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

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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

大明皇陵之碑 The Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming, the “Huangling Bei”

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The town of Fengyang 凤阳, to the north of Anhui Province in the heart of China, may seem at first glance to be an ordinary, and rather unremarkable, provincial outpost.  But carefully preserved in a park southwest of the town lies a key site for the Ming Dynasty, which ruled the Middle Kingdom from 1368 until 1644.

Fengyang is where the eventual dynastic founder lost most of his family to the plague demons.  This founder, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, was a grieving and impoverished peasant youth when he buried his parents and brother and nephew on a remote hillside near the town that he later expanded, renamed, and tried (unsuccessfully) to make his dynastic capital.  Continue reading