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 →
Or, as this phrase would have been chiseled into an actual stone stele in 1300s China: aintnopunctuationbaby
For English speakers new to classical Chinese, it is most disconcerting to realize that the original texts contained no punctuation. How is that possible?! How did readers in the Ming Dynasty know when to pause, when to stop thoughts completely, when to ask questions??? Continue reading →
(In this 3rd section of the Huangling Bei 皇陵碑, Zhu Yuanzhang and his only surviving sibling must decide how to survive the drought and plague deaths. Click here to see the previous section. Also – click on any line number to see complete annotations of each section.)
Line 21: 兄弟異路,哀動遙蒼. Elder and younger, we took separate paths, with even distant Heaven moved by our sorrow.
Line 21:With even distant Heaven moved by our sorrow 哀動遙蒼.The verb “to move 動” here indicates a moving of the sentiments. 遙蒼 is literally the distant green, but the 蒼 here is “蒼天,” which means not just a blue-green sky, but “Heaven” in an anthropomorphic sense. This phrase contrasts with Line 20, which featured a merciless sun glittering over the earth, thus in this line further emphasizing the piteousness of the two brothers.Continue reading →
Line 11:The path before us was fraught with suffering and worries家道惶惶. The Chinese text says, literally, “family path alarmed.” The double character phrase 惶惶 has the sense of “a state of anxiety” and fear, and the repetitious sound in Chinese heightens this meaning in a way that can’t be translated. Continue reading →
(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 →
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 →