Re-opening for business…a ‘Call to Commerce’ Tower in 1100s China

The city leader was concerned that all the businesses in his town were shuttered. People were afraid to go out. He asked the central government for tax relief, and then embarked on a major project to get people shopping again.

Sound familiar? The concerns are the same type that officials today are dealing with in the face of COVID-19, but the city leader I am referring to is Xin Qiji 辛弃疾, one the Song Dynasty’s military prefects in Chuzhou 滁州, a city across the Yangtze River from Nanjing in China’s heartland. And the danger Xin Qiji faced in the 12th Century was not a pandemic, it was the Jin cavalry poised for yet another invasion from the north. Xin Qiji’s signature solution was also not something mayors or governors in the U.S. are currently considering: he built a soaring pavilion, the tallest structure in Chuzhou, located in today’s Anhui Province.

“Literary types love towers, this has been true since ancient times,” wrote Qian Niansun 钱念孙 in a recent travel book about Anhui. “Most climb or build them either to visit scenic spots or wax poetic, but Xin Qiji established Pillow Pavilion 奠枕楼 in Chuzhou for quite another reason…Pillow Pavilion was actually an 800-year-old ‘Call to Commerce Tower.’” Continue reading

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

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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. Continue reading

The impact of the Black Death on 1300s China: No plague = no Ming

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19th-century woodcut with a talisman for warding off the plague. (April 19 Twitter post by Medieval Asia researcher Jeffrey Kotyk)

If not for the plague, China wouldn’t have a Ming Dynasty.

This startling thought has been on my mind as I sit at home in quarantine, enduring the epidemic of my era: COVID19.

Of course, if the Ming had not been founded in 1368, some other dynasty would have followed Kublai Khan’s Mongol Yuan. Perhaps the salt smuggler Zhang Shicheng would have prevailed with his Great Zhou Dynasty based in the city of Hangzhou (which the Ming founder squashed in 1367). My point is that the plague is what propelled the Ming founder onto the path that led to the founding. It is the single incident that pushed him off his expected trajectory of farming alongside his brothers in the fields along the Huai River. Zhu Yuanzhang was the youngest of four sons. If not for the plague, he would never have left his large family, which needed him in the fields. He death would have been unremarkable and we would know nothing about him. Continue reading

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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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

From the beginning…

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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

Why does this text matter? (Part 2 – The Monk Years)

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Statue of Zhu Yuanzhang in the Anhui temple that claims him as a member of its fold.

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.  Continue reading

Why does this text matter? (Part 1 – The Grieving Son)

 

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Stone guardian at Imperial Tomb Tablet site.

It’s an old text that is virtually unknown in English. So why bother reading the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming?

My answer is that it’s a rare insight into the anguished heart of a remarkable man, the only peasant who founded a dynasty in imperial China.

And I think anyone who has a family should take a look at these words, because this is a speech by a son standing with his back to his parents’ graves and his face toward posterity, trying to express how his life has given meaning to his surname.  What would you say if faced with such a task? Continue reading