The never ending story of translating Chinese texts

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The 14th-century stone tablet inscribed with the Ming founder’s life story.

It took the founder of China’s Ming Dynasty ten years to get his life story published – as a text carved into a stone tablet still standing in northern Anhui Province.

It took another 639 years to get that story translated into English – as a PDF on my blog.

The original text was finalized back in 1378 when the carving was complete and the tablet was placed on the back of a huge stone turtle.  The English final draft will probably never stop getting tweaked, most recently today, when I took the suggestion of a student at UC, San Diego and revised the concluding line. That’s the nature of translation: an imperfect but necessary process that can always be improved.

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Publishing in a pandemic…

I am starting to feel like a case study in how not to time your book release.

First, I stretched out the manuscript editing process so that my debut novel release date planned for late 2019 was postponed to February 1, 2020. It’s a nice date, except that my publisher is located in China, with a printing press in Hong Kong that closed down right about then to combat COVID-19.

Next, I held off on book promotion in the U.S., where I live, to allow time for getting the book printed.  “Let’s give it six weeks,” I decided.  That timed my first mid-March book promotion gig for the exact moment when things started to shut down around me in Wisconsin. Continue reading

So my book about the plague is a victim of coronavirus…

According to my publisher, my first novel is now waiting in some printing queue in China, one small item lost in the general shutdown resulting from the coronavirus. Ironically, “The Lacquered Talisman” focuses on how the Zhu family dealt with the contagion of their era: the plague. When the day comes that I am able to hold a copy of my book in my own hands, I will feel a measure of relief that the current contagion is subsiding. Until then, my thoughts are with all those in China dealing with this crisis.

Here is how Zhu Yuanzhang wrote about the impact of contagion on his family: Continue reading

Now available: Debut novel on Zhu Yuanzhang

The Lacquered Talisman (300 pages, $19.99), a novel based on the life of Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, is now available as a paperback or e-book wherever books are sold. Try my page on Bookshop.org! (Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.) If you find my book at your favorite local bookstore – take a photo and send it to me!

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Oct 21 marks 691 years since birth of Ming founder

October 21, 2019, marks the 691st birthday of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of China’s Ming Dynasty. He was born (on what corresponds to Oct. 21 on our modern calendar) in 1328, founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and died in 1398.
To be more specific, he was born in an Earth Dragon year on the 18th day of the 9th month of the 1st year of the Tianli 天曆 reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s Wenzong 元文宗 Emperor Tugh Temur. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Empress Ma!

孝慈高皇後馬氏,生日快樂!
Happy 687th birthday to Empress Ma!
She was born (on what corresponds to August 9 on our modern calendar) in 1332, married in 1352, and died in 1382. To be more specific, she was born in a Water Monkey year on the 18th day of the 7th month of the 3rd year in the Zhishun 至順 reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s Wenzong 元文宗 Emperor Tugh Temur.
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From the beginning…

Huangling Bei Monograph_Page_01
You can download a PDF of my monograph on the Huangling Bei by clicking on the link below.

The 600-year-old stone tablet inscribed with the life story of the founding Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, known as the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming 大明皇陵之碑, or the Huangling Bei, stands over 7 meters high and is borne on the back of a stone turtle.  I was able to visit the remote cemetery in northern Anhui Province where this tablet stands, but was surprised to discover that the complete text had never been translated into English. I started this blog to amend this discrepancy and launch the first full English translation of this important document. Click here to start from the beginning of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 text and scroll through the translation in 10-line increments.  Please feel free to disagree with my word choices and interpretations!  You can use the “Huangling Bei texts” tab in the “Categories” sidebar at right for commentary and other categories.

Here is a PDF of the translation: Huangling Bei Monograph April 2020

And click here for some basic background on this text.

I am working on plans to start a new translation of another text important to the Ming founding.  Stay tuned!  I have also just published The Lacquered Talisman, based on the first section of the Huangling Bei, through the Hong Kong based Earnshaw Books.

Why does this text matter? (Part 3 – The Filial Founder)

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Zhu Yuanzhang

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,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.  Continue reading

Lines 91-end

(In this 10th and final installment of this blog’s Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 translation, Zhu Yuanzhang establishes a proper cemetery for his parents and contemplates their suffering. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)

Fengyang map
Map of Fengyang, with the imperial tombs located below the city walls

Line 91: 欲厚陵之微葬,卜者乃曰:不可,而地且臧。I desired a more lavish tomb for the modest graves, but the one who divined said that this could not happen, because the burial location was auspicious.

Line 92: 於是祀事之禮已定,每精潔乎蒸嘗。Therefore the sacrificial duties of performing rituals were established, and each spirit was kept pure through the seasonal offerings.

Line 93: 惟劬勞罔極之恩難報,勒石銘於皇堂。Thinking of my parents’ toil and suffering, I know I can never repay their limitless kindness, I can only carve into stone the inscription for this imperial hall. Continue reading

Annotations to Lines 91-end

Line 91: The text concludes with a discussion of the gravesite in Fengyang, Anhui Province.  As explained above in the note for Line 10, Zhu’s parents were buried during a rainstorm, when his family was in desperate circumstances.  Naturally, once he rose to power, Zhu wanted a fancier tomb.  “厚” means “thick” or “lavish” and is the opposite of “微” which can mean “tiny” or “imperceptible,” but also has the meaning I use here of “modest” or even “hidden.” (See Kroll’s dictionary for more on these terms.)  Zhu used the same verb for “divined” as in Lines 49 and 51, so perhaps he (or his designate) is once again tossing shells.  In any case, the burial site was to remain undisturbed, though an elaborate complex was then built around this royal cemetery, and it can still be visited today. Continue reading