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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.

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

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.

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

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).

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death.   The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep).  Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being.  He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child.  Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch.  Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase,  Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase, Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood.  The Keres represented violent senseless death.  They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities.  The Keres were associated with  the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it.  Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments.  When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood.  Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
(verses 248-257)

Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind.  The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat.  The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure kraterca. 4th century B.C.)

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure krater
ca. 4th century B.C.)

The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon.  Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition.  Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed.  However they were a part of classical thought.  It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld.  The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.keres

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut.  For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.

How do we keep ending up here?

As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone).  The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities.  As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.

Qin-Guang-Wang

The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu.  Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity.  Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood.  This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail.  Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination.  In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise.  A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.

Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception.  According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless.  The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.


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