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Notes on the Geography of China: Beijing: Ming Tombs

The Ming tombs, 30 miles northwest of Beijing, are on every Beijing tourist itinerary: they're usually neatly dovetailed into a visit to the Great Wall.  Translation: expect big parking lots and lines of tourist buses. 

Yet only two of the tombs are even partly open; most are locked tight.  It's almost always been that way: in Imperial China, the entire precinct was closed to visitors.  Even the Ming emperors never, or only rarely, visited: one who insisted on visiting four times during his lifetime was criticized for doing so, perhaps because protocol demanded a retinue of a thousand. In short, the tombs have been among the least visited memorial places on the planet. 

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China: Beijing: Ming Tombs picture 1

The obligatory glimpse of the wall at Badaling.

China: Beijing: Ming Tombs picture 2

Stele pavilion on the Sacred Way (Shenlu) to the Ming tombs. Originally intended as the entrance to the tomb of Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor and the first Ming to make Beijing his capital, this path became the entrance as well to the tombs of a dozen of his successors, whose tombs lie on both sides of his.

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Inside the pavilion, a giant turtle supports a stele (bixiao ao-zuo bei). The stele is titled "the divine merit and sacred virtue of Changling, Great Ming," and it recounts the life of Zhu Di. Mounting a stele on a long-lived turtle ensured longevity for the family and was reserved as a privilege of the elite.

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Strictly, it's not quite a turtle but a representation of bixi--half-turtle and half-dragon. Hence the fangs. Bixi was able to carry heavy loads, which is why massive steles were often placed on its back.

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Four dragon-wrapped, cloud-piercing columns frame the pavilion. Identical ones at Tiananmen are called huabiao, or "monumental columns." These are called hingtienchu, "columns supporting the sky." Whatever the name, they were originally intended as places to petition or memorialize the emperor, represented by symbolizing the imperial link to the heavens. The octagonal base is emblematic of Mt. Meru, center of the Buddhist universe.

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Pairs of sculptures line the sacred way. Here, a military figure.

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Opposite it, a civilian official. All the figures are standing, because sitting in the imperial presence was forbidden.

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The tomb of the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, is, like all the others around it, deep underground, in a tradition that stretches back to the Zhou Dynasty of the first millennium B.C. Zhu Di reached far back into tradition even to name his mausoleum, because the name he picked--Changling--is also the name of the mausoleum of the first Han emperor. Zhu Di departed from tradition, however, in adding an entrance courtyard and a sacrificial hall. Here it is: the Hall of Heavenly Favors (Ling'endian). Annual sacrifices were made until 1924.

Befitting Zhu Di's importance as the greatest Ming emperor, this is the only hall of the 13 with a triple Sumeru terrace. Until the introduction of Western building methods, it was also very nearly the largest building in China--second only, and by only a tiny bit, to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City.

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Inside, the heavy roof rests on Phoebe nanmu logs, apparently original and now over 500 years old. Originally, the columns were probably painted bright red.

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Behind the hall is Zhu Di's soul tower. Its base is a square rampart (fangcheng); above is the "brilliant tower" (minglou). (The word ming, by the way, is the same as the word used in the name of the dynasty, which also means "brilliant.") Inside, at the crossing of the four tunnels, is a stele with the inscription "Tomb of the Accomplished Emperor Chengzu." (This was Zhu Di's temple name.) Above it are the characters Ta Ming, "Great Ming." The actual tomb is deep under a tumulus or artificial hill behind the tower. It remains unexcavated, like all the Ming tombs with the exception of Dingling, the tomb of Shenzong, the Wanli Emperor.

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We've shifted to Yongling, the tomb of Zhu Houcong (1507-66), who ruled as Jiajing. It's nearly as grand as Changling, and not nearly as made over for tourists. It's also closed to the public. All the more reason for visiting it. Note the geomantically desirable location at the base of a south-facing mountain. It's part of the Heavenly Longevity (Tianshou) Range, named by Zhu Di, who in choosing this valley for his own tomb chose the location of the tombs of his successors. In the foreground is a spirit path (shendao), characteristic of imperial tombs. Farther back, and sadly rimmed by recent steel bars, is a spirit or slab staircase leading to the terrace on which the sacrificial hall once stood.

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Here's a closeup. The scene is seas and mountains under a cloud-filled sky. The phoenix, symbol of the empress, is swanlike to suggest grace, warmth, and by extension, the summer harvest and beauty. The Chinese dragon, unlike its European equivalent, is the guardian of lakes and seas and hence the bearer of rain and therefore food; from there, it's only a short step to the emperor. The pearl between them symbolizes wisdom or truth, as it does in common English usage.

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Here's the same view in 1990, when the tomb had not yet been spruced up and locked tight.

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The spirit staircase then was spared the ugly railing.

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The approach to the spirit tower in 2004.

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Closer still.

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The vermilion soul tower sits on a dark rampart or base. In front of it and at the end of the path there's a stone incense burner.

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Inside the soul tower, a stele reads: "Tomb of the Respected Emperor Shi Zong." (Again, this is his temple name.) At the top, with the dragons, are the characters for Great Ming. These steles were more than tombstones: they were believed to contain the spirit of the deceased. Like the steles in the other soul towers, this one has seven characters, ensuring long life.

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From the spirit tower looking down the imperial way.

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Behind the spirit tower is the forested tumulus, unexcavated and rimmed with this square wall in imperial vermilion.

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A third tomb: Yuling, the burial site of Zhu Qizhen, the Zhengtong Emperor (1436-1449). The brick wall is all that's left of the sacrificial hall. Ruinous as it looks, on the ground it feels as though it commands an empire.

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More power to you if you can get in; this picture was taken in 1990, before the gates were locked.

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The spirit tower, with its rotting eaves on the edge of disintegration.

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Nowadays, this is about the best you can do.

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The tombs were originally built very quickly--most in less than six months. The underground parts were made of stone, to last for eternity. Not so the sacrificial halls and soul towers. The Qing emperors took care of them, at least at the beginning, when they were concerned about proving their own legitimacy. Since then, decay has brought the above-ground parts close to dissolution. Once again, if a monument is in good shape, it's probably a reconstruction: bright and shiny Changling, for example, was rebuilt in the 1950s.

Recommended reading: Ann Paludan, The Imperial Ming Tombs, Yale, 1981, and Wang Boyang, Ancient Chinese Architecture: Imperial Mausoleums and Tombs, Springer-Verlag, 1998.

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