The Ming Dynasty Tombs, literally “Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty”, lie at the foot of the Tianshou Mountain in Changping District, some 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing. The Ming emperors built them in an attempt to achieve a swift transition to the afterlife. 13 Ming Dynasty emperors, 23 empresses, 2 crown princes and more than 30 imperial concubines were buried in the tombs, forming the world’s largest set of imperial tombs.
Finding an appropriate place to build structures, funerary or otherwise, has long been viewed as an important aspect of wisdom and art in China, and this was especially true with the location of the emperors’ tomb. The ancient Chinese felt the position of emperors’ tombs would affect the fate of the whole nation. Construction of the Ming Tombs began in 1409 under the direction of the Yongle Emperor. Relying on the guidance of the traditional cultural and a deep belief in principles of fengshui, the location of the Ming Tombs demonstrated the ancient Chinese philosophy of seeking harmony with the nature. The present site was chosen with hills surrounding on three sides: the Heavenly Longevity Hill on the north, Dragon Hill to the east and Tiger Hill to the west, standing like two generals guarding the tomb’s gateway.
At the southern end of the mausoleum area is a large memorial archway; and then to the north are the Great Red Gate, the Stele Pavilion, and a 7.3-kilometer road, known as the Sacred Way that showed the way to the burial complex. Along the Sacred Way northward are stone figures and animals.
Thirteen of the 16 Ming emperors were successively buried here, hence the area is known in Chinese as the Thirteen Tombs. Covering an area of 80 square kilometers, they are integral but independent, simple but stately chambers. Now the Changling and Dingling tombs are open to the public.
Changling Tomb contains the remains of Emperor Chengzu, Zhu Di. It is the first and biggest tomb, occupying the central position of the area. The ground buildings of Changling Tomb include the Hall of Prominent Favor, Soul Tower and Precious Dome. The Hall of Prominent Favor is the main building in Changling for holding sacrificial rites. The hall stands on a three-tiered marble terrace, covering an area of 1,956 square meters, with the same scale of the Hall of the Supreme Harmony in Palace Museum. The hall has 60 nanmu pillars; and the four pillars in the center are especially large, 14.3 meters high and 1.17 meters in diameter. It is the largest nanmu hall in China. Though over 500 years old, it still stands firmly, giving off sweet fragrance.
Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Shenzong, Zhu Yijun. He ascended the throne at the age of 10 with the title Wanli, and reigned 48 years, the longest among Ming emperors. The Dingling was constructed in the imitation of the Changling. The excavation of the underground palace of Dingling Tomb was from 1956 to 1958. Now the Dingling Underground Palace attracts many tourists every day.
The Ming Tombs, strict in tomb site selection, unique in design, delicate in construction, meticulous in building materials, are the typical examples of Chinese imperial tomb constructions. The burial system employed in the Ming Tombs was somewhat innovated upon that of previous dynasties, and had far reaching influences on the imperial tombs of the Qing Dynasty. The Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.