Located at the foot of Zi Jin Shan (Purple & Golden Mountain) in an eastern suburb of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, these two elephants guard the Sacred Way that leads to the Tomb of the first Ming Dynasty Emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398) and Empress Ma. Nanjing was the capital of Ming China during this period. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Built between 1409 and 1644, the Thirteen Ming Tombs is the largest imperial burial compound in the world, with thirteen emperors and twenty-three empresses entombed. Dingling ??, the only excavated mausoleum of the compound, is known as the Underground Palace. On display in the Palace are the emperor’s intricately woven gold crown and the empress’s phoenix crown laden with pearls and precious stones.
Situated in Tianshou Mountains (Heavenly Longevity ???) in Beijing’s northwestern suburb of Changping (Prosperity and Peacefulness, ??), the Thirteen Ming Tombs is the largest complex of imperial burial grounds in the world, covering an area of more than forty square kilometers (15 square miles).
Emperors’ Resting Place
In these mausoleums, about fifty kilometers from Beijing, rest thirteen emperors, twenty-three empresses, two princes, more than thirty concubines, and one eunuch of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The construction of the mausoleums started with Changling (Perpetuity Mausoleum ??) in 1409 and ended with Siling (Remembrance Mausoleum ??) in 1644.
Of the sixteen Ming dynasty emperors, thirteen constructed their last dwellings in the Tianshou Mountains. The Thirteen Ming Tombs has the densest population of former emperors anywhere in the world.
Chronologically, the mausoleums and their respective emperor occupants are as follows:
Changling ?? (Emperor Chengzu ??)
1 Xianling ?? (Renzhong ??)
2 Jingling ?? (Xuanzong ??)
3 Yuling ?? (Yingzong ??)
4 Maoling ?? (Xianzong ??)
5 Tailing ?? (Xiaozong ??)
6 Kangling ?? (Wuzong ??)
7 Yongling ?? (Shizong ??)
8 Zhaoling ?? (Muzong ??)
9 Dingling ?? (Shenzong ??)
10 Qingling ?? (Guangzong ??)
11 Deling ?? (Xizong ??)
12 Siling ?? (Sizong ??)
Closely observing Chinese feng shui guidelines, architects of the Ming mausoleums sought harmony between architecture and nature, and between Heaven and human. Each mausoleum stands by a mountain, which enabled the builders to integrate the mountain landscape with the underground space of the mausoleum. Each mausoleum is square in the front and circular in the back, corresponding to the ancient Chinese concept of “circular heaven and square earth.”
Listed as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2000, the Thirteen Ming Tombs is a popular tourist attraction. To date, only two of the mausoleums have been opened to visitors: Changling and Dingling (Stability Mausoleum), the latter being the only excavated mausoleum of the complex.
About 120,000 square meters (100,890 square yards), Changling is the mausoleum of Chengzu, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and his Empress Xu. As the first mausoleum built in the complex, Changling is the centerpiece of the Ming tombs. A ruler for twenty-two years, Chengzu started constructing the mausoleum in the sixth year of his rule and saw it completed five years later. With walls, gates, buildings for ceremonies, security, storage, and cooking, the mausoleum looked like a functional small imperial palace. Its layout influenced the designs of other mausoleums in the years that followed.
Marble Gateway, the entrance to the mausoleums, was added as part of Changling in 1540. On the grand five-arched Gateway are carved auspicious symbols such as dragons, clouds, lions, and qilin (a mythical animal). Changling’s ten-kilometer-long (6 miles) Divine Path ?? has served as the main path to all the mausoleums. It is flanked by twenty-four stone sculptures of animals and twelve stone sculptures of imperial officials. To the left of the Divine Path stands the Dragon Hill while the Tiger Hill crouches on the right, matching the Daoist preference in placing dragons on the left and tigers on the right for beneficial positioning.
While each mausoleum has a Ling’en Hall (Hall of Most Imminent Favor) for memorial services, Changling’s Ling’en Hall is exceedingly magnificent, measuring 1,956 square meters (1,644 square yards), almost as large as Taihe Hall (Supreme Harmony ???), the largest structure at 2,377 square meters (1,997 square yards) in the Forbidden City, where emperors met their ministers to discuss state affairs. Most impressive in the hall are the thirty-two precious nanmu wood pillars with diameters up to 1.12 meters (4 feet). These majestic one-piece wood pillars came from nanmu trees that grew in China’s southwest. They are even more precious today, as no one is able to find nanmu trees of similar sizes any more. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Changling’s Ling’en Hall was the designated location where shrines of deceased emperors and empresses stood and where emperors held memorial services for family members.
In power for forty-eight years (1572–1620), Dingling’s occupant Shenzong was the longest ruling emperor of the Ming dynasty. It took six years to build the mausoleum of 182,000 square meters (152,941 square yards) at the cost of over eight million ounces of silver—the equivalent to two years’ taxes collected by the central government. Excavation of Dingling, which lasted from May 1956 to July 1958, unveiled the mystery that had shrouded the mausoleums. An all-stone underground palace lies 17 meters (56 feet) below the ground. The underground vault, free of beams and pillars, is 87.34 meters (287 feet) long and 47.28 meters (155 feet) wide, divided into five halls with a total area of 1,195 square meters (1,004 square feet).
In the central hall are three thrones for the emperor and his two empresses, all carved out of stone. Images of dragons are carved on the emperor’s throne while those of phoenixes are on the empresses’ thrones. In front of each throne is a large porcelain container, originally filled with oil, which was meant to provide lighting for the emperor and the empresses.
The three coffins are placed in the rear hall. Twenty-six wood trunks, lacquered in red and filled with sacrificial objects, lie next to the coffins. Among the more than three thousand unearthed artifacts are the emperor’s 24-centimeter-high gold crown with images of two dragons at play, which is woven with extremely fine gold thread, and the empress’s phoenix crown, adorned with 3,500 pearls and 150 precious stones.
Paludan, A. (1981). The imperial Ming tombs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Paludan, A. (1991). The Ming tombs. New York: Oxford University Press.
Yu, C. (Ed.). (1999). Gr
eat sites of Beijing. Beijing: Beijing Arts and Crafts Publishing House.
Source: Lin, Jian-Zhong. (2009). Thirteen Ming Tombs. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2248–2250. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Kneeling Camel sculpture, one of a pair of the guardians along the Sacred Way, the path leading to the Ming Tombs that lie in a valley outside of Beijing. The Sacred Way is lined with many animal and human guardian couples on both sides of the road, to repel evil spirits from entry to the imperial tombs. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Thirteen Ming Tombs (Míng Shís?nlíng ????)|Míng Shís?nlíng ???? (Thirteen Ming Tombs)