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，明昌運.” 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 →
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 →
(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.)
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 →
(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.)
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.
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 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: 仰穹崖崔嵬而倚碧，聽猿啼夜月而淒涼。 Facing a lofty precipice, I would rest on the green moss; listening to the night calls of the monkeys, I felt cold and desolate.
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 →