Wu Han (historian)

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Wu Han
Born(1909-08-11)11 August 1909
Died11 October 1969(1969-10-11) (aged 60)
Cause of deathPurged
Alma materTsinghua University
Notable work
Hai Rui Dismissed from Office
Political partyChina Democratic League
Communist Party of China
Spouse(s)Yuan Zhen (d. 18 March 1969)

Wu Han (Chinese: 吴晗; pinyin: Wú Hán; August 11, 1909 – October 11, 1969) was a Chinese historian and politician. Wu was one of the most important historians in the development of modern historical scholarship in China during the 1930s and 1940s.

In the 1940s he was a leading member of the China Democratic League, a non-aligned political organization during most of the Chinese civil war which eventually threw its weight behind the Communist Party of China. After 1949, he served as the Vice Mayor of Beijing.

In November 1965, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he came under attack for a play he wrote about an upright Ming dynasty official called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which was later branded as an anti-Mao allegory. His political downfall also resulted in the purge of Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen. He died in prison in 1969.


Early life and education[edit]

Wu Han was born in Yiwu, Zhejiang in 1909. With support from the Wu clan organization and with the money from selling his mother's jewelry, he attended university preparatory schools in Hangzhou and then in Shanghai, where he was inspired by the lectures of Hu Shih. He entered Tsinghua University in 1931 and came under the influence of Tsiang Tingfu. Since he was responsible for the support of his brother and sister, he was unable to go abroad for study. Wu stayed at Tsinghua as a teaching assistant but began to publish important articles on Ming dynasty history using critical techniques to resolve old controversies and raise new questions.


When the war with Japan broke out in 1937, Wu joined National Southwestern Associated University in Kunming. While there, he wrote a full scale biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, published in 1943, expanded and revised in 1947. He became a leading intellectual in the democratic movement of the 1940s, as well as a widely published essayist. Through his part in the China Democratic League he was enlisted in the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

When the new United Front was founded, as a member of the Democratic League, Wu was asked to take the position of Vice Mayor of Beijing in charge of education and cultural affairs for the 6 county municipal area that became a model for municipalities across the PRC. In the 1950s, Wu represented China abroad on cultural tours and popularized his research at home, using figures from history as models and allegorical figures. He became a member of the Chinese Communist Party secretly in the mid-50s; this was not known by his colleagues or by Party members except at the very highest level. It was only revealed in the Cultural Revolution by the Red Guard accusations after they found his files.

Later years[edit]

As Yang Jisheng has written in his history of the Cultural Revolution:

As a leading Ming historian within the party, Wu Han used Marxism to interpret history and used history as a politically charged allusion to the present. Prior to the establishment of the PRC, Wu Han's works had castigated the founding Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, as a stand-in for Chiang Kai-shek, but after the PRC was established, Wu's book Zhu Yuanzhang served as a paean of praise to Mao Zedong. This double standard is typical of intellectuals who rise to fame under a totalitarian government.[1]

Yang writes that Mao had encouraged Wu Han to write the essay "Hai Rui Scolds the Emperor," published under Wu's pen name in the People's Daily in June 1959, which was based on events in the life of a Ming dynasty official. Wu subsequently turned the essay, after multiple revisions, into the Beijing opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which was performed in 1961 to great acclaim. Subsequently, "...the hypervigilant Jiang Qing and Kang Sheng decided [it] was ... 'related to the Lushan Conference and ... implicitly endorsed 'assigning output quotas to households' and the ongoing verdict-reversal wind. Mao took their views seriously and instructed Jiang Qing to find a hit man to denounce the play."[2]

The subsequent attacks on the play and Wu Han were actually aimed at the mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen, a pillar of the Communist Party of China ("CPC") establishment that Mao wanted to take down. This process took time but eventually resulted in launch of the ten-year struggle between Mao and the CPC bureaucracy known as the Cultural Revolution.

The leftist literary critic Yao Wenyuan, later appointed to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and who became known as one of the Gang of Four, fired one of the opening shots in this struggle on November 10, 1965 when he published an article in Wenhui Bao attacking Wu and his play on the grounds that Hai Rui was metaphorically equated with Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had criticized Mao for launching the Great Leap Forward and who had been purged as a result. Yao Wenyuan argued that therefore Wu Han had equated Mao himself with the un-approachable Ming emperor who dismissed the righteous Hai Rui from office.

Under intense pressure, Wu admitted ideological mistakes but denied that his motives were counter-revolutionary. Over the next months the controversy grew, and Wu was finally jailed. Although there were reports that Wu Han committed suicide while in prison in 1969, fellow prisoners later reported that he was beaten in prison about a year before he died. It is also thought his tuberculosis may have recurred so it cannot be established how he died.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yang Jisheng, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, translated and edited by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021), p. 34.
  2. ^ Yang, The World Turned Upside Down, p. 34.


  • Mary G. Mazur. Wu Han, Historian: Son of China's Times. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7391-2456-7. Review, Diana Lin, H-Asia (May 2010) [1]
  • Mary G. Mazur, "Intellectual Activism in China During the 1940s: Wu Han in the United Front and the Democratic League," The China Quarterly 133 (1993): 27-55.
  • “Wu Han,” Howard L. Boorman, Richard C. Howard, eds. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China Vol 3 (New York,: Columbia University Press, 1970): 425-430.
  • Safire's Political Dictionary, William Safire, 1978, Random House. "Cultural Revolution," pp. 153–4.
  • Ansley, Clive. (1971). The Heresy of Wu Han: His Play "Hai Rui's Dismissal" and its Role in China's Cultural Revolution.Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781487596408