An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Li Zhi 李贄

Apr 18, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602), style Zhuowu 卓吾, Hongfu 宏甫, Baiquan 百泉, or Wenling jushi 溫陵居士, was a philosopher of the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644). He came from Quanzhou 泉州, Fujian. His original name was Lin Daizhi 林載贄, yet in 1522 he decided to adopt the family name of Li and in 1566 changed his name to Zhi in order to avoid the personal name of Emperor Muzong 明穆宗, Zhu Daihou 朱載垕. Li Zhi's ancestors hailed from a Muslim merchant family in Henan but had already lost their fortune during the time of Li's grandfather. Li Zhi himself passed the state examinations and served as a teacher in Hongcheng 共城, Henan, and then was able to be appointed professor (boshi 博士 "erudite") of the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) in Nanjing, later in Beijing. He then served in the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部) and as vice director (wailang 外郎) of the Ministry of Justice (xingbu 刑部) in Nanjing. His last post was that of prefect (zhifu 知府) of Yao'an 姚安, Yunnan. He then decided to leave public service and dedicated himself to teaching. In 1602 he was arrested with the charge of high treason and rebellion and died in prison by suicide.
As a philosopher, Li Zhi was a disciple of Wang Bi 王襞, a son of Wang Gen 王艮, one of the main representatives of the Taizhou School 泰州學派. This school of philosophers avoided to draw its ideas exclusively from Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism and instead studied the writings of "the hundred schools of thought". Political advice was their main focus because only a practical use of philosophy for the state and the sake of the people justified its existence. Li Zhi himself identified the natural Way (dao 道) with man, stressing that humans were an incarnation of the Way and the Heavenly Order (tianli 天理). Outside of the human mind, he said, there was no Way, and man could not exist without the existence of the Way. All humans are therefore able to personify the good nature of the Way and can easily rectify themselves once they have perceived the Way in themselves. All activities beyond the personal needs of a man and all restrictions imposed upon his personal needs are not to be considered as part of the Way. Clothing and food are the basic needs of a man that secure his surviving and also social order in a very natural way. Once deprived of food and clothing, man will turn away from social order. All other needs of a man are similar to such basic things as food and clothes. Li Zhi criticized Daoists, Buddhists and Neo-Confucians for their theoretical speculations and for overlooking that social order and harmony in society and the empire is only secured if people have sufficient access to their basic needs. While the Neo-Confucians claimed that man has to be made free of desires in order to find the Way, Li Zhi asserted that it is very natural that man, even a worthy and high-minded person, has desires and wishes and attempts at making profit (ren bi you si 人必有私). Peasants worked their fields with diligence in order to have enough to eat and probably also some reserves, and scholars studied books day and night to "reap their own harvest".
All things under heaven, men like objects, possess an innate knowledge (sheng zhi 生知). All humans therefore had the natural potential to become a Saint (sheng 聖) or a Buddha (fo 佛). What a single man perceived as correct or incorrect (shi fei 是非) was therefore also to be taken objectively as correct or incorrect. Li Zhi so opposed the Confucian concept of an objective correctness by granting all individual, subjective conception the status of objectivity. In other words, Li Zhi negated the existence of one single objective truth, as alleged by the Confucians, and instead stressed that there are many, or even countless individual truths. All humans possessed a pure, childlike mind (tong xin 童心) from birth that was only contaminated and falsified (jia 假) in the course of time by education and intercourse with others. It was especially the teachings of the Neo-Confucians that polluted the naïve immaculateness of young people. He mostly stressed that man and woman have equal rights and attacked the Confucian order of society in which man is superior to woman.
Li Zhi later on changed his mind and studied the writings of the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming 王陽明 and of Chan Buddhism 禪宗. This behaviour correlated with his proposition of a potential change of things into their opposite (dao xing ni liu 倒行逆流). This was clearly to be seen in history, where order and peace was often replaced by chaos and war. In his eyes, there was never a constant situation possible, but life and history were determined by a permanent flux and renewal.
Li Zhi's critique towards Neo-Confucian philosophers and the official social philosophy of self-sufficiency made him attacked as a heretic. His philosophy influenced later scholars like Liu Shipei 劉師培 (1884-1920), Huang Jie 黃節 and Wu Yu 吳虞. Li Zhi has written the books Cangshu 藏書, Xu cangshu 續藏書, Fenshu 焚書, Xu fenshu 續焚書, Mingdeng daogu lu 明燈道古錄, Jiuzheng yiyin 九正易因 and Shuoshu 說書.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 179.