China's imperial past is enshrined in Beijing sites

The imperial burial site in the Chinese capital where 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty and their empresses were laid to rest is now commonly known as the Ming Tombs.
Lu Feiran / SHINE

The grand gate of Changling, the tomb of Emperor Yongle (1360-1424)

In the Changping District of Beijing, about 50 kilometers from Tian’anmen Square, 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and their empresses were laid to rest.

The imperial burial site, once even larger than the capital itself, is now commonly known as the Ming Tombs.

In 2003, the area was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

Two tombs, those of Changling and Dingling, are open to the public, while Zhaoling is under temporary restoration and will be open soon. Originally, six other tombs were open on a limited basis to scholars and special guests of the government, but that privilege ended last year after three candleholders in the Siling tomb were stolen.

The Sacred Way, the official entrance to the tombs, remains open to visitors. The road leads directly to Changling, the tomb of Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), who moved the capital of the Ming Dynasty from Nanjing to Beijing. Paths leading to the other tombs fan out from the Sacred Way.

A red memorial archway at the southern starting point of the path is surrounded by four ornamental pillars. Commonly known as the “Big Red Palace,” the archway, or the Stele Pavilion of Power and Holiness, was built to commemorate Yongle Emperor. A stone stele engraved with the emperor’s lifetime chronology stands in the pavilion.

On both sides of the Sacred Way are 18 pairs of stone sculptures, including animals, mythical creatures, civil officials and military officers. They guard the spirits of the burial site, according to ancient beliefs.

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A stone statue of a general guards the Sacred Way, the official entrance to the tombs.

Changling is the biggest of the 13 tombs. Ling’en Palace, the main hall, is an outstanding representative of Ming Dynasty architecture.

Unlike traditional Chinese-style construction, the interior of the palace is hardly painted, except for the ceiling. Nanmu pillars, brackets and beams are in their original colors, giving the palace a solemn atmosphere.

The palace is now an exhibition hall to display the relics discovered in Dingling. A sculpture of Emperor Yongle in the middle somehow affects the whole view, not to mention the custom of visitors “worshipping” the statue with banknotes to bring luck and fortune.

Maybe they have their reasons. After all, Ling’en means “would be blessed if worshipping.” Subsequent emperors after Yongle all went to worship him in the hall and pray for his blessing.

Yongle was the most successful emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who reigned during what is now considered a peak period of the dynasty. He might also be the lucky one because his tomb escaped destructive archeology.

Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) was not so lucky. His tomb, Dingling, was the only one that was excavated about 60 years ago, and the dig destroyed a great number of cultural relics. To this day, many believe that the exploration of Dingling is one of the greatest travesties of Chinese archeology.

The underground grave chamber is now open to the public, but the coffins and relics displayed there are all replicas. Some of the relics unearthed are now displayed at the Dingling Museum next to the crypt.

In the 1950s, author/historian Guo Moruo (1892-1978) and Wu Han (1909-69) proposed to excavate the Ming tombs. Despite some controversy, the government approved the project.

Its initial purpose was to find the “Yongle Encyclopedia,” the largest tome on the history of China. It is believed that the original version of the encyclopedia was buried in the Changling crypt. However, Changling was too big and too deep for archeologists to find the path leading to the burial chamber.

By comparison, Dingling was an easy excavation because part of the wall covering the crypt had collapsed for unknown reasons. The archeology team spent a year trying to find the right path toward the burial chamber and were finally guided by a tablet inscription on a wall. It is now housed in the Dingling Museum.

Lu Feiran / SHINE

A stone stele outside Dingling praises the virtues of the emperors.

Just as with the pyramids of Egypt, there are legends about deterrent “gimmicks” in the imperial graves. Archeologists found nothing. There was, however, noxious gas given off by decayed bodies. According to records, when the first brick was pried out, a puff of “black fog” with a strong, musty smell emerged.

Eventually, the coffins and burial objects were discovered. What happened next, however, was beyond expectation. Due to lack of a experience with such ancient sites, many relics were destroyed within minutes as fresh air poured into the chamber. Silken objects were subsequently badly damaged when experts tried to restore them with chemicals. Before the project ended, the central government issued a notice that further excavation of ancient imperial tombs would not be allowed except under special circumstances.

The biggest damage to the burial site occurred during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). The bodies of an emperor and his two empresses were incinerated. The coffins containing the bodies were chopped up by local farmers and made into furniture.

A study of the bodies was never completed. It is known only that Emperor Wanli was about 1.64 meters tall and was humpbacked. His right leg was visibly longer than the left one.

Some of the relics have been carefully preserved. The emperor’s golden crown is now displayed at Dingling Museum — the only imperial crown ever found in China. It was woven completely with gold wire without any visible joints or thread ends.

The crypt of Dingling is viewed by hundreds of visitors a day. Located about 27 meters underground, it has five connected chambers. Instructions on the wall tell visitors that the exhibits here are all replicas, but that doesn’t stop tourists from throwing coins and banknotes at the fake coffins, as if the poor emperor could still bless them.

In 2014, an underground warehouse was completed, and more than 3,000 relic pieces unearthed from Dingling were finally moved back underground, under strict temperature and humidity controls to prevent past tragedies from recurring.

Lu Feiran / SHINE

The pathway leads to the Ling'en Palace, the main hall of Changling, tomb of the Emperor Yongle (1360-1424).

If you go:

Public transport to the Ming Tombs is not convenient. Although the Changping Metro Line has a station called Ming Tombs Station, the stop is actually about 10 kilometers from Dingling and Changling.

There is a bus stop near the station, and all the buses there go to the tombs in a trip that takes about an hour.

Black cabbies abound, waiting at the Metro station and ready to bargain over fares with emerging visitors. They might charge as much as 80 yuan (US$12) to Dingling or Changling, if you can bargain in Chinese. Black cabbies are also available for transport between the tombs.

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