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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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Ming week was last week, and, even though there is so much more to say about the Ming Dynasty, I need to wrap up and move on to other topics. Today’s visual post will have to serve as an epilogue.  Here is an epic panoramic painting of the Jiajing Emperor traveling to the Ming Dynasty Tombs with a huge cavalry escort and an elephant-drawn carriage.  The work was completed at some point during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) but I haven’t been able to pinpoint the date any better than that (it is such a huge painting, that maybe it took the whole forty years to make).  You should really click on the painting above.  It shows up as a little mummy-colored hyphen only because WordPress and I are so computer illiterate.  If you click on it, it is actually a 26 meter (85 ft) long epic scroll showing the enormous imperial entourage progressing towards the beautiful and spooky necropolis of the Ming Emperors.  What could be a more appropriate postscript to the pomp and dark absolutist majesty of that erstwhile time?

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Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”).  Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty.  Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.”  I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).

This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials.  These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches).  The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.

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There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.”  Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:

Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague.  At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.

Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake.  He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).

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In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back.  With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep.  Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.

Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor.  Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh).  It is one of the best lead-ins ever.  A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.

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The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong,  Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong.  Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances.  There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…

Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book.  In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad.  Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).

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I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death).  I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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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).

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period,  Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province,  Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

It’s been a while since we had any posts about how beautiful trees are. Therefore here are two Ming Dynasty bowls which feature tree art. The first bowl above is rather large and dates back to the reign of the Jiajing emperor (which lasted from 1521 AD to 1567 AD). The Jiajing emperor was a noted loon who believed absolutely in magical portents and auspicious signs—which in turn made him a pawn to corrupt court officials who used the monarch’s credulity as an opportunity to steal and/or ruin everything. However the emperor’s obsession with magic meant that Jiajing-era porcelain was marked by a beautiful sense of occult whimsy and Taoist fantasy. This bowl shows four different potted plants: a cypress, a pine, a peach, and a bamboo which are growing in a beautiful garden filled with butterflies, cicadas, and dragonflies. The plants are shaped in the form of four different auspicious words fu, shou, kang, and ning (happiness, long life, health, and composure).

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

The second bowl is smaller and arguably finer. It also shows a garden scene bounded beneath by two ornamental borders of extreme elegance and beauty. A dwarf flower tree is bursting into blossom among spring foliage (the opposite side of the bowl shows a bamboo grove). Inside the bowl is a beautiful miniature garden of rocks, bamboo, and flowering trees. The tiny bowl was manufactured during the Chenghua reign (from between 1464 AD and 1487 AD) which was a troubled era of court intrigues and palace murders (which took place at the orders of the villainous concubine, Lady Wan). This little bowl, however, is exquisite and seems to have escaped the shadows of its era. For half a millennium the tiny perfect Ming garden has been blooming in delicate shades of cobalt glaze.

Detail

Detail

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