Forty-four kilometers northwest of Beijing proper lies the Ming Tombs, the general name given to the mausoleums of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The mausoleums have been perfectly preserved as has the necropolis of each of the many emperors. Because of its long history, palatial and integrated architecture, the site has a high cultural and historic value, said Cao Pengcheng, an official with the Ming Tombs Area Administration.
The Ming Tombs lie in a broad valley to the south of Tianshou Mountain (Longevity of Heaven) in Changping District. To the southwest of this valley, a branch of the Yanshan Mountains suddenly breaks off and forms a natural gateway to the 40-square-km basin in which the tombs were built.
They are known as the 13 Ming tombs in Chinese (Shisanling) as 13 out of the 16 Ming emperors as well as 23 empresses, one highest-ranking concubine and a dozen immolated imperial concubines were buried in this peaceful valley.
It was widely held in the Ming dynasty that although dead physically, a person's soul remained, still having human needs. Consequently, the 13 emperors' tomb complexes look like imperial palaces, which feature red walls, yellow tiles, storied buildings and palaces.
Under the guidance of traditional Chinese fengshui, the whole process from site selection to designing of the tombs paid attention to harmony between tomb architecture and the surrounding mountains, rivers and vegetation to embody the philosophical view that man is an integral part of nature, according to Cao.
Though varying in size and architectural complexity, these tombs are similar in general layout: the plan takes an oblong shape with a round (or oval) Precious Hall (Baocheng) at the rear. Each tomb complex starts with a stone bridge, followed by a front gate, a stele pavilion, the Gate of Eminent Favor, the Hall of Eminent Favor, a watchtower and then the Precious Hall. The layout of these Ming Tombs produced a far-reaching impact on the construction of the Eastern Tombs and Western Tombs of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The Ming tombs were put under protection of the Beijing municipal government in 1957.
In July 2003, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at its 27th session officially inscribed the Xiaoling Tomb, the mausoleum of Ming dynasty's first emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, and the Ming Tombs in Beijing on the World Heritage List as assemblage of the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Eastern and Western Qing tombs are also on the World Heritage List.
The central government of China and the Beijing Municipal Government have always attached great importance to the protection of the Shisanling Ming Tombs.
Currently, repair of several Ming emperors' tombs is underway for better showcasing Beijing's long history and culture to overseas tourists during the 2008 Olympics Games, a local official said.
Following repair of the Deling Tomb, Kangling Tomb and Qingling Tomb, which is nearly completed, repair of the Tailing Tomb has been under discussion and is expected to put into action very soon, according to Nie Youyi, an official with the Ming Tombs Area Administration.
Nie said that prior to 2008, a total of 300 million yuan (US$36.27million) will be used to repair five remaining tombs of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Construction of the Ming tombs started in 1409 and ended with the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. In over 200 years, tombs were built over an area of 40 square kilometers, which is surrounded by walls totaling 40 kilometers.
Luo Zhewen, an expert of ancient Chinese architecture, speaks highly of the architectural value of the Ming Tombs in terms of tomb structure, architectural styles and art, and calls them material history of the Ming Dynasty.
Many have called Shisanling a typical example of Chinese emperors' mausoleums and the best testimony of China's long history and civilization.
Apart from emperors' mausoleums, seven tombs of imperial concubines, one eunuch's tomb and other auxiliary facilities are also inside the Ming Tombs area, which is said to be the largest concentration of royal tombs in the world.
Cao Pengcheng, the official with the Ming Tombs Area Administration, said that the Ming Tombs provide valuable material evidence for studying the mausoleum system, funeral decrees and regulations, sacrificing rituals, architectural techniques, and even politics, economic development and culture of the Ming Dynasty.
According to Cao, among the 13 Ming emperors buried there, Emperor Zhu Di, the owner of the Changling Tomb, which was the first tomb built in the area, was significant in Chinese history as it was he who moved the capital from Nanjing, now the capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, to Beijing, and who commissioned the compilation of the "Yongle Encyclopaedia", a great series of reference books arranged according to literature, arts, history, geography, philosophy, religion, medicine and science before the 14th century.
Dingling Tomb, also known as the Underground Palace, is the first imperial tomb to have been excavated in China. The tomb owner Emperor Wan Li and two of his wives were buried in 1620 in a deep marble vault located four stories underground (on the hottest of summer days, the vault remains mercifully cool). The entrance to the grounds is marked by a large red gate with a magnificent bronze lion. Gigantic marble doors stand at the entrance to the first of the three burial chambers. Inside are three coffins, and many of these finds can be viewed in the two exhibition halls constructed above ground.
To preserve the typical sights of the Ming Tombs area, Beijing has poured 170 million yuan since 2000 to clear local environment, including dismantling buildings that do not harmonize with the environment and buildings in the tomb area, within a radius of 50 meters around the mausoleums and face-lifting facilities in the area.
(Xinhua News Agency June 22, 2004)