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The literary inquisition (Chinese: 文字獄; pinyin: wénzìyù; literally: "imprisonment due to writings") or speech crime (Chinese: 以言入罪) refers to official persecution of intellectuals for their writings in China. The Hanyu Da Cidian defines it as "the ruler deliberately extracts words or phrases from intellectual's writings and arbitrarily accuse him in order to persecute him" ("旧时谓统治者为迫害知识分子，故意从其著作中摘取字句，罗织成罪"). The Inquisition took place under each of the dynasties ruling China, although the Qing was particularly notorious for the practice. In general, there are two ways a literary inquisition could be carried out. First is that the conviction came from the writing itself. That is, the writing was the direct cause of the persecution. The second is that the writing was used as a tool to provide legitimate evidence for a predetermined conviction. Such persecutions could owe even to a single phrase or word which the ruler considered offensive. Some of these were due to naming taboo, such as writing a Chinese character that is part of the emperor's personal name. In the most serious cases, not only the writer, but also his immediate and extended families, as well as those close to him, would also be implicated and killed.
The earliest recorded literary inquisition occurred in 548 BC in the state of Qi during the Spring and Autumn period. Recorded in the Zuo zhuan, the powerful minister Cui Zhu (崔杼), who had murdered the ruler Duke Zhuang, killed three court historians (Taishi, 太史) because they insisted on recording the event in the official history. The Burning of books and burying of scholars in Qin dynasty is also considered a form of literary inquisition by some Chinese scholars. It is uncertain how frequently the persecutions occurred. However, compared to Ming and Qing dynasty, literary inquisition before Song dynasty happened less frequently due to the lack of printing.
One major case in Han dynasty was the case of Yang Yun (杨恽). Emperor Xuan first discharged him from his position in the government under the accusation of defamation. In 54 BC, he was sentenced to death through waist chop because of his complaints on his unfair treatment written in a letter for his friend Sun, which was considered disrespectful and outrageous to the Emperor. Affected by this, his friends who were still in court, were also discharged from their positions. In 208, Kong Rong, a lead figure of the Seven Scholars of Jian'an in late Eastern Han dynasty, was killed by warlord Cao Cao for his letters to Cao disagreeing and criticizing his rule and practice, including Cao's ban on alcohol for its potential negative impact on the nation. His wife and two sons were also killed. In Three Kingdoms period, the death of Ji Kang was also related to his writing. In response to Sima Zhao's offer of a position as civil official, Ji Kang wrote a letter (“与山巨源绝交书”) expressing his refusal of pursuing any political career. This letter, however, later provided justification for the advice of Zhong Hui, the official who conveyed the offer for Sima Zhao to Ji Kang, to sentence Ji Kang to death.
During Northern Wei dynasty, prime minister Cui Hao carved Guo Shu("国书"), which records the history of the ruling Tuoba clan and of which he was assigned as the lead editor, into stone monuments and located them on the side of a major road in suburb of the capital. The Xianbei bureaucrats found exposing their ancestor's history to the public was offensive and inappropriate. Thus, Cui Hao was accused of defaming the state and thus sentenced to death in 450. Along with Cui Hao, his whole clan, his wives' clans and 128 officials participated in the editing work were all sentenced to death.
In 609, Xue Daoheng, the grandfather of Xue Yuanchao, was sentenced to death Emperor Yang of Sui Dynasty. In response to Emperor Yang's attempt to keep Xue from retiring, Xue wrote an essay praising the previous Emperor Wen. Emperor Yang considered this response as a mockery and found it offensive. The direct cause of Xue's death was his saying in reminiscence of Gao Jiong (高熲), who supported Emperor Yang's competitor and was sentenced to death. However, there is also evidence for that the underlying cause of his death was Emperor Yang's jealousy of his talent on poetry as the author of the famous poem "XiXiYan" (“昔昔盐”) from Sui dynasty. In this case, Xue's death could also be considered as a literary inquisition on poem (诗祸, shihuo).
Song dynasty marked the rise of literary inquisition both in its the number of cases and in its use. During Song dynasty, the number of literary inquisition cases reached over one hundred. The concept of literary inquisition started to take formal shape in this time period. Unlike isolated cases in previous dynasties, literary inquisition in Song dynasty became a tool in political struggles, consciously and purposefully used by opposing political parties to suppress and eliminate opponents. However, because the founding emperor of Song dynasty, Emperor Taizu, vowed to not kill any scholar or intellectuals who wrote to comment or address on political issues, intellectuals involved in literary inquisition in Song dynasty were often exiled instead of sentenced to death.
In 1079, the poet Su Shi of Song dynasty was jailed for several months and later exiled by the Emperor Shenzong due to an accusation of writing and disseminating poems alleged to slander the court. This case was also related to the political context at that time. The state was undergoing socioeconomic reform, New Policies, led by Chancellor Wang Anshi. Su Shi as a conservative at the time, however, had expressed his disagreement with certain practices of this reform. Such action triggered the anger of people in support of the reform, which included several persons from the Censorate (yushitai, 御史台) responsible for surveilling officials and fact-finding in the case of legal procedure. One of the censorates, Li Ding, initiated the case by writing to the Emperor and accusing Su Shi for defamation. Under his effort, the Censorate pointed out more than 60 spots of evidence across more than 10 of Su Shi's poems and identified more than 20 people who have communicated with Su Shi through writings.
Southern Song, especially during Qin Hui's tenure as the Chancellor, marked the rise of extensive and systematic use of literary inquisition for political purposes. In face of invasion from Jurchen Jin Dynasty to northern part of China, the debate in the court was between the "pro-war party" led by Yue Fei and "anti-war party" advocating peace treaties with Jin. As the leader of "anti-war party", Qin Hui used literary inquisition as a tool to intimidate or eliminate his political opponents in order to reach political conformity on the threat of Jin invasion. Qin Hui targeted specifically on the leading figures of "pro-war party", Zhao Ding (赵鼎), Hu Quan (胡铨) and Li Guang (李光). In 1138, in response to Jin's humiliating terms in their peace negotiation that would render Song as subservient state, both Zhao Ding and Hu Quan expressed strong objections. As a result, Zhao Ding was removed by Qin Hui from his position as Great Councilor in the fall of 1138. He was later exiled to todays Hainan where he committed suicide in 1147 when Qin Hui took action against his writing declaring again his determination against peace negotiation with Jin. Meanwhile, Hu Quan wrote in his memorial in 1138 that accepting these terms would be "[taking] the Empire of Your ancestors and [turning] it into the Empire of these dog barbarians". While these phrases spoke out for the public sentiment toward the peace negotiation, Qin Hui took it as rebellious and called for severe punishment of Hu as an example to stop other officials from doing the same. Therefore, Hu was dismissed from office, exiled to Zhaochou (昭州) and forbidden from reinstatement.
Li Guang was also punished for his outspoken criticism of Qin Hui being a traitor. Qin Hui thus accused Li of resentment and ill will, and exiled him to today's Guangxi province in 1141. In 1150, he was further exiled to Hainan because of his attempt to compose a "private history" (野史), which was forbidden and alleged slanderous by the Emperor and Qin Hui due to their fear of potential negative record of their doings. Li Guang's case involved several other officials associated to him. One of them was Wu Yuanmei (吴元美), who was demoted as a result of Li's case. He then wrote "Tale of Two Sons of Xia" ("夏二子传") expressing his feelings toward his current situation. In this writing, Wu used words "Xia" (夏) and "Shang" (商), which could be seasons as well as dynasties, and thus could be interpreted as the change of seasons from summer to autumn or the decay of dynasty. Wu also mentioned "flies and mosquitos", which were insects active in the season yet also often served as allegory with despicable person in Chinese culture. Therefore, these words provided evidence for Qin Hui to accuse him of defamation and further exiled Hu to today's Guangdong province, where Hu died.
There are records of literary persecutions during the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the period saw the most severe persecutions. Before he became emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the Ming dynasty's founder, was illiterate and had been a beggar. While he established his empire, he surrounded himself with scholars, treating them with respect while he learnt to read and familiarise himself with history. He sent out requests to scholars for their presence, and while many agreed others declined for fear of the repercussions if they made a mistake. On occasion the emperor, who was learning to read, would order the execution of someone who had written something he misunderstood.
The rulers of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty are particularly notorious for their use of literary inquisitions. The Manchus were an ethnic minority who had defeated the Han Chinese-led Ming dynasty; as such, they were sensitive to public sentiments towards them. Writers and officials usually took the stance of drawing distinctions between the Han Chinese and the Manchus; the latter were traditionally viewed as barbarians in Han Chinese culture. However, while the Manchus were in charge, writers resorted to veiled satire. According to Gu Mingdong, a specialist in Chinese literature and intellectual thought, the Manchus became almost paranoid about the meanings associated with the Chinese characters for 'bright' and 'clear', 'Ming' and 'Qing' respectively. One inquisition was the "Case of the History of the Ming Dynasty" (明史案) in 1661–1662 under the direction of regents (before the Kangxi Emperor came in power in 1669) in which about 70 were killed and more exiled.[a]
Under the Qing dynasty, literary inquisition began with isolated cases during the reigns of the Shunzhi and Kangxi emperors, and then evolved into a pattern. There were 53 cases of literary persecution during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Between 1772 and 1793, there was an effort by the Qianlong Emperor to purge "evil" books, poems, and plays. He set out to get rid of works by Ming loyalists who he believed were writing subversive anti-Qing histories of the Manchu conquest. The scale of the destruction cause by this "literary holocaust" is uncertain due to gaps in the imperial archives, however as many as 3,000 works may have been lost. An estimated 151,723 volumes were destroyed by the inquisition in this period. Amongst the works subject to this treatment were books considered disrespectful towards the Qing emperors or previous ethnic minority dynasties that could be viewed as analogous to the Qing. From 1780 onwards, plays could also be destroyed if they were vulgar or contained anti-Manchu material. Writers who criticised the Qing dynasty could expect to have their entire work erased, regardless of content. The inquisition was often used to express local ambitions and rivalries that had little to do with the ruler's own political interests. It thus generated interclass, as well as intraclass, warfare. For example, commoners could lay charges against scholars.
In 1799, Emperor Jiaqing announced that treating literary inquisition cases as the same level as treason and rebellion was legally unjust and inappropriate, and ordered previous cases to be reviewed. In this way, he ended the era of extensive literary inquisitions under Emperor Kangxi, Yongzhengand Qianlongthat lasted nearly 150 years.