Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, ‘Refuting Han Yu’s Eulogy of Bo Yi’ 駁韓愈頌伯夷文

Famous for his distrust of the learned, in particular because of his humble origins and the fate of his rival Zhang Shicheng 張士誠 at the hands of the learned,[1] Zhu Yuanzhang developed his own, and very strong views of the world of letters, as well as the exemplars extolled by the literati of his day.

Below the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, who ruled under the reign title Hongwu 洪武, remarks that having heard so much about the abiding influence of the Tang writer Han Yu (‘儒者多祖韓文’), he decided to read his ‘Eulogy of Bo Yi’. He finds himself deeply unimpressed and says so in no uncertain terms.

Like others who find an incipient threat in the refusal of Bo Yi and Shu Qi to collaborate with new political regimes, Zhu disparages these ancient paragons of rectitude. For his part, Mao Zedong, himself somewhat in the thrall of Zhu Yuanzhang, would make a similar case some six hundred years later when he disparagingly referred to Han Yu’s essay on Bo Yi and dismissed the brothers as ‘democratic individualists’ who were not worthy of emulation.



《駁韓愈頌伯夷文》,《明太祖集》卷一三。See also《辨韓愈訟風伯文》同卷。


[1] A popular story claims that Zhang Shicheng, who was also of a modest background and relatively uneducated, asked his advisers to give him a more elegant name. They suggested something taken from a hallowed classical source: ‘Shicheng’ 士誠, seemingly with the meaning of ‘a man 士 of integrity 誠’. Well pleased with this lofty sobriquet Zhang only later learned (and Zhu Yuanzhang was told) that the name was concocted from a line in Mencius, the record of the secondary Confucian sage Mengzi:「士,誠小人也。」(孟子:公孫丑下). ‘This fellow really is a small man’, that is he is unlearned and inferior.