Re-opening for business…a ‘Call to Commerce’ Tower in 1100s China

The city leader was concerned that all the businesses in his town were shuttered. People were afraid to go out. He asked the central government for tax relief, and then embarked on a major project to get people shopping again.

Sound familiar? The concerns are the same type that officials today are dealing with in the face of COVID-19, but the city leader I am referring to is Xin Qiji 辛弃疾, one the Song Dynasty’s military prefects in Chuzhou 滁州, a city across the Yangtze River from Nanjing in China’s heartland. And the danger Xin Qiji faced in the 12th Century was not a pandemic, it was the Jin cavalry poised for yet another invasion from the north. Xin Qiji’s signature solution was also not something mayors or governors in the U.S. are currently considering: he built a soaring pavilion, the tallest structure in Chuzhou, located in today’s Anhui Province.

“Literary types love towers, this has been true since ancient times,” wrote Qian Niansun 钱念孙 in a recent travel book about Anhui. “Most climb or build them either to visit scenic spots or wax poetic, but Xin Qiji established Pillow Pavilion 奠枕楼 in Chuzhou for quite another reason…Pillow Pavilion was actually an 800-year-old ‘Call to Commerce Tower.’” Continue reading

Hok-lam Chan, frenzied fictions, and the meaning of Zhu Yuanzhang’s name

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Photo: The author with Professor Chan at a 2006 conference in Hong Kong 

Since today is Memorial Day, a time to keep alive the memory of heroes in our lives, I would like to write about a historian who took me under his wing: Hok-lam Chan 陳學霖, 1938–2011. Continue reading

The impact of the Black Death on 1300s China: No plague = no Ming

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19th-century woodcut with a talisman for warding off the plague. (April 19 Twitter post by Medieval Asia researcher Jeffrey Kotyk)

If not for the plague, China wouldn’t have a Ming Dynasty.

This startling thought has been on my mind as I sit at home in quarantine, enduring the epidemic of my era: COVID19.

Of course, if the Ming had not been founded in 1368, some other dynasty would have followed Kublai Khan’s Mongol Yuan. Perhaps the salt smuggler Zhang Shicheng would have prevailed with his Great Zhou Dynasty based in the city of Hangzhou (which the Ming founder squashed in 1367). My point is that the plague is what propelled the Ming founder onto the path that led to the founding. It is the single incident that pushed him off his expected trajectory of farming alongside his brothers in the fields along the Huai River. Zhu Yuanzhang was the youngest of four sons. If not for the plague, he would never have left his large family, which needed him in the fields. He death would have been unremarkable and we would know nothing about him. Continue reading

The never ending story of translating Chinese texts

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The 14th-century stone tablet inscribed with the Ming founder’s life story.

It took the founder of China’s Ming Dynasty ten years to get his life story published – as a text carved into a stone tablet still standing in northern Anhui Province.

It took another 639 years to get that story translated into English – as a PDF on my blog.

The original text was finalized back in 1378 when the carving was complete and the tablet was placed on the back of a huge stone turtle.  The English final draft will probably never stop getting tweaked, most recently today, when I took the suggestion of a student at UC, San Diego and revised the concluding line. That’s the nature of translation: an imperfect but necessary process that can always be improved.

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Publishing in a pandemic…

I am starting to feel like a case study in how not to time your book release.

First, I stretched out the manuscript editing process so that my debut novel release date planned for late 2019 was postponed to February 1, 2020. It’s a nice date, except that my publisher is located in China, with a printing press in Hong Kong that closed down right about then to combat COVID-19.

Next, I held off on book promotion in the U.S., where I live, to allow time for getting the book printed.  “Let’s give it six weeks,” I decided.  That timed my first mid-March book promotion gig for the exact moment when things started to shut down around me in Wisconsin. Continue reading

So my book about the plague is a victim of coronavirus…

According to my publisher, my first novel is now waiting in some printing queue in China, one small item lost in the general shutdown resulting from the coronavirus. Ironically, “The Lacquered Talisman” focuses on how the Zhu family dealt with the contagion of their era: the plague. When the day comes that I am able to hold a copy of my book in my own hands, I will feel a measure of relief that the current contagion is subsiding. Until then, my thoughts are with all those in China dealing with this crisis.

Here is how Zhu Yuanzhang wrote about the impact of contagion on his family: Continue reading

Now available: Debut novel on Zhu Yuanzhang

The Lacquered Talisman (300 pages, $19.99), a novel based on the life of Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, is now available as a paperback or e-book wherever books are sold. Try my page on Bookshop.org! (Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.) If you find my book at your favorite local bookstore – take a photo and send it to me!

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Oct 21 marks 691 years since birth of Ming founder

October 21, 2019, marks the 691st birthday of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of China’s Ming Dynasty. He was born (on what corresponds to Oct. 21 on our modern calendar) in 1328, founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and died in 1398.
To be more specific, he was born in an Earth Dragon year on the 18th day of the 9th month of the 1st year of the Tianli 天曆 reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s Wenzong 元文宗 Emperor Tugh Temur. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Empress Ma!

孝慈高皇後馬氏,生日快樂!
Happy 687th birthday to Empress Ma!
She was born (on what corresponds to August 9 on our modern calendar) in 1332, married in 1352, and died in 1382. To be more specific, she was born in a Water Monkey year on the 18th day of the 7th month of the 3rd year in the Zhishun 至順 reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s Wenzong 元文宗 Emperor Tugh Temur.
Continue reading

From the beginning…

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You can download a PDF of my monograph on the Huangling Bei by clicking on the link below.

The 600-year-old stone tablet inscribed with the life story of the founding Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, known as the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming 大明皇陵之碑, or the Huangling Bei, stands over 7 meters high and is borne on the back of a stone turtle.  I was able to visit the remote cemetery in northern Anhui Province where this tablet stands, but was surprised to discover that the complete text had never been translated into English. I started this blog to amend this discrepancy and launch the first full English translation of this important document. Click here to start from the beginning of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 text and scroll through the translation in 10-line increments.  Please feel free to disagree with my word choices and interpretations!  You can use the “Huangling Bei texts” tab in the “Categories” sidebar at right for commentary and other categories.

Here is a PDF of the translation: Huangling Bei Monograph April 2020

And click here for some basic background on this text.

I am working on plans to start a new translation of another text important to the Ming founding.  Stay tuned!  I have also just published The Lacquered Talisman, based on the first section of the Huangling Bei, through the Hong Kong based Earnshaw Books.