I recall being in a taxi in China several years ago, I think in Shanghai, shortly before the Lunar New Year holiday, when a pedestrian jumped in the path of our car.
The driver slammed on his brakes and – in the same motion – rolled down his window, so that he could yell at the hapless pedestrian even as we were skidding to a halt to avoid running him over.
“要过年吗?!” (Loose translation: “Were you hoping to live to celebrate the New Year?!”)
The taxi driver’s words were superficially polite but uttered with such vehement anger and sarcasm that they turned into an insult, a seasonal version of, “Get out of the way, you idiot!” I remember – once I recovered from the shock of the near accident – feeling amused by the driver’s aggrieved tone and aggressive wit.
The new moon February 1 on the Western calendar for 2022 marks the start of the Year of the Tiger. It’s a year when I hope to see Book 2 published in my series on the founding of the Ming Dynasty. Under the current title of Red Turban, this volume will cover the tumultuous four years, 1351-55, that turned Zhu Yuanzhang from an obscure wandering monk to a leading warlord contending for control of all of China, and brought the future Empress Ma to his side. The manuscript is currently undergoing edits, but has taken full form and benefited from reader comments (please email me if you would like to receive notifications about it).
So I am looking forward to the lunar New Year, and I intend to channel that taxi driver’s nerve and wit in the face of the anxiety of getting a novel published.
Though I’m not into numerology, it did give me pause to realize that one of the key moments in the founding of the Ming Dynasty occurred exactly 666 years ago.
On the second day in the sixth month of an Yiwei year that corresponds to the Western date of July 10, 1355, Zhu Yuanzhang led his newly-acquired fleet from Hezhou, his temporary base on the northwest bank of the Yangzi River. He was headed toward a outcrop on the far shore known as Ox Barrier. One of Zhu’s newest recruits, Chang Yuchun, was the first to make landfall. Chang jumped to the shore, wielded his ax and rushed toward the Mongol troops. Zhu Yuanzhang’s Red Turbans surged behind Chang’s charge and routed the imperial army from their fort in the cliffs. Chang’s attack was so heroic that it is said you can still see his footprint in the boulders above the site of the landfall.
Such are the tall tales told of that fateful moment.
The Lunar New Year for 2021 starts Friday, Feb. 12. Up next in the cycle of the Chinese zodiac animals is the ox.
Since I have been writing fiction about the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty, an ox year brought to mind stories of how the founder started out as a cattle herder.
Collections of stories about Zhu Yuanzhang’s childhood often include a subversive one from his herd boy days. It comes in a few different forms, but always has the future emperor leading his fellow herd boys in eating one of the animals they are supposed to be protecting.
“What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing writing about the Ming founding?”
A California-based literary agent once asked me this after I proposed a novel about the story of the fourteenth-century Ming Dynasty founder, Zhu Yuanzhang.
How to reply?
I mentioned that I’m not actually Jewish, but I knew that was not the point of the question. The agent was trying to tell me that he thought it strange to hear the idea for such a book coming from someone who is not Chinese.
Structuring a novel is a murky process, but one moment stands out in my mind as key to both my novel, The Lacquered Talisman, and its cover, which was created by my son.
I was sitting on the floor of a bookstore in Boston, flipping through art books about China, when suddenly it hit me: What I needed for my main character was a talisman. And this talisman would be a seal chop. The Lacquered Talisman is about the Zhu family, whose youngest son founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. I needed a tangible item that could symbolize family for my protagonist. Thus the talisman. Continue reading →
Here’s a five-star review of my debut novel published August 12, 2020 on IndieReader.com, a website devoted to hybrid, small press, and self-published authors:
THE LACQUERED TALISMAN leads readers from the marriage of the first Ming Emperor’s parents, through his young life, and his years of devotion as a Buddhist monk, to the beginnings of the rebellion that would overturn a dynasty and set him on the throne of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
The Lacquered Talisman (300 pages, $19.99), a novel based on the life of Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, is now available as a paperback or e-book wherever books are sold. Try my page on Bookshop.org! (Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.) If you find my book at your favorite local bookstore – take a photo and send it to me!
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.
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 →