The Ming Dynasty is widely recognised as a prosperous and relatively stable era, leaving behind tombs of 13 emperors in Beijing. The Ming Tombs, as a world heritage site, doesn't only epitomise the history of the Ming Dynasty but also signifies the zenith of imperial power of China's feudal period. Hidden within the tombs are little-known secrets of the Ming Dynasty.
To defend the border, Zhu Di intended to move the capital (then Nanjing) to Beijing. Thus, in 1403, Zhu ordered to rename Beiping as Beijing. In the following years, officials at Beijing were commanded by Zhu to engage more than a million craftsmen and labourers to build Beijing's imperial palace. The political centre of the Ming Dynasty started to move north. Therefore, Zhu made a decision to build a tomb for Empress Xun in Beijing.
With Zhu Di's authorisation, Liao Junqing (1350–1413), a geomancy practitioner from the Jiangxi school, and Zhao Hong (1364–1436), minister of rituals, led some people to scour for an ideal lot of land for Empress Xu's tomb for more than two years in Beijing. Finally, they selected a place near Huangtu Hill in today's Changping District, in northern Beijing.
Zhu came to visit and evaluate the place, surrounded by mountains on three sides and only open to the north, forming the shape of a horseshoe. Its ground is flat and wide. Moreover, the Wenyu River meanders through it from northwest to southeast. Therefore, Zhu also agreed that it was auspicious land suitable for graveyards.
In 1409, the first tomb of the Ming Tombs began construction, named Changling. In 1413, the underground palace was completed and then Empress Xu's coffin was sent from Nanjing and settled in the tomb. However, the construction of Changling tomb lasted 18 years and was completed three years after Zhu Di's death.
This graveyard saw construction of more than 200 years, consisting of imperial tombs for 13 among all 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty except the missing Emperor Jianwen, Zhu Yunwen (1377–year of death uncertain) and holding 13 emperors' bodies
excluding Zhu Yuanzhang (buried at the foot of Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing) and Zhu Qiyu (1428–1457), Emperor Jingtai, buried in Jinshan Mountain of Beijing's western suburbs.
Wishing for Eternal Imperial Power
For a long period, there was no compulsory requirement on the layout and size of imperial tombs. Before the Ming and Qing dynasties, imperial tombs were built in different forms such as large, earth or deep tombs.
In the early Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang carried out significant reform on standardisation of imperial tombs, so the Ming Tombs' layout followed that of the Xiaoling Mausoleum of the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing, featuring a unified planning, design and construction.
The Ming Tombs is an integral architectural ensemble and consists of 13 individual tombs, each against a hill. Changling on the foot of Tianshou Hill is the ancestral tomb in the Ming Tombs, boasting the largest scale and magnificence among all tombs.
On the left side of Changling stand Jingling [of Zhu Zhanji (1399–1426), Emperor Xuande], Yongling [of Zhu Houcong (1507–1567), Emperor Jiajing] and Deling [of Zhu Youjiao (1605–1627), Emperor Tianqi]; on the right are Xianling [of Zhu Gaochi (1378–1425), Emperor Hongxi], Qingling [of Zhu Changluo (1582–1620), Emperor Taichang], Yuling [of Zhu Qizhen (1427–1464), Emperor Zhengtong], Maoling [of Zhu Jianshen (1447–1487), Emperor Chenghua], Tailing [of Zhu Youcheng (1470– 1505), Emperor Hongzhi], Kangling [of Zhu Houzhao (1491–1521), Emperor Zhengde], Dingling [of Zhu Yijun (1563–1620), Emperor Wanli], Zhaoling [of Zhu Zaihou (1537–1572), Emperor Longqing] and Siling [Zhu Youjian (1611–1644), Emperor Chongzhen].
Each span between two contiguous tombs is at least half a kilometre or at most eight kilometres. All other tombs are younger and smaller than Changling, marking Changling's role as an ancestral tomb.
The Sacred Way of Changling lies on the central axis of the Ming Tombs and is about 7.3 kilometres long, stringing together a series of funeral facilities including the Stone Archway, Sankong Stone Bridge, Big Red Gate, Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion, Stone Statues, Dragon and Phoenix Gate, South Wukong Bridge, Qikong Bridge and North Wukong Bridge from south to north.
Grand Funerals and Exquisite Funerary Objects
China's dynasties once formulated their own funeral and sacrificial rites, indicating an idea that governance should be based on rites but sacrifice is the most important one among five rites. As a result, the imperial burial system and funerary culture came into being and continued to develop in a feudalistic society.
Sacrificial events in the Ming Dynasty featured a strict hierarchy; among of them, the sacrificial practice at the imperial mausoleum was significant and valued by the imperial court. At that time, such practices were officiated by officials designated by the emperor or presided over by the emperor himself at imperial tombs. Those chaired by the emperor were more ceremonious than the ones by officials.
If an emperor or empress died and needed to be buried, his or her funeral was the grandest. The funeral started with a ceremony of striking bells in all the temples in the capital to help the dead emperor or empress make contributions to hell. It was necessary to make up and put shrouds on the deceased and offer sacrifices before the corpse, which was placed in the previous residence of the deceased.
The next day, the corpse was set in coffins in front of which sacrifices and a tablet with Chinese characters “da xinghuangdizigong” (“the coffin of a dead emperor”). On that day, the legitimate heir to the throne and concubines of the late emperor wore white clothing to make offerings to the deceased. After the corpse was put in the coffin, the legitimate heir to the throne selected a proper day to ascend the throne and prepared to give the late emperor a posthumous title.
In ancient imperial funerals, there was a tradition that “the dead emperor should be taken into the coffin seven days after his death but buried in the tomb seven month later.” However, the Ming's emperors didn't follow this tradition and selected a suitable burial day for the late emperor on their own.
A whole funeral ceremony comprised nine memorial practices—seven held on the way, the eighth outside the capital and the ninth in the Jiyan Hall of the Imperial Palace with the attendance of the legitimate heir to the throne. The funeral was completed only after the end of a series of practices.
China's long history has been included in 25 historical books, from the ancient times to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Ming Tombs can be considered a book describing the Ming's dynastic history. Even though it is a graveyard, almost all historical events from the Ming Dynasty were witnessed or testified by those tombs covering an area more than 120 square kilometres.
An overview of the Changling Tomb of the Ming Tombs
A porcelain jar unearthed from the Ming Tombs