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.
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. Continue reading
(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.)
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
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
(In this 9th installment of this blog’s Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 translation, Zhu Yuanzhang’s armies pacify China as he settled on Nanjing as his capital city. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 81: 親征荊楚，將平湖湘。I led a campaign into Jingchu and with my generals pacified the Huxiang region;
Line 82: 三苗盡服，廣海入疆。To the south the three tribes of the Miao obeyed and the coastal region became part of our territory.
Line 81 and 82: These two lines can be taken together as a statement of how Zhu pacified the south of China. Wang Jianying (see Sources) points out that the sequence is a bit off and overlaps with the next few lines, but basically this refer to the battles, and ultimate victories over Chen Youliang to the west, over Fang Guozhen along the coast to the east, and against various other warlords to the south and west. “Jingchu,” is another name for the Three Kingdoms era State of Chu, which dominated southern China in ancient times. This region includes Lake Poyang 鄱陽湖 in Jiangxi, where Zhu defeated Chen (who was killed by an arrow) in a major naval battle in 1363. “Huxiang” refers to the Xiang River 湘江 in Hunan Province. Continue reading
(In this 8th installment of this blog’s Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 translation, Zhu Yuanzhang leads his army across the Yangzi River and captures Nanjing, which will become the capital of the Ming Dynasty. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 71: 於是家有眷屬，外練兵港。From then on, my household had relatives in it. Beyond us, my soldiers were well trained and ready
Line 72: 群雄並驅，飲食不遑。Our band of heroes galloped off, with no more leisure for dining and drinking.
Line 71: This line marks the transition from an extended description of being reunited with family to Zhu’s military exploits. The second half of the phrase, “my soldiers were well trained and ready 外練兵港” is literally “exterior trained, weapons sharpened.” The word “exterior 外” indicates the physical body being strong and ready for battle, but also refers to Zhu’s switch from talking about his interior family life to the external world his troops must now face. Continue reading
(In this 7th installment of this blog’s Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 translation, Zhu Yuanzhang forms his own militia and gains fame, which leads to an unexpected family reunion. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 61: 倡農夫以入,伍事業是匡。I convinced the locals to join my band for the cause of rectifying the state.