The tombs of the Ming Emperors are situated out near the Tianshou Mountains, some 50 kilometres northwest of Beijing. It may be a bit off the beaten track for many tourists but it is well worth making the trek out to view the necropolis of some of China's great rulers of the past — monarchs who ruled from 1368 through to 1644.
Apart from the tombs of 13 Ming Dynasty emperors, the tombs of seven concubines and the tomb of a eunuch are also situated in the valley. According to UNESCO, the Ming Tombs' area was worthy of being listed as a World Heritage Site because it offers a number of unique attractions.
The tombs, which took more than 200 years to construct, show the harmonious integration of remarkable architecture set in a natural environment. And, what makes this natural environment particularly fascinating is that it was selected to meet with the ancient rules of geomancy, or Fengshui, thus making the imperial tombs a masterpiece of human creative genius.
According to Fengshui, bad spirits and evil winds that descended from the North had to be deflected and so an arc-shaped area at the foot of mountains north of Beijing was selected. Today, the Ming Tombs offer us dazzling insight into the beliefs, world view and geomantic theories prevalent in feudal China. The tombs offer the visitor the opportunity to not only view the burial edifices of great historical figures, but experience what was the theatre for major events during the course of China's rich and gripping history.
The Ming Tombs area covers some 80 square kilometres. The three main tombs that draw tourists are Changling, Dingling and Zhaoling. Changling mausoleum is undoubtedly the most magnificent of the three main tombs here. Changling is the tomb of Emperor Zhu Di, often referred to as Emperor Yongle. It is also the burial site of his wife, Empress Xu. In fact, it was after the death of his wife, Empress Xu, at the age of 45, that Emperor Yongle ordered the building of the mausoleum out in this valley. This tomb alone took 18 years to construct.
Emperor Yongle is known to many as the monarch who ordered that the Imperial capital be moved from Nanjing to Beijing. He also ordered the construction of the Forbidden City, and during his reign there were numerous notable achievements such as the compilation of the Yongle Encyclopedia, as well as the voyages of Zheng He. But when this great emperor passed away in 1424 at the age of 64, he was not laid in his mausoleum alone. He was entombed with his wife, Empress Xu, who had died 17 years before him. And, his concubines were buried with him too. In fact, Emperor Yongle had about 30 women hanged so that they could be buried with him and accompany him on his journey into the afterlife.
The practice may sound quite shocking today, but Emperor Yongle would not have batted an eyelid at such a practice. After all, this is the man who ordered and then witnessed 2,800 women being slowly sliced to death in front of him after he concluded that the death of one of his concubines was due to poisoning. The practice of entombing living concubines, however, was abolished during the reign of Emperor Zhengtong in the mid-1400s. Emperor Zhengtong's tomb is known as Yuling, and is, like the other Ming Dynasty emperors, built around mausoleum where Emperor Yongle lies.
The best approach to the Changling, the mausoleum of Emperor Yongle, is along the Sacred Way, a seven-kilometre-long colonnade. This divine pathway is lined with willow trees, and as you make your way along the colonnade you stroll past life-size statues of camels, lions and elephants. You will also view statues of Chinese mythological beasts. And, as you reach the end of the Sacred Way you come across the statues of generals and other dignitaries.
The Sacred Way symbolizes the road leading to heaven. It was believed that the Emperor, who was known as the Son of the Heaven, came from Heaven to his country via the Sacred Way, and so it was thought that the emperor deserved to return to Heaven the same way.
Once you've walked the whole of the Sacred Way it is then easy to hop on a bus and take the 10-minute ride out to the Changling mausoleum. Of course, you may opt to head off to the Dingling Tombs or Zhaoling Tombs first, but do remember that Changling is said to be the best of the three sites.
The tombs are quite spread apart so you will definitely need transport. Certainly, if you have your own transport, you can easily cover all three tombs in a day, but those relying on public transport would be wise to take in just two of the tomb sites so that they can enjoy these at a leisurely pace. Another option is to take one of the unofficial taxi drivers who will more than likely approach you.
On a recent daytrip out to the Ming Tombs I decided to visit just Dingling and Changling, and save a visit to Zhaoling for another day.
Dingling was the first tomb I visited. It is located at the eastern foot of the Dayu Mountains. Construction of this tomb started in 1584 and took six years to complete. It was constructed as the mausoleum for Emperor Zhu Xiejun, who was popularly known as Emperor Wanli, as well as for his two empresses. Emperor Wanli was the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was born in 1563 and was enthroned at the age of 10. Emperor Wanli reigned for 48 years, until he passed away at age 58.
The Underground Palace of Dingling is the only one of the Ming Tombs excavated so far. Inside there are five stone chambers, and more than 3,000 cultural relics have been unearthed here. You can walk around the chambers and see the coffin bed where replicas of the huge red coffins and cases are on display. Unfortunately, when the archeologists initially opened the Underground Palace the coffin of Empress Xiaojing, as well as most of the funerary objects, had decayed. However, there is a museum on site where you can view crowns, treasures, silks and robes that have been unearthed at Dingling.
Meanwhile, at Changling once entering through the Gate of Eminent Favour, you pass the stele pavillion, and two sacred silk burners in a huge courtyard before coming to the Hall of Eminent Favour. Here, you come face-to-face with a huge bronze statue of Emperor Yongle. A display in both Chinese and English explains the achievements of his reign. You can view his crowns, as well as jade jewellery, porcelain, and even gold chopsticks and spoons that were used by one of the greatest of the Ming Emperors and the man who envisaged his name and memory living on for many centuries after his death.