Li Shanchang

Li Shangchang (1314-1390) was a founding Prime Minister of the Ming dynasty. Li "planned the organization of the six ministries, shared in the drafting of a new law code, and supervised the compilations of the Yuan shih (History of Yuan), the Ancestral Instructions and the Ritual Compendium of the Ming Dynasty." He established salt and tea monopolies based on Yuan institutions, eliminated corruption, restored minted currency, opened iron foundries, and instituted fish taxes. It is said that revenues were sufficient, yet the people were not oppressed. He was given first rank among the six dukes in 1370, but quarreled with the great classical scholar Liu Bowen, causing the latter to resign from public office.[1] It is said that Li was the Emperor Hongwu's closest comrade during the war, and greatest contributor to his ultimate victory and thus establishment of the Ming Dynasty.[2] Deeply trusted by the Emperor,[3] Hongwu consulted Li on institutional matters,[4] though Li's arrogance finally caused the Emperor to be "bored with him" in old age.

A doubtful classicist at best, and yet a skillful draftsman of legal documents, mandates, and military communications, the Ming-shih biography states that his studies included Chinese Legalist writings, a statement made of no other individual among more than three hundred others. Most of his activities seem to have supported Hongwu Emperor's firm control of his regime. Mainly responsible for ferreting out disloyalty and factionalism among military officers, he used a reward and punishment system reminiscent of the Han Feizi, and may have had a kind of secret police in his service. At times he had charge of all civil and military officials in Nanking.[5]


Li's import into Legalist statecraft and prognostication theories originally left him an educated, yet marginal figure in Dingyuan County. He would be recruited by Zhu Yuanzhang (founding emperor Hongwu), who was passing through the area with his army. Li discussed history with him, namely, the qualities of the founding Han Emperor Gaozu, and Zhu invited Li to take over the secretarial and managerial duties of his field command. He proved able and energetic, often staying behind to transfer army provisions. He would be given first rank among officers with the titles of Grand Councilor of the Left and "Dynastic Duke of Han". Comparisons between the Emperor Hongwu and Gaozu became a theme of the Ming Court and it's historians.[6]

Hongwu asked Li to assume responsibility for administrative affairs in 1353,[7] and Li thus had overall institutional authority long before codification work started. Li's petitioning Emperor Hongwu to eliminate collective prosecution reportedly initiated the drafting. Hongwu ordered Li and others to create the basic law code in 1367, appointing him Left Councilor and chief legislator in a commission of 30 ministers. Hongwu emphasized the importance of simplicity and clarity, and noted that the Tang and Song had fully developed criminal statutes, ignored by the Yuan. Li memorialized that all previous codes were based on the Han code, synthesized under the Tang, and so they based their institutions on the Tang Code.[8] A new system of fixed statutes was made to combat corruption,[9] and Li personally oversaw newly drafted stipulations.[10]

In old age and extremely rich, he retired as the Emperor's distaste grew for his arrogance, but would still be called upon to deliberate military and dynastic affairs. Other councilors fared worse; Guangyang, remembered his carefulness, generosity, honesty, uprightness and seriousness, was demoted several times. A lack of division of powers between the Emperor and his councilors apparently resulted in conflicts, and the grand councilors (four total) gave up on state affairs, following prevailing affairs or doing nothing. Appointed to right councilor, Li gave himself over to drinking. He was ultimately implicated in 1390 in a decade-long conspiracy[11] and purged along with his extended family and thirty thousand others. The accusations against him would memorialized as absurd fabrications, recognized as such by the Emperor Hongwu.[12] He was executed largely on the basis of his supposed awareness and non-reporting of treason.[13] The post of prime minister (or councilor) was abolished following their execution.[14]


  1. Taylor, R. (1963) p.53p-54. SOCIAL ORIGINS OF THE MING DYNASTY 1351-1360. Monumenta Serica, 22(1), 1-78. Retrieved from
  2. C. Simon Fan 2016. p.94. Culture, Institution, and Development in China.
  3. Anita M. Andrew, John A. Rapp 2000. p.161. Autocracy and China's Rebel Founding Emperors.
  4. Jiang Yonglin, Yonglin Jiang 2005. p.xxxiv. The Great Ming Code: Da Ming lü.
  5. Taylor, R. (1963) p.53p-54. SOCIAL ORIGINS OF THE MING DYNASTY 1351-1360. Monumenta Serica, 22(1), 1-78. Retrieved from
  6. Frederick W. Mote 1999. p.550. Imperial China 900-1800.
  7. Edward L. Farmer 1995 p.29. Zhu Yuanzhang and Early Ming Legislation.
    • Massey 1983
  8. Edward L. Farmer 1995 p.37. Zhu Yuanzhang and Early Ming Legislation.
  9. Edward L. Farmer 1995 p.37. Zhu Yuanzhang and Early Ming Legislation.
  10. Jinfan Zhang 2014 p.168. The Tradition and Modern Transition of Chinese Law.
  11. Edward L. Farmer 1995 p.58. Zhu Yuanzhang and Early Ming Legislation.
  12. Anita M. Andrew, John A. Rapp 2000. p.148,61,167-168. Autocracy and China's Rebel Founding Emperors.
  13. C. Simon Fan 2016. p.94. Culture, Institution, and Development in China.
  14. James Tong 1991 p.230. Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty.
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