The Ming Tombs, located in Changping District, about 50 kilometers (1 hour’s drive) from the northwest of central Beijing, is an imperial cemetery covering an area of over 120 square kilometers.
13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were buried here (along with their wives and concubines), 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.
When Were the Ming Tombs Built?
The site of the Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs was carefully chosen according to Feng-shui (geomancy) belief. The first tomb, Changling (the Tomb of Chang), was built by the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1409 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 230 years, Xiangling, Jingling, Yuling, Maoling, Zongling, Kangling, Yongling, Zhaoling, Dingling, Qingling, and Deling were built, spreading out on both sides of Changling.
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.
Highlights of the Ming Tombs
Of the 13 Ming tombs, only Changling, Dingling, and Zhaoling are open to the public. Visitors enter the tomb area through the Sacred Way.
1. Sacred Way
A 7-kilometer long avenue spreading from south to north in the tomb area is called the Sacred Way, on both sides of which there stand in total 36 stone sculptures.
Of the 18 pairs of sculptures, 24 are stone animals and 12 human figures. The custom of erecting stone sculptures in front of imperial tombs started as early as 2000 years ago. They represent the supreme authority and dignity of the emperors and signify that they are still supreme in power after death.
2. Changling Tomb
The huge Changling is the final resting place of the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di. He ruled China from 1402 to 1422. As the largest of the 13 Ming tombs, the construction of Changling started in 1409 and took five years to be completed.
The Hall of Eminent Favor is the most impressive and important part of Changling. The hall covers 1,956 square meters, nearly the same as 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.
This hall has become the exhibition hall for the historical relics unearthed from Changling, such as the Phoenix Coronet for Empress, men's jade belt, and hairpins.
3. Dingling Tomb
The splendid Dingling, the mausoleum of the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yijun, is the only one of the 13 Ming tombs that have been fully excavated so far.
Dingling is the third largest tomb in the complex. It cost over 8 million taels (300 tonnes) of silver to build the tomb, which was approximately equivalent to the entire tax income for two years of the government.
The main structure of Dingling is the underground palace, which is 27 meters deep with a total floor space of 1,195 square meters. All of its 5 chambers were built of stone without using a single beam or column.
In the rear chamber, there are 3 coffins (the largest one in the middle was for the emperor and the smaller ones for the empresses) there are also 26 red-lacquered wooden boxes containing 3, 000 or so precious funeral objects.
In the underground palace, you can see a gold crown for the emperor which was woven with very fine gold filaments and has two dragons playing with a pearl on the top; and a beautiful phoenix crown for the empress, which was inlaid with over 5,000 pearls of different sizes and more than 100 valuable gems. They were worn only at grand ceremonies or special occasions.
4. Zhaoling Tomb
Zhaolin is the tomb of the 12th Ming emperor and his 3 empresses. What makes it stand out is its above-ground architecture, which is the best-preserved and a typical layout of the Ming imperial tombs.
Ming Tombs Travel Tips
1. The Ming Tombs is not a “must-see” attraction unless you are an enthusiast of Chinese Ming history and have extra time in Beijing.
2. The tomb area is so vast and the tombs are located far from each other, so it is suggested to visit Changling and the underground palace of Dingling only.
3. Visitors can take bus no. 314 to travel around the Sacred Way, Changling, and Dingling.
Can I see Mutianyu Great Wall and the Ming Tombs in one day?
It is not advised to visit Mutianyu and the Ming Tombs in one day because they are not in the same area at all. It takes too much time to travel between them. For a day trip, it would be better to visit “Badaling + Ming Tombs” or “Mutianyu + Summer Palace”.
How to Go to Ming Tombs from Beijing?
By Subway: It is not recommended to get to the Ming Tombs by subway because the nearest metro station is still away 4 kilometers from the tomb area.
By Bus: Bus no. 872 from Deshengmen can take you directly to the scenic area. The earliest bus leaves at 09:15 and the last bus goes back from the tomb area at 15:00.
How to visit Ming Tombs from Badaling Great Wall?
1. You can take bus no. 877 from Deshengmen directly to Badaling Great Wall. The bus operates from 06:00-12:00.
2. From Badaling Great Wall, bus no. 879 can get you to the Ming Tombs.