Ming Tombs, Beijing


Ming Tombs

Ming Tombs was the collective burial site of the Ming Dynasty emperors. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) lasted 16 reigns and 276 years. Thirteen of the emperors were buried here. In Chinese, we generally call it The Thirteen Tombs.

It is located at the foot of Tianshou Mountain, 44 km northwest of Beijing city.

If you are looking for something exciting, Ming Tombs might not satisfy you. Most of the crown jewels and burial goods were moved to display at the Forbidden City.

You do need a mindset of trying to understand the Chinese burial culture and explore the grandeur construction of the site in order to make your Ming Tombs tour interesting.

A Classic Imperial Burial Site
I have visited many imperial burial sites in China. They have one thing in common – a feeling of comfort. You’ll feel your state of mind calm and peaceful. They are generally embraced by greenery hills with a harmony of water together in an extremely tranquil and comfortable environment. Many a time emperors sent out research teams and feng shui (geomancy) specialists to look for burial sites. Ming Tombs is the most classic of its kind.

Layout of the Ming Tombs

Ming Tombs - layout

It was a symmetric construction along a central axis. Only Ding Ling, the tomb of Emperor Wanli (1537-1619) is open to visitors.

  • Marble Memory Archway – located 1,000 meters outside the main entrance. A grand construction to recognize the great achievements of the Ming emperors.
  • Main Entrance – Great Red Gate (also known as the Grand Palace Gate)
  • Stele Pavilion – at the beginning of the Sacred Path.
  • Sacred Path – leading to each of the tombs. There are 18 pairs of stone sculptures line up on both sides of the Sacred Path. They are animals, civil and armed officers being erected there to guard the tombs.

Structure of a Typical Ming Tomb

Ming Tombs in Beijing

A Chinese imperial tomb is actually a resemblence of an actual palace. A place for emperors and their consorts to continue enjoy their luxurious life after life.

Basic structure of each of the Ming Tombs are:
• Main Gate
• Stele Pavilion
• Gate of Ling En – underground palace
• Hall of Ling En – underground palace
• Ming Tower – keeping altars of emperors
• Crown Grave – the actual grave. The tombs of emperors and empresses were kept underneath.

Underground Palace at Ding Ling
Ding Ling is the tomb of Emperor Wanli. In Chinese ‘ling’ carries the same meaning as ‘tomb’. Ding is the name of the tomb. Therefore Ding Ling means the Tomb of Ding.

This underground palace is the largest and most magnificent among the Ming Tombs. It is 27 meters under ground level. The white marble gate is estimated to weight four tons. The coffins of Emperor Wanli and two of his Empresses were kept at the rear chamber.

Unfortunately, the bodies of the emperor and empresses were nowhere to be found after the Cultural Revolution. The original coffins were badly rotten and only replications are displayed. However the marble thrones and everything else are genuine.

Chinese Burial Culture in Brief
In imperial China, the deeper the coffin was buried under ground level, the higher status the dead person was. The tomb of Princess Yongtai nearby Xian is 16 meters underground. Emperor Wanli’s at the Ming Tombs is 27 meters.

Imperial coffins have two layers. The inner layer is called ‘guo’ where lied the body of the emperor. The outer layer is called ‘guan’. The most prestigious burial would have silver guo and gold guan. Normal people would have only one layer of wooden guan.

In Chinese, guan 棺 and official 官 has the same pronunciation. Ancient Chinese dreamt to become a government official which meant status and wealth. Hence Chinese believe it is a matter of luck whenever they see a coffin. This is why miniature coffins are sold as souvenirs.

Jade and gold were mostly used as grave goods. They were there not only to show off wealth or for the dead person’s afterlife. Chinese believe jade can keep the dead person preserved and enable them to communicate with those still alive. Though it is kind of a subjective expectation, jade has been widely used as burial goods throughout China at all times.

Anna’s Notes
The Ming Tombs were put under protection of the Beijing municipal government in 1961.

In 2003, it was listed by UNESCO on the World Heritage List. Here is one of the justifications: The Ming and Qing Tombs are dazzling illustrations of the beliefs, world view and geomantic theories of Fengshui prevalent in feudal China. They have served as burial edifices for illustrious personages and as the theatre for major events that have marked the history of China.

Ming Tombs is a classic representation of Chinese burial culture. Though it is way off the centre of Beijing, you can combine it with a trip to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, as it is just on the way.

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