By Jishen Wang

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Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.), is a prominent figure in Chinese history due to his central role in leading the rebellion against the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.). His achievements aside, Zhu was a controversial historical figure and remains so. One such reason for Zhu’s infamy was his practice of brutal executions and torture as a means of consolidating political power. For example, it is often cited that Zhu conducted a literary inquisition to silence dissident voices and centralize his authority.

Historians have assessed that many executions during Zhu’s reign were conducted solely to suppress political dissent (or those who Zhu thought might challenge his authority). The premise of Zhu’s literary inquisition (文字狱) was to “deliberately misinterpret words or phrases from intellectual’s writings and arbitrarily [leverage accusations] in order to persecute” intellectuals. Henceforth referred to as homophone misinterpretation, this phenomenon describes the deliberate or accidental misinterpretation of Chinese tones out of their designated context, which consequently changes their meaning. Some debate exists today; however, over the historical authenticity of Zhu’s literary inquisition. In this paper, I analyze the authority and authenticity of available sources and relevant events to conclude that overwhelming evidence exists to suggest that Zhu conducted a literary inquisition. Furthermore, I argue that Zhu’s literary inquisition and brutal persecution of intellectuals impeded academic and literary development during the Ming Dynasty.

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