Zui haui – The ‘guilty’ pagoda tree

Zui haui literally translates as ‘the guilty pagoda tree’ and it was so-named as it was from this tree that the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, was said to have hung himself in 1644. The tree was thence considered guilty for allowing the death of the emperor.

Zhu Youjian (1611–44) known as the Chongzhen Emperor, was the last emperor of the great Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He came to power aged just sixteen after the death of his brother, the Tianqui Emperor, who had ruled from 1620 to 1627. Chongzhen inherited an empire in disarray and decline, and Tianqui was in part responsible.

Illiterate and uninterested in state matters, Tianqui had neglected his official role,

Painting of Tianqui Emperor
Tianqui Emperor

instead spending all his time on his passion – woodworking. Tianqui was a great craftsman and spent many hours perfecting his art, even asking his servants to secretly and anonymously sell his carpentry at the market to see how much they would fetch. While Tianqui lavished time on his hobby, a powerful court eunuch[1], Wei Zongxian took control of the Imperial Court, purging all those who opposed him and promoting those loyal to him, ensuring Tianqui was but a puppet-ruler.

In the resultant power vacuum, other self-serving courtiers saw their opportunity to further themselves. One such opportunist was Madame Ke, Tianqui’s beloved childhood nurse. Madame Ke wanted to make sure she stayed in the emperor’s good graces by preventing any other women from gaining his ear. To this end she imprisoned Tianqui’s concubines, starving them to death, and she supposedly poisoned the pregnant empress causing her to miscarry, leaving Tianqui heirless. Despite these Machiavellian dealings, Tianqui would not hear a word said against Madame Ke or Wei Zongxian, he ignored the numerous complaints against them and refused to curb their power.

Under Wei Zongxian conditions in the country worsened. Not only was there widespread social unrest, but the empire was beset with countless other problems, not all of them man made. The Manchu were launching incursions into the north of China, devastating flooding caused by inclement weather and a dip in the global economy saw the silk industry collapse, which caused food prices to rise and unemployment grew. With this uncertain backdrop Wei did not improve relations with Tianqui’s subjects instead he wielded his power to execute hundreds of Donglin Confucian scholars and their supporters who had campaigned for an end to oppression.

It was against this sorry background that Chongzhen came to power. Sixteen-year-old Zhu Youjian was given the official name Chongzhen (meaning ‘lofty and auspicious’) and

Painting of the Chongzhen Emperor
Chongzhen Emperor

at first he tried to maintain the status quo left by his brother and kept Wei as an adviser. However Wei’s excessive power and heavy-handed dealings meant that many complaints from officials came to light and Chongzen took action to have Wei arrested. Wei, learning of his imminent capture, took control of his own fate and hung himself from the rafters of the inn where he was staying. Madame Ke, meanwhile, was demoted to working in the palace laundry and before long she was found dead, having apparently been beaten to death.

Despite ridding the country of the pernicious influence of Wei Zongxian and Madame Ke, rebellions sprung up all over his empire and Chongzen was at first unable to pay or supply his army to quell the uprisings. In desperation, Chongzhen ordered his subjects to provide more conscripts and pay higher taxes. Unsurprisingly these demands on an already depressed and stretched population served only to turn more people towards rebellion. By 1644 Chongzhen had been betrayed by many of his generals and a rebel army led by Li Zicheng had begun to close in on the Forbidden City in Beijing.

A number of legends have sprung up regarding the last moments of Emperor Chongzhen, some more favourable than others. One tells that Chongzhen on seeing the advancing rebel army, fled to his palace where he rang a bell to call his ministers to his side for a council. As the bell rang out Chongzhen waited in vain for his ministers to arrive and he soon realised he had been abandoned. It being clear the rebels would soon enter the palace, Emperor Chongzhen was said to have told his family and concubines to assemble for a final banquet. But as they sat down to eat, Chongzhen appeared armed with a sword and slayed them all.

Painting of the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

Another version has Chongzhen on realising all is lost, telling his three sons to escape to safety before exhorting his wife, the Empress Zhou, to kill herself. His consort and concubine Yuan heard his terrible request and tried to escape but Chongzhen took his sword and stabbed her in the back. Distraught, he then went to the palace of his daughters and confronted the princess, asking her how she had come to have been born into such an unfortunate family. With no answer to give, Chongzhen cut her down with his sword[2]. His final act before fleeing the Forbidden City was to send messages to his sister-in-law and mother, telling them too to kill themselves, ensuring all but his sons were dead.

With the blood of his family on his hands Chongzhen escaped the Forbidden City[3] as the forces of Li Zicheng closed in. In despair and disarray Chongzhen, leaving his crown behind, hiked up through the forests of Coal Hill[4], a man-made peak created when the moats for the Imperial Palace were excavated in the eleventh century. Chongzhen came to a Pagoda Tree and with his reign in tatters, his family slain and his support vanished, Chongzhen hung himself from its low hanging branches.

A number of contemporary annals reported that the devastated emperor left a note, to the following effect, written upon the robes he wore:

I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me.

Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die.

Removing my imperial cap and with my hair dishevelled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!

Chongzhen was perhaps not as alone as he thought, his most faithful eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng, followed him up the hill. On seeing his master’s lifeless body he too hung himself on a nearby tree. Wang Cheng ‘eng was not the only one to demonstrate his loyalty to his master in this way, as the rebels took hold of the city over 700 members of the Imperial household reportedly committed suicide in solidarity with their emperor.

For three days no one knew where the emperor was until a servant found his body under a pine tree on the hill. He was said to have been clothed in a blue silk robe, with red trousers and upon his robe in the emperor’s own hand were the characters ‘Tian zi’ – meaning son of heaven.

On taking control of the Forbidden City, Li Zicheng had Chongzhen and his empress quietly buried in the tomb of Chongzhen’s beloved concubine, Tian. In 1659 the new Qing dynasty, keen to imply their rule was merely a continuation of previous dynasties rather than the conquest it truly was, built a memorial to Chongzhen around the tomb. Unusually the eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng was afforded the honour of being buried just to the east of his master’s tomb, demonstrating the value placed upon his loyalty.

Engraving of Pagoda tree - Sophora Japonica
Pagoda tree – Sophora Japonica

The Pagoda tree and stone stela which marked the place remained as a memorial to Chongzhen’s death and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and it was said that as late as the 1900s a chain used by Chongzhen to hang himself remained visible on the branches of the diminutive tree. Unfortunately the original ancient tree was deemed an unacceptable link to feudalism by Mao’s government and it was destroyed at some point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

A replacement tree was planted at the spot in 1981 and today it survives as a tourist attraction, with an explanatory history board announcing its significance.

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[1] In Imperial China, eunuchs (men who had been castrated) were common at court as they were believed to be faithful servants because they could have no children of their own. Many poor families would have their young sons castrated in the hope of them gaining a position at the Imperial Court as a way to better the family. At the height of the Ming Dynasty some 100,000 eunuchs served the Imperial Court.

[2] In some versions of the story, one of Chongzhen’s daughters, Chang Ping survived the massacre despite losing her left arm as she tried to protect herself from her father’s blows.

[3] It was said that Chongzhen fled through the Shenwumen gate and so during the early part of the succeeding Qing Dynasty rule superstitions grew around the use of the gate and it was considered unlucky. Most people avoided using the gate, with only funerals passing through.

[4] Coal Hill is today part of Jingshan Park.

Picture sources:

Tianqui Emperor: From collection in National Palace Museum

Chongzhen Emperor: He Li: Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian

Art Museum San Francisco, 2008

Forbidden City: The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), now held in the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City.

Pagoda tree: Cyclopedia of American horticulture (1906)

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The Royal Oak and the Daring Escape of King Charles II

Numerous pubs across Britain are named The Royal Oak in recognition of the national importance of one large oak tree in Boscobel House, Shropshire.

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Royal Oak pub sign (Credit: Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0)

On 3 September 1651 at the Battle of Worcester, Charles II, the newly-crowned King of Scotland and son of Charles I, was resoundingly beaten by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army. Some 5,000 troops were killed or captured during the battle and 21-year-old Charles was lucky to escape with his life. Charles fled with a few of his most trusted men in an attempt to find safety.

Parliamentarian soldiers were in hot pursuit, desperate to capture Charles I’s son and prevent others flocking to the banner of the heir to the throne. By 3am on 4 September an exhausted Charles arrived at the converted priory of White Ladies where he sought refuge with the trusted Giffard family.  A loyal servant named George Penderel welcomed the bedraggled Charles and soon became a vital part of his escape plans.

It was immediately obvious that Charles needed a disguise as his long flowing locks made him instantly recognisable. Thus his hair was quickly shorn and his fine clothes substituted for a rough-hewn hemp shirt, green breeches, a dirty grey hat, a leather doublet and some badly-fitting shoes – to top off the disguise the house servants dirtied the young monarch’s face with soot. Now ready to depart it was clear that Charles needed a trusted guide. George Penderel’s older brother, Richard, was recruited to lead Charles through the local countryside and hopefully on to London, and they set out into the damp night.

Fuller, Isaac, c.1606-1672; King Charles II at Whiteladies (King Charles II; Richard Penderel)
King Charles II with Richard Penderel by Isaac Fuller (1606-72), National Portrait Gallery

The pair headed for some woods and hoped to reach and cross the Severn at Madeley, but they soon discovered the area was crawling with Parliamentarian troops and they were forced to turn back. As they walked back through the woods, Richard Penderel attempted to teach Charles to walk like a farm labourer, as his majestic gait gave away his identity.

With the area so closely watched by their enemies Charles and Richard decided to head for another house owned by the Giffard family, Boscobel House, where another Penderel brother, William was in charge. They spent the day hiding in a barn before setting out at night for Boscobel. After walking in sodden clothes for many hours, the tired and hungry pair reached Boscobel House at 3am, where they discovered one of Charles’s officers, Colonel Carlis was already hiding out.

As morning broke Charles and Colonel Carlis noticed a huge, pollarded oak tree in the grounds of the house which offered a promising hiding place. They climbed high into its branches, gaining a panoramic view of the surrounding lands, safely hidden by the canopy. With a picnic of bread, cheese and beer the fugitives refuelled and slept, the tree providing a solidly secure place of refuge. Thirty years later, when Charles was King Charles II he recounted the story of his escape to the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded the decision to hide in the tree thus:

‘he [Carlis] told me that it would be very dangerous either to stay in the house or go into the wood (there being a great wood hard by Boscobel) and he knew but one way how to pass all the next day and that was to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place where we could see round about us for they would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. … [We] got up into a great oak that had been lopped some 3 or 4 years before and so was grown out very bushy and thick not to be seen through. And there we sat all the day.’

Fuller, Isaac, c.1606-1672; King Charles II and Colonel William Carlos in the Royal Oak
Charles in the Royal Oak by Isaac Fuller (1606-72), National Portrait Gallery

At one point some Roundhead soldiers searching the grounds of Boscobel House passed directly under the oak in which Charles was stowed, but they failed to look up and notice their quarry above them. That such an important person as Charles chose to shelter in an oak tree was perhaps pure chance – oaks are England’s most common native tree and so would have been plentiful in the landscape. Oaks are also large trees with generous sprawling branches and abundant foliage, which would provide obvious comfort and coverage for any fugitive. Yet oaks, then and now, have a cultural significance as an enduring symbol of England. Ancient oaks were often used during the seventeenth century as places where couples would wed and traditionally celebratory Yule logs were supplied from the oak tree. Indeed it is with some irony that it can be noted that Charles’s father, Charles I was later tried and convicted in the beautifully oak-clad chamber of the Houses of Parliament – the tree of England the most obvious choice to hug the walls of the chamber of power at the heart of our nation.

It seems destined that such a tree should play a pivotal part in the rescue of the nation’s future monarch. Oaks have become so entwined with England, their solid beauty a cipher for the strength of the nation. Indeed oak trees played a vital role in Britain’s colonial success, providing the wood from which many great ships – for exploration and war – were hewn and proffering the oak charcoal required to smelt iron during the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. In 1664, John Evelyn, a fellow of the Royal Society published Silva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, the first known book to express the theory that Britain’s success and resultant riches were founded on the back of the nation’s abundant oak forests. Evelyn’s great tome was to inspire recognition and respect for the power of the oak tree and encouraged in later years many wealthy landowners to plant huge forests of oak trees – most notably Colonel Thomas Johnes who in the period 1795–1801 planted some 922,000 oak saplings – to assure the future of the nation’s oak forests and thus its fortunes.

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Traditional oak tree

After spending all day in the safety of the tree, Charles and Colonel Carlis returned to Boscobel House where they rested for the night hidden in a priest hole before making their escape across country. Charles ultimately spent six weeks on the run before he reached the coast at Shoreham beach, where they set sail for the Isle of Wight and later landed in France, where Charles waited out Cromwell’s rule in European exile. In 1660 with Cromwell finally dead, Charles was able to sail back to Britain and reclaim the throne, restoring the British monarchy.

And so the safe haven of Charles and his companion, Colonel Carlis, became celebrated as the Royal Oak – the exciting tale of the king’s daring escape capturing the public imagination. Numerous pubs were named in its honour, and the tradition of oak-apple day was created, whereby on 29 May (Charles’ birthday) each year from 1660 the restoration of the monarchy was celebrated. A national holiday was granted and people wore sprigs of oak leaves pinned to their lapels to demonstrate their loyalty and support for their monarch and to recognise the part played by the oak tree in Charles’s escape and survival.

The Boscobel oak itself became a place of pilgrimage and sadly souvenir hunters were soon hacking off branches and tearing out sections of bark. By 1680 the tree had been so damaged a wall was built around its trunk for protection, but the effort was in vain and by 1712 the tree was reported to be in grave danger. Some traces of the original tree have survived, including a number of items which were fashioned from the wood cut from the Royal Oak, including a salver which today resides in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War.  Additionally, the link between the Penderel and Carlis families to the famous tree was forever cemented by the creation of new Coats of Arms which depicted the Royal Oak and three royal crowns.

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The Royal Oak today (Credit: wiki media commons)

Today visitors can see the Royal Oak at Boscobel, but it is not the original tree, which sadly fell victim to over-zealous souvenir hunters in the seventeenth century. Instead the 200–300-year-old tree which today stands in its place is known as Son of Royal Oak as it was planted from an acorn of the original tree. In 2000, Son of Royal Oak was badly damaged during a storm, losing many of its large branches and in 2010 huge cracks were noticed in its trunk and the tree was fenced off for the safety of visitors. The importance and survival of the tree have been ensured by the planting of many saplings grown from the acorns of Son of Royal Oak (making them grand-children of the original tree) including a number planted near Boscobel House, such as one in 1951 planted by the fifth Earl of Bradford to commemorate the tercentenary of Charles’ escape. This ongoing link with the original Royal Oak ensures the oak still looms large in the nation’s collective memory as a symbol of the strength of the English monarchy.