Wu Han was born in Yiwu, Jinhua, Zhejiang in 1909. 1928, he studied at Zhijiang University . He graduated from Tsinghua University in 1934 and joined the faculty of this university.
Wu Han was commissioned by Mao's government to write an article about Hai Rui, a Ming dynasty official who criticized the Jiajing Emperor to his face and was resultantly sacked. The article on Hai Rui appeared in the Chinese Publication the ''People's Daily'' on May 16, 1959, and was interpreted by many readers and intellectuals as a political parallel to the situation of Peng Dehuai. Peng had been Mao Zedong's minister of defense, but fell into disgrace in 1959 when he led the criticism of the Great Leap Forward, a program of Mao's which was intended to rapidly industrialize China but ultimately amounted to failure on almost every level.
The Hai Rui article, which originally sought to rehabilitate Hai Rui's reputation and qualify him as a political hero, was published at a time when Mao was actually encouraging popular critiques of the Great Leap Forward. However, as the popularity and distribution of the article expanded , Mao finally became aware of the fact that many people allegorically equated Hai Rui with Peng Dehuai, and that they therefore associated Mao himself with the un-approachable Ming emperor. Moreover, by 1965 , Mao recognized that the popularity of ''Hai Rui Dismissed from Office'' created a direct threat to his reputation, so on November 10 he authorized a public attack on the play and attempted to debase Hai Rui's legacy as an attempt to discredit Peng Dehuai.
Wu Han himself, who a few years earlier was asked by his political superiors to compose the article, had, by March 1966, become the subject of harsh government criticism as a direct result of his contribution. His particular predicament is often chosen to represent the Chinese government's frequent practice of reversing its verdicts under Mao's control . Wu Han himself committed suicide while in prison in 1969.