A Tale of Biting Off More Than You Can Chew
Or How to Absolve Your Guilt by Building a Big Monument to Dad
Nanjing, as natives are
quick to tell you, has a long history and is rich in culture. It has been
the seat of six or ten dynasties or ruling entities, depending on how you
count, going back to 229 AD.
itself is much
older than that, going back 2500 years as a functioning community. It has
become something of a hobby of mine, since I am very interested in Chinese
history, to visit as many historical sites in
as I can. I have
Chinese friends who help me, of course, and that adds to the pleasure.
On a sunny October Saturday in 2003,
Chinese friends took me to see a historical site east of the city. We took
a taxi out there which, delayed and detoured by traffic jams, took about
an hour. The site is that of an old imperial quarry from the Ming Dynasty.
The Ming Dynasty overthrew the Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty in 1368 and set up
its capital a few years later in
After the first emperor died, preceded
in death by his first son and original heir, his grandson became emperor.
This young man was very educated, elegant, and enlightened as a ruler.
Unfortunately, a ruthless uncle, the original emperorís fourth son, Zhu
Di, who was an excellent military leader and who had been dispatched to
Beijing to be sure the Mongols didnít try to sneak back down from the
north to cause trouble for the new dynasty, decided the young man wasnít
strong enough to be emperor of all of China, and that he would be a better
one. He took his army to
and overthrew the
young man. The deposed emperor mysteriously disappeared. He was never
found, alive or dead, giving rise to all kinds of rumors and suspicions,
lasting even until today. But, Zhu Di, became the new emperor. He reigned
a long time and was a strong ruler. In order to assuage his guilt of being
a usurper and to prove that he was a filial son, he ordered the quarrying
of a huge stone to erect to the honor and memory of his father, the
original Ming Dynasty emperor. A base, a cap, and the body of the monument
were largely carved, even to the chiseling out of large sections
underneath the mammoth stones in preparation for moving them down the
mountain and then to the outskirts of Nanjing, where the emperorís tomb
is located. But, it was never technically feasible to move them and these
massive carved granite stones are still there, where they have become a
After seeing them, I certainly
understand why they couldnít move them. The marvel is that anyone
thought they could. Fully assembled, they would have equaled the height of
an 18-story building. One plan, apparently, had been to create a reservoir
in the quarry, fill it with water. When the water froze in the winter,
10,000 camels were to have pulled the three pieces down the mountainside.
I donít know how far they got in that plan, but it doesnít appear they
ever tried it, as the stones are still firmly attached to the stone
Simulated Ming Village
We arrived at the base of the mountain
and bought tickets. The government has built a touristy reproduction of a
Ming Dynasty village which offers souvenirs, food, and entertainment. A
stone path leads out of the village up the mountain slope to the quarry.
The first piece we saw was the base. It is carved out of the natural
granite and stands alone against the rough mountain terrain. It has been
chiseled out of the stone, with each side quite straight. At the base of
the structure, several places had been chiseled out in anticipation of
severing the stone from the mountain.
The cap and body of the intended
monument were further up the mountain. The cap was beside the main body,
and only a little smaller than the base. Again, portions of the bottom had
been chiseled out. These cavities were large enough for people to get into
for picture taking or just to prove they could. To get to the top of the
body, we walked up a narrow and steep path.
Cap (center) and monument (right); the base is behind the
hill in background
the top, you could see both the cap and body of the monument. The body was
carved in a horizontal position, but the base and cap were carved as if
they were ready for use. In the days before this had become an official
tourist site, visitors could walk out onto the body of the monument. It
would have been quite a fall, and there are no rails, so it isnít
allowed now that there are hundreds of visitors on pretty October
Saturdays such as the one on which I went. The monument itself is
completely carved out except at one end and the base. On one side, a
channel of about six feet was chiseled out, forming the back side of the
monument; one end is still part of the mountain. At the bottom, almost the
entire length of the stone was chiseled out and visitors were sitting
around playing cards and eating picnic lunches. We could walk under it,
only slightly bent over. The precision of the cutting of these stones was
remarkable considering the technology of the time, in the late 14th or
early 15th centuries.
Standing at the head of the monument that is still part of
Standing underneath the monument; notice that the back side
is cut away from the mountain; the two ends remain to hold it up
rode a public bus back to town. At one stop, I could see a small church
just behind the shops and restaurants at the street. In the city, we took
a taxi to a restaurant. After a very nice meal, they took me home by taxi.
A great adventure: fun and educational.