Emperor Chongzhen's Suicide on Coal Hill

The Emperor Chongzhen (r. 1628-1644) was the last emperor of the Ming dynasty. He hanged himself from a tree on Coal Hill (Jingshan Park). We know that this incident actually happened, but writers and storytellers have used the historical "facts" to bring to light all kinds of other possibilities that could have taken place before the emperor's death.

The Australian writer Mark Henshaw highlights two problems when writing about 'real events.' The writer's words appear 'to add some kind of fictionalizing distortion to the events they purport to describe and, secondly, even when a writer thinks they have got it right there still appears to be infinite room for ambiguity and imprecision.' If the Emperor Chongzhen was alive and could speak directly to us, would this eliminate the ambiguity, the imprecision? We discover that the emperor may contradict, embellish the final moments of his life or have no interest in recognizing certain things about it. Embellishing or adding to 'real events' does not mean lying or complete misrepresentation, but allows the writer to 'plays the edges'of what might have conceivably happened.

Another Australian novelist Nicholas Jose, writes of the issues raised by incorporating historical materials and the 'imaginative realm' of the writer:

As a writer, I'm interested in feeling the latent possibilities in what is going on around me, and using imagination as a way of divining those things. It's as if only by freeing yourself into an imaginative realm, you can actually tap into those deeper currents, [those which] if you're right, will surface as reality ('Landscape of Memory').

Elsewhere Jose writes:

Novelists, I think, are respectful of historians. Yet in our quest for new narratives we are compelled at a certain point to kick away the scaffolding and enter an imaginative domain where the facts, always open to multiple interpretations, may not answer every question ('Any Resemblance is Unintended.')

The following account of the Emperor Chongzhen's suicide on Coal Hill is retold by E. Backhouse and J.O.P. Bland in Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (from the 16th to 17th Century), 1914.

It was nearly five AM and the dawn was breaking. The emperor changed his apparel and removed his long imperial robe. The bell rang in the palace for the morning audience, but none attended. The emperor donned s short dragon-embroidered tunic and robe of purple and yellow, and his left foot was bare. Accompanied by the faithful eunuch Wang Cheng'en, he left the Palace by the gate of Divine Military Prowess and entered the Coal Hill enclosure.

Gazing sorrowfully upon the city, he wrote, on the lapel of his robe, a valedictory decree: '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 any people!' Then he strangled himself in the pavilion known as 'Imperial Hat and Girdle Department,' and the faithful eunuch did likewise.

References

Mark Henshaw, Out of the Line of Fire, Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1988:6.

Nikki Barrowclough 'Landscape of Memory'http://www.nicholasjose.com.au/works/goodweekend.html

Nicholas Jose, 'Any Resemblance is Unintended.' http://www.nla.gov.au/events/history/papers/Nicholas_Jose.html

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