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Flounder Rover

In my art career I have been on an enormous flatfish binge. People have asked me what on earth this means, but unfortunately, it is hard to write about one’s own art. Therefore I am “crowd sourcing” my artist’s statement to the smartest and most sympathetic crowd I can find. Please, please let me know how you think I could phrase this better (and enjoy the fish!).
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Asymmetry betokens a lack of equality or balance between the parts or aspects of a greater whole. Outwardly, the most asymmetric vertebrates are the flatfish, an order of carnivorous marine fish which are extensively fished for food and sport. In his art, Wayne Ferrebee adopts the flounder as a symbolic proxy to explore the growing asymmetry between the natural world and artifical manmade ecosystems. Simultaneously a lurking predator and a hapless victim of fishermen’s guile (and the shark’s ravenous gullet) the flounder is a tragicomic google-eyed mirror for humankind’s march towards ascendancy and disaster.

With a background in biology, history, toymaking and painting, Ferrebee utlilizes symbols and narratives to contextualize the role which organisms have in the context of larger life cycles. Thus a wheeled toy flatfish with a rotating musical painting becomes an oracular mirror for to seeing into the near future. A pleasure garden of glowing sphinxes, topiary, and musicians is revealed to be a disguised fish monster, waiting for the unwary aesthete. Beasts of the watery realm join with mythological beings from antiquity to show how our cherished aspirations contain poisonous hooks. Each of us thinks we are a heroic individual, yet we are also a tiny part of a billion-headed hydra. So too each artwork of dynamically intertwined symbols glows with hidden meaning. By represents the cycles within life, history, and paleontology, Ferrebee highlights patterns of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the perspective of a single lifetime.

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We are coming up on the Fourth of July, our national holiday here in America when we all get together to celebrate being American. Mostly we celebrate by blowing things up, eating fattening food, and getting drunk—but whatever…we are after all American and those activities suit our national character. Yet lately there are real troubles in the USA: everyone is always fighting with everyone else over everything. The rich and the poor apparently regard each other as separate species (most unwisely in my humble opinion, since those states, seemingly so infinitely distant are not nearly so far apart as one might suppose). Ethnic and racial groups are sorting apart and clustering together even as like-minded individuals enter into their own echo chambers on the web. Drivers hate pedestrians. Dog owners and cat owners tsk at each other (although both sorts of animals are lovely pets). And beyond everything else there is the yawning chasm down the middle—the chasm between blue and red. This widening political gulf between left and right is paralyzing our nation and leaving us all poorer—both financially and in terms of experience, friendship, and opportunities. I have been disquieted by America’s growing animosity and fractiousness and I really hope you share my unhappiness. This is bad.

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What is going to happen when the latest economic bubble breaks and all of these divisions are thrown into sharp contrast as the money all sluices off to wherever it goes? I am a West Virginian who grew up In southern Ohio, Mainline Philadelphia, and Virginia. I went to college in South Chicago. I have seen red and blue America and they aren’t even that different! I feel like this tribal nastiness is being manufactured just so a bunch of narcissistic freaks can cling to power.
We are going to talk more about how to deal with this in later posts. If our country was united we could solve all of these logistical, moral, and fiscal problems which bedevil us in short order and resume building a future of beauty, meaning, and wonder. We will get there, but to celebrate the Fourth, let’s flee into a starkly different political climate: the past.
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For the 4th of July I decided to peak back through the history of my congressional district, which today is arguably the most diverse in the United States (consisting of unimaginably rich burgher-paradise of Park Slope, the inner city ‘hoods of Brownsville, the vast orthodox Jewish enclaves of Midwood, and the Russian and Central Asian immigrant districts of Sheepshead Bay).
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The history of the 9th Congressional District of New York was hilarious and remarkable. This congressional district has changed shape, color, and composition again and again like a cuttlefish at a rave. It has been redistricted and torn apart and pasted into so many different coalitions and coteries.
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Although it has mostly been a Democratic stronghold (with some congressmen and women who became famous (or infamous)—like Chuck Schumer, Geraldine Ferraro, and Anthony Weiner), there have been a fair number of Republicans representing the 9th District too. However, if you go back far enough there were other affiliations as well: Federalists, Whigs, and more than one candidate who were simply Anti-Jacksonian or “Opposition”. All the first representatives had Dutch names!
Portrait Of Joseph Pulitzer
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The famous journalist Joseph Pulitzer was a congressman of the ninth district so was Thomas Bradley, a Tammany-era lawyer who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 31. There were remarkable beards and moustaches aplenty: there were weirdoes and heroes and forgettable placeholders. The only constant was change.
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We Americans aren’t just different in different regions: we change a lot not over time. If you are unhappy now, keep your chin up and keep lobbying to keep the democracy fair, civil, educated, and unbiased. Affairs will work out in the end so long as we remain democratic and bound by fair rules. History keep changing faster than you might think and mostly for the better. That trend will resume and we can start being the UNITED States of America again. We can build bridges instead of walls and canyons (which suits Brooklyn better anyway). Happy Fourth of July!
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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).
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Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.
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On this day, March 22nd in 1871, William Woods Holden was the first governor in the United States to be impeached and removed from office.  His story is a reminder of what happens when pure partisan rancor becomes the norm in unhappy eras of American politics.

Before the American Civil War, Holden was a newspaper publisher who tried (unsuccessfully) to steer North Carolina on a Whiggish course towards peace.  Additionally, he politically opposed the Confederate government during the war, and so, after the rebellion was finally crushed, Andrew Johnson appointed William Woods Holden as provisional governor of North Carolina.  He lost the special gubernatorial election of 1865, but was returned to power at the head of the Republican ticket in 1868. Unlike other southern governors, Holden instituted aggressive policies to curtail the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870 he called out the state militia to crack down on the Klan which had assassinated a republican state legislator and lynched a black policeman.  The governor declared martial law in two counties and temporarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus for certain suspected Klan members.

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This upheaval became known as the Kirk-Holden war and it resulted in a severe political backlash during November of 1870 (1870 was an election year).  The North Carolina election that year was marred by vote tampering, voter suppression, and outright violence, and the Republicans lost their legislative majority (back in those days, the Democrats were the party of bigotry, intolerance, oppression, and cruelty).

After the election, William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office in in a vote which hewed exactly to party lines.  The Democrats took full control of North Carolina and moved the state away from the Reconstruction-era civil rights reforms championed by Holden (who went into self-exile in Washington DC, where he again worked on a newspaper).  However, history is a long, strange affair and William Woods Holden was fully pardoned and exonerated by unanimous vote of the North Carolina state legislature…in 2011.

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When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire.  It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations.  We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III.  The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.

Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment.  It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous).  Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:

Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.  

It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).

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Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone.  This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it.  His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans.  To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are.  What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses.  Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.

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I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype.  In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is.  In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google.  Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217.  By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?).  It already doesn’t make sense!

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As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”.  Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle.  Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention.  The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble.  And where does that leave us?

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I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

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The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

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There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

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Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834

One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor.   Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina.  When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil.   Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America.  The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft).  When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.

In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon.  The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself.  This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822.  On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.   By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.

Independence_of_Brazil_1888Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822

Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations.  First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast.  Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.

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Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2).  When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II.  Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II.  He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.

Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was.  In an age of bondage, he despised slavery.  Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves.  He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.

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He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege.  When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”

After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.

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*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate.  It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.

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Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

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The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

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“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.

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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.

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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!

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