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China’s finest example of imperial tomb architecture: The Ming Tombs

David Goran

The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the thirteen emperors of the Ming dynasty. They are located 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing City, at the foot of Tianshou Mountain in China.

The Ming Tombs hold a place in Chinese history, being the place where 13 emperors od the Ming Dynasty were buried, together with their wives and concubines. Source

The Ming Tombs hold a place in Chinese history, being the place where 13 emperors od the Ming Dynasty were buried, together with their wives and concubines. Image by: Clark H/Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

 

Changling tomb's Ling'en Gate. Source

Changling tomb’s Ling’en Gate. Image by: Clark H/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The third emperor of the dynasty started the construction of the first tomb in 1409 AD. and subsequent tombs were built on each side of the first one. All the tombs share an avenue located in the middle of the whole area.

Roof detail of a ceremonial hall. Source

Roof detail of a ceremonial hall. Image by: Anita Ritenour/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The avenue is known as the Sacred Way or The Spirit Way and starts with a 7 kilometer-long stone memorial archway. Constructed in 1540, this archway is one of the biggest stone archways in China today. According to Chinese history, the name Sacred Way means a walk to heaven. The walkway starts at the stone memorial archway and ends at the gate of the Changling Mausoleum.

Ming Tombs

The Sacred Way. Image by: SteFou!/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

 

Decorative gate at the beggining of The Sacred Way. Source

Decorative gate at the beginning of The Sacred Way. Image by: Sam Haldane/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Spirit Way leads into the complex, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials. Both sides of the avenue are lined by 38 huge statues including elephants, camels, lions and 12 humans who represent the emperors, showing that the emperors are still supreme even after death.

A silk burning stove at the Changling tomb. Source

A silk burning stove at the Changling tomb. Image by: Keith Roper/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

The Dingling Tomb entrance. Source

The Dingling Tomb entrance. Image by: jwalsh/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In a carefully selected site, according to the Chinese feng-shui principles, the tombs are surrounded by mountains on three sides and a river flows near them. According to these principles, bad spirits and evil winds from the North must be deflected.

Zhongshan, the place of Sun Yat Sen's memorial. Source

Zhongshan, the place of Sun Yat Sen’s memorial. Image by: Jason Powers/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

 

The gate at Zhongshan. Source

The gate at Zhongshan. Image by: xiquinhosilva/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The area chosen as the auspicious site of the imperial burial grounds was also in an excellent position from a military perspective, as the mountains provided a natural defense for the area.

Golden crown (replica) excavated from Dingling tomb

Golden crown (replica) excavated from Dingling tomb. Image by: Mlogic – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The emperor’s mausoleums are similar in their architectural style and overall arrangement, only differing in size and complexity of their structures. The Changling (Chang Tomb) is the grandest, Yongling (Yong Tomb) is the most delicate and Siling (Si Tomb) is the smallest.

emperor uniform at Ming Tombs. Source

Emperor uniform at Ming Tombs. Image by: Nacho Facello/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Chinese Xin shaped jewelry from Ming tombs

Chinese Xin shaped jewelry from Ming tombs. Image by: Mlogic – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

At present, only three tombs are open to the public (Changling Tomb, Zhaoling Tomb, and The Sacred Way). There have been no excavations since 1989, but plans for new archeological research and further opening of tombs have circulated. The tombs are outstanding representatives of the ancient Chinese culture, and they were listed in the World Heritage List in 2003, along with other tombs under the “Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties” designation.