Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 is famous as the peasant-turned-rebel who defeated the Mongols and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. However, prior to tying on a red turban and joining the rebellion, Zhu spent eight formative years as a Buddhist monk. It is these years that are the focus of the middle third of the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming 大明皇陵之碑. Understanding how the Ming founder’s religious beliefs guided his path to the throne is another reason why this text matters.
To recap: after losing his entire family to a plague strike and its aftermath, the orphaned 16-year-old Zhu would have hardly looked like a future emperor. In fact, he ranks as China’s most unlikely dynastic founder. Old Mother Wang, a family friend, advised him to turn to the last refuge of the desperate – the local temple. Unfortunately, the famine, drought and disease ravaging the village had also left the temple depleted and struggling. Without any grain to feed its monks, the abbot sent Zhu Yuanzhang to wander the countryside and beg for alms. After a few mere weeks of temple training, he was sent away, and spent the next three years “floating like a cloud” through the Dabie Mountains and the region between the Huai and Yellow Rivers, in today’s provinces of Anhui and Henan. And thus his true education began.
It is interesting that almost the entire first third of the Tomb Tablet text is focused on the repercussions of a single incident: the plague deaths of spring 1344. Calamities grip the land in Line Three and Zhu’s parents die in Line Four. The next 17 lines are an extended portrayal of how Zhu Yuanzhang and his one remaining brother struggled to find a place to bury all their dead and were forced to separate to avoid starvation. Which is when Old Mother Wang steps in, and which brings us to the text’s middle third, the Buddhist years.
As Zhu is wandering through the wilderness, he is lonely and still grieving for his parents, but he is also becoming politically aware. “At that time, bandits arose along the Yangzi and the Huai rivers and the lives of the people became tumultuous,” he writes. He returns to his home temple and spends a few more years there, “a time when strongmen were once again stirring things up.”
The Red Turban rebellion finally reaches Zhu in his temple sanctuary when the rebels capture the nearby walled city of Haozhou 濠州.
If the first third of the Tomb Text is about the death of his parents, the second third is centered on Zhu’s prayer seeking guidance as to whether he should leave the fold and join the rebels in Haozhou. Over the course of 10 lines (43-52), Zhu vacillates and turns to the Qielan Buddha, the guardian god of his temple, to divine his path. Revealing his own peasant upbringing, Zhu resorts to a folk method – tossing divining shells – to determine his destiny. The divine answer is, of course, that the time has come for Zhu to set aside the monastic life and head to Haozhou.
Old Mother Wang had packed her basket of offerings (sweet wine and incense) to entice the abbot to accept a new novice in the fall of 1344. Zhu tossed his divining shells in the spring of 1352. This eight year interregnum served as the bridge between Zhu’s life as a peasant and his life as a soldier, which culminated in his assumption of the Dragon Throne. In this text, Zhu does not elaborate on what he learned in the Buddha halls, and he stresses his continuing grief for his parents and his uprooted spirit, but he also does not shy from the fact that he lived as a monk. “I underwent the Buddhist rites and entered the monk’s world,” he states clearly. And he did not leave the temple walls until he received permission to do so from the Qielan Buddha. Nor did he leave his religious order because he considered it morally inferior – in fact, his initial impression of the Red Turban rebels he encountered inside Haozhou drew his contempt. “I had to deal with fools day and night and led a military life.” What he seems to want to make clear is that he went to join the Red Turbans because he had to – it was his destiny.
In this middle section of the Imperial Tomb Tablet, Zhu thus is stressing to posterity that he was a devout Buddhist before he was a soldier, and that his transformation into a military leader had divine backing. Zhu reveals his own understanding, and seeks to influence our perceptions as his readers, about his unlikely rise to unimaginable power.
Read more commentary on this text by clicking on the “Commentary” link in the Categories section of the sidebar at right…