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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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

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

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