Ain’t no punctuation, baby!

Or, as this phrase would have been chiseled into an actual stone stele in 1300s China: aintnopunctuationbaby
For English speakers new to classical Chinese, it is most disconcerting to realize that the original texts contained no punctuation. How is that possible?! How did readers in the Ming Dynasty know when to pause, when to stop thoughts completely, when to ask questions???

For the Huangling Bei text, sentences are marked through rhymes, and also (usually) through character counting.  Most of the 90-plus lines are eight characters long.  All lines of the essay (after the introduction) uniformly end with a word using the final sound of “ang.”  For example, in the first 5 lines, the endings are:

方 fang, place

徨 huang,  worried

殃 yang, disaster

亡 wang, died

喪 sang, mourning

Zhu Yuanzhang does use “ang” endings within a phrase (for example in Line 4, “皇考終於六十有四,皇妣五十有九而亡,” each phrase starts with 皇 or “huang,” which means “imperial), but it’s usually obvious when such a word is not meant to end a phrase.  When a line goes past the normal length of eight characters, you can find the ending point when you reach the character with an “ang” sound.

Because I am a native English speaker, I cannot function without punctuation, so in this blog I have relied on the commas and periods that were kindly supplied by the scholar Wang Jianying in his careful annotation of this text, completed in 1988.

In my English translation, I was not able to make the lines rhyme.  My apologies.  I did try, but it sounded stilted.  Also, it is my humble opinion that some of Zhu Yuanzhang’s rhymes sound a bit stilted too.  For example, in line 17 (乃與兄計,如何是常 therefore I made plans with my second brother about what would make sense), I envision the emperor pacing his study, trying to come up with a good way to say, “we didn’t know what to do next,” and then clapping his hands in joy when he came up with “what would make sense.”

In his case, this adds to the authenticity of the text, as the heartfelt words of a filial son.



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