Climbing up and down, Li Cheng, a 4-year-old boy, found the huge stone-carved turtle a great place to play.
"I come here every day," said the boy, trying to squeeze between the steel railings encircling the turtle. Living in the village which adjoins Maoling, one of the 13 tombs of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing, the boy knew nothing about the value of the turtle he so casually clambered on.
The stone turtle has rested for more than 500 years in front of Maoling, where Emperor Zhu Jianshen (1447-87) and his three wives were buried.
The piece is just one of a number of historic relics at Maoling and 12 other sites which comprise the Ming Tombs under state protection.
"The 40-square-kilometer mausoleum site is China's best-protected tomb group," said Cao Pengcheng, head of the Ming Tombs Office of the Changping District of Beijing.
So far only two of them -- Changling and Dingling -- are open to the public. Changling's past glory is best preserved, while Dingling is the only tomb completely excavated exposing its underground chamber containing red lacquered coffins and other unearthed artifacts.
The 594-year-old tombs have endured despite the upheavals down the ages and dramatic social changes.
According to historical records, they survived two major disasters -- one was in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) soon after the conquering Qing army occupied Beijing. They destroyed much of the ground construction of the Ming Tombs, believing that this would strengthen their rule. The other took place in 1914 when the local authorities and rich fought for control of the land.
The Ming Tombs were first renovated during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
"The Ming Tombs had been under comparatively good care at that time when the Qing court sent people to take care of the tombs," said Fu Qingyuan, a senior engineer with the State Research Institute of Cultural Heritage. "The motive was to win the Han people's support and strengthen the rule of the Manchus."
Except for Siling Tomb, where Emperor Zhu Youjian, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty was buried, the other 12 tombs were assigned their own caretakers who lived close by. The sites were later developed into 12 small villages and more outsiders settled there.
Nowadays there are about 200 households in each village with a total population of about 1,000. Much of their income comes from growing fruit trees around the tombs.
Some of them have continued to look after the tombs.
"I have been working as a gardener in Changling for more than 15 years," said Zhu, a man in his late 30s. Although he shares the same family name as the Ming Dynasty emperors, he said he could claim no family ties to the imperial house.
Beginning at 8 am every morning, he tours Changling, pulling a cart with water, from which he and his colleagues each morning water the potted flowers and flower beds, which adorn the site. Before the closing of the mausoleum at 5 pm Zhu makes a second tour to remove dry leaves from either flower beds or bushes.
"I'm trying to keep the surroundings as neat and solemn as possible so they can better match the magnificence of the site," he said. In Changling alone, there are more than 10 gardeners, said Zhu.
After the founding of New China in 1949, the Ming Tombs came under state protection. Changling was the first to undergo renovation, followed by Xianling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Gaochi (1378-1425), Jingling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Zhanji (1398-1435), Yongling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Houcong (1507-66) and Zhaoling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Zaihou (1537-72). Dingling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563-1620) was excavated in 1956.
Restoration work on Deling, the tomb of Emperor Zhu Youxiao (1605-27), began in March 2002 and is expected to cost 38 million yuan (US$4.6 million). The work is scheduled to be completed later this year.
Some 400 million yuan (US$48.3 million) will be spent in repairing the remaining seven time-worn tombs by 2008, said Nie Youyi, deputy head of the Ming Tombs Office.
"The restoration of the Ming Tombs has followed traditional methods," said Fu Qingyuan. This requires the restorers use the original materials of lime and earth and not cement.
Since 2000 the Beijing municipal government has spent about 170 million yuan (US$20.53 million) on restoring the original magnificence, in order that the site qualifies for listing on the world heritage chart.
Houses built within 30 meters along each side of the road leading to and from the archway of the Ming Tombs were removed, while others built 50 meters within the mausoleum area were also demolished.
A 30,000-meter long iron fence was erected on both sides of the Shisanling Road to boost security. A 3,340 meter-long road linking Wanniang Tomb to Siling Mausoleum has also been completed. Illegal advertising boardings have been removed and a string of hawkers stalls, which used to line the Sacred Way have gone. Grey bricks and marble plates, in keeping with the site, were used to pave the square in front of Dingling.
The district government also set up a sewage treatment plant employing the latest technology and which has a recycling capacity of 700 tons per day. Surrounded by 1,000 hectares of orchids growing peaches, apples, pears and apricots, the tomb area is, today, very much a scenic spot.
The first Ming tomb
Meanwhile, in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, where the tomb of Ming's first emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98) is located, experts have urged that more restoration and preservation work be done.
"Compared with other famous world heritage sites, Xiaoling Mausoleum has lagged far behind in environmental protection," said Sun Ying, professor of the Social Development School at Nanjing Normal University.
He particularly emphasized the need for improvement of facilities and the surroundings.
"For example, the museum of the Xiaoling Mausoleum should put on some good exhibitions in order to help visitors get a clear idea of the heritage," said Sun.
Those charged with managing the mausoleum should increase signposting in both Chinese and English and control the number of shops.
Yu Jinbao, deputy director of the National Park of Dr Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, who is also in charge of the management of Xiaoling, said: "During the past year, we invested more than 3 million yuan (US$360,000) in renovating the Xiama Archway, the entrance of the tomb.
"However, the protection and improvement of the environment of the Xiaoling Tomb needs the help of society, the city government and every citizen," he stressed.
Yu said a special protection committee will soon be established by the Nanjing municipal government.
(China Daily July 14, 2003)