No. 14 Yu ZHANG: No. 19 (1965): Wu Han, Victim of History

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From Wang Shiwei to Liu Xiaobo: Prisoners of Literary Inquisition under Communist Rule in China

Wu HanWu Han (born Wu Chunhan, September 24, 1909 – October 11, 1969), a historian, educator, essayist, editor, political activist and government official, was targeted in the opening salvos of the Cultural Revolution when his historical drama Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was judged in 1965 to be “using the past to criticize the present.”He died after four years of persecution.

Admitted to Tsinghua after failing mathematics

Wu Han was born in a village of Yiwu County, Zhejiang Province, where his father taught in a private school. After graduating at 16 from a provincial middle school, he discontinued his studies due to financial hardship and taught at his village primary school for three years. Accepted into a college preparatory course in Hangzhou in 1928, he then began studying at China College in Shanghai, headed by the leading intellectual Hu Shih.

In the first half of 1930, Wu Han wrote his dissertation “The Economic Situation of the Western Han”, for which he was paid 80 yuan, and that autumn he began working in the library of Yenching University in Beijing.

After completing a chronology of the Ming scholar Hu Yinglin in early 1931, Wu applied to study history at Peking University. While failing the exam in mathematics, his results in literature, history and English were perfect, and Tsinghua University agreed to admit him. Under the recommendation of Hu Shih, by then the director of College of Liberal Arts at Peking University, Wu was provided with a scholarship to address his financial difficulties. The following year he became editor of the humanities section of the student publication Tsinghua Weekly, and he began to concentrate his studies on the history of the Ming dynasty.

During his university years, Wu Han published more than 40 articles in various university and history publications. He was an editor of the journal History (Shixue), and in 1933 became founding editor of History Quarterly, where his articles were well regarded in the academic community. He also began to write essays of a general nature.

From historical research to political insinuation

After formal publication of his Chronology of Hu Yinglin in January 1934, Wu established the Historical Research Association, and following graduation he became a teaching assistant at Tsinghua. He became chief editor of History Biweekly in Tianjin in April 1935.

After the War of Resistance against Japan broke out in July 1937, Wu Han accepted a posting as professor of history at Yunnan University in Kunming. He married his Tsinghua schoolmate Yuan Zhen that October, and under her influence became increasingly politically engaged. In summer 1940, Wu Han became professor of history at Southwest United University, formed through the wartime relocation and consolidation of Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai universities.

Wu Han joined the China Democratic Political League (subsequently renamed the China Democratic League) in July 1943, and convinced Wen Yiduo (Wen I-to), a leading poet and professor of Chinese Literature at Southwest United, to also join. Rising within the leadership of the party, Wu in December 1944 became editor of Democracy Weekly, an official organ of the League’s Yunnan branch, and wrote many articles on history that targeted and satirized the KMT’s autocratic rule. During that same year, he published a historical storybook about the Ming dynasty’s founding emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, which served as a veiled criticism of KMT generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. An essay collection entitled History’s Mirror followed the following year.

After China won the War of Resistance against Japan in August 1945, Southwest United University was disbanded as Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai universities were allowed to return to their original campuses. Upon leaving Kunming, Wu Han spent some time in Shanghai while his wife recuperated from an illness. Following the assassination of the Democratic League’s Kunming leaders, Li Gongpu (Li Kung-pu) and Wen Yiduo, by KMT agents in July, Wu published a series of articles memorializing them and protesting against the authorities. Upon his return to Beijing, he continued as professor of history at Tsinghua University and became chairman of the Democratic League’s Beijing branch.

From professor to politician

After publishing his essay collection Historical Events and Personages in 1948, Wu Han set off to visit the “liberated area” in China’s northeast at the invitation of the CPC Central Committee. Passing through Shanghai, Wu met the Democratic League’s chairman, Zhang Lan (Chang Lan), inaugural chairman Huang Yanpei (Huang Yen-pei) and propaganda head Luo Longji, who entrusted him with a letter to pass along to Shen Junru (Shen Chun-ju), Zhang Bojun (Chang Po-chun) and other League leaders who had already made their way to the liberated area. The letter proposed terms for negotiating a cooperative relationship between the League and the CPC: “If the CPC doesn’t accept our terms, the League will withdraw from the coalition government and become an opposition party”. Wu Han expressed no views on the content of the proposal, but he did not deliver the letter. In November 1948, Wu arrived at the CPC Central Committee base in Xibaipo in Pingshan County, Hebei Province, where he met Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other CPC leaders.

Following the CPC’s “peaceful liberation” of Beijing in early 1949, Wu Han represented the Military Control Commission in its takeover and reorganization of Peking and Tsinghua universities, rejoining Tsinghua as vice-chairman of the university’s board as well as director of the College of Liberal Arts and chairman of the History Department. That September, he became a member of the standing committee of the national committee of the CPPCC, then joined the Culture and Education Commission of the Government Administration Council and was appointed vice-mayor of Beijing. His participation in political and academic bodies proliferated over the following decade, while he also published The Life of Zhu Yuanzhang and Notes on Historical Readings.

In March 1957, the CPC Central Committee approved Wu Han as a member of the CPC. After the Anti-Rightist Campaign began that year, he took the lead in exposing and criticizing the so-called “Zhang-Luo Alliance” between his former Democratic League colleagues Zhang Bojun and Luo Longji, claiming that the opinions in the 1948 letter he had been asked to transmit all originated with Luo. In a meeting in December 1958 during which Zhang, Luo and others were expelled as Rightists, Wu Han was elected vice-chairman of the Democratic League’s central committee.

Rise and fall through insinuation

Wu Han joined the CWA in 1959 and then responded to Mao’s appeal to “Learn from Hai Rui” by publishing a series of articles on the Ming official venerated as a model of integrity for criticizing his sovereign. He followed up in 1960 with the historical drama Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Hai Rui Ba Guan). In September 1961, Wu joined Deng Tuo, a secretary of the Secretariat of the CPC’s Beijing Municipal Committee, and Liao Mosha, head of the Committee’s United Front Office, in launching a cultural column entitled “Jottings from Three-Family Village” in the municipal Party publication Frontline (Qianxian), with the three men contributing articles under the shared pen name Wu Nanxing. Over the following years, Wu Han published a series of essay collections and edited several series of historical works.

In November 1965, Yao Wenyuan,the head of the literature and arts section of  Liberation Daily in Shanghai, published an article in Wenhui Bao entitled “A Critique of the New Historical Play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office”. According to subsequent reports, Mao sent his wife Jiang Qing to order the Shanghai Municipal Committee of the CPC to criticize the play as his opening salvo against the Beijing Municipal Committee. Yao Wenyuan did the actual writing, amending the essay ten times before Mao approved its publication. The essay, which asserted that the play was a “poisonous weed”, was the prelude to the launching of the Great Cultural Revolution. That December, Mao said:

The strength of Yao Wenyuan’s essay was in naming names, but it didn’t hit the key target. The key point is “dismissal from office”. The Jiajing Emperor dismissed Hai Rui, and in 1959, we dismissed Peng Dehuai. Peng Dehaui is Hai Rui.

In April 1966, the Frontline column came under attack, with Deng Tuo, Wu Han and Liao Mosha accused of promoting an “anti-Party, anti-socialism revisionist line”. On May 16, an enlarged meeting of CPC Politburo issued what came to be known as the “May 16 Notice”, which formally launched the Cultural Revolution. The notice stated, “The objective of this great struggle is criticism against a large group of anti-Party, anti-socialism representative figures of the bourgeoisie (the Central Committee and all of its organs, as well as every province, city and autonomous region, have such representative figures of the bourgeoisie)”.

Two days later, Deng Tuo killed himself.

Following repeated denunciation, Wu Han and Liao Mosha were imprisoned in March 1968. Wu Han died in prison on October 11, 1969, after suffering a relapse of tuberculosis. He was 60 years old. His wife, Yuan Zhen, had predeceased him more than half a year earlier under the hardship of Reform through Labor. Their adopted daughter, Wu Xiaoyan, became mentally deranged, and after being imprisoned in autumn 1975, she killed herself.

In July 1979, the Beijing Municipal Committee of CPC rehabilitated the “Three-Family Village Anti-Party Clique” and restored Wu Han’s Party membership and political reputation.

In June 2009, China Renmin University Press published The Complete Works of Wu Han in ten volumes totaling more than five million characters.


  1. Yao Wenyuan, “A Critique of the New Historical Play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office”, 1965.
  2. Xia Ding, Zhang Youren, “A Catalogue of the Works of Comrade Wu Han”, 1980.
  3. Wang Zhongsan, “Addendum to ‘A Catalogue of the Works of Comrade Wu Han,’” 1980.
  4. Su Shuangbi, Wang Hongzhi, The Biography of Wu Han, 1984.
  5. Song Yan, “Wu Han and His Wife Yuan Zhen”, 1993.
  6. Liu Yanhua, “From ‘Anti-Rightist Vanguard’ to ‘Cultural Revolution Criminal’ – Variations on Wu Han’s Fate After the Nation’s Founding”, 2002.
  7. Zhu Yongjia, “Before and After Publication of ‘A Critique of the New Historical Play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office,’” 2011.

Translated by Stacy Mosher

Chinese Original