Early Life. Hai Rui was a native of the capital of Hainan Island. His grandfather was a magistrate in Fujian. When he was three years old, Hai Rui lost his father. His mother trained him to read the classics and took care of his education. At school, where he remained for some twenty years, he was famous for his good conduct and earned the admiration of his fellow students. About 1546, his mother asked him to divorce his first wife, who then sued him for the return of her dowry. To evade a court trial and publicity, he borrowed money to pay her.
Official. In 1549 he earned a juren degree after passing the examination. A year later, when traveling to Beijing to take the higher examination, he submitted a memorial to the Ming court on the pacification in the central highlands of Hainan. In 1553, after failing the metropolitan examination for the second time, Hai was appointed as instructor of the district school of Nanping, Fujian. After arriving there in 1554, he encouraged his students to study Confucianism, stressing self-cultivation for the achievement of firm integrity and strict observation of regulations. He also preached public-mindedness and thrift as the basics of incorruptibility. He finally had a chance to prove that he practiced what he preached when he was appointed to be magistrate of a city in Zhejiang in 1558. On coming to office he declared to his subordinates, clerks, students, and elders that he would firmly observe the law and promote the general welfare.
Prison. By reexamination of the land, Hai made a more fair distribution of the tax burden based on landholding, known as the Single Whip system. He attacked corrupt practices, constructed the city wall, opposed unlawful demands by superiors, and brought his clerks under control. He himself lived a plain life, even planting his own garden vegetables. The people worshiped Hai, but some of his supervisors hated him. In 1562, soon after Hai published a collection of public papers, he was appointed as magistrate to a city in Jiangxi, where he served for a couple of years. Called to Beijing, he was appointed as a secretary in the Ministry of Revenue. He found fault with the emperor for his search for longevity, for his ridiculous involvement in Daoist ceremonies in the court, and for his eccentric ways of building houses on the palace grounds. Angered by this criticism, in 1566 the emperor sent Hai to prison. Interrogated about his motives, Hai almost died of the tortures used to extract a confession. He was compelled to divulge the names of possible conspirators.
Restoration. Early in 1567, a few days after the emperor died, Hai was set free from prison and restored to his former rank. Later, he was promoted to transmission com-missioner of Nanjing. In 1569 he accepted the appointment of governor with headquarters at Suzhou, and at the same time as chief inspector of grain and storage. Once more, when he came to office, he declared that he would eliminate all corrupt practices.
Retirement. When Hai compelled some big landowners to return some land to their original owners, these powerful landlords plotted his removal. In 1570 a censor accused Hai of protecting the evildoers and hurting the landlords. He was forced to retire. During the fifteen years of retirement, Hai built up a large library but lived plainly in a humble house on his small plot of land.
Man of the People. In 1585 Hai was appointed assistant head of the Ministry of Censorate in Nanjing. Almost immediately after his arrival at Nanjing, he was promoted to vice minister of the Ministry of Personnel and for about a month as acting minister. Again he affronted the administrators by preventing any official from charging the local people for expenses not specified by law. His policy obviously delighted the people and increased his popularity. In 1586 Hai was appointed as censor-in-chief in Nanjing. Once more his insistence on the letter of the law incited some officials to plot for his removal. He died in office a year later. When his body was carried from Nanjing to the river, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the funeral procession.
Evaluation. Throughout the Ming Empire, Hai’s bravery in speaking the truth produced admiration and sympathy. The Ming government, recognizing Hai’s strength of character, gave him the posthumous name, “Loyal and Incorruptible.” Admirers bought prints of his portrait to worship at home, and shrines were built at the places where he had held office. Hai was also honored in legend and folk literature in the following centuries.
F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).