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

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

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

Lines 81-90

(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.)
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Chang Yuchun, one of Zhu Yuanzhang’s “brave generals.”

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 83: 命大將軍東平乎吳越,齊魯耀乎旌幢。I sent my leading general to pacify the regions of Wu and Yue, while the lands of Qi and Lu were decorated with my banners and streamers. Continue reading

Lines 71-80

(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.)soldier4

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 73: 暫戍和州,東渡大江。We briefly held Hezhou before heading east to cross the great river. Continue reading

Lines 61-70

(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.

Chuzhou
The walled city of Chuyang, surrounded by a moat. The waterway through the city converges to the east with the Qingliu River.

Line 62: 不逾月而眾集,赤幟蔽野而盈岡。In less than a month I had gathered a multitude so that our red banners covered the countryside and spilled over the ridges.

Line 63: 率渡清流,戍守滁陽。I led my troops across the Qingliu River to defend the Chuyang Garrison.

Line 64: 思親詢舊,終日慨慷。I thought of my relatives and asked after them, all day sighing with emotion. 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

Lines 51-60

(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.)
GuoZixing
Guo Zixing, the Red Turban leader in Haozhou.

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 52: 即起趨降而附城,幾被無知而創。I hastened to the city gates to pledge allegiance, but some of the gate guards did not know who I was and harmed me.

Line 53: 少頃獲釋,身體安康。After some time, I was released and ready, my health restored.

Line 54: 從愚朝暮,日日戎行。I had to deal with fools day and night and led a military life. Continue reading

Lines 41-50

(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 41: 未幾陷城,深高城隍。  The city was taken by only a few who surmounted the walls and moats;

Shaoxing gate
Bridge over a moat before a Chinese city wall.

Line 42: 拒守不去,號令彰彰。  They encountered no defenders and took clear control.

Line 43: 友人寄書,云及趨降。  A friend sent me a letter saying that I should hasten to submit;

Line 44: 既憂且懼,無可籌詳。  But I was too worried and afraid to make any plans.

Continue reading