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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

Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras.  Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today.  It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks.  However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.

Duckling (Artist Unknown, Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Duckling (Artist Unknown, Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD.  As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident.  The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.

Waterfowl (Chen Lin, Yuan dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Waterfowl (Chen Lin, Yuan dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation.  Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism.  Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look.  His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.

Just Like Mum (Danny Han-Lin Chen, Contemporary)

Just Like Mum (Danny Han-Lin Chen, Contemporary)

Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting.  Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes.   The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail.  Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.

Yesterday’s post concerning the Yuan dynasty was in preparation for today’s post about Yuan dynasty porcelain.  The blue and white cobalt porcelain which has become famously emblematic of Chinese ceramics (to such an extent that “China” became the name of the country and the product in England) was first manufactured in the Middle Kingdom during the Yuan dynasty. The blue and white vases and plates from the Yuan dynasty are more robust and bold then the famous Ming blue and white ware which succeeded them, but the lovely pure aestheticism of great Chinese porcelain is fully there.  The best pieces feature a lovely syncretism of cultural motifs and forms which come together around a central symbol.

Yuan Blue and White "Fish" jar sold by Chistie's (12¼ in. (31 cm.) high; 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.) diam.)

My favorite works of Yuan porcelain are those with aquatic themes like this lovely rare fish jar from the middle of the fourteenth century.  On the vase, four intricately painted fish swim gracefully through water poppy, duck weed, water clover, eel grass, and hornwort.  The neck features waves lapping above a peony border while the base shows flaming pearls.  With unerring skill the master painter who made this jar has noted the details of the natural world.  The fish seem alive.  Their expressions reflect the different personalities of the different species. To explain the complicated symbolic/poetic wordplay which underlies this vase (and many of the images featured in classic Chinese art) I will rely on the Christie’s auction website, where the vase was described prior to sale:

The fish on the current jar provide a…complex rebus, since they appear to be qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus); (hongqi) bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythropterus); lian silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix); and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi). The names of these fish combine to provide rebuses which suggest either qing bai lian gui ‘of good descent, modest and honourable’ or qingbai lianjie ‘of honourable descent and incorruptible’.

Plate, mid-14th century China: Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Diam. 18 in.)

A fish, in this case a sea perch, is also the subject of this magnificent plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The perch gapes open his mouth to leer at visitors from a bed of eelgrass.  Around the central scene is a particularly vivid cavetto of lotus blossoms.  Archaeological discoveries indicate that the plate was manufactured at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province.  Fish were a popular motif of Yuan porcelain because of a well-known Taoist maxim which compared people who had found their place in the flux of Tao to fish perfectly suited to living in their watery realm.  The Han literati of the Yuan era had been displaced by Mongol elite and they frequently yearned for a more serene and central place in their world, an attitude quietly reflected by splendid aquatic porcelain.

Guan jar: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

The final jar (also made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi during the mid fourteenth century) shows not a fish but a vigorous fish-eating duck.  His feathers are standing up in a fierce crest and he has a wild look in his eye.  A pair of mandarin ducks is the ancient Chinese symbol for love, trust, and happiness in marriage–however this is not a pair of mandarin ducks but a carnivorous merganser hunting alone among the water weeds (although it seems there might be another one on the other side of the jar).   It’s hard not to wonder whether this unusual duck unconsciously represents the Han’s unhappiness in their marriage to their fierce Mongol overlords.

1300 AD: The Age of the Mongols (Thomas Lessman--Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

The Yuan Dynasty (1271 AD to 1368 AD) was the era during which the Mongols ruled China.  Although the dynasty lasted less than a hundred years, it was a time of substantial prosperity and innovation which witnessed the reunification of China (divided under the Song and then the Southern Song dynasties) and the movement of the capital to Dadu (now known as Beijing).  The largest city on earth during that time was Hangzhou, with a population between four hundred thousand and a million souls (it is not easy to figure out the population of ancient Chinese cities!)

Kublai Khan by Liu Kuan-Tao (Yuan Dynasty, ca. 1280 AD)

Unlike his predecessors who were primarily interested in tribute and plunder, the Mongol war chief Kublai Khan sought to govern his conquests through traditional institutions.  After defeating his brother in a civil war, Kublai Khan crushed the last great army of the Southern Song dynasty and assumed control of China.  Kublai Khan recognized that in order to rule China he needed to employ Han bureaucrats and adopt Chinese customs.  He adapted the style and manner of a Chinese emperor and initiated a dynasty during which the Mongol elites became progressively more sinicized.

A Mongol Mounted Archer as Painted by A Yuan Dynasty Artist

At least initially, the Yuan era saw a greater interconnectedness between China and the world beyond its borders.  Trade flourished across the silk routes of central Asia.  Military incursions and trade ties brought South East Asia closer to China. Chinese technologies spread out through the world (this is the era when gunpowder and the compass spread to Europe).

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