Ming Tombs and Sacred Way

The Ming Tombs represent the imperial cemetery region where the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were buried.

In a carefully selected site, according to the Chinese feng-shui (geomancy) traditions, the tombs are surrounded by mountains on three sides and a river flows near them. The tomb area has been listed by UNESCO as World Cultural Heritage. The site offers insight into imperial Ming Dynasty life, including stone thrones, huge human and animal sculptures, and other evidence of Chinese culture and traditions. Right now, there are 3 tombs are opening to the public. The most popular attractions include the underground palaces, stone thrones, excavations, huge human and animal sculptures representing historic emperors of Ming Dynasty, green environment, hikes and nature exploration.

The Ming Tombs hold a place in Chinese history, being the place where 13 out of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were buried, together with their wives and concubines, including the founder of the dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang. Construction of the first tomb was started in 1409 AD by the third emperor of the dynasty. Subsequent tombs were built on each side of the first one and all the tombs share an avenue located at the middle of the whole area. The avenue is known as the Sacred Way.

The tomb where the last emperor Zhu Youjian was buried was intended for a concubine — it is located on the southwest of the area. The tile and architecture on the tombs were added by Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty.

The 13 Ming tombs are Changling (the tomb of Emperor Yongle, born Zhu Di), Xianling (for Emperor Hongxi, Zhu Gaozhi), Jingling (Zhu Zhanji), Yuling (Zhu Qizhen), Maoling (Zhu Jianshen), Tailing (Zhu Youtang), Kangling (Zhu Houzhao), Yongling (Zhu Houzong), Zhaoling (Zhu Zaihou), Dingling (Zhu Yijun), Qingling (Zhu Changluo), Deling (Zhu Youjiao), and Siling (Zhu Youjian). Of the 13 tombs, only Dingling, Changling, and Zhaoling are open to the public. All visitors enter the Ming Tombs via the Sacred Way...

The Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs

All of the Tourists enter the 13 tombs  should go through this avenue. A walk down the Sacred Way offers tourists with a great experience of the large statutes that date several hundred years back. The Sacred Way is 7 kilometers long. The walkway reminds tourists of the historic leadership of the Ming dynasty. The name Sacred Way means a walk to heaven and according to Chinese history, an emperor descended from heaven and returned through the walkway (on death). The emperor was referred as a Son of the Heaven.

The walkway starts at the stone memorial archway and ends at the gate of the Changling Mausoleum. Tourists walking along the tomb area enjoy variety of features including the Great Red Gate, Shengde Stone Memorial Archway, and Stele Pavilion. Other main attractions include the Dragon and Phoenix Gate and the Five-arch Bridge. The features, together with the huge stone sculptures remind tourists of the great power of the Ming Dynasty and are neatly arranged from South to North.

The huge stone statues: On both sides of this avenue are lined 36 (18 on each side) huge human and animal statutes including lions, elephants and camels, among others. 24 of them are animal statutes while 12 are human. The human life-like stone creatures that represent the emperors are delicate carvings with vivid shapes. Some of the statutes are up to 30 cubic meters in volume and represent the authority of emperors. They also show that the emperors are still supreme even after death. The sculptures were transported purely by human labor — water was first poured on the road during the winter and it formed ice. They were then hauled forward by sliding on the slippery ice. Wells were dug every 500 meters in order to get water for this purpose.

Changling--Emperor Yongle's Tomb

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.

Changling is the largest of the 13 Ming tombs and is suitable for everyone to access, including those with knee problems and those on wheels. It is located under Tianshou Shan ('Heavenly Longevity Mountain'). Although not fully excavated, the tomb offers a great experience to visitors especially at the grand hall located underground.

Changling is the only tomb in the complex that has been unearthed for scientific research and has over 3,000 precious unearthed articles. Many visitors to the Changling are also attracted to the cedar tree pillars at the hall (on passing the first courtyard). These trees are said to have come from Nepal. Also inside this hall are jade and jewel exhibits — some were excavated from Dingling. The latest feature of Changling is a larger-than-life statute of the Yongle Emperor, whose tomb Changling is. This tomb has been excavated such that it is possible to reach the burial chamber itself.

The construction of the tomb started in the seventh year of his reign and took five years to be completed. Construction of this famous hall begun in 1409 and was completed in 1427. It also took 2 years to renovate. The layout of Changling follows the pattern of Xiaoling, the first Ming emperor's mausoleum in Nanjing.  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 Chinese cedar (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 over 1,000 kilometers from Beijing. It is said that it took about five years just to transport these enormous tree trunks. 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. 

Dingling Tomb

Dingling offers a number of attractions for visitors, including stone thrones, underground palaces and red boxes that were used as caskets to bury the emperors. Dingling is a good attraction site for those who like walking and nature exploration. 

Before accessing the tomb, one will need to walk for about 15 minutes from the Dingling entrance. The underground site attractions are accessed via long 8 flights of down staircases. Although many visitors would like to access all the three tombs at a go on the same day, it is a bit difficult since the three are located far from each other.

Dingling 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 tons) of silver, which was approximately equivalent to the entire tax income for two years of the then government.

Dingling is the third largest tomb in the complex after Changling and Yongling. 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, Dingling is the only one that has been fully 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, the gold crown and the 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 Tomb.

Zhaoling Tomb

Zhaoling  is the tomb of 12th Ming Emperor Longqing  (Zhu Zaihou) and his three empresses and concubines. The imperial coffins are in a unique crescent-shaped area. What makes Zhaoling, the ninth tomb of the 13, stand out is its above ground architecture, which is the best preserved and a typical layout of the Ming imperial tombs.