From Beggar to Emperor

I had acquired some under glazed red ceramics, and was told that they were from the Hongwu period. The color of the under glazed red was more in gray tone with little tint of red. My first impression was that under glazed red for Hongwu made great sense. Hongwu is the throne name of the Ming dynasty founder, Chu Yuan-Chang. Hong is the same pronunciation for red in Chinese; Chu also means red in Chinese. But I could not understand why although Hongwu was on the throne for 31 years (AD 1368-1398), till now there had not been found a ceramic piece bearing an official Hongwu seal. Then I read a story of the most famous and most successful beggar in the Taipei Shihlin Night Market. He is over 30 years old, strong, and fair looking. His transportation vehicle is a Mercedes Benz model 320, which was bought during the second year of his begging career. His house is a two-story garden house in Shihlin and his children and wife live in the US. In the afternoons, he drives to the mountain to meet other beggars and exchange begging methods. He goes to "work" from 6 to 12pm. It was then I figured out why we could not find Hongwu imperial ceramics.

Hongwu was a beggar too. He was the emperor with the most humble background in Chinese History. His parents were poor peasants. When he was 16, his parents and eldest brother all died within a few weeks time during a drought. He joined a temple to become a monk for 50 days, but the temple could not afford to keep all the monks, so he had to leave the temple to make a living for 3 years begging. Then he went back to the temple for 3 years until one of the monks reported to the government that he had contacts with a Red Scarf Rebel group. So he ran away and joined one of the Red Scarf Rebel groups fighting against the Yuan dynasty government.

The Yuan dynasty government regulated their people into 10 ranks, starting with rank one, a government official, and down to rank seven as a smith, rank eight as a prostitute, rank nine as a scholar, and rank ten as a beggar. From these rankings, you can see that scholars had a position of little respect in the Yuan government. Hongwu was quickly promoted in the Red Scarves and became a military leader. As a leader, Hongwu invited scholars to be his supervisors, and adopted their advice:

Hongwu would not waste anything. Even after he became a regional leader, when his outfit got too old and ragged, he had it altered for underwear. And when was worn-out yet again, he had it altered until it was impossible to be used again. He was the only leader among all the Red Scarf Rebel groups who understood the meaning of being thrifty. When a saddle decorated with gold and jade was presented to him, he refused and said; "I am in charge of this region, I need civil and military personnel, grain and textiles, other than that, all the treasures are not my favorites."

He named his new dynasty Ming for two reasons: 1) to show respect to the leader of all Red Scarf Rebel groups, "Little Ming". This way, all the followers of Little Ming would be willing to follow him. 2) Ming is a Chinese character that combines two characters: sun and moon. Chinese scholars believed the country's rulers always worshiped the Sun and Moon, thus the term of Great Ming was already used for this worship. This way he could win the support of scholars and many others as well.

After the Ming dynasty was established, he once saw two young palace servants wearing new rain boots and playfully walking through mud puddles. He admonished them for this because the rain boots took civilians a long time to make. If the servants did not take care of the boots, then they would go against the emperor's will. He ordered them caned, so that they would remember for good. Another incident was when he saw a palace maid throwing silk oddments away. He gathered all the maids and reprimanded them. He calculated how much time would be needed to produce a role of brocade starting from the birth of a silk worm to the finished product. And then he ordered: "If this is to happen again, you will not be forgiven but beheaded." Concerning the etiquette protocol items for an emperor, he ordered them to save money and be thrifty. For instance, if the sedan needed gold metal, they were to use brass instead. In the palace, his bed was an ordinary bed; the only difference was a golden dragon mark.

During the 16th year of Hongwu's reign (AD1383), a small region called Zentown paid the Hongwu emperor tribute with 200 ivory trunks and more. In return the emperor gave Zentown 30 bolts of silk weaved with gold and 19,000 pieces of ceramics. Therefore, we may not find imperial ware with Hongwu's mark, but ceramics were produced during Hongwu's reign. The best and simplest way to identify Hongwu ceramics is that the ceramics carry the Yuan style, but are different from the traditional Yuan style. This is also reflected in Hongwu's government policies, such as the tax law that Hongwu merely "Improved upon Yuan's rules." These policies have a touch of the Ming ruler's style, but are different from later Ming style of Yongle (Hongwu's 4th son).

To further prove that the Hongwu period does not have ceramics with Hongwu seal marks, the Nanking Museum extensively dug out Hongwu's Palace site in Nanking, finding thousands of pieces of shards, but none with a seal mark were found. I bought a vase with Hongwu mark when I started to collect ceramics. For the price I paid, it deserved a prime spot in my display cabinet. I found out later that it was from one ceramic artist, Yin-Chou Sun, he specialized in imitating early Ming dynasty ceramics between 1937-1939, he put on "Great Ming Hongwu year made" on the ceramics, and got very famous. After I finished the research that I have done on Hongwu, I hid the vase. And after you have read this article, if you see a ceramic item with Hongwu mark, you will know it is probably (99.999%) a fake.