Hok-lam Chan, frenzied fictions, and the meaning of Zhu Yuanzhang’s name

TwitterSized
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

The impact of the Black Death on 1300s China: No plague = no Ming

PlaguePreventionTalisman
19th-century woodcut with a talisman for warding off the plague. (April 19 Twitter post by Medieval Asia researcher Jeffrey Kotyk)

If not for the plague, China wouldn’t have a Ming Dynasty.

This startling thought has been on my mind as I sit at home in quarantine, enduring the epidemic of my era: COVID19.

Of course, if the Ming had not been founded in 1368, some other dynasty would have followed Kublai Khan’s Mongol Yuan. Perhaps the salt smuggler Zhang Shicheng would have prevailed with his Great Zhou Dynasty based in the city of Hangzhou (which the Ming founder squashed in 1367). My point is that the plague is what propelled the Ming founder onto the path that led to the founding. It is the single incident that pushed him off his expected trajectory of farming alongside his brothers in the fields along the Huai River. Zhu Yuanzhang was the youngest of four sons. If not for the plague, he would never have left his large family, which needed him in the fields. He death would have been unremarkable and we would know nothing about him. Continue reading

Publishing in a pandemic…

I am starting to feel like a case study in how not to time your book release.

First, I stretched out the manuscript editing process so that my debut novel release date planned for late 2019 was postponed to February 1, 2020. It’s a nice date, except that my publisher is located in China, with a printing press in Hong Kong that closed down right about then to combat COVID-19.

Next, I held off on book promotion in the U.S., where I live, to allow time for getting the book printed.  “Let’s give it six weeks,” I decided.  That timed my first mid-March book promotion gig for the exact moment when things started to shut down around me in Wisconsin. Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

Why does this text matter? (Part 2 – The Monk Years)

LongXingStatute
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)

 

Huanglilng Statue
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

Lines 11-20

(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.

Line 12: 仲兄少弱,生計不張.  My second brother (now head of the family) was young and frail, with no livelihood to depend on.

Line 13: 孟嫂攜幼,東歸故鄉.  Eldest sister-in-law had taken her children in hand and headed east to return to her own village. Continue reading

The Intro and First 10 Lines

(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.

Fengyang Wall.jpg
The wall that Zhu Yuanzhang ordered built around his hometown, today’s Fengyang 凤阳,which Zhu wanted to make his Middle Capital 中都.

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

Annotations to the intro and first 10 lines

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 as “sincerely,” but it also could be “respectfully.” Continue reading

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

cropped-huanglingrow-e1463180568714.jpg

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