The Lacquered Talisman follows the story of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty.
Laurie Dennis has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and in Beijing, China, and she has traveled widely across China, including a research trip to Fengyang, Anhui Province, the birthplace of the founder of the Ming Dynasty. She currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and works on China programs for her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Lacquered Talisman is her first novel.
Where do the interest in the Chinese Ming Dynasty and the figure of Zhu Yuanzhang come from?
I have always enjoyed traditional Chinese stories, including the Water Margin, the Three Kingdoms, the Story of Yue Fei, and Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. I studied Chinese literature and history in college (Univ of Wisconsin-Madison). Then after a decade in community journalism, a family move offered me the luxury of time to embark on my lifelong ambition to write historical fiction. My husband, a Ming scholar, suggested I consider the Ming Dynasty as a good source of materials, so I turned to the story of the dynastic founder, Zhu Yuanzhang.
I discovered a tale of intrigue, tragedy, romance, conquest, zealotry and more – plus pirates and bandits! The more I researched Zhu Yuanzhang’s life, and especially his rise to power, the more I found the problems he encountered resonating with my own modern world. The coronavirus of this winter is a recent example of this – one focus of my book is on the destruction caused by the contagion of the 1340s: the plague, which tore apart families and contributed to the downfall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. I am surprised that this incredible life story is not better known outside of China. I am hoping that my book can play a small role in changing that.
The book manages to bring us back and immerse us in the atmosphere of 1300s China. How did you go about depicting and creating an engaging and convincing picture of this historical period? How long did it take you to make this volume?
I spent about 15 years working on this novel, including a research trip to northern Anhui Province, where Zhu Yuanzhang grew up, and where he buried his parents. The primary source for my story is an autobiographical essay by Zhu, which he had carved into stone and displayed near the south bank of the Huai River in Fengyang, a town he created. His essay is still standing there, admonishing the world. However, this essay, and many other excellent resources on the Ming founding, were not available in English, which meant that I needed to spend several years translating key materials and deciding how to use them. (I have posted my annotated translation of Zhu’s essay, the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming 大明皇陵之碑, as a free PDF on my blog.)
I was also able to participate in a major conference on Zhu Yuanzhang held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2006, and consult with scholars there on some of my questions, such as the meaning of Zhu Yuanzhang’s name and whether it was likely that he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. And of course, I constantly discuss Ming with my husband and his colleagues.
How is it possible that a son of a beancurd seller with a dramatic past may have become China’s emperor? What distinguished him from millions of other people of humble origins?
Those who first wrote about the founding would tell you that the portents all indicated Heaven’s choice of Zhu Yuanzhang as the anointed one to restore balance to a chaotic world. His birth was said to have been accompanied by miraculous perfumes and bright lights. Immortals appeared to proclaim the baby’s importance to his astonished parents.
Zhu Yuanzhang himself did not like unnecessary embellishments and he complained when he felt that Confucians were exaggerating his story. So I respected his wishes and did not include any fragrances or magic lights in my birth scene. The local historians I met in Fengyang told me that the upheaval Zhu Yuanzhang suffered as a young man tempered him for leadership. He was the youngest son in a large family until, when he was 15, he lost everyone he loved to disease and famine. That kind of experience either crushes or strengthens a person. It clearly strengthened Zhu Yuanzhang, but also fostered a deep compassion within him for the plight of China’s peasantry. He wrote that the suffering of his family left him with a filial desire to serve their memory by serving his country, and that his prayers to the gods indicated that he should seek righteous change.
What are the events in Zhu Yuanzhang’s life that have most impressed you?
My focus is on Zhu’s rise to power, which is a long and complicated story that is going to take me at least one more book to get through. In that context, I am continually impressed by Zhu Yuanzhang’s resilience, and his ability to navigate a perilous world. He survived smallpox, plague and famine – and that was just during the first two decades of his long life. He also had to decide when it was time to join the rebellions convulsing his region of China – and this proved one of the most difficult and dangerous decisions of his life.
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Did the White Lotus and the Red Turbans influence Zhu Yuanzhang? If so, how?
Zhu Yuanzhang spent his young adulthood as a Buddhist monk, including about three years of wandering the Huai River valley. He came to believe that the Yuan Dynasty had lost its mandate to rule. So in the spring of 1352, when he was 23, Zhu pledged his loyalty to Commander Guo Zixing of Dingyuan, the local leader of the Red Turban rebellion. Zhu served him until Guo’s death three years later. Interestingly, Zhu never described himself as a rebel. As with today, it’s all about the spin. Zhu later wrote that most of the warlords around him lacked humanity. Therefore, in his telling, Zhu eventually emerged as the only one able to rule with virtue.
As for the messianic Buddhist movements that proliferated at the end of the Yuan Dynasty, and may have drawn from “White Lotus” or other Buddhist teachings, Zhu Yuanzhang clearly encountered radical versions of these groups. He disparaged (and later outlawed) some of them as mercenary and abusive, for inciting violence and encouraging people to desert their families. But after Commander Guo died, Zhu accepted the post of deputy commander-in-chief under a messianic Buddhist leader known as the Little Prince of Light (小明王). As the late scholar Hok-lam Chan has explained, this was a key move that paved the way for Zhu’s emergence as an independent Red Turban leader.
Then there’s that dynastic name. The Ming. It’s a bright and luminous word for both Confucians and Buddhists, and it paid homage to the Prince of Light. What an interesting coincidence!
The end of the Yuan dynasty has been characterized by numerous internal wars, natural disasters, and famines. What are the characteristics in common, if any, among the fall of the Chinese dynasties over the course of the centuries?
I can really only speak to the Yuan, which experienced dramatic changes in the first half of the 1300s, including repeated and ruinous flooding of the Yellow River, and also outbreaks of plague and pestilence, all of which the people of that era no doubt took to be signs of heavenly disfavor.
What most interests me is the impetus for rising in rebellion in the first place, because this is a bold but likely suicidal move. What makes a person decide it has come to that point? What is the fuel an uprising needs to endure and transform into a movement? Han Shantong, the father of the Little Prince of Light, was killed within days of starting his rebellion, but his death was the spark that launched the Red Turbans. Zhu Yuanzhang would never have been known to history if his family hadn’t been wiped out when he was 15 and his temple burned down when he was 23. He was driven by desperation, but proved to have the skills and good luck (or he would say blessing of Heaven) to emerge on top of the Dragon Throne, founding a dynasty that lasted almost 300 years.
Are there still traces of Zhu Yuanzhang’s cultural influence in contemporary Chinese culture?
China’s maps continue to bear witness to the Ming founding. Zhu Yuanzhang created the city of Fengyang over the objections of his advisors, because he wanted to honor the place where his family raised him. He then forced thousands of coastal elites to relocate to his hinterland hometown, to make sure they understood his humble roots. The “Fengyang Flower Drum Song” ( 凤阳花鼓 ) pays tribute to this act, and is still performed today – it’s a catchy tune that is a broad criticism of Zhu’s rule. So the exiled elites had the last laugh with that one.
Also, the walls for Zhu’s dynastic capital can still be seen in today’s Nanjing, which he named “Answering Heaven,” as in “answering Heaven’s wish for Zhu Yuanzhang to be the emperor.” I enjoyed examining the inscribed bricks in a reconstructed wall section during one of my recent visits to that city. It was one of Zhu’s sons, the usurper Zhu Di, who moved the capital to Beijing, where it remains.
Mao Zedong was inspired by Zhu Yuanzhang’s peasant class background, and Zhu’s story has inspired TV shows and operas that continue to be screened and performed today. His legacy is complicated, but the Ming founder is unquestionable to be counted among the most powerful of all China’s emperors.