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The Qing West Imperial Tombs

The Qing Dynasty had ten emperors altogether, five buried in the East Tombs and the rest, except for final emperor Pu Yi, buried in the West Tombs, over 120 kilometers west of Beijing. China had a tradition in earlier dynasties that the imperial son should be buffed near the father, a tradition expected to be perpetuated from generation to generation. After the first two, few of the ten emperors in the Qing Dynasty were buried in accordance with the tradition.


Why did they act against the tradition to develop the East and West Tombs separately? It turned out that Emperor Yong Zheng broke the tradition. Yong Zheng, fourth son of Emperor Kang Xi, was said to have usurped the throne by forging his father's testament of succession. Since he had a guilty conscience and was superstitious, he did not want to be buried with Kang Xi.


Yun Xiang (Prince Yi) and Minister Gao Qizhuo knew well what troubled Yong Zheng, so they found an auspicious place at Tianpingyu on Taining Mountain, Yizhou, and pressed the location on Yong Zheng. In their memorial to the throne they wrote: "It is a place having all excellence in heaven and on earth; yin and yang, the two opposing principles in nature are in great harmony; and the mountain ranges and waters are in proper arrangement. Provided with all auspicious things, the terrain is suitable for building an imperial mausoleum."


After reading the memorial, Yong Zheng accepted it as an auspicious location and gave orders to construct the Tailing Mausoleum at the foot of the Taining Mountain. This was the beginning of the West Tombs. Yong Zheng opened the West Tombs not only for himself but for successive emperors as well.


However, his son, Qian Long, acted against his father's will and chose a tomb location for himself in the Eastern Tombs, following principles of geomantic omen. He also made it a rule that after him son and father could not be buried in the same place but must alternate between East and West Tombs respectively.


The Qing West Tombs include four emperors' tombs, three empresses' tombs, and seven tombs for concubines, princes and princesses, covering an area of 50,000 square meters, with more than a thousand structures. Altogether, 76 people were buried here. A hundred or more stone buildings and stone carvings are intact.

The Qing West Tombs


The periphery of the Western Tombs totals more than 100 kilometers. Amidst mountains verdant with trees, the setting is beautiful, with the famous Zijinguan Pass to the west, Yishui River and the Langyashan Mountain to the south, and, across the river, the 2,300-year-old ruins of Xiadu (Lower Capital) of the Kingdom of Yan to its east.


The Qing West Tombs construction is similar to that of the East Tombs. From south to north is the avenue of stone animals and human figures, the greater stone archway, big and small stone bridges, Dragon and Phoenix Gate, the lesser tablet pavilion, warehouse of sacrificial offerings, east and west lounges for officials, the Long'en Gate, east and west side halls, the Long'en Hall, the gate of glazed tiles, two-pillar gate, rectangular stone table (altar) with five kinds of sacrificial offerings, Square Castle, Round Castle, Soul Tower, Precious Dome and underground palace. Before Dahongmen (Great Red Gate), there is a beautifully shaped five-arch bridge, which looks like a crescent moon hanging in the sky.

The Five-arched Bridge at the Qing West Tombs


To administer the tombs the Qing court established a full set of organizations. The emperor named the general military commander of Taining Town as minister concurrently in charge of the West Tombs. Prince Fu and Prince Zhen were also designated to set up the East and West Mansions and serve as representatives of the imperial family to guard the tombs. Under the East and West Mansions there were the Department of Internal Affairs (in charge of administration and judicature), the Department of Rites, the Department of Works (in charge of offering sacrifices to ancestors and the construction), the "Eight Banners" troops (to protect the tombs) and Luying Army (to safeguard the boundary of the tombs). Drawn around the West Tombs were three lines of boundary markers in red, black and white, with five li separating each line. Outside the boundary markers were the imperial mountains, which were heavily guarded and closed to common people.


In a line with the Red Gate is Yongning Hill, at the foot of which, in the center, lies Tailing for Emperor Yong Zheng. Later emperors could choose either east or west of Tailing for their burial places.

The Tailing Mausoleum of Emperor Yong Zheng

The Grand Hall at Tailing


The spirit path leading to Tailing is about five li long, along which are scattered some forty structures, large and small. The path, paved with three layers of huge bricks, is broad and even. Exquisitely carved stone animals and human figures stand on both sides, each wearing a graphic facial expression, and showing precise detail.


Clothing folds, beads in civil officials' hands, designs on military officials' scabbards, animal hair and designs on saddles are all clearly discernible. The verdant pine tree wall along the way sighs in the breeze, adding a taste of classic elegance. A small hill rises in the middle of the way to serve as a screen wall. Behind it is the Dragon and Phoenix Gate carved with innumerable dragons belching mouthfuls of clouds and mist as well as flowers designed in colored glazes.


At the northern end of the spirit path are three three-arch stone bridges, under which the Yudai (Jade Belt River flows. Across the bridges is the lesser tablet pavilion. The tablet inside is inscribed with emperors' names in Manchu, Han and Mongolian languages. North of the pavilion is a square, north of which, on a platform, are five east rooms and five west rooms for visitors to rest and three east and three west rooms for guards. In front of the square is Long'en Gate, as wide as five bays (generally, the number of beams required to support ceilings and roof), with a single-eared gable roof. On the left and right inside the gate are color glazed burners to burn funeral orations, gold and silver bullion and paper of five colors.


At the north gate are east and west side halls. The east hall is constructed for the storage of zhuban (a square of wood slightly less than half a meter in width and length covered with yellow paper at four sides, for reading funeral orations when offering sacrifices to ancestors). The west side hall is where lamas chanted scriptures.


The Long'en Hall, the main hall, lies on the front platform. It is five bays wide and three bays deep with double eaves and yellow glazed gable roofs. Inside the hall, the beams are painted with gilt lines, dots and circles.


Central paintings titled "A United Country" and "Illuminating the Universe" are done in gentle colors to create an air of solemnity. The hall is still bright in colors today and contains three rooms, one for consecrating the figures of Buddha and the other two enshrined with the tablets of emperors and empresses. A memorial ceremony, big or small, was held here each year.


Behind the Long'en Hall are Sanzuo Gate, Two-Pillar Gate, a rectangular five-piece sacrificial stone altar, the square Castle and Soul Tower. The cinnabar tablet in Soul Tower is inscribed with the names of temples for each emperor in Manchu, Han and Mongolian languages. From Soul Tower, a path leads to the Round Castle and its two parts: Precious Dome, and underground palace.

Soul Tower at Tailing


Emperor Yong Zheng died in the 13th year of his reign (1735) and was buffed in Tailing in the second year of the Qian Long reign (1737). Buffed with him are empress Xiao Jingxian and concubine Dun Su. Some 1.5 kilometers northeast of Tailing is the Taidongling, in which is buried empress Xiao Shengxian, Qian Long's mother. South of Taidongling lies Taifeiling where Yong Zheng's 21 concubines, including concubine Yu and concubine Qi, were buried.


A kilometer west of Tailing is the Changling, Emperor Jia Qing's tombs, where Jia Qing and his empress Xiao Shurui (Xitala) were buffed. West of Changling are the Xiling and Changfeiling, containing the remains of Jia Qing's concubines.


Very close to Tailing, Changling nearly matches Tailing in luxury. Pillars of the Long'eh Hall are decorated with gilded clouds and dragons and look splendid; the floor is paved with precious piebald stones and yellow slabstones streaked with purple lines, looking smooth and bright.


Muling is built at Longquanyu, southwest of Changling, where Emperor Dao Guang and his empresses, Xiao Mucheng and Xiao Quancheng, were buried. Not far from Muling is the Mudongling, which contained Dao Guang's empresses Xiao Shencheng and Xiao Jingcheng. The Muling is the smallest among the Qing West and East Tombs, having neither a Square Castle nor a Soul Tower, and its underground palace is enclosed only by a stone fence.


Emperor Dao Guang first selected his tomb site at the East Tombs in keeping with the alternate burial tradition. However, since the underground palace was found soaked with water, he ordered a new tomb constructed at the West Tombs. Emperor Dao Guang thought the water in his tomb might be the spit of dragons as they dug holes. If the dragons were moved to the ceiling, he reasoned, they would no longer spit water in the underground palace. So many dragons carved in nanmu (phoebe nanmu) wood decorated the caisson ceilings, forming an array of dragons and permeating the underground palace with the fragrance of nanmu.


Therefore, the Long'en Hall in Muling is unique with all its ceilings, beams and bracket sets covered with swimming and coiling dragons. Further, the surface of the carved dragons are not painted, retaining the original color of nanmu. The fragrant nanmu smell still greets visitors to the hall.

The Nanmu Hall at Muling, Mausoleum of Emperor Dao Guang


East of Tailing is Chongling, the final tomb. It was built in the first year of the Xuan Tong reign (1909) and completed in the fourth year of the Republic of China (1915). It is, then, the newest among the extant tombs of the emperors, under a thick growth of rare trees such as yew podocarpus. In the underground palace are buried Emperor Guang Xu and his empress, Long Yu.


In 1980, the underground palace at Chongling was cleaned and some repairs made. Although it had been looted in early years and severely damaged, some cultural relics such as precious pearls and silk fabrics were still discovered. Near the Chongling there is the Chongfeiling where concubine Zhen Fei and concubine Jin Fei were buried.


In August 1900, combined forces of eight imperialist powers took Beijing, forcing Empress Dowager Ci Xi, who had Guang Xu in her power, to flee with imperial court to Xi'an. Before she left Beijing, Ci Xi ordered her eunuch to drown concubine Zhen Fei, who often opposed her, in a palace well. The corpse was retrieved the next year and buried in Tiancun Village in the western suburb of Beijing. Later her remains were moved to Chongfeiling.


The Qing West Tombs contain many exquisite carvings. The three stone archways outside the Great Red Gate are exquisitely made with each of its top ridges, purlins and bracket sets carved out of one piece of stone. The bracket sets and tie beams are engraved with designs of flowers and animals, exquisite and vividly executed. The stone human figures and animals on both sides of the spirit path are also masterpieces of stone carvings, fierce and restless unicorn, elephant, horse and lion are made tractable and lovely. Seen from afar, these stone animals in life size look real and lively. The sculptures of civil and military officials are well shaped and each wears a vivid facial expression. Their long gowns are carved loose and with distinct wrinkles, showing an artistic realism.

Stone archway at the Qing West Tombs

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