My short story on a 14th-century uprising

Spittoon Collective, an arts group based in Beijing, is featuring my short story, “Stirring the Yellow River,” this month on their website. Of course, I wish I could actually go to Beijing and hang out with book people, but having a group like this offer my story, along with an illustration, a Q&A, and even a commentary, is the closest I can get to a writer’s dream come true in the COVID lockdown era. I’m so grateful!

(Illustration by Kerry Dennis)

“Stirring the Yellow River” is my fictionalized version of the 1351 uprising that launched the Red Turban rebellion, which eventually led to the downfall of Mongol rule over China. It’s a bizarre tale that involves a one-eyed stone man, laborers dredging the Yellow River, and an apocalyptic rhyme brought to life.

This story is also a selection from the start of Book 2 (which I am calling “Red Turban”) in my series of fiction about the Ming founding. I have finished the manuscript for this one, but I’m still tinkering and editing…

As I explained to Spittoon editor Deva Eveland, “Stirring the Yellow River” follows events described in unofficial writings that circulated in the 14th century by authors like Ye Ziqi 叶子奇 in his 1378 essay collection, Master of Grass and Trees  草木子. (These have been analyzed in English by the modern historians Barend ter Haar and the late Hok-Lam Chan.)  

Ye Ziqi was interested in rumors and prophesies and wrote that a certain Han Shantong 韩山童 and his conspirators craftily buried a one-eyed stone man and waited for it to be unearthed by laborers working on a massive river channeling project. A prophetic children’s rhyme, and its connection to the stone man and the uprising, was also mentioned in various accounts, including by the historian Song Lian 宋濂 in the official Yuan Dynasty history, who wrote that, “It all started in the Gengyin year (i.e. 1350) with the children’s ditty told north and south of the river…” Were the rhymes and rumors true? Who can say? They probably contained a mixture of fact and fantasy.

One problem I encountered in writing my own version of this story was explaining why Han and his key co-conspirator Liu Futong 刘福通 were down in the trenches talking with the laborers. The historical records are silent on this matter, and don’t have much to say about the background of either leader. What made the most sense to me was to make Han and Liu fellow conscripts. So each retelling of this story creates its own deviations.

How does this story connect with the Ming founding, which is the focus of my historical fiction? Liu Futong went on to lead the northern branch of the Red Turbans, which a peasant-turned-monk named Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 joined in early 1352. Zhu rose through the ranks and eventually became the most powerful Red Turban in the land. He founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and scholars consider the word “Ming 明” to be a reference to the religious beliefs unleashed in the river channeling rebellion.

Meanwhile, here’s the short story: