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Today is International Women’s Day, although, to my mind, one unofficial holiday in the doldrums of March doesn’t really capture the contributions of, oh, let’s see, more than half of humankind (and the good half, by-in-large). Anyway, Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the event with “Princess Week”, a week of musing on gender, politics, power, and roles. Instead of featuring some made-up princesses invented to sell toys or strange movies, today’s post tells the story of a particularly magnificent real princess, Princess Zhao of Pingyang.
Zhao was the daughter of Li Yuan the hereditary Duke of Tang during the Sui Dynasty–a politically weak and troubled dynasty which lasted from 581 to 618, when it was supplanted by the glorious, uh, Tang dynasty (I am maybe giving some things away). Zhao was was Li’s third daughter, but, his other daughters were the children of concubines, whereas she was the only daughter of his wife Duchess Dou (who gave birth to Li’s heirs, Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin, Li Xuanba, and Li Yuanji whose fratricidal conflict is one of the great stories of Chinese history). Zhao was fully as cunning and martial as her brothers, which is saying something since one of her brothers was Li Shimin (one of the preeminent figures of world history–arguably the most capable Chinese Emperor).
Zhao and her husband were living in the capital Chang’an when the Duke (who had been at loggerheads with the Sui Emperor) sent secret word that he planned to rebel. Zhao’s husband slipped out of the city, but Zhao stayed behind long enough to sell her estate. She used the money to enlist an army of rebels. She then persuaded the famous rebel farmer He Panren to join her. As she conquered cities adjacent to Chang-an, other great bandits and rebel leaders bent their knee to her and became captains in “The Army of the Lady” which swelled up to a force of 70,000 soldiers as the civil war entered its definitive phase. Peasants rushed out to offer food and supplies to Zhao’s army which was famous for its discipline (and for the fact that its soldiers did not pillage the lands they took or rape their captives).
She defeated an army of the Emperor’s men and finally joined Li Shimin’s army as one of his co-generals. When li Shimin’s stratagems won the war, Zhao’s father became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and she was elevated to the rank of Princess.
Unfortunately Zhao died only two years after the dynasty was founded at the age of 23. She did not see the Tang Dynasty grow to become the most powerful empire on Earth during the 7th century (although she also missed seeing her brothers kill each other). When she died she was given a great general’s honors, and over the centuries her legend has taken on a life of its own in China and beyond.
Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China. This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions). The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one. I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb. The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.
I hope you enjoyed the thrilling rise of the Hongwu Emperor as related in yesterday’s post. In accordance with the wishes of the editors who commissioned it, I left out the truly important parts—namely, how the Hongwu Emperor organized the Ming dynasty around Confucianist precepts, cunning agrarian reform, and above all—naked absolutism. I also left out the terrible end of Zhu Yuanzhe’s story arc: for the skills and guile which allowed the Hongwu Emperor to seize absolute power had a terrible shadow side. As an old man, he was seized by dreadful paranoia and employed vast armies of secret police, informers, and torturers to root out the imaginary plots which flowered on all sides of him. Hongwu killed hundreds of thousands of people by means of the most inventive and horrible tortures. Despite his astonishing feats, and despite the prosperity he brought to China, his name is permanently blackened by the depths of his cruelty (although Mao admired him).
It almost makes you wonder if leaders aren’t inherently flawed somehow: as though there is some fundamental problem with putting self-interested individuals in charge of our collective destiny.
But today’s post is not about leadership; it is about beautiful & delicate Chinese porcelain! It would be unthinkable to have a Ming Week which didn’t feature a fine Ming vase. Here is a Ming dynasty vessel from the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). The Jiajing emperor was a weakling and a fool who devoutly believed in all sorts of portent, rituals, astrology, and mystical claptrap. His courtiers and eunuchs used this to control him while they robbed the Empire to the brink of disaster. Infrastructure was neglected. Crooked courtiers ground the peasants down into crippling destitution. The social fabric unwound.
But what did the rich and powerful care when they lived in an era of such luxury? Porcelain of the Jiajing reign is particularly whimsical and otherworldly. This vase shows the “three friends” pine, bamboo, and plum growing together as emblems of wealth, happiness, and longevity. Each plant is twisted into an otherworldly logogram–a “shou” symbol. Here the plum blossoms forth out of a splendid stylized rock covered in lichen.
Look at the decorative elements! The waves, the scrolls, and the mystical vegetation which surround the three central plants all began as naturalistic forms—but by the time of the Jiajing era they have been transmuted into ethereal blue beauty. And yet the original forms are still there as well. It is hard to describe what gives this little ovoid vase its winsome charm, but the aesthetic effect is undeniable.
In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms. Plague stalked the starving masses. Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family. He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave. It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.
With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly. As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive. When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life. Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.
It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere. Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.
These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed. Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”. In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.
Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.
Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple. At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.
One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him. Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels. While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune, Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general. Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.
Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers. Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.
Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west. Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake. Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).
By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368. Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history. The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened? As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.
The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking
“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)
The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD. This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud). Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors). However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.
I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible. Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors. However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people). It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.
Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)
All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras. This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time. Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things. This week is going to be great!
Nobody makes more beautiful ceramics and porcelains than the Chinese. They are the best at it, and they have been practically forever (or at least for the last 3000 years). The Chinese were also among the first people to domesticate geese, those lovely, useful (and all-too-sadly delicious) fowl with big personalities. It follows then, that nobody has made a more beautiful ceramic goose vessel than the Chinese…and here is the proof–a magnificent gooseware vessel from the Tang dynasty, a vast empire which from 618 AD to 9017 AD spanned the Chinese coast and stretched deep along the Silk Road into central Asia. I am just kidding about gooseware…this vessel is properly called a Tang earthenware vessel with Sancai (three-color) glaze, however I am not kidding about the vast scope of the Tang dynasty, nor about the unfading splendor of this artwork. Look at the expression on the goose—a sanguine curiosity tinged with hunger. Look too at the beautiful expressionism of the transparent brown blue and yellow glaze, which straddles a fine line between pure abstraction and the natural color of a Medieval Chinese goose popping out of an algae-streaked mudhole.
Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a checkered history with ancient goose art. We have been known to sometimes get suckered by beautiful forgeries and charismatic forgers, so you will have to look at this piece carefully assay its merit on your own!
Happy Chinese New Year! Last year was the reptilian year of the snake, but this year things get all mammalian again—and what a magnificent mammal! Lunar Year 4711 is the year of the horse!
Ferrebeekeeper has shied away from writing about horses because the majestic animals have played such an important role in military and economic history (also I don’t want a bunch of patricians shouting at me about the finer details of fetlocks and snaffle bits), but, since it is now the year of the horse, I would be remiss not to post some equine highlights from those 4711 years of Chinese culture. Horses were (probably) domesticated in next door Kazakhstan about five thousand years ago, and they have had an unparalleled position in Chinese culture. Not only is Chinese mythology replete with horses, throughout the entire history of the Han people, the great perissodactyls have been pivotal as labor, military mounts, transportation, pets, status symbols, and food.
There are numerous artistic masterpieces which celebrate this long alliance of man and mount. From ancient Zhou bronzeware vessels, to terracotta tombware from the Han dynasty, to deft Sung dynasty brush paintings, to elaborate Quing jade carvings. However I have chosen to celebrate the year of the horse with a gallery of earthenware porcelain statues from the far-flung Tang Empire (which stretched farthest towards what is now Kazakhstan, the original home of domesticated horses). The Tang was an overland dynasty which looked west along the Silk Road for trade ties, artistic inspiration, and conquest. It was an era of cavalry patrols, mounted merchants, and riders of all sorts.
The Tang dynasty was also an era when porcelain glazes grew in color, depth, and complexity—yet the calligraphic exactitude of Ming glazes was still unknown. These sculptures each seem like a perfect depiction of a proud horse simultaneously coupled with an abstract painting of brown, yellow, orange, and green. What could be a better metaphor for a new year?
Hopefully you will enjoy these images as you go about your New Year’s celebrations! Start a cultural dialogue with the local constabulary by lighting off some red fireworks! Enjoy “Buddha’s Delight” (a traditional New Year’s Dish made of black algae). Pack some decorative red envelopes full of cash and give them to your loved ones (or your favorite eclectic blogger!). But as you go about your new year celebrations keep the horse in mind (and spare a few moments of thought for the matchless artisans of the Tang Dynasty as well).
In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral. In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway). Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system. The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.
Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life). His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers). After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe. Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams). He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.
For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium. He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus. Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother. Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi. In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity). Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion. He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.
In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets. The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury. Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere. The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China. Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas. Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers. In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late. The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander. The rebellion had begun in earnest: on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”. He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.
The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history. At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects. As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted. Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.
The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration. He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines). For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers). Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.
Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision). Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley. Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history. By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.
Quail are mid-sized members of the Galliformes (the gamebirds) which live around the world, usually staying close to the ground where they hide among the undergrowth and peck out a living eating small invertebrates, seeds, and berries. Multiple species of the quail genus Coturnix live in China, where they have long been a favorite of hunters, poultry farmers, gamblers, and, of course, artists. Quail were associated with autumn and they form the centerpiece of several lovely scrolls and small compositions about the plants and flowers of fall. The birds also are utilized as a symbol of bravery (since a certain element of Chinese society fought male quail in battles reminiscent of cockfights and bet on the winner). The painting at the top of this post also utilizes the quail as a symbol, albeit in a way which is extremely obscure to non-Chinese speakers. The Chinese phrase for 5 quail is “wu anchun”–and the first two syllables “wu an” are a homonym for “no peace” (in China, a land which frequently knows censorship, homonyms are an indirect way of making political of social comments). The painting above was thus a plangent comment on the fall of the Sung dynasty in the mid-13th century (which felt like a dark autumn to the Chinese literati). Fortunately the following quail paintings are not quite so somber in tone, but convey instead the beauties of autumn or the simple delight the artists took in the endearing rounded form of the wild quail.
Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations. The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time. Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world. However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections. He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy. The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.
The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown. It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain). The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.
The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla. The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight. Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!