Li Sancai

 "Li Sancai," translated by Harry Miller, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.Creative Commons License

Li Sancai, whose style name was Daofu, was a native of Tongzhou, in Shuntian prefecture. He earned his jinshi degree in Wanli 2 [1574] and was assigned to the Board of Revenue as a secretary (zhu shi), ultimately rising to director (lang zhong). Li worked with Wei Yunzhen of Nanyue and Li Hualong of Changdan, and the three men learned to respect each other’s abilities, while dealing with economic matters.

When Wei Yunzhen spoke out against the people then in power, Li Sancai memorialized on his behalf. As a result, he was demoted to the post of judge (tui guan) in Dongchang county. Later, he was transferred again to the Nanjing Board of Rites, where he served as director. During this time, he often met with Wei Yunzhen, Li Hualong, and Zou Yuanbiao, who were also serving as officials in Nanjing. They continued to consult one another on issues related to statecraft, earning significant reputations in this regard.

Li was subsequently made assistant surveillance commissioner (qian shi) in Shandong. Among his subordinate departments were many unscrupulous, corrupt functionaries. Li cast a broad dragnet, capturing them all and wiping out their networks. Next, he was moved to Henan province, where he became an assistant administration commissioner (can yi), before being promoted to vice commissioner (fu shi). He was an education intendant in Shandong and Shanxi, and an assistant commissioner in the Office of Transmission (tong zheng can yi) in Nanjing, before being named vice minister in the Court of Judicial Review (da li shao qing).

In Wanli 27 [1599], Li Sancai was made junior assistant censor in chief (you qian du yu shi) and sent to serve as director general of grain transport (zong du cao yun), which officer also served as grand coordinator (xun fu) of Fengyang and other prefectures. At that time, the mine tax commissioners had been dispatched throughout the empire. In Li’s jurisdiction, the mine commissioners were Chen Zeng in Xuzhou, and Ji Lu in Yizhen; the salt monopoly administrator was Lu Bao in Yangzhou; and the reed tax administrator was Xing Long in Yanjiang. Their deployment covered thousands of li. They attracted evil followers, who created fake official seals and tallies. Wherever they went, they tortured and arrested people, organized uprisings, or turned renegade. They plundered in plain view for all to see. Chen Zeng was the worst of the lot, imposing himself very disrespectfully upon senior officials, on many occasions. Only Li Sancai had the will to confront Chen Zeng. He suppressed Chen’s most notorious underlings, and he also secretly ordered condemned criminals to form their own gangs and capture or kill Chen’s men. Chen’s organization was thus enervated.

[In addition to Chen Zheng,] evil people took advantage of the mine tax as a pretext to practice banditry. In Zhejiang, a man named Zhao Yiping used devilish magic to incite rebellion. Discovered, he fled to Xuzhou, where he adopted the name Guyuan and rashly claimed to be restoring the Song dynasty. With his confederates Meng Huajing and Ma Dengru, he continued plotting. He created false offices and set the second month of the next year as the time to rebel. Word of their plot leaked out, however, and they were apprehended, though Zhao himself had managed to flee as far as Baozhi before his capture.

Meanwhile, Li Sancai, in a memorial, repeatedly outlined the evils of the mine tax:

Your Majesty is enamored of jewels and riches; the people want only to be warm and fed. Your Majesty is concerned about his posterity; the people also love their wives and children. What is to be done if Your Majesty worships the gathering of graft and does not let the common people enjoy the basic requirements of a hand to mouth existence, desiring endless blessings for himself but not allowing the common people the briefest pleasure? Since ancient times, there has been no case of the Court issuing such an order [i.e. the mine commissioner authorization] and no case of conditions of today's sort without there also being chaos. Now, deficiency in government is rampant. The cause of the problem is Your Majesty's craving for wealth. I beg Your Majesty to propagate a moral climate and abolish all the mining levies. Once Your Majesty's craving for wealth is gone, government affairs will be orderly again.

After more than a month, there was still no answer, so Li memorialized again:

I’ve pleaded for the livelihood of the people but have not had an answer in over a month. I’ve heard that in recent memorials to Your Majesty, whenever the subject of the mine tax comes up, there is never any plan to omit or reduce them. This crisis is the one upon which the life or death of the dynasty hangs. Whenever the lands are not properly administered, the people become hostile to the state and rush forward like dust in the wind. When the people rise up everywhere, Your Majesty will be quite completely alone. Even if yellow gold fills Your Majesty’s coffers and bright pearls fill Your Majesty’s storerooms, who will be there to guard it?

There was no reply to this memorial either. In Wanli 30 [1602], the Emperor, while suffering from an illness, abolished the mine tax; but then he suddenly nullified the edict authorizing the abolition. Li Sancai minced no words highlighting the growing danger to the national situation, insisting that the Emperor rescind the mine tax immediately. The Emperor still didn’t listen.

Meanwhile, the Qingkou River had gone dry, resulting in the blockage of grain tribute shipments. Li Sancai suggested dredging channels and constructing locks. The associated expense, two hundred thousand taels, Li asked to be withheld from grain tribute shipments. The vice minister in charge of the heir apparent’s household (du chu shi lang) Zhao Shiqing strenuously objected, whereupon Li Sancai, pleading illness, asked to be relieved of his post. The Emperor was incensed at Li’s indirection and approved his request; but Huaian/Yangzhou  regional inspector (xun an yu shi) Cui Bangliang, transport control censor (xun cao yu shi) Li Sixiao, supervising secretary (ji shi zhong) Cao Yubian, and censors (yu shi) Shi Xueqian and Yuan Jiugao all submitted memorials, asking that Li be retained. Shi Xueqian’s memorial claimed:

Your Majesty wishes to be rid of Li Sancai, using some pretext to relieve him of his post, for the sake of Chen Zeng. Ever since the mine commissioners were sent out on their missions several years ago, the Empire has been embroiled. Li Shengchun was dismissed for the sake of [the mine commissioner] Wang Hu; Wei Yunzhen was sacrificed for the sake of [the mine commissioner] Sun Zhao. A previous Grand Canal official, Li Zhi, also lost his job on account of the mine commissioner business. The catalogue of dismissed officials cannot be compiled, and now it’s Li Sancai’s turn. Li Sancai’s departure [would be a great blow] to the soldiers and common people in the Huaian area, and it would be a great windfall for Chen Zeng, who is afraid of Li Sancai and doesn’t dare come out with Li around. It is evident that Li Sancai should not be removed.

Shi’s memorial went unanswered as well. Li Sancai, thereupon, moved from Huaian to Xuzhou, begging in several memorials to be relieved but obtaining no such order. Metropolitan vice minister (hui shi lang) Xie Jie had by then replaced Zhao Shiqing as vice minister in charge of the heir apparent’s household, and, for his part, he requested that Li be kept on duty. Finally, Li Sancai was ordered to remain at his post until a replacement could be sent, but the Emperor never actually authorized one.

In the autumn of the following year, Li again submitted a memorial:

Recently, thunder has been echoing through the hills, and great winds are uprooting trees. The floods soak heaven itself, and it seems that the entire cosmos itself is unstable. Zhao Guyuan is behaving murderously in Xuzhou, Li Darong continues to embroil Bozhou [in Fengyang]; while in Suizhou[?], there are also numerous reports of bandit uprisings. The people are in extremis. However, every time I venture to make a request of Your Majesty [on behalf of the people], You invariably reply, ‘The Palace treasury is bankrupt.’ In fact, even if the Palace treasury were bankrupt, the happiness of the dynasty is at stake. It is often said [of better times], ‘The Palace may be shabby, but the Empire is flourishing;’ but the situation today is the opposite. When Your Majesty claims, ‘The Palace treasury is bankrupt,’ You are only lamenting the fact that gold has yet to fill your coffers and pearls and jade have yet to pile up to Heaven. The common people are unable to fill their bellies and are still heavily taxed. They are occasionally arrested [for nonpayment], until the parade of those wearing the cangue clogs the streets. While officials can only beg to be relieved of their posts, the common people can only beg for death. I trust Your Majesty not to be shocked at anything I’ve written, and I pray that You do not accuse me of speaking rashly, insisting that the situation is not that bad yet. Indeed, the situation already is that bad, leaving Your Majesty very little ground on which to stand.

Again, the Emperor failed to answer. Having apprehended the bandits in Suizhou, meanwhile, Li Sancai continued to memorialize and proceed with various prosecutions, so that all his jurisdiction became peaceful.

A She county man named Cheng Shouxun had acquired the office of secretariat drafter (zhong shu) by virtue of his family’s wealth; he joined Chen Zeng’s entourage. Cheng Shouxun behaved arrogantly and imposingly. Wherever he went, he treated himself to a great fanfare, and he employed a large number of guards. He allowed people to inform on one another and arrested and imprisoned even women and children. He was, however, afraid of Li Sancai and thus didn’t dare approach the Huai area. [Ultimately], Li was able to impeach Cheng and shut him down. Several ten thousands of miscreants were rounded up in this case. Chen Zeng, fearing that he would be implicated as well, turned over Cheng Shouxun’s hoard of rare and precious jewelry, as well as the [pseudo-] imperial stationery and regalia that Cheng had prepared [for possible use in a mutiny]. Cheng Shouxun and his followers were all remanded to the authorities and dealt with according to the law. Far and near were greatly pleased.

In Wanli 34 [1606], in celebration of the birth of his grandson, the Emperor ordered the cessation of the mine tax and the onerous other levies that supported the courier system. He also promised to fill vacancies in the bureaucracy. None of these measures, however, was fully implemented. Li Sancai suspected that the delay [in effecting the changes] was the fault of first grand secretary Shen Yiguan. Li made a great though clandestine effort to vilify Shen in memorials to the throne. As he elaborated: ‘Your gracious instructions have already been promulgated, but [as the situation unfolds] with twists and turns, they are put aside. The word on the street is that the new policies were but a temporary manifestation of [Your] happiness, and now the doors, that were seen to be opening, are closed.’ Again, he claimed, ‘Shen Yiguan is afraid of pressure from Shen Li and Zhu Geng, who are jealous of his wielding power and quick to point out his faults. Shen Yiguan is also chagrined that he himself did not originate the [relief] measures, and thus he wishes to sabotage them. He has circulated bribes right and left and caused widespread confusion. Thus the new policy has been thwarted.’ The Emperor was violently angry upon receiving Li’s memorial. He rebuked Li in his rescript and fined him five months’ pay. In the next year, Ji Lu died, and Li Sancai took the opportunity to ask again that the mine tax commissioners be recalled. The Emperor ignored Li’s request and simply ordered Lu Bao to take on Ji Lu’s old duties.

At this time, Gu Xiancheng was residing at his home [in Wuxi] and discoursing at the Donglin [Academy]. He was fond of evaluating the good and bad points of various individuals. Li Sancai was closely allied with Gu, and Gu profoundly trusted Li Sancai. Li had often asked that official vacancies be filled, [specifically] by liberalizing the civil service examination system and by employing previously cashiered officials [such as Gu Xiancheng]. As Li memorialized,

Among the various officials, whenever [negative] opinion is brought to bear upon a[n erstwhile] powerful person, he is cashiered forever and cannot hope to be recalled. It is vital, therefore, that Your Majesty [set a good example and] bear no grudges. If the Son of Heaven merely shackles the various officials with intimidation, then they will inevitably concern themselves chiefly with glossing over their own faults, which is really a form of betraying the state and the monarch. There is no crime worse than that.

This memorial was actually an appeal on behalf of Gu Xiancheng. In follow-up memorials, Li continued to expound on the current misgovernment and beg the Emperor for vigorous action, [claiming that it was within the Emperor’s power] to give the Empire a new beginning. Li wrote also of the deteriorating situation in Manchuria and insisted that the [Ming] position there would be difficult to maintain. The Emperor put Li’s memorials aside and paid them no attention.

During his long term of service at Huaian, Li Sancai greatly reduced wasteful expenditures. His commutation of grain tribute to silver won much popular support. Li obtained relief from special levies on behalf of the people of Huaian and Xuzhou, and he reduced also the appropriations for the horse market. The people of the Huaian region were profoundly grateful to him. He received repeated promotions in rank, until he was [the equivalent to a] minister of revenue (hu bu shang shu).

The Grand Secretariat was understaffed. Some people suggested abandoning the provision limiting candidates for the Grand Secretariat to Hanlin Academy scholars and choosing instead an official serving in the provinces. Their intention was to clear the way for Li Sancai. However, there were also not enough censors in chief (du yu shi); retaining a sufficient number of censors thus took priority over filling out the Grand Secretariat. For this reason, an increasing number of people resented the idea of making a special arrangement to round out the Grand Secretariat [as opposed to finding more censors in chief], and the debate became very contentious. Ministry of Works section director (lang zhong) Shao Fuzhong accused Li Sancai of camouflaging high treason as loyalty, crookedness as straightforwardness; he charged Li with four great crimes, namely, greed, duplicity, cunning, and lack of restraint. Censor Xu Zhaokui followed up with an impeachment of his own. Li Sancai defended himself in copious memorials, and he also asked, once again, to be relieved. Supervising secretary Ma Conglong and censors Dong Zhaoshu and Peng Duanwu, as well as Nanjing supervising secretary Jin Shiheng, kept up the defense of Li Sancai. Grand secretary Ye Xianggao said that since Li Sancai was waiting for a verdict, it would be best to make a quick decision as to keeping him or getting rid of him, for the sake of [smooth] administration of the Grand Canal. The Emperor answered none of these memorials. Those impeaching Li Sancai in a string of memorials were Nanjing Ministry of War section director Qian Ce, Nanjing supervising secretary Liu Shijun, censors Liu Guojin and Qiao Yingjia, supervising secretary Wang Shaohui, Xu Shaoji, Zhou Yongchun, Yao Zongwen, Zhu Yigui, and Li Jin, and Nanjing censors Zhang Bangjun and Wang Wanzuo. Those defending him were supervising secretary Hu Xin, and Cao Yubian, Nanjing supervising secretary Duan Ran, and censors Shi Xueqian Shi Jishi, Ma Mengzhen, and Wang Jihong. The dispute dominated the entire court; several months passed, with no end in sight. Gu Xiancheng thereupon wrote to Ye Xianggao, vigorously defending Li Sancai as pure and upright; and he strenuously advocated for Li also in correspondence with Sun Peiyang. Censor Wu Liang, thinking only of helping Li Sancai, appended both [of Gu’s] letters to the Gazette (di bao); at that point, the debate became even more clamorous. [Qiao] Yingjia, in two memorials, launched a severe attack, listing Li Sancai’s ten examples of greed and five cases of treachery. The Emperor still paid no heed. Li Sancai again begged to be dismissed, memorializing at least fifteen times. Never receiving an order, Li simply quit his post on his own initiative. The Emperor did not even bother to blame him on this last infraction.

Li Sancai remained at home; but those who resented him were afraid that he would be reinstated. In Wanli 42 [1614], a censor named Liu Guangfu accused Li Sancai of appropriating some 220,000 worth of imperial lumber for private construction. Liu also claimed that Li Sancai and Yu Yuli had conspired to wield power from afar, acting however they pleased and usurping the prerogative of making selections and recommendations from the Ministry of Personnel. Li Sancai defended himself, asking for palace officers to investigate the case, but supervising secretary Liu Wenbing, censor Li Zhengyi, Ministry of Works section director She Xintan, and assistant minister at the Court of Judicial Review (da li cheng) Wang Shichang joined [Liu] Guangfu in vigorously prosecuting Li Sancai. [Li] Zhengyi and [She] Xintan had been promoted by Li in the past, so he was quite incensed. He invited investigators to search his house. Ministry of Works vice minister Lin Ruchu said that it would indeed be proper to send officers to conduct a thorough investigation. Meanwhile, Liu Guangfu was now claiming in memorials that Li Sancai had taken over government workshops and made them into his pleasure gardens. Censor Liu Tingyuan took up this line, and Pan Ruzhen made a special case for impeachment. Moreover, regional inspector Yan Sizhong also memorialized, echoing Liu Guangfu. Li Sancai was even more angry, asking again that the various officials meet and investigate the case; and he also begged the Emperor to question him [Li Sancai himself] personally. It was thereupon ordered that Li Zhengyi and supervising secretary Wu Liangsi would be sent.

The following year, Liu Guangfu was imprisoned for a crime. Li Sancai magnanimously asked for his release, and he also pleaded for justice on behalf of Donglin partisans. As Li argued:

When Shen Yiguan duplicitously used a treacherous letter as evidence and arbitrarily disgraced the Chu clan, the upright people at court joined in attacking him and driving him out of office. Then, Tang Binyin and Han Jing were found to be subverting the civil service examination and thus achieved their own downfalls. Was anyone really worse than these? But now the partisans of today are alarmed at the activities of the upright people! Wang Shichang and Liu Guangfu stand out as the main culprits. They have taken it upon themselves to orchestrate their alliance, all to obtain revenge on behalf of Shen Yiguan and Han Jin. They have spoken voluminously on all matters; they have leveled thousands of criminal charges. They have spoken out against the worthy ones among the great ministers, and thus Ye Xianggao is gone, Wang Xiangqian, Sun Wei, Wang Tu, and Xu Hongwang are gone; Cao Yubian, Hu Xin, Zhu Wuzhou, Ye Maocai, Nan Qizhong, Zhu Guozhen and others are all gone. Recently, they have attacked Chen Jian and Wang Yingjiao, and now they are gone. They have also spoken out against the worthy ones among the lesser ministers, and thus Mei Zhihuan, Sun Zhenji, Duan Ran, Wu Liang, Tang Zhaojing, Zhou Qiyuan, Shi Xueqian, Qian Chun and others are gone; Li Pu, Bao Yingao, Ding Yuanjian, Pang Shiyong, Wu Zhenzhi, Liu Zongzhou, and others are all gone. Those attached to them are retained, those unattached are expelled. Your Majesty may know of the various ministers who have been dismissed, but does Your Majesty know of the various cliques that drove them out? Today, the traitorous cliques expressing alarm at uprightness call it by the names “Donglin” or “Huaian Grand Coordinator.”  “Donglin” refers to the place where Gu Xiancheng practices his philosophical discourse. Gu’s followers include Gao Panlong, Jiang Shichang, Qian Yiben, Liu Yuanzhen, An Xifan, Yue Yuansheng, Xue Fujiao. They all exercise great self-discipline and are extremely careful with their reputations. How can they be said to turn their backs on the country? In practice, however, the name “Donglin” is used as a snare to entrap people, such as Zou Yuanbiao and Zhao Nanxing, who have been branded with the name and are thus barred from advancing. Only people like Shi Jixie can truly be said to have remained in place for a long time. Human talent can be divided into the evil and the upright. Only Your Majesty can accurately observe who is truly concerned for the state [and who is not].

After he submitted this memorial, Li Sancai was even more cordially hated by the multitude. Wu Liangsi’s group, meanwhile, proceeded with their investigation but even after a long time obtained nothing [in the way of results]. When Liu Guangfu continued to insist that Li Sancai repay [what he had stolen], Liu was stripped of his rank and made a commoner.

In Tianqi 1 [1621], after Shenyang in Liaodong had fallen to the Manchus, a censor named Fang Kezhuang memorialized repeatedly that Li Sancai be reinstated. Responding to an edict, the court officials gathered to debate the issue. An assistant transmission commissioner (tong zheng can yi) named Wu Dianbang argued forcefully that Li could not be employed, that Li was manifestly an embezzling official. Censor Liu Tingxuan more than once recommended that Li Sancai be recalled, saying, ‘The country is, after all, in need of talent. There is nothing for it but to employ Li Sancai; what need is there of further discussion? Wang Huazhen has already been stationed at Guangning. Li Sancai should be posted to Shanhai.’ The Emperor agreed with this line of reasoning and wished to recall Li Sancai, but debate still raged in court, and the issue could not be decided. The head of the household administration of the heir apparent (zhan shi), Gong Ding, argued strongly for Li’s reappointment, as did Ministry of Punishments vice minister Zou Yuanbiao and assistant censor in chief (qian du yu shi) Wang Dewan. Soon, however, Wang Dewan, under the pressure of the debate, suddenly changed his position. The topic was not again taken up, and not even Zou Yuanbiao dared to raise it again. The matter, therefore, ended there. In Tianqi 3 [1623], Li Sancai was made minister of Revenue in Nanjing, but he died before he was able to assume the new post. Afterward, during Wei Zhongxian’s misrule, censor Shi Sanwei, of Wei’s party, impeached Li Sancai posthumously. It was ordered that Li’s name be removed from the official lists, and Li was stripped of his honorary titles. Early in the Chongzhen reign, however, Li’s official status was restored.

Li Sancai was immensely talented, and he was most adept at using power and seizing opportunities. He successfully befriended the court elite. During the thirteen years he served as grand coordinator in Huaian, he established connections all over the empire. By nature, he was unable to attain incorruptibility; thus, he was ruined by the multitude. Those who had attacked Li Sancai, such as Shao Fuzhong and Xu Zhaokui, afterward attached themselves to Wei Zhongxian and became implicated in his Treason Case. Those who supported Li Sancai, men like Gu Xiancheng, Zou Yuanbiao, Zhao Nanxing, and Liu Zongzhou, all earned renown as outstanding officials of their times. For this reason, the world regards Li Sancai as a worthy.

Commentary: Faction begins with the desire to advertise the good reputations of those on one side; it matures with the tendency to despise all who are different. When some persons enjoy excellent reputations, then their adherents will multiply. When adherents multiply, then they won’t necessarily all be worthies and will simply be taking delight in association. Similarly, when one is well-known, then his attackers will also be numerous. These attackers won’t necessarily all be unworthy, but anger at them will contribute to the desire to exclude them; they will be despised because they are different. When [officials] viewing each other as similar or different advances to the point where the Mean [or moderation] is lost, then the struggle between the adherents and the attackers will escalate beyond all control. Thus does faction daily increase, and thus does disaster slowly simmer. Wei Yunzhen, Wang Tu, and Yu Maoheng all set the standard for lofty glory and towering greatness and were viewed by the multitude as such. Li Sancai was more the exceedingly heroic type. He had a tremendous effect on the elite, who all sought to share in his reputation. When the talk of faction was at its zenith, several people effectively made Li their leader, and then the tendencies of co-opting the similar and ostracizing the dissimilar took over. The Book of Changes says: ‘Dispersing the crowd – that is the original good fortune.’ Knowing this, is that not the essence of sagehood?