The Ming Tombs, located in Changping District, about 50 kilometers from the northwest of Beijing, are surrounded by mountains on three sides. The imperial cemetery covers an area of 120 square kilometers and there are 13 Ming Dynasty emperors buried there (along with 23 empresses and a number of concubines, princes and princesses), thus it is also called The 13 Mausoleums. These tombs are the best preserved Chinese imperial tombs and have been nominated by UNESCO as world cultural heritage.
The site of the Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs was carefully chosen according to Feng-shui (geomancy) belief. The first tomb, Chang Ling (the Tomb of Chang) began to be built by the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1409 AD (the seventh year of his reign) under the main peak of Tianshou Shan (Heavenly Longevity Mountain). (The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty was buried in Nanjing). In chronological order over the following 200 years Xiang Ling, Jing Ling, Yu Ling, Mao Ling, Zong Ling, Kang Ling, Yong Ling, Zhao Ling, Ding Ling, Qing Ling and De Ling were built, spreading out on both sides of Chang Ling. All these tombs share the same Sacred Way, an avenue in the middle of the tomb area. The last tomb, for the Emperor of the self-proclaimed Chongzhen era, Zhu Youjian, lying in the southwest of the area, was actually built out of a tomb originally intended for a concubine. Several decades after the death of the last Ming emperor, Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty gave the last Ming Tomb the tile and added the architecture on the ground. Besides the emperor's tombs scatters lots of smaller tombs for concubines and a eunuch.
In keeping with Feng-shui belief the tombs area is screened by high green mountains on three sides and has a river flowing by. Tourists enter the tomb area through the Sacred Way, on both sides of which there stand in total 36 stone sculptures. Of the 18 pairs of the sculptures, 24 are stone animals and 12 human figures. The custom of erecting stone sculptures in front of imperial tombs started as early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). They represent the supreme authority and dignity of the emperors and signify that they are still supreme in power after death. All these stone sculptures are huge; some exceeds 30 cubic meters in volume. In ancient times without modern machinery and vehicles, these heavy stone sculptures were transported here entirely by manpower. In winter time, water was poured on the road. When a slippery ice surface had formed on the road, the laborers hauled the sculpture forward on the ice. Every 500 meters a well was dug to get water for making the ice. Therefore, it was an arduous task to build the imperial tombs. The tombs area is so vast that tourists normally only see two of the 13 tombs, namely, Chang Ling – the largest in architectural scale, and Ding Ling – the only one that has been excavated so far.
The huge Chang Tomb (Ling means tomb) is the final resting place of the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di. He named his ruling era Yongle (eternal joy) and was hence known as Emperor Yongle. He ruled China from 1402 to 1422. The construction of the tomb started in the seventh year of his reign and took five years to be completed. The layout of Chang Ling follows the pattern of Xiao Ling in Nanjing, tomb of the first Ming Emperor. Structures proceeding along the central axis are: the Front Gate to the tomb, the Gate of Eminent Favor, the Hall of Eminent Favor, the Dragon and the Phoenix Gate, Soul Tower and the Wall-Encircled Earth Mound, of which the Hall of Eminent Favor is the most impressive and important. The hall covers 1,956 square meters, nearly the same as of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, but it exceeds the latter architecturally as all the columns, beams, etc. are made of nanmu, a durable high quality softwood. The 32 huge 12.58 meter-tall pillars of the hall are each made from a single nanmu tree trunk. This valuable timber came from Sichuan, Hubei, Henan and Jiangxi provinces, all thousands of kilometers away from Beijing. It is said that it took about five years just to transport these enormous treetrunks. This scale of historic project is rarely seen in other parts of the world. The hall is the largest and most magnificent structure of nanmu wood still existing in China. This hall has becomes the exhibition hall for the historical relics unearthed from Chang Ling.
The splendid Ding Ling (Ling means tomb) is the mausoleum of the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yijun. He was known as Emperor Wanli (much experience) after the self-proclaimed name of his ruling period. He ruled his great empire for 48 years, the longest reign in his dynasty. Historical documents reveal that the total cost for the tomb amazingly reached over 8 million taels (300 tonnes) of silver, which was approximately equivalent to the entire tax income for two years of then government. Ding Ling is only the third largest tomb after Chang Ling and Yong Ling. Its exquisite decorations, however, enormously surpass the other two. Most of the structure above the ground has disappeared except the Soul Tower. It is a magnificent building wholly made of stone and bricks, which may explains why it survived the centuries.
So far, Ding Ling is the only one that has been opened for archeological exploration. The underground palace is 27 meters deep with a total floor space of 1,195 square meters. It consists of five chambers: the antechamber, the central chamber, the rear chamber and two annex chambers on both sides of the central chamber. All of these chambers were built of stone without using a single beam or column. The rear chamber is the largest and most important one in the underground palace. It is 30 meters long, 9.5 meters high and 9 meters wide, and contains three coffins (the largest one in the middle was for the emperor and the smaller ones for the empresses). Besides the coffins, there are also 26 red-lacquered wooden boxes containing 3, 000 or so precious funeral objects. Of the unearthed items, a gold crown and a phoenix crown are the most amazing. The gold crown was woven with very fine gold filaments and has two dragons playing with a pearl on the top. The beautiful phoenix crown was worn by the empress only at grand ceremonies or special occasions. One crown was inlaid with over 5, 000 pearls of different sizes and more than 100 valuable gems. Today tourists can see these precious antiques in the exhibition halls of Ding Ling.
Zhao Ling is the ninth tomb of the 13, and contains the 12th emperor and his 3 empresses and concubines. What makes Zhao Ling stand out is its above ground architecture, which is the best preserved and a typical layout of the Ming imperial tombs.
Three Special Features
When compared to the imperial tombs of other dynasties, the 13 Ming tombs stand out because of the following eye-catching features.
Firstly, the vast tomb area constitutes a harmonious whole, which is unique in the history of imperial tombs. The Warring State Period (500BC c.-221BC) saw the beginning of Chinese imperial tombs. Layouts were derived from the patriarchal clan system and subject to the ranks of the buried. Each imperial tomb varied in layout and size depending on the social environment and the age they belong to.
In the Tang and North Song Dynasties, for instance, each tomb had its own gate, sacred way and stone sculptures. Even though they are built within the same area, each tomb is independent from others architecturally speaking. The Ming Tomb is a different case. Although each has its own hall, Soul Tower, City of Treasures, and forms an individual unit, the sacred Way, marble archway, and stone statues of Chang Ling (Ling means Tomb), the first tomb among the 13, are shared by all the tombs. The other tombs are spread on both sides of the Sacred Way, thus being linked together as an organic whole.
Secondly, the tombs' architecture above the ground is unique. In ancient China, from the dynasties of Qin and Han to Tang, the above ground architecture of the imperial tombs all took the tomb mound as their center. In front of the tomb mound there stood the sacrificial hall, and the whole tomb area was enclosed by a wall with a gate at each of the four points of the compass. The whole tomb area thus resembled a huge rectangular siheyuan (a traditional four-sided family dwelling with a courtyard in the middle). Since the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, changed the old layout and introduced some changes for his own tomb. The front wall of the tomb area remained unchanged, but the rear portion of the wall became a semi-circle. The soul tower and the sacrificial hall were built on the central axis of the tomb zone. And the old straight sacred way became crooked.
In general , the 13 Ming Tombs in Beijing basically followed the model of the Xiao Ling (the tomb of the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, in Nanjing) with a few slight differences. For instance, the setting of the gravestone inside the soul tower emphasized its function as a landmark for the whole tomb area.
Along the sacred way of Chang Ling, there is the Zhaoyu gate, the Pavilion for the Stele of Sacred Imperial Prowess, the huge stone sculptures, and the gate of the Dragon and Phoenix, which is consistent with the layout of Xiao Ling. However, the addition of the stone archway before the Zhaoyu gate and the addition of the statues of officials who had rendered outstanding support for the sculptures were new. The Ming tomb cells are also different from others. In the Tang Dynasty, the imperial tomb cell was dug inside a mountain, while the Ming tombs were palatial underground caverns decorated with enamel structures.
Thirdly, the natural environment around the Ming Tombs is tranquil, beautiful and spectacular. Selecting the location of an ancient Chinese imperial tomb was always affected by Feng-shui. The Ming Tomb was no exception. A famous Feng-shui expert called Liao Junqing from Jiangxi Province helped the emperor to decide the place to build the tombs. Liao Junqing’s method prevailed in Jiangxi, and stressed the interaction and match between the dragon (a Feng-shui object symbolizing activity and the masculine energy known as "Yang", often placed on the east of a property), the tomb cell, stone and the water. The mountain where the tombs were built was renamed Tianshou (Heavenly Longevity) by the Ming emperor. The winding Tianshou Mountain ridges linked to each other create a horseshoe shape opening to the south. The first of the 13 Ming tombs was built at the foot of this mountain. All the other Ming tombs all have a high mountain behind as a backing and a brook snaking its way past the front. On either side of these tombs, there are mountains as well. The special environment of the Ming tombs is obviously more beautiful than that of imperial tombs built on vast plains.
The Beijing municipal government has invested 170 million yuan on the preservation of the Ming Tombs. According to Vice Director Nie Youyi of the Ming Tomb Administration Office, the refurbishment project of De Ling with an investment of 38 million yuan is drawing to its end. This year, the restoration of Kang Ling and Qing Ling will be launched. It is estimated that by 2008 about 400 million yuan will have been invested to repair the 7 most needy Ming Tombs.
Most of the 13 Tombs are preserved according to their original look. The soul tower is a good example. The soul tower of Si Ling was the only one to be destroyed before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the soul tower of Zhao Ling was rebuilt in 1956. The rest still stand there. Of the 13 only Ding Ling was excavated in 1956. Everything unearthed is now under strict protection.
All of the tombs have the Sacred Way in the front. Along the Sacred Way of Chang Ling stand an imposing stone archway, known as the Big Red Gate, the Pavilion of the Stele of the Sacred Imperial Prowess, dozens of stone sculptures and the Gate of the Dragon and the Phoenix. The Big Red Gate, the Pavilion of the Stele of the Sacred Imperial Prowess, and the Gate of the Dragon and the Phoenix underwent restoration after the founding of the People's Republic of China, while the rest remain unchanged. As for other tombs, most of the Pavilions of the Stele of the Sacred Imperial Prowess were brought down during the Qing Dynasty and only fragments of some steles and stone bridges remain until today. Most of the cypress and pine trees along the sacred way were also felled during the Qing Dynasty. Many of the annexes such as Shenggongjian (the Sacred Palace Office) became villages in the Qing Dynasty. Many of the concubines and eunuchs' tombs became agricultural fields later and so did many other structures annexed to the tombs.
Overall, the Ming Tombs have seen 600 years of history spanning three periods: the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Although most of the structures, especially those above ground level suffered natural and human degradation, the entire layout and the underground palaces are perfectly preserved. Besides, the natural environment around the tombs is still as gorgeous as before. In the vast tomb area, tourists normally visit two of the 13: the most imposing and largest, Chang Ling, and the underground palace of Ding Ling, the only excavated Ming Imperial Tomb so far.