NOTE: Text highlighted in blue is quoted from the post “The Intro and First 10 Lines, which has the full Chinese text and English translation of this section to the Huangling Bei.
Intro, Line 1: “Yuanzhang” 元璋 is the given name of Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, who was born in 1328 in a rural area south of the Huai River, located to the north of today’s Anhui Province. I have translated 谨 as “sincerely,” but it also could be “respectfully.”
Intro, Line 2: “Hongwu” 洪武 (which means “Vast Martial,” with the implied meaning of “achievement”) is the title of Zhu Yuanzhang’s reign period, which lasted from 1368, when he ascended the throne, until 1398, when he died. “The 11th year of the Hongwu era” is thus 1378 by our modern reckoning. According to Wang Jianying (see Sources, Wang’s “Annotations”) Wu Liang 吳良, 1324-1381, and his older brother were from Dingyuan 定远 (the county south of Fengyang) and joined Zhu Yuanzhang early in his rise through the ranks of Red Turban rebels. Romeyn Taylor lists the Wu brothers among Zhu Yuanzhang’s original “24 heroes,” or soldiers he commanded when he set off on his own in 1353, heading south to cross the Yangzi River. (See Sources, Taylor’s “Story of a Dream.”) “To supervise work on the new construction of the Imperial Hall” 督工新建皇堂, is taken by Wang Jianying to mean the symbolic role of overseeing the entire complex of imperial tombs, located eight kilometers southwest of today’s city of Fengyang 凤阳, Anhui Province.
Intro, Line 3: At this time, I 予時. Zhu Yuanzhang was 51 years old when he wrote this, which is the same age as me as I write this!
Intro, Line 4: Moreover, I realized the original text for the Imperial Tomb Tablet had been embellished by the Confucian ministers 況皇陵碑記皆儒臣粉飾之文. The line literally reads: “Moreover, Imperial Tomb Tablet record all scholar officials powder ornament its text.” The word 粉 has the meaning of applying face powder, and together with 飾, or “ornament,” the two characters mean “adorn to the point of falsehood” which I have translated as “embellish.” Zhu Yuanzhang is referring to the epitaph drafted in 1369 (the year after the Ming founding) by Wei Su 危素 （1303-1372), a scholar and historian. Zhu Yuanzhang eventually rejected this draft and personally wrote the new epitaph. As we can see from the phrase “I feared it would not sufficiently admonish later generations and descendants” 恐不足為后世子孫戒, the emperor felt that Wei Su’s text tried to gloss over past difficulties and “pretty up” Zhu’s early years to the point that his descendants would be misled. The late Ming scholar Hok-lam Chan points out that Zhu’s revision “presents a rather straight-forward version of his early years: his humble peasant background, his association with the Buddhists , and his checkered life as a mendicant monk amid the chaos of the rebel uprisings.” (See Sources, Chan’s “Rise of Ming T’ai-tsu”)
Intro, Line 5: Here we get to the true point of this epitaph: “to describe the hardships and difficulties while clarifying the advances and good fortune so that future generations can witness this” 述艱難，明昌運，俾世代見之. The entire text, with the introduction, was carved into stone and erected before the graves of Zhu Yuanzhang’s parents. These are the words he wanted his future generations upon generations to read and ponder.
And now, for notes on the first ten lines of the actual text:
Line 1: “My imperial father” 父皇, refers to a posthumous title, since Zhu Yuanzhang’s father died a poor peasant. “This place” 是方, is located on the outskirts of the town known today as Fengyang 凤阳, to the north of Anhui Province. “Fengyang” is actually the name bestowed on the region by Zhu Yuanzhang after he founded the Ming. The name means “South Side of Phoenix Mountain.” At the time when Zhu lived in that location with his family, it was a village under the jurisdiction of the walled city Haozhou 濠洲, located where the Hao tributary branches off from the Huai River.
Line 2: “Working day and night, always worrying” 朝夕彷徨, translates literally as something like: morning night walk-back-and-forth. The phrase 彷徨 has the meaning of “pace” but in the sense of being “hesitant” and not knowing what to do. I have taken this to imply that his father was worrying and given these four characters a rather loose translation.
Line 3: “All at once, calamities gripped the land” 俄爾天災流行, is generally considered to refer to a drought, followed by an outbreak of the plague. This is the story that Wu Han tells in his seminal biography of Zhu Yuanzhang (see Sources, Wu Han.) The Black Death can be traced from Syriac gravestones found in Central Asia and is presumed to have followed the Mongols into China and Europe. According to research done by David Herlihy, China lost “between one-half and two-thirds of its population to the plague” by 1351. (See Sources, Herlihy.) The Fengyang-based historian Xia Yurun offered this musing on Zhu’s terse summary (translated from the Chinese original), “What ‘calamities‘? These six characters have sparked considerable speculation by later writers. Some think it refers to cholera, others just use a general term like ‘pestilence.’ We can refer to Egyptian writers of the same era (mid 1300s) describing a poisonous haze and plague outbreak wreaking murderous havoc to verify that this calamity was the historical Black Death that shook the world.” (See Sources, Xia)
Line 4: “When they perished,” is how I have translated the characters 終and 亡, which both mean “died.” The Chinese uses two parallel phrases, but in English this sounds too repetitive.
Line 5: “My eldest brother was keeping vigil with the family before he died.” 孟兄先死合家守喪. I struggled with how to translate this sentence, especially the timing and the character 先, or “first.” It literally reads “oldest brother first died with family keep vigil.” According to the official Veritable Records of the Ming Taizu Reign 明太祖实录 (which Wang Jianying quotes in his notes on this passage, see Sources, Wang’s “Annotations”), Zhu Yuanzhang’s family members all died in the fourth month of 1344. His father died on the sixth day, his elder brother on the ninth and his mother on the 22nd. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to me to say that the elder brother died first. Instead, I translate 先 to mean “previous, preceding, prior,” as in prior to the deaths, he was keeping vigil.
Line 6: “Our landlord, (Liu) De,” 田主德 Wang Jianying (see Sources, Wang’s “Annotations”) cites the 国榷 Guoque, an unofficial history of the Ming written in about 1653, as the source for identifying this reference to Liu De 刘德 as the Zhu family’s landlord. “Carrying on with his arrogant shouting“ 呼叱昂昂 literally reads “berated with-head-held-high” and the last two characters have the onomatopoeic sound of “ang ang” to emphasize the arrogant carrying on.
Lines 7&8: These two lines are a connected thought, and once again the Liu surname is not listed (see note for Line 6) but implied. “To our surprise, Liu’s elder brother was generous to us, and kindly offered some yellow earth.” 忽伊兄之慷慨惠此黃壤. Zhu Yuanzhang did not forget the kindness shown to him by this offering of a place to bury his parents. Wu Han (see Sources, Wu Han) quotes an edict issued by Zhu after he became emperor, which granted Liu’s elder brother with the posthumous title of Marquis of Yihui and commented: “At the time when I was struggling over my parents’ corpses, finding a place for them was difficult, and you exhibited a heart of great kindness and benevolence, offering your fertile soil. To see such benevolence, how could I forget it?” Yellow 黃 here has the meaning of “precious.”
Line 9: “Coffins“ 棺槨 This is an old term that refers to the inner and the outer coffin. See photos from a Han tomb at this website. “The bodies were shrouded only in rags” 被體惡裳. The line literally reads, “quilted bodies bad clothing.”
Line 10: “They float concealed three feet under” 浮掩三尺 Wu Han (see Sources, Wu Han) quotes several sources to explain that as Zhu Yuanzhang and his brother were burying the corpses, a heavy storm suddenly unleashed torrents and buried the bodies under rubble. This explains the use of the word “float 浮.”
Translator’s note: This entire text uses a rhyming pattern, with “ang” sound endings for each phrase to indicate where phrases end. The original stele text did not use punctuation marks. Click on “ain’t no punctuation, baby” to learn more.