An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Donglin Faction (donglin dang 東林黨)

Jan 4, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The Donglin Faction (donglin dang 東林黨) was a group of scholar-officials during the later phase of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). The members hailed from southeast China and were famous for their critical stance towards social problems and the domination of the eunuchs at the court. The cause for the unofficial foundation of the group was the dismission of Gu Xiancheng 顧憲成, director (langzhong 郎中) in a section of the Ministry of Personnel (libu 吏部). In a famous succession dispute (zheng guoben 爭國本) Gu Xiancheng had advocated the rightful nomination of Zhu Changluo 朱常洛 (the eventual Emperor Guangzong 明光宗, r. 1620), the oldest son of Emperor Shenzong 明神宗 (r. 1572-1619), as the heir apparent, while the emperor himself preferred a younger son, Zhu Changxun 朱常洵. He therefore provoked the emperor's anger, as well as that of Senior Grand Secretary (neige shoufu 內閣首輔) Wang Xijue 王錫爵, whom he had contradicted in issues of the capital evaluation (jingcha 京察) and the audience nomination (tingtui 廷推). Gu returned to his home town Wuxi 無錫, Jiangsu, and was received with greatest sympathy by many intellectuals of the region. He was particularly supported by Ouyang Dongfeng 歐陽東鳳, prefect (zhifu 知府) of Changzhou 常州, and Lin Zai 林宰, magistrate (zhixian 知縣) of Wuxi, and began, together with his younger brother Gu Yuncheng 顧允成, restoring the ancient Donglin Academy 東林書院 of Yang Shi 楊時 (1053-1135) from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). He hired a number of famous teachers, like Gao Panlong 高攀龍, Qian Yiben 錢一本, Xue Fujiao 薛敷教, Shi Menglin 史孟麟 and Yu Kongjian 于孔兼. Another narrative about the origin of the Donglin Faction is its foundation in 1580 by Gu Xiancheng, Wei Yunzhong 魏允中 and Liu Tingyuan 劉廷元, with the name "Three-Origins Society" (sanyuanhui 三元會), and aimed at fighting against Zhang Juzheng's 張居正 reform projects.

The new school became soon famous not only in the region, but its political teachings were also known at the court, mostly with sympathy among the court officials. In 1604 the statutes of the academy, Donglin huiyue 東林會約, were issued, and a great conference was held, whose participants were soon known as the "Donglin Faction" suggesting reforms at the court to strengthen the flagging dynasty. The members criticized the profligacy of the imperial household, the land-grabbing of imperial princes, and the influence of some gentry groups on political matters, as well as that of the eunuchs. They advocated a more effective structure of the central government. In the economic sphere, the Donglin members criticized the large amount of extraordinary taxes and the arbitrary taxation of merchants, as well as the system of the *mineral-and-salt tax commissioners (kuangyanshui shi 礦監稅使). Yet many groups profited from these arrangements, and the Donglin Faction therefore encountered harsh opposition throughout the country. After all it must be seen that the Donglin Faction was not a group of altruistic scholars, but a representative of the interest of the gentry of the Lower Yangtze region (Sanwu shenshi 三吳士紳), and therefore collided with other groups searching for political influence, mainly the "Shandong-Hubei-Zhejiang Faction" (Qi-Chu-Zhe dang 齊楚浙黨). All these groups hoped for influence on political issued through various channels, like the capital evaluation (jingcha) or evaluation and recommendation on the local level (xingqu 行取).

In the decades after the death of Emperor Shenzong the members of the Faction became involved in a series of illegal incidents (the "three cases", san’an 三案) at the inner court, namely the "Club-hit case" (tingji an 梃擊案), the "Red-rill case" (hongwan an 紅丸案), and the "Palace-removal case" (yigong an 移宮案). In 1615 someone had crushed open the door of the Ciqing Palace 慈慶宮 in order to gain access to Prince Zhu Changxun, the son of Lady Zheng 鄭貴妃. Wang Zhicai 王之寀, a Donglin member, was entrusted with the investigation of this case. Zhu Changluo died only after a few months of rule. It was assumed that he died by a red pill sent to him by Lady Zheng. The Donglin members Yang Lian 楊漣, Zuo Guangdou 左光斗, Liu Yijing 劉一燝 and Zhou Jiamo 周嘉謨 thereupon took special care to enthrone the late emperor's oldest son, Zhou Youjiao 朱由校 (Emperor Xizong 明熹宗, r. 1620-1627), to avoid interference of the eunuchs and imperial consorts.

Yet Lady Zheng and Emperor Guangzong's "chosen attendant" Madam Li (Li Xuanshi 李選侍) took the heir apparent as a hostage in his dwellings, the Qianqing Palace 乾清宮. The Donglin members finally enforced the women's removal from the imperial palace. Yet a new danger arose in an alliance between the young emperor's foster moster Ms Ke 客氏, and the Director of Ceremonials Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢, who was given the title of Director of Ceremonials wielding the brush (silijian bingbi taijian 司禮監秉筆太監), which allowed him not only to take over command over the Depot Guards (changwei 廠衛), but also to read memorials to the throne and to make decisions over political directions. Many court officials, enemies of the Donglin Faction, closed their ranks as the "eunuch faction" (yandang 閹黨). Such were Gu Bingqian 顧秉謙, Wei Guangwei 魏廣微, Cui Chengxiu 崔呈秀 or Feng Quan 馮銓. They participated in the eunuchs' bloody suppression of the Donglin Faction. These measures were formally justified by writings compiled by members of the eunuch faction, namely Wang Shaohui's 王紹徽 Donglian dianjiang lu 東林點將錄 (in which Donglin members were compared to 108 of the bandits of the romance Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳), Cui Chengxiu's Tongzhilu 同志錄 and Tianjianlu 天鑒錄, the books Jinshen beilan 縉紳便覽 and Baiguantu 百官圖, all registers of scholar-officials and their political position, and the Sanchao yaodian 三朝要典, compiled under the supervision of Gu Bingqian, in which the three "cases" were juristically regulated.

The first victims, in 1624, were Yang Lian, Zuo Guangdou, Wei Dazhong 魏大中, Yuan Huazhong 袁化中 and Zhou Chaorui 周朝瑞, the next group was Gao Panlong, Zhou Shunchang 周順昌, Zhou Qiyuan 周起元, Miao Changqi 繆昌期, Li Yingsheng 李應升 and Huang Zunsu 黃尊素. The prosecution of Donglin members was not restricted to the court or to Beijing, but spread over all provinces. Academies were closed, and the faction was proclaimed illegal. Yet in some places, large groups of people, for instance, in Suzhou 蘇州, resisted the proscription and ignored the imperial edict, and even killed the eunuchs' bloodhounds. In 1627 finally, Emperor Sizong 明思宗 (r. 1627-1644) came to the throne and had Wei Zhongxian executed and punished the members of the eunuch faction. The "three cases" were declared "traitorous cases" (ni'an 逆案) and the prohibition of the Donglin Faction nullified. Yet it was not possible to restore the Donglin Faction in its old form, and surviving members could not find together to promote newly united reform projects.

Hu Wenhua 胡文華 (1998). "Donglin dang 東林黨", in Zhang Dainian 張岱年, ed. Zhongguo wenshi baike 中國文史百科 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1329.
Jiang Xijin 蔣錫金, ed. (1990). Wen-shi-zhe xuexi cidian 文史哲學習辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 507.
Li Bingzhong 李秉忠, Wei Canjin 衛燦金, Lin Conglong 林從龍, ed. (1990). Jianming wenshi zhishi cidian 簡明文史知識詞典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 38.
Li Xun 李洵 (1992). "Donglin dang 東林黨", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 182.
Zhao Zifu 趙子富 (1993). "Donglin dang 東林黨", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Lishi 歷史卷 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), 44.

Further reading:
Dardess, John W. (2002). Blood and History in China: The Donglin Faction and its Repression, 1620—1627 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press).