, and indeed identified himself as a heretic. He can be seen as having been influenced by Wang Yangming (1472–1529), as well as the Taizhou School. He denied that women were inferior to men in native intelligence, and that many historical women such as Empress Wu were actually superior. However, he did not believe women should be emancipated and commended widows who chose suicide over remarriage.[4]

His philosophical works included A Book to Hide and A Book to Burn.

Literary works[edit]

He was a notable author of the xiaopin, a form of short essay.[5]


  1. ^ Association for Asian studies (Ann Arbor;Michigan) (1976). A-L, Volumes 1-2. Columbia University Press. p. 817. ISBN 0-231-03801-1. Retrieved 2010-06-29. 
  2. ^ Chen, Da-Sheng. "CHINESE-IRANIAN RELATIONS vii. Persian Settlements in Southeastern China during the T'ang, Sung, and Yuan Dynasties". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  3. ^ Beck, Sanderson. "Ming Empire 1368-1644". Retrieved 16 September 2016. 
  4. ^ Ray Huang (1981). 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. Yale University Press. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-300-02884-3, ISBN 978-0-300-02884-3.
  5. ^ Mair 2001. "Introduction: The Origins and Impact of Literati Culture", paragraph 22.

Bibliography and further reading[edit]

  • L. Carrington Goodrich and Chanying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), II: 807-818
  • Phillip Grimberg, Dem Feuer geweiht: Das Lishi Fenshu des Li Zhi (1527–1602). Uebersetzung, Analyse, Kommentar. Marburg: 2014, 442pp.
  • Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 189–221.
  • Pauline C. Lee Li Zhi, Confucianism, and the Virtue of Desire Albany NY: SUNY, 2012.
  • Mair, Victor H. (ed.) (2001). The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10984-9. (Amazon Kindle edition.)
  • Jean François Billeter, Li Zhi, philosophe maudit, Geneva, Droz, (1979), (in French) ISBN 2600040862