Hok-lam Chan, frenzied fictions, and the meaning of Zhu Yuanzhang’s name

Photo: The author with Professor Chan at a 2006 conference in Hong Kong 

Since today is Memorial Day, a time to keep alive the memory of heroes in our lives, I would like to write about a historian who took me under his wing: Hok-lam Chan 陳學霖, 1938–2011.

Professor Chan was a prolific scholar who fought against viewing fiction as fact. He also spoke the bold truth about the transition from the Mongol Yuan to the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the 1300s, a period shrouded in mythmaking and politics and the rewriting of slander as truths – in short a period not unlike our own.

To my great fortune, I stumbled upon one of Professor Chan’s articles at the beginning of the research that led to my first novel, The Lacquered Talisman, which is about the Ming founder. Since I was writing historical fiction, I needed to be clear about fictions and facts before trying to blend them into a novel. I needed a scholar devoted to factual knowledge and to that which is concrete and observable in the Ming founding.

At that point in my book project, I was susceptible to some of the fabulous stories told about the Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, who led an undeniably remarkable life. His story encompassed such extremes – the patient military genius who became a merciless emperor, the impoverished peasant who rose to the dragon throne, the devoted husband of Empress Ma who fathered countless children by many courtesans – that it becomes seductive to accept obvious fantasies as historical record. It takes someone like Professor Chan to throw cold water on that tendency.

“The more dramatic the dynastic founding, the greater the degree and intensity has been the mythologization,” Professor Chan wrote.

I had no problem setting aside stories about brilliant red lights and fragrant perfume issuing from the house where the founder was born (which Professor Chan called “bizarre episodes”). However I was chagrined to learn that when the Ming founder wrote so convincingly about praying to the gods over whether to join the Red Turban rebellion and receiving a thrillingly decisive answer, he was in fact repeating an anecdote told about a previous dynastic founder. As Prof. Chan explained, Zhu’s fateful prayer story “transformed a well publicized anecdote about the rise of the rebel leader into a mystical manifestation indicating the decent of a son of Heaven in official historiography.” Yes, but this manifestation was a fiction I preferred as a fact! However, falling for such mythmaking made me no better than those who saw five-colored clouds and other omens wherever their preferred prince appeared, an act Prof. Chan dismissed as falling for “frenzied fictions.”

Prof. Chan was equally dismissive of the Ming founder’s haters. Yes, the Ming founder became paranoid and ruthless, but no he was not illiterate. Prof. Chan had no patience for scholars who tried to portray Zhu Yuanzhang as a despot who persecuted and killed Confucians because he couldn’t read their writing.

“The fact is that (the Ming founder), despite his humble origins and lack of formal schooling in his early years, had acquired a rudimentary classical education through self-education and tutelage from the Confucian scholars during his rise to power… (His writings), though not very elegant and ornate by classical standards, are highly intelligent and readable; the style is direct and forceful, and the language, despite frequent occurrences of colloquialism, is plain and expressive.”

Prof. Chan was born in Hong Kong, received his PhD in history from Princeton, and taught at Columbia University, the University of Washington, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was at the beautifully tropical and hilly campus of the latter that I first met him, at a 2006 conference, “Ming Taizu and His Times.” (“Taizu” is the posthumous temple name for the Ming founder.)

I was an unaffiliated writer at that point, but I had been peppering my old friend, the historian Edward L. Farmer of the University of Minnesota, with questions about Zhu Yuanzhang. Prof. Farmer was a co-organizer of the Hong Kong conference, and invited me to present a paper on my research into the women in the Ming founder’s world. I was assigned to a two-person panel titled “Imperial Family Relations,” that consisted of me and…Hok-lam Chan.

I had no idea how to greet the professor who was the leading authority on the field I was immersed in, so I think I just slid meekly into my seat and waited for my turn to present my findings. I wasn’t sure if it was even appropriate for me, a writer of fiction, to be sitting next to him, an advocate for facts. My unease was alleviated by Professor Chan’s interest in my paper. He was the kind of scholar who possessed a vast amount of knowledge, and could assemble it and filter through it to make his points, but did not use his expertise to dominate. His focus was on keeping scholarship attuned to the best available evidence. He listened to my points, considered them, and then offered helpful insights. He confirmed my suspicion that it was slander to suggest that Empress Ma had no sons. After the conference, in response to my suggestions about the parentage of the son that mattered – the one who followed Taizu to the throne as the Yongle Emperor – Prof. Chan sent me one of his articles on the subject, which explained in detail why Empress Ma was likely not that son’s mother.

Thus began our correspondence, culminating in our joint publication of an essay in historian Sarah Schneewind’s edited volume, Long Live the Emperor! Our essay is titled, “Frenzied Fictions.”

Professor Chan died nine years ago – on June 1, 2011 – a few days before surgery scheduled to fix his chronic heart condition. I wish more than anything that I could give him a copy of my novel, which came out this spring and benefited so much from his scholarship.

I am currently working on Book 2 (it won’t take as long as the first!), which includes a scene about the moment when Zhu Yuanzhang receives his formal name. For that scene, I pulled out one of my notes from Professor Chan. I had asked him if the character Yuan 元 was a reference to the Mongol “Yuan” dynasty, so that the word Zhang 璋, which means “jade scepter” could make the full name mean something like “the jade scepter that will destroy the Yuan”???

“Wishful thinking!” Professor Chan replied.

Should the “Zhang” character be read to have a meaning of “brightness” in a way that was tied to the “Ming” of the Ming Dynasty, which also has this meaning?


He was clear that I should not associate Zhu Yuanzhang’s name with either the Yuan or the Ming dynasty names.

“It probably means the ‘original bright jade,’” Professor Chan wrote. “It’s quite a proper name, from the Confucian classical point of view.”

He followed this with another one of his articles, about symbolism in the Ming dynasty, an article which he inscribed to me and to which I refer frequently.

As someone who spends as much time as possible immersed in historical records, I have tremendous admiration for a scholar like Hok-lam Chan, who devoted his life to understanding a complex and important transition era: the fall of the Mongol  conquest dynasty and the concomitant rise of the Ming. I admire him not only for his expertise, not only for his strong writing, but also for his willingness to take seriously a person like me, a writer of fiction. I feel so lucky to have been able to talk over the Ming founding with Hok-lam Chan. I wish I could talk with him still, especially because I know his eyebrows would rise with disapproval over some of my fictional anecdotes. I wish I could explain to him some of the choices I made. I wish I could get his review, which I know would be honest and unreserved.

Instead I can only pull out his notes and bring them with me into my stories, hoping he would not cross out my fictions as too frenzied.

My correspondence with Professor Chan.
The 2006 conference at which I met Prof. Chan. I am in bright blue in the middle. He is in the row in front of me, in a dark suit and dark tie, looking over the shoulder of Professor Edward Farmer, who is wearing a corsage as a conference organizer.




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