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
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
(In this 2nd section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑, Zhu Yuanzhang is still reeling from the aftermath of burying his parents and oldest brother. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 11: 既葬之后,家道惶惶. After the burial, the path before us was fraught with suffering and worries.
(Click on “Annotations” to see notes on this first section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑 translation.)
孝子皇帝元璋謹述： The filial son, emperor Yuanzhang, sincerely relates:
洪武十一年夏四月，命江陰侯吳良督工新建皇堂。 In the 11th year of the Hongwu era, during the fourth month, the summer season, I commanded Wu Liang, the Duke of Jiangyin, to supervise work on the new construction of the Imperial Hall.
予時秉鑒窺形，但見蒼顏皓首，忽思往日之艱辛。 At this time, I picked up a mirror and examined my appearance, seeing that my color was pale and my hair white. My thoughts abruptly turned to the hardships of the past.
況皇陵碑記皆儒臣粉飾之文，恐不足為后世子孫戒。 Moreover, I realized the original text for the Imperial Tomb Tablet had been embellished by the Confucian ministers to the point that I feared it would not sufficiently admonish later generations and descendants. Continue reading
NOTE: Text highlighted in blue is quoted from the post “The Intro and First 10 Lines, which has the full Chinese text and English translation of this section to the Huangling Bei.
Intro, Line 1: “Yuanzhang” 元璋 is the given name of Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, who was born in 1328 in a rural area south of the Huai River, located to the north of today’s Anhui Province. I have translated 谨 as “sincerely,” but it also could be “respectfully.” Continue reading
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