When I read the back cover of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, I wondered what bait Zhu Di and his predecessors used to lure the populace of China into servitude. By page 58, I had my answer – a giraffe. It was an ordinary giraffe with an extraordinary lie woven around it to knit it to the ancient past and set up as a ‘sure sign’ that the gods favoured yet another self-proclaimed Son of Heaven.
Since at least 2100 BC and the Xia Dynasty, Heaven, or Shangdi – the supreme sky deity, was a religious notion. By about 1036 BC, the Duke of Zhou had introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to counteract the Shang clan claims to dynastic rights. They considered themselves descendents of Shangdi. The Duke of Zhou, using the Mandate of Heaven to elaborate his reasoning, insisted that the Shang rights had been revoked, because of their dishonourable conduct.
The Mandate of Heaven was first used by the Zhou Dynasty to justify its overthrow of the Shang Dynasty and would be used by many succeeding dynasties in the same way.
— Mandate of Heaven, Wikipedia
The Zhou family may have led the way, as far as feigning divine appointment is concerned. Known ancestrally as Ji, the Zhou shared blood ties with the Yellow Emperor through the Central Plains people. The Yellow Emperor, also known as Huangdi, was the ancestor of the Han Chinese and founder of Chinese civilization, although Fu Xi and sister-wife, Nuwa, are credited with populating the region after a flood between 2952 and 2836 BC. Huangdi reigned from about 2696 to 2598 BC. As his legend indicates, he was a deity, transformed into a human. Yet, he does have a mundane genealogy recorded too. By some accounts, his parents were Shaodian and Fu Pao, his grandfather was Lord Youxiong and his brother was Yandi, the Yan Emperor and possibly referred to as Shannong. By other accounts, Shaodian was merely the stepfather of both emperors. This association was likely invented to preserved the divine origin of the emperors, who are considered, along with Fu Xi, to be the Three Sovereigns.
The Shang clan wrestled title from Jie of the Xia Dynasty in 1600 BC in the Battle of Mingtiao and held it until 1046 BC, just about the time the Duke of Zhou introduced the Mandate of Heaven. The Battle of Muye ended the Shang Dynasty, which was replaced by the Zhou Dynasty, of course. The Zhou Dynasty maintained power until 256 BC. The Qin Dynasty rose to unite the feudal states and ruled from 221 to 206 BC. The Han Dynasty took over until 220 CE, when the region was divided among 3 kingdoms and so on was the territory in continual turmoil, torn and transferred from 1 acquisitive chieftain to another until we come to the time of Zhu Di. His story is interesting. The territory had been under Mongol control of the Yuan Dynasty between 1271 and 1368, led by Tamerlane. The Mongols had been oppressing the Hans, let the irrigation projects deteriorate and invited a flood of the Yellow River.
Zhu Di’s father, Zhu Yuanzhang was a Buddhist monk of the poor peasantry. He joined the Red Turbans in 1352 and led the rebel force to capture the city of Nanjing in 1356. In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang claimed the Mandate of Heaven, seized power from the Mongols and the rival Han groups that had collected in revolt against the exploitations of the inept Mongol rulers and named his sons feudal princes. The Ming Dynasty, under Zhu Yuanzhang, self-titled ‘Hong Wu’, meaning ‘vastly marshal’ was intent upon exterminating the Mongol threats. All adult militants were butchered and the boys that had not yet reached puberty were castrated, having penises and testicles severed. Many didn’t survive the procedure. Those eunuchs that did were conscripted to military duty, kept as servants and harem guards or ordered to spy on Rome, Greece, Africa and Asia.
Although Zhu Di was the eldest surviving son of the emporer, Zhu Yuanzhang, the throne was passed to Zhu Yuanzhang’s grandson and Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen. Being passed over may have simply been a requirement of custom. Zhu Yunwen was the eldest son of the eldest son and thus, technically he was heir-apparent. The independence that Zhu Yuanzhang granted Zhu Di might suggest great trust. He was sent far north to the Mongol frontier at a young age to rule as Prince of Yan in Beijing. Was it trust that made Zhu Yuanzhang send a tender boy to govern a dangerous territory, or was it a lack of love? When Zhu Yuanzhang married Zhu Di’s mother, a princess, no mention was made that she was already pregnant with Zhu Di. Suspected of being sired by a Mongol, Zhu Yuanzhang might have been reluctant to consider Zhu Di as an heir apparent.
Zhu Di may have resented being passed up as the next emperor. Certainly, the relationship he had with his nephew was cold and typically feudal. In the summer of 1399, when Zhu Yunwen was the new, young Jianwen Emperor, he sent assassins north to Beijing to kill Zhu Di, who avoided extermination by abandoning the palace life and remaining incognito, sleeping in gutters and pretending to be a madman. Eventually, Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, subverted Mongol threats and those arising from his nephew, Zhu Yunwen and the Ming general, Lan Yu. During his reign between 17 July 1402 and 12 August 1424 , Zhu Di built the Forbidden City at Beijing and the Porcelain Tower at Nanjing. When he met with difficulty feeding the hundreds of thousands of workers employed to develop Beijing, Zhu Di set 300,000 workers to the task of dredging and reconstructing the Grand Canal, which was originally started in 486 BC under the Wu Dynasty. With 1800 km of waterway linking north and south China, the Grand Canal was surely an engineering feat. However, nearly 3 million labourers died on the project.
In addition to civil developments, Zhu Di assigned his faithful eunuch, Zheng He as admiral to head a remarkable navel project that included merchant ships, grain barges, store ships, and the fabulous ‘Treasure Ships’, so named because they were seafaring vessels intended to sail to far off lands on trading expeditions. The Treasure Ships boasted 9 masts, 12 red silk sails and measured over 400 feet in length. There were about 317 ships in Zheng He’s fleet. Perhaps 4 were of the massive Treasure Ship design.
As illustrious as all these projects were, they were also expensive and beyond the capacity of the empire to manage without taxing the well being of the entire population and damaging the environment. With food being redirected to Beijing works, people in other territories went hungry and struggled through famine. The timber used is estimated to have strip millions of acres of forest. Even Annam and Vietnam were denuded. Unrest and uprising soon took root against Chinese rule. The Mandarin bureaucrats, tiring of the complaints of commoners and reluctant to raise taxes on an already overtaxed population, resisted the emperor through delay tactics that set the projects back and bought a little time for revenue generation.
When Zheng He returned from a trade expedition in 1416 with 2 giraffes from Somalia, Zhu Di hatched a plan to use the animals in a ruse to shift the sentiments of the masses by appealing to traditional Chinese religious beliefs. He promoted the giraffes as ‘qilin’, which are mythological beasts that people are sure exist, but no one has reported seeing for themselves. Instead, these are the creatures that legends are made of. Historians and chroniclers report the events from the remote past without fear of contradiction from the living or long dead. These mythological creatures are given life through hearsay and thrive on wishful thinking and fantasy.
This story of Zhu Di’s qilin caper is remarkable mostly because it reveals the powerful influence that cultural beliefs, no matter how bizarre, have over even the purportedly intellectual. The qilin gained importance in Chinese culture, because the mother of Confucius is said to have been delivered a message by one. It carried a piece of engraved jade that told her she would bear a son who would be a ‘king without a throne’. In Zhu Di’s situation, the qilin was the sign that he possessed the Mandate of Heaven. Unbelievably, the Mandarins were fooled, or perhaps they felt it most wise to pretend they were fooled. No doubt, Zhu Di was either deliberately misrepresenting the facts or he was delusional and desperate to brandish proof of his importance and power. The Mandarins might have conceded to avoid enraging the emperor and inciting him to punish them for dissenting.
These men, the Mandarins, were rigorously evaluated for suitability as civil servants and bureaucrats. They should have known Zhu Di was lying. Yet, as the story goes,when Zhu Di brought the giraffe to the palace court, everyone believed it was a celestial animal, proof of the Mandate of Heaven and that ended all protestation of Zhu Di’s agenda to transfer the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. From then on, the whole of China was dedicated to the completion of Zhu Di’s plan. Nearly 5 million men were employed in some capacity or another for the construction of the Forbidden City. It was inaugurated on 2 February 1421.
On May 9th, 1421, lightning struck three great ceremonial halls in the Forbidden City namely the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserved Harmony. The fires reduced the halls to ashes, spread to the treasury and apartments, killing a large number of men and women. Even the imperial throne was burnt to cinders. Interesting to note that Master Hu, the keeper of the water clock had predicted this event down to the day and hour and the emperor had him imprisoned. If the prediction did not come true, the emperor would have him executed. However, one hour before the event, the clockmaster swallowed poison and killed himself.
— Forbidden City, Destruction and Rebuilding