It’s an old text that is virtually unknown in English. So why bother reading the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming?
My answer is that it’s a rare insight into the anguished heart of a remarkable man, the only peasant who founded a dynasty in imperial China.
And I think anyone who has a family should take a look at these words, because this is a speech by a son standing with his back to his parents’ graves and his face toward posterity, trying to express how his life has given meaning to his surname. What would you say if faced with such a task?
One of the remarkable aspects of this text, known as the Huangling Bei, is what it doesn’t do: Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who ruled the Celestial Kingdom for 30 years after ascending the Dragon Throne in 1368, hardly mentions his military exploits. The first section (translated on this blog in three segments) gives no indication of the battles won or the armies defeated. This disinterest in bragging is made clear from the opening line, when the writer begins by describing himself first as a filial son, and second as an emperor. The only other times when he makes reference to his royal status, is when he describes his parents as “imperial,” though that was a posthumous title for them.
As is mentioned in the annotations, this text is a second draft. The first was composed by Wei Su, a respected Confucian scholar, and written in consultation with the emperor soon after the dynasty was founded, but Zhu Yuanzhang came to dislike it. He decided to write a new version himself, and that is the text that still stands today, carved into stone and erected at the site of his parents’ burial.
So what is different? Zhu Yuanzhang’s final draft is far more personal, more emotional, and more tragic:
- Where Wei Su wrote, “In the Jiashen year, the Imperial Father and Imperial Mother Chen both passed away,” Zhu Yuanzhang ignored the date and mourned, “All at once, calamities gripped the land and my family met with disaster. My imperial father had reached the age of 64, and my imperial mother 59, when they perished.”
- Wei Su noted politely that the poor family had no burial plot, while Zhu Yuanzhang angrily named his landlord, Liu De, as a bad person who “would not attend to our needs, carrying on with his arrogant shouting” until the landlord’s elder brother came to the family’s rescue with the offer of a final resting place.
- Wei Su indicated that the orphaned young man faced an uncertain future, but Zhu Yuanzhang cried out “what did I have but fear to the point of madness?”
Clearly the emperor wanted his descendants to understand the tragedy that he had managed to survive, but that claimed his parents and eldest brother. And he wanted to express gratitude for those who helped him – in this first section he stresses the kind landlord’s brother, and also his neighbor Old Mother Wang, who got him admitted to the nearby temple so that he would not starve to death. Most touching is his description of the sacrifice made by his one surviving brother, who saw that there was only enough food to support one, and so left the village to roam the countryside and leave Zhu Yuanzhang with all that remained. “My brother wept for me, and I grieved for my brother; under the bright sun in Heaven, our sorrow rent our hearts.”
It is the emperor’s willingness to face his raw emotions that makes this text so unusual, and so gripping. And because this particular struggling orphan went on to become the ruler of China, the story of his family provides an extraordinary insight into the world of 14th century peasants.
For me, though, the most important reason to read this text, is that Zhu Yuanzhang’s words reach across time and place to offer insight into what makes us human – the struggle to survive, the compassion of friends and family, the need to write it all down for future generations to contemplate.