It is interesting that the only time the word 明 is used in the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming (大明皇陵之碑) is in the introduction, when Zhu Yuanzhang writes that his essay is meant to “describe the hardships and difficulties, while clarifying the advances and good fortune 述艱難，明昌運.” He does not mention that 明, which means “bright” and “clear,” is also the Chinese character Zhu selected as the name for his dynasty, the Ming.
Nor does Zhu say that he was a Red Turban – the only hint of his allegiance to this famous rebellion is his description of his banners as red in Line 62. He clearly did not see himself – or did not wish to be remembered – as a rebel. Rather, Zhu carefully portrays his rise to power as part of the natural progression of China’s great dynastic and military tradition. This last third of the Imperial Tomb Tablet text is larded with references to ancient China – using the grand old names of former dynastic capitals, quoting the military strategist Zhuge Liang (Line 89), citing the old mountain passes (scenes of heroic battles of yore), deriding the Mongols as northern barbarians (Line 85) and professing hope that his own dynasty will last as long as the ancient era of Yin-Shang. He observes proper rituals (Line 74), does not tolerate chaos (Line 85), and thus wins the people’s respect (line 86). He professes admiration for the laws set down by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (Line 78), but scorns the Yuan line for neglecting their “guiding principles.” Zhu is no rebel. In this text, he is the only one capable of restoring righteous rule to the Middle Kingdom.
However, while this last third has the most to say about Zhu’s military ascent to the Dragon Throne, it also lingers over his family. The longest single image of these last 36 lines is the poignant description of how his growing fame allowed his scattered family to learn of his whereabouts. He spends a full eight lines describing his continuing grief for the sisters and brothers he lost to the plague, and his soaring joy at being reunited with two nephews and a niece. His elder sister may have died, but her son could look at the face of Zhu Yuanzhang, and “it was as if he was looking at his mother.” Zhu sets family unity on par here with bringing peace to the land.
And he concludes exactly as he began: focused on the hardships that his parents had to endure and his debt to them as a filial son. Zhu wrote the Imperial Tomb Tablet text “in order to describe the hardships and difficulties,” and he ends it on his knees and wiping away tears as “I write out my difficulties and instruct my heirs to nurture prosperity.”
This remarkable essay is difficult to translate into English. Classical Chinese is often highly ambiguous and laden with allusions. Modern English is neither. I am sure there is much to contest in my translation. However, as time went on and I kept making changes, I started to worry that I would never feel finished this project. I resolved to pick the English words that made sense to me and set them down – and resist the temptation to parenthesize and prevaricate because the original author was making a bold statement and wanted to be heard.
Thus, it is my fervent hope that this remarkable story of how Zhu Yuanzhang rose to power and founded the Ming Dynasty becomes better known outside of China. My friends in Fengyang who took me to stand before the Imperial Tomb Tablet stress that Zhu Yuanzhang became such an important emperor because he suffered so much tragedy and loss in his youth. This experience tempered him and drove him forward. He certainly portrays his story along such lines. If you find in this text words to contemplate, and if it makes you think about the role of a family, the repercussions of suffering tragic losses, and the best way to unite a divided land, then this text will have mattered. And that is all that Zhu Yuanzhang wanted.
Why does this text matter? (Part 1 – The Grieving Son)