Andrew FIELD

Portrait of the Yongle emperor Zhu Di, for whom the Changling Mausoleum was built. Ink and color on silk, by an anonymous painter, Ming dynasty. Zhu Di, who usurped the throne from his nephew, had the Changling Mausoleum built as a way to legitimize his succession to Ming emperorship and Beijing as the true capital of the Ming dynasty.

The Changling Mausoleum is the resting place of the Ming Yongle Emperor (reigned 1403–24), whose given name was Zhu Di and whose posthumous title is Chengzu. At 120,000 square meters, it is one of the grandest and certainly the best preserved of all of the Thirteen Ming Tombs (shisan ling) that lie roughly 45 kilometers north of Beijing in a valley below the Tianshou Mountains.

Emperor Ming Yongle, or Zhu Di as he was known at birth, was an emperor of usurpation. He gained the title after a four-year war with his nephew, whom the first Ming emperor had chosen for the throne. Like the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, which Zhu Di designated the Ming capital after his ascension to the throne, the building of the Changling Mausoleum was yet another project to legitimize Zhu Di as the true successor to the Ming emperorship, and Beijing as the true capital of the Ming Empire.

The construction of Changling began in 1409. By 1413, the underground tomb was completed. The exact structure of the Changling tomb is not known, but it is likely that it is similar in construction to the excavated Dingling tomb. Upon completion of the tomb, Zhu Di ordered the body of his empress Xu, which was being kept in Nanjing, to be buried in the tomb chamber. The tomb was covered with a large mound, or tumulus, which remains undisturbed today.

Over the next fourteen years, workers continued to build the complex of ceremonial halls leading to the Changling tumulus. The entire complex runs roughly from south to north, ending at the tumulus. It is approached almost directly from the Spirit Path (shen dao) upon which all emperors living or dead must be carried as they approach the Thirteen Tombs. Following a slightly winding road around 5 kilometers northward from the exit of the Spirit Path, one reaches the entrance to Changling, a standard ceremonial arched gateway with three entrances. The emperor would pass through the central entrance, while nobles passed through the right entrance and officials through the left. The design of the Changling is quite similar in ways to that of the Forbidden City, also constructed under the Yongle reign.

Built upon a hillside, the ceremonial path through the tomb complex leads northward and upward. Beyond the entrance and to the right lies a double-eaved wooden pavilion erected in 1542, housing a stele carried by a mythical animal with a tortoise body symbolizing longevity and with a coiling dragon on top. During the Ming, the stele contained no epitaph, but during the Qing it was engraved with imperial edicts and poems of Qing emperors, who sought to legitimize their own succession by honoring the Ming imperial tombs.

The imperial pathway then passes through the Ling’en Gate, an open hall with three entranceways. A set of stairs leads to the gate on both sides. Upon the central stairway over which the living emperor passed as he paid homage to his ancestors is a marble carving showing water, deer, mountains, and two dragons flying in clouds, symbolizing imperial power or perhaps the soul of the emperor in the afterlife. Two sacrificial burners lie on either side of the north exit of the gate, which faces into a large square section containing the Ling’en ceremonial hall. These burners were meant for silk, money, and other combustible items that could be sent on to the afterlife by burning them.

This Ling’en hall is a uniquely preserved feature of Changling and by far its most distinguished. It is the second largest hall of its type that still survives from the Ming dynasty. The hall is elevated and is approached by a set of stairs with marble balustrades. Like the halls of the Forbidden City, there are three tiers, the lower symbolizing hell, the middle earth, and the higher heaven. A marble pathway built for the emperor lies upon the middle stair. The hall is covered by a large double-eaved rooftop, decorated with images of dragons and other mythical creatures. Supporting the roof are sixty columns constructed out of nanmu, a fragrant cedar indigenous to southwestern China. It took about five years on average for each tree to be transported to the northern tomb, which helps to explain why it took workers another four years after the emperor’s death to complete this building and the tomb complex. During the Ming dynasty, the Yongle emperor’s spirit tablet was kept in the hall, and during ceremonies such as Yongle’s birthday, the living emperor, nobles, and officials would give food and other offerings to the spirit tablets of the emperor and empress.

Having passed through the Ling’en hall, one enters through a simple gateway known as a “stargazing gate” to the Soul Tower, a pavilion built atop a tall stone edifice containing a stele commemorating the Yongle Emperor. Before the Soul Tower is a marble altar containing five ceremonial objects—the last step in the ritual process of obeisance to the spirit of the emperor. A passageway leads through the fortification and around the other side to the Soul Tower. Behind the Soul Tower lies the tumulus, which is still undisturbed.

The Changling Mausoleum provided the basic blueprint for the construction of the subsequent twelve surrounding Ming tombs, though they all differ in detail. Some scholars speculate that were it not for the construction of Changling, Beijing may not have remained the imperial capital, as it was vulnerable to attacks from the Mongols. Moreover, in 1421, the year that Zhu Di finally led the imperial retinue to the new capital from Nanjing, some palaces in the newly built Forbidden City were struck by lightning and burnt down. While some officials saw this as a bad omen and suggested moving back to Nanjing, others remarked that the imperial tomb was already in the area of Beijing, thus justifying remaining there despite the ill omen. In this sense, Changling was the anchor that held the capital in Beijing.

One of the reasons that the tomb complex is so well preserved is that Mao Zedong paid a visit to Changling in 1954, thereby consecrating it as a historical site and preserving it from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Further Reading

Bai Bo. (2006). Atlas of world heritage: China. San Francisco: Long River Press.

Changjian Guo & Jianzhi Song. (2003). World Heritage Sites in China. 五洲传播出版社 [Wuzhou: China Intercontinental Press].

Howard, A. F., Li Song, Wu Hung, & Yang Hong. (2006). Chinese sculpture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Source: Field, Andrew. (2009). Changling Mausoleum. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 298–301. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Hall of Eminent Favors, Tomb of the Yongle emperor (Zhu Di), Ming dynasty, recently renovated. This immense building is one of the largest wooden halls in Asia and, like the rest of the complex, has been extraordinarily preserved, partly because Mao Zedong paid a visit to Changling in 1954 and declared it a historical site. It was thereby spared the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Altar in front of the stele tower, Tomb of Emperor Zhu Di (the Yongle emperor). Vessels used for offerings were usually made of lacquer, metal, or ceramic, but here they have been fashioned for posterity out of marble. The central vessel simulates a censer (incense burner) in a ding tripod shape. The sculptor has formalized the vaporous emissions, like a great conical hat. A dragon resides in this cloud. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Detail of the wooden ceiling of the Hall of Eminent Favors. The ceiling, like those in the Imperial Palace, is coffered and brightly painted. Golden dragons writhe within the coffers and on the cross beams. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Changling Mausoleum (Chánglǐng Língyuán 长岭陵园)|Chánglǐng Língyuán 长岭陵园 (Changling Mausoleum)

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