Hai Rui was a famous Chinese official during of the Ming Dynasty. His name has come down in history as a model of honesty and integrity in office and he reemerged as an important historical character during the Cultural Revolution.
Hai Rui developed a reputation for diligence and fairness. This won him many friends from the peasant classes, but also many enemies within the bureaucracy.
Hai Rui, whose great-grandfather married an Arab and subsequently adopted Islam, was born in Qiongshan, Hainan, where he was raised by his mother (also from a Muslim, or Hui, family). Unfortunately, when Hai Rui was small, his father, a stipendiary student at a government school, died, leaving him to grow up in poverty with his widowed mother, who instilled a strong sense of Confucian morality in her son.
In 1549, at the relatively late age of thirty-five, Hai Rui passed the provincial examination, but failed the metropolitan examination in Beijing the following year.
Hai Rui first made his name as an incorruptible and uncompromising official, first by arresting the playboy son of a prominent Governor-general passing through his district, and then by providing an excessively parsimonious reception to an extravagant and all-powerful Censor- in-chief on a supervising tour of eight southern provinces, causing shock in a social system where unctuous flattery of one’s superiors was the norm.
Jiajing emperor, like several other mid- to late-Ming monarchs, showed little interest in day-to-day governing, failing to hold court for over twenty years. There was a general decline of the welfare of the empire, marked by an increasing tax burden on the populace and rampant corruption in the government. Hai Rui decided to submit a memorial criticizing the emperor for a long list of shortcomings.
Anticipating the emperor’s likely reaction, Hai Rui entrusted his elderly mother to friends, dismissed his servants and bought a coffin for himself. The enraged emperor ordered his arrest, but somehow never signed the execution warrant.