In the middle of the 14th century China was convulsed with famine, plagues, drought, and peasant revolts. The central government was made up of Mongol outsiders who were both unable and unwilling to do much about the horrors going on throughout the vast land. Into this maelstrom stepped a penniless apprentice monk, Zhu Yuanzhang. Within 16 years he made the most remarkable personal ascension in human history, rising by his own hand from beggar to officer, to warlord, to prince, to Emperor of all China. He threw the Mongols from the country and founded the Ming Dynasty, arguably China’s greatest. Zhu Yuanzhang took the reign name of Hongwu. He is one of history’s most perplexing and divisive figures. Indeed I have personally had great trouble with the Hongwu Emperor, which I will recount later on—I have a story which is about this guy…and about my writing and about our time.
But that is for later. This is Halloween week—and our horrifying theme is flaying! Zhu Yuanzhang’s story of rising to the throne is a Disney style tale. But alas it does not end with his coronation. When Hongwu had crushed every rival and consolidated the land under his rule, some bad things started to happen. After defeating every real enemy, the Hongwu emperor started to see enemies who weren’t actually there among the ranks of his loyal friends and subjects. He had started life as an illiterate peasant and he imagined that the scholars were laughing at him. He had known terrible privation and so he thought his ministers were stealing from him. The Hongwu emperor believed that every person should be an extension of his will, and he saw people doing things he did not care for and acting in ways which were off-putting or alarming to him. He fell into the habit of micromanaging—a terrible fault for a manager. He also fell into the habit of killing everyone around him and purging their families and retainers from existence (although my management handbook doesn’t actually list this as a leadership flaw—which tells you something about the problems inherent in human understanding of hierarchy).
The Hongwu emperor purged his oldest friends. He purged his concubines. He purged monks and scholars. He purged merchants and financiers. He killed lords and commoners, farmers and fighters. Fortunately he was a very gifted micromanager and he managed to make credible agricultural reforms and administer China largely on his own, but there were times when the business of China bogged down because every miniscule decision had to be reviewed by the emperor (and it is better if we don’t talk about his currency reform). There was also a steep human toll, which became ever more dreadful as the emperor began to devise cruel new ways to kill people for imagined slights. It was almost as though he wanted to punish them for having their own will.
Hongwu was greatly concerned with propriety and morality. He started to feel that the 5000 serving girls of the Imperial palace were behaving improperly with outsiders so he had them all flayed to death. He then had their skins stuffed with straw, and put on display as a morality lesson (the eunuch gatekeepers of the palace met the same fate). Chinese scholars argue about this story, which was related by Yu Ben, an officer of Hongwu’s bodyguard who later penned a primary source account of what he had seen, but they reluctantly concede that Yu seems reliable.
Hongwu was able to get away with such acts because the Mongols had largely done away with any aristocracy who could oppose him (and Hongwu himself did away with his other competitors during the civil war…and then with his pogroms). Additionally his reforms were successful: China became a better place to live in the late 14th century (although maybe not if you were too close to the court). Yet this dark murderous madness left long shadows over Chinese history. The Ming dynasty was probably the most autocratic of China’s dynasties (which is really saying something) and it consolidated a troubling new extreme of concentrating absolute power in the sole hands of the emperor. This remains part of Chinese culture: the Hongwu emperor was a great hero of Mao’s. In China, you don’t even have the skin you live in, it belongs to the supreme human authority. Indeed, this may always be the case everywhere. If some angry kingpriest, paranoid emperor, or tyrranical god comes along, a human skin is weak armor against their whims.
Dangit, this is not as fun as writing about the undead–who are, after all, fictional–although it certainly is interesting and thought-provoking in its own way. But stay with me, there is a reason I chose this topic–a myth I have become fascinated by. Also I promised a special treat on Saturday! Additionally I promise it is not as dark and horrifying as Chinese history (although, admittedly, there isn’t much which is so troubling).