Line 61: I convinced the locals 倡農夫. These locals were farmers in the Huai River valley, in today’s Anhui Province. Zhu Yuanzhang is calling on them to join a righteous cause (as opposed to what the ruling Mongols would have deemed a rebellion). The recruits were joining Zhu’s original band of “24 heroes,” who have been named in several places and included companions like Tang He 汤和 and Xu Da 徐达, the future generals who would fight at his side straight through to the dynastic founding in 1368. Continue reading
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
(In this 6th section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑, Zhu Yuanzhang divines that he should join the Red Turban rebellion, but he discovers that working with rebels can be difficult. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 51:卜逃卜守則不吉，將就凶而不妨。Escaping or guarding, both were inauspicious; then I understood and did not try to interfere.
Line 53: 少頃獲釋，身體安康。After some time, I was released and ready, my health restored.
Line 51: Escaping or guarding, both were inauspicious 卜逃卜守則不吉. Zhu Yuanzhang is throwing divination shells – like the modern set in the photo advertisement at right – to get an answer from the Qielan Buddha as to whether he should escape the chaos around him, or stay and guard his looted temple. The shells are landing interior side down for Zhu, an inauspicious yin/yin reply.
(In this 5th section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑, Zhu Yuanzhang mulls over whether he should become a Red Turban. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 42: 拒守不去，號令彰彰。 They encountered no defenders and took clear control.
Line 44: 既憂且懼，無可籌詳。 But I was too worried and afraid to make any plans.
Line 41: The city was taken 陷城. This refers to the walled city of Haozhou 濠州, which Guo Zixing 郭子兴 captured with a small force of Red Turbans. Haozhou no longer exists. After the Ming founding, Zhu Yuanzhang reorganized his home district and created Fengyang. Haozhou was situated at the confluence of the Hao River with the larger Huai River 淮河.
Line 42: They encountered no defenders 拒守不去. According to Wu Han’s biography of Zhu Yuanzhang (see Sources, “Wu Han”), “On the 27th day of the second month (of 1352), Guo Zixing led several thousand men on a midnight raid of Haozhou. When the signal cannon sounded, the raiders charged the yamen gate and killed the magistrate…The Yuan general Cheli Buqa was camped many li away from Haozhou and feared the ferocity of the Red Army to the point that he refused to attack.” Continue reading
(In this 4th section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑, Zhu Yuanzhang, having lost his family to the plague and been turned out from his Buddhist temple, has become a wandering monk. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 31: Lofty precipice 穹崖崔嵬. This phrase in Chinese is a string of images: “穹” means “vault” or “dome,” and often refers to the vault of Heaven. “The domed cliffs towering and lofty,” is closer to the text but seemed too flowery to me in English so I simplified it to “lofty precipice.” “Rest on the green moss 倚碧” is hard to translate because the color word, “碧” can mean either blue or green, and the color needs a noun to work in English, so it could mean “by the blue waters” as easily as “on the green moss.” “Calls of the monkeys 猿啼” indicates that Zhu Yuanzhang was traveling through the mountain forests – the rhesus monkey can still be found in southern Anhui Province.
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
Or, as this phrase would have been chiseled into an actual stone stele in 1300s China: aintnopunctuationbaby
For English speakers new to classical Chinese, it is most disconcerting to realize that the original texts contained no punctuation. How is that possible?! How did readers in the Ming Dynasty know when to pause, when to stop thoughts completely, when to ask questions??? Continue reading