The Tung-lin Movement (Dong-lin Movement; 東林) (c.1530 – c. 1630) was a political reform movement organized among the bureaucratic elite in the imperial government of the late Ming dynasty of China. At that time, corruption was rampant in the government, and members of the bureaucratic elite vied with eunuchs and court attendants to influence the policies of the emperors, who had withdrawn themselves from day-to-day political affairs. Members of the Confucian bureaucratic elite became concerned about this state of affairs and began to take matters into their own hands. They established private universities in their home states to train the Confucian scholars they believed were necessary for good government, and attempted to bring about a change in the structure of the government, so that all authority would not be vested in one despotic emperor, but shared with a council of elite Confucian officials.
Early in the seventeenth century, the Tung-lin Academy joined with neighboring academies in Wu-chin and I-hsing to form the powerful Ch’ang-chou faction. Many of its members occupied high positions in the government bureaucracy, and from 1621-1624 they were able to influence imperial policy in Peking. In the summer of 1625, Tung-lin leaders were purged, arrested, and tortured to death by the eunuch Wei Chung-hsien, and the private academies were destroyed. After Wei’s disgrace and death in 1627, there was a resurgence of the reform factions. The movements disappeared after the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu in 1644.
Politics of the Late Ming Dynasty
During the last century of the Ming dynasty, between approximately 1530 and 1630, the bureaucratic elite and Chinese gentry rose up in an unprecedented reaction to “authoritarian Confucianism.” Corruption was rampant among government officials, and the Ming emperors had withdrawn from day-to-day involvement in affairs of state, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by members of the imperial court, particularly eunuchs (by the end of the Ming dynasty, there were 70,000 eunuchs in the Forbidden City), and members of the bureaucratic elite and landed gentry, constantly vying for political control. Concerned about the condition of the government, many members of the bureaucratic elite began to take matters into their own hands.
The gentry, who wielded considerable power in their own states, began to establish private universities to train the Confucian scholars they believed were necessary for good government. At the same time they began attempting to bring about a change in the structure of the imperial government, in order to establish a system in which all authority would not be vested in one despotic emperor, but in a council of elite Confucian officials who would make decisions and oversee the daily affairs of government.
The Tung-lin Movement
The largest of these movements was the Tung-lin, associated with the Tung-lin Academy. Early in the seventeenth century, the Tung-lin Acadmey joined with neighboring academies in Wu-chin and I-hsing to form the powerful Ch’ang-chou faction. Many of its members occupied high positions in the government bureaucracy, and they were able to influence imperial policy in Peking. They reached the height of their influence between 1621 and 1624.
In 1621, the young T'ien-ch'i Emperor came to the throne, and fell under the influence of the eunuch Wei Chung-hsien. Wei Chung-hsien had been a hoodlum and gambler, who had made himself a eunuch and changed his name to Li Chin-chung in order to escape from his debtors. Entering the imperial palace, he had managed to get into the service of Madam Ke (客氏), the wet-nurse of the future Ming emperor. The couple began manipulating the young and illiterate Tianqi Emperor, who later made Wei his Grand Secretary of the State, giving him absolute power over the court. Wei gave himself the name, Nine-Thousand Years (九千歲), symbolizing that he was second only to the emperor, who was called the Ten-Thousand Years(萬歲). Wei also built a number of shrines (生祠), placing god-like statues of himself in them. This was exactly the kind of situation that the Confucian officials abhorred, but they were powerless against it. Wei’s faction at court gradually undermined the power of the Tung-lin officials, and despite their high positions, they were dismissed from office. In the summer of 1625, Tung-lin leaders were purged, arrested, and tortured to death.
The private academies were denounced as politically subversive organizations, and the emperor ordered them destroyed throughout the empire, especially those in Ch'ang-chou and Su-chou prefectures because these were assumed to be part of the Tung-lin organization. The halls of the Tung-lin Academy, partially destroyed in 1625, were completely torn down by imperial order in 1626.
Wei Chung-hsien’s reign of terror ended abruptly with the death of the Tianqi Emperor, whose successor, the Chongzhen Emperor promptly dismissed him. He was killed and his corpse was disemboweled. The accession of the Chongzhen Emperor restored the fortunes of the Donglin faction. Later during Chongzhen's reign, Donglin partisans found themselves opposed to the Grand Secretary Wen Tiren, and eventually arranged his dismissal in 1637.
After Wei fell into disgrace in 1627, the private academies and associations re-emerged and engaged in the factionalism and political controversies which destabilized the last governments of the Ming dynasty. The Fu She (Return [to Antiquity] Society) movement, based in Su-chou during the 1620s and 1630s, represented the largest and most sophisticated political interest group ever organized within the imperial bureaucratic structure. It supported its members in the factional struggles that dominated late Ming politics.
When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, first to peasant rebels and then to Manchu conquerors, the activities of the Fu She ceased and the factionalism within the imperial government disappeared. The elite gentry, fearing peasant rebellion more than they feared Manchu occupation, recognized that their social and economic privileges depended on the political power of the state, and many of them quickly entered the administration of the Ch’ing dynasty. The new Ch’ing emperors actively participated in government affairs, keeping power struggles under control.
Significance of the Tung-lin Movement
The appearance of a widespread, organized opposition movement among the officials within an imperial government was unprecedented in Chinese history. Confucian tradition dictated that the emperor exercised supreme power, and that the strength of the empire depended on the obedience and loyalty of officials to the imperial throne. However, the actual political situation had become so distant from Confucian ideals of government that many officials feared that the Ming empire would lose its “mandate” and meet its downfall. The Tung-lin movement aimed to remedy imperial abuses of power, and to protect the empire from incapable leaders by investing political authority in a group of professional Confucian officials who would assist the emperor in government.
Confucian scholars of the time attributed the fall of the Ming dynasty to the despotism of the emperors, but also to the factionalism within the government. Many cultivated Confucians feared that it was wrong to establish separate political organizations for the advancement of personal interests, and perceived Wei Chung-hsien’s brutal purge of the Tung-lin movement as a sign of heaven’s displeasure. Factionalism went against the emperor, who according to the Confucian ideal represented the public interest.
Modern historians and scholars see the Tung-lin movement as the natural outcome of a situation in which an autocratic government attempts to exercise too much control over a large population with expanding urban centers. The Tung-lin movement and the political thought associated with it are also perceived as an advancement in Confucian political theory. Some Western scholars have speculated that Tung-lin efforts to reform the late Ming state "showed features strikingly similar to the trend against absolute monarchy and toward parliamentary rule in the West," and that the continuation of the traditional imperial system after the Manchu conquest represents a point at which the political history of China diverged from that of Europe.
The Tung-lin (Donglin) Academy
The Tung-lin (Donglin) Academy (東林書院 Dōnglín Shūyuàn—literally meaning "Eastern Grove Academy"), also known as the Guishan Academy (龜山書院 Guīshān Shūyuàn), was originally built in 1111 C.E. during the Northern Song (北宋) dynasty at present-day Wuxi in China. It was originally the school where the neo-Confucian scholar Yang Shi taught, but later fell into disuse. In 1604, during the Wanli era, Gu Xiancheng (顧憲成 Gù Xiànchéng, (1550-1612), a Ming Grand Secretary, along with Gao Panlong (高攀龍 Gāo Pānlóng, 1562-1626), a scholar, restored the Tung-lin (Donglin) Academy on the same site with the financial backing of local gentry and officials.
The motivation for founding the Tung-lin Academy was concern about the state of the bureaucracy and its inability to bring about improvement. The Academy represented a return to Confucian moral traditions as a means of arriving at fresh moral evaluations. In the late Ming and early Ch’ing periods, the Academy became a center of dissent for those involved in public affairs. Many supporters of Tung-lin (Donglin) were members of the bureaucracy, and it became deeply involved in factional politics.
During the reign of the Emperor Tianqi, Tung-lin (Donglin) opposition to the eunuch Wei Zhongxian resulted in the closure of the Academy in 1622 and the torture and execution of its head, Yang Lian, and five other members in 1624. The accession of the Chongzhen Emperor restored the fortunes of the Tung-lin (Donglin) faction. Later during Chongzhen's reign, Tung-lin (Donglin) partisans found themselves opposed to the Grand Secretary Wen Tiren, and eventually arranged his dismissal in 1637.
The Tung-lin (Donglin) Academy can be found at 867, Jiefang Donglu, Wuxi City.
- Lynn A. Struve, 2005. Time, temporality, and imperial transition: East Asia from Ming to Qing, v. 9, pt 1.
- Conference on Seventeenth-Century Chinese Thought, and William Theodore De Bary. 1975. The unfolding of Neo-Confucianism. Studies in oriental culture, no. 10. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231038283
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- Hucker, Charles O. 1975. China's imperial past: an introduction to Chinese history and culture. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804708878
- Spence, Jonathan D., and John E. Wills. 1979. From Ming to Ch’ing: conquest, region, and continuity in seventeenth-century China. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300022182
- Struve, Lynn A. 2005. Time, temporality, and imperial transition: East Asia from Ming to Qing. Asian interactions and comparisons. Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824828275
All links retrieved March 27, 2020.
- Abortiveness of Late Ming Politics
- Douglas Lancashire. Anti-Christian Polemics in Seventeenth Century China, Church History, Chicago, June 1969, Vol. xxxviii, No. 2.
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