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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

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

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