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Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Chinese: ; pinyin: Hǎi Ruì guān; Wade–Giles: Hai3 Jui4 Pa4-kuan1) is a theatre play notable for its involvement in Chinese politics during the Cultural Revolution.


Wu Han, who wrote the play, was a historian (and a municipal politician in Beijing) who focused on the Ming Dynasty. In 1959, Wu Han became interested in the life of Hai Rui, a Ming minister who was imprisoned for criticizing the emperor. Wu Han wrote several articles on his life and his fearless criticism of the emperor. Wu then wrote a play for Peking Opera titled "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office", which he revised several times before the final version of 1961.[1][2]

The play is a tragedy in which an honest official carries the complaints of the people to the emperor at the expense of his career. It portrays Hai as an efficient magistrate who requests an audience with the emperor. Hai then criticizes the Emperor directly for tolerating the corruption and abuses perpetuated by other officials in the imperial government. The emperor is so offended by Hai's criticism that he dismisses Hai from office.[3] Hai is restored to office after the emperor dies.[4]

The play was published under Wu's pen name, Liu Mianzhi, the name of a Song dynasty scholar and a supporter of Yue Fei. The play enjoyed great success, and was initially praised by Mao Zedong. With a changing political climate, the play later came under severe criticism.[2]

Political significanceEdit

After the play's initial performance, critics began to interpret it as an allegory for Peng Dehuai's criticism of Mao during the 1959 Lushan Conference, in which Peng's criticism of Mao's Great Leap Forward led Mao to purge Peng. According to this interpretation, Hai Rui is Peng, and the Ming Emperor is Mao. Peng himself agreed with this interpretation, and stated "I want to be a Hai Rui!" in a 1962 letter to Mao requesting his return to politics.[3]

After becoming convinced that Hai Rui was an allegory for Peng Dehuai, in 1965 Mao devised a long-term scheme to eliminate his chief rival within the Party, Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, by criticizing the writer of the play, Wu Han. By criticizing and removing Wu Han, Mao planned to criticize and remove his superior in Beijing, Peng Zhen, who was one of Liu Shaoqi's closest supporters, with the ultimate intention of criticizing and eliminating President Liu Shaoqi.[5]

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, Yao Wenyuan published an article criticizing the play based on the interpretation that the play, by portraying Peng's position sympathetically, was an attack on Chairman Mao. Wu Han became one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1969.[2]

After Wu was purged, radical Maoists quickly purged other "rightists" from China's cultural institutions, and the theatre became an instrument for the Gang of Four to attack their political enemies.[2] Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi were purged shortly after Wu Han, fulfilling Mao's political objectives.

The playwright Wu Han was posthumously rehabilitated in 1979, shortly after Mao's death.

Related workEdit

The theme was also the subject of a play written by Zhou Xinfang and with Xu Siyan (许思言), Hai Rui Submits His Memorial (海瑞上疏, Hai Rui Shangshu), and the play was performed by the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe in 1959.[6][7] Zhou Xinfang was also arrested and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and died in 1975.


  1. ^ Goodrich, L. Carrington, and Chaoying Fang, eds. (1976). Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644, Volume 1. Columbia University Press. pp. 474–479. ISBN 978-0231038331.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b c d MacFarquhar 167
  3. ^ a b Domes 114-115
  4. ^ Rice 188
  5. ^ Teiwes 91-92
  6. ^ Rudolf G. Wagner (July 1991). "In Guise of a Congratulation': Political Symbolism in Zhou Xinfang's Play Hai Rui Submits his Memorial". The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs. 26 (26): 99–142. doi:10.2307/2949870. JSTOR 2949870.
  7. ^ Rudolf G. Wagner (1997). by Jonathan Unger (ed.). Using the Past to Serve the Present: Historiography and Politics in Contemporary China. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 46–103. ISBN 9780873327480.