Li Zhi was a renowned Chinese philosopher and man of letters during the Ming dynasty. His unique personality and his opposition to the feudal code of ethics caused a stir in both political and literary circles, eventually leading to his death. However, his thoughts and ideas had a great influence on the later generations, making him an anti-feudal pioneer of his times. His “childlike heart-mind” (童心, Tongxin) principle to writing also brought a fresh perspective to the later literary world.
Li passed the provincial civil service examinations when he was 26. He alleged that he served in the civil service merely to support his family. After more than 20 years of ups and downs in politics, he quit abruptly at the age of 54. After making arrangements for his family to move back to his hometown, he began to live a solitary life, giving lectures and engaging in political discussions with friends including Geng Dingli (耿定理), Jiao Hong (焦竑) and Ma Jinglun (馬經綸). Li’s philosophy was mainly influenced by that of Wang Yangming (王陽明) and Wang Gen (王艮). Describing himself as a “heretic”, he argued that the classics of Confucianism, including the Six Classics, namely the Classic of Poetry (《詩經》, Shi Jing), Book of Documents (《尚書》, Shang Shu), Book of Rites (《禮記》, Li Ji), I Ching (《易經》, Yi Jing), Classic of Music (《樂經》, Yue Jing), and Spring and Autumn Annals (《春秋》, Chun Qiu), the Analects, and Mencius were just notes and records made by disciples of Confucianism, and that Confucianism should not be treated as the “most important theory of all time”. Li opposed taking Confucius as an ethical standard, arguing that truth and philosophy were embedded in daily life. He denounced hypocrites who spoke of benevolence, righteousness and morality while obstinately defending this feudal code of ethics. Compared with the Ming orthodoxy, Li’s philosophy was a kind of heresy, leading his opponents to level various accusations at him. Among these opponents, Geng Dingxiang (耿定向), the elder brother of Geng Dingli, engaged Li in heated debate.
Li’s publication of his personal correspondence with Geng Dingxiang, after lengthy debate, provoked the latter to anger. Geng Dingxiang treated the publication a deep disgrace and called upon his disciples to attack Li by writing essays. Some even started rumours that Li engaged in illicit love affairs and violated ethical codes. Faced with these attacks, Li once proudly said, “The strong-willed fear no censure. The physically strong fear no harm.” Li even became a Buddhist monk, focusing on writing and developing his theories at Weimo Temple (維摩庵) and Zhi Temple (芝佛院), near Long Lake (龍潭) in Macheng (麻城).
To preserve their feudal ethical codes, moralists began to persecute Li. In 1602, Zhang Wenda (張問達), Palace Steward of the Office of Scrutiny for Rites, presented a petition of impeachment to the throne accusing Li of moral degeneracy and attempting to overturn the social order. Supported by Zhu Yijun (朱翊鈞), Emperor Shenzong (神宗, the Wanli Emperor [萬曆皇帝]), Zhang sought to have Li put to death. The emperor decreed that Li must be arrested and his works burned, since he was “causing public disorder”. On the 15th day of the third lunar month in 1602, at the age of 76, Li committed suicide in prison, cutting his own throat with a shaving knife seized from the servant who was shaving him.
To correct the falsehoods feudal Neo-Confucianism and the excessive imitation of antiquarian literature, Li proposed the Principle of the Childlike Heart-mind, the core idea of his literary and artistic creation. Li felt that poetry and prose should reflect the true feelings of its writer. He did not believe that literature and art should serve as a mouthpiece of Neo-Confucianism, and argued that the best literature was based on the “childlike heart-mind”, and that the evaluation of literature should take the “childlike heart-mind” as its aesthetic standard, rather than tastes of the times.
Although Li was criticised by many scholars defending Neo-Confucianism, his numerous followers and supporters included Jiao Hong (焦竑), Yuan Hongdao (袁宏道) , Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖), and Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇). Yuan, although 41 years younger than Li, was greatly appreciated by the latter for his Principle of Xingling (Xingling [性靈], which refers to temperament, characteristics and talent of creators), the philosophy that literature should reveal its creators’ true feelings and talents, and the two became close friends. Tang also had great respect for Li, who had a major impact on his plays, collectively known as the “Linchuan Four Dreams” (臨川四夢). Tang deeply admired Li’s anti-traditional literary ideas, and wrote in his praise that Li’s literature as “able to be passed down through generations, able to benefit the world, able to guide the world, able to respond to the world, able to instruct the world, and even able to shock the world”.