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yongle

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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Cronus

In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream.  Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem.  Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.

Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros.  Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones.  Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle.  He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces.  Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus.  Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans,  Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.

Cronus devours one of his offspring (Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, oil on canvas)

Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children.  Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole.  The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea.  Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child.  Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser.  The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning.  Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus.  Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus).  This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious.  Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment).  Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.

The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans (Joachim Wtewael, 1600)

Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….

What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die.  In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings.  Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet  Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx.  In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.

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