Tomb’s story of love, ex­ile, life and death

Re­mains tes­tify to bat­tle for power last­ing nearly 30 years

China Daily European Weekly - - SPOTLIGHT - By ZHAO XU

Asked to name one par­tic­u­lar fu­ner­ary ob­jec­the re­mem­bers most clearly, Sun Xian­bao, who took part in ex­ca­vat­ing the Din­gling Mau­soleum in Bei­jing 60 years ago, cites a pair of jade rab­bit ear­rings.

The rab­bits, set in gold and with ruby stones as their eyes, once dan­gled from the ears of Em­press Xiao­jing — when she was buried in 1603. Mar­ried to Em­peror Wanli, she had the good for­tune to give birth to a son who ul­ti­mately suc­ceeded his fa­ther, but also the mis­for­tune of fall­ing out of the em­peror’s fa­vor af­ter their fleet­ing re­la­tion­ship.

The Din­gling Mau­soleum in north­west­ern Bei­jing is the burial ground that Wanli built for him­self and shared with his two em­presses, in­clud­ing Xiao­jing.

De­spite be­ing ban­ished to a cor­ner of the For­bid­den City out of her hus­band’s sight, Em­pressXiao­jing— Xiao­jing be­ing the fu­ner­ary ti­tle of the em­press, whose sur­name was Wang, but whose full name re­mains amys­tery — by virtue of be­ing the mother ofWanli’s el­dest son, for much of her life re­mained at the cen­ter of a power strug­gle, in which there would be no win­ner.

HuHan­sheng, a his­to­ri­an­whos­pe­cial­izes in Ming im­pe­rial mau­soleums, says: “When Xiao­jing­be­camepreg­nant in 1581, she­wasjust 16 and a lady-in-wait­ing for the em­peror’s mother. Her pregnancy deeply em­bar­rassed Wanli, who had no choice but to con­fer on her the ti­tle of con­sort. That was the be­gin­ning of her or­deal.”

When an­other con­sort, sur­named Zheng and whom Wanli fa­vored over Xao­jing, pro­duced an­other boy, in 1586, the em­peror’s emo­tional scale tipped dras­ti­cally to­ward the younger son.

For nearly 20 years the em­peror tried to make this younger son his le­gal suc­ces­sor, Hu says.

“This was de­spite the strong re­sis­tance from ev­ery­one — in­clud­ing the en­tire court and the em­peror’s own mother — who be­lieved in the el­dest son’s birthright to the throne.”

The em­peror even­tu­al­ly­came­out on the los­ing side in this bat­tle of wills, and Xiao­jing’s son be­came the crown prince in 1601, when he was 20. It would not be for an­other 19 years that he would as­cend to the throne, where he would re­main for no more than two months, seem­ingly hav­ing been worn down by the epic strug­gle to claim his right.

His mother, Em­press Xiao­jing, was spared this tragic end, hav­ing died in 1603, still con­fined to her own cor­ner, al­most blind and fear­ful for her son’s fu­ture. (Those fears turned out to be well founded. Her son, the crown prince, con­fronted an in­truder in his palace in 1615, and the man, wav­ing a stick, hit a guard be­fore be­ing cap­tured. Although the in­truder was de­clared to be in­sane and was ex­e­cuted, it was widely be­lieved by then that Con­sort Zheng and her co­hort were be­hind the in­tru­sion and thwarted at­tack.)

In fact, when Xiao­jing died it was not as an em­press. In 1620, 17 years af­ter her death, Em­per­orWanli bade hisown­re­luc­tant farewell to the world, fol­lowed by Xiao­jing’s son, the new em­peror, six weeks later. When Em­peror Xi­zong, Xiao­jing’s grand­son, as­cended to the throne in Septem­ber that year, he de­cided to honor his long-suf­fer­ing late grand­mother with an­other burial — this time as an em­press in­stead of a mere con­sort (con­cu­bine) and to­gether with the em­peror.

Also buried was Wanli’s real and only em­press in life, Em­press Xiao­d­uan, who died ear­lier that same year, in April 1620, at age 56. Un­like Con­sort Zheng, his­tory has castXiao­d­uan as awom­an­with a big heart, the pro­tec­tor of Xiao­jing’s son.

“The cof­fin of Xiao­jing was re­lo­cated to the Din­gling Mau­soleum, from its orig­i­nal burial place about 5 kilo­me­ters away,” Hu said.

In 1957, when mem­bers of the ex­ca­va­tion team en­tered the un­der­ground tomb, they ini­tially sawlit­tle: the first cham­ber was empty, with a stone floor cov­ered by rot­ted wooden boards. A deep rut in the floor sug­gested that the coffins had been car­ried in­side by car­riages.

Three stone thrones were laid out in a half­cir­cle in the sec­ond and the mid­dle cham­ber, sym­bol­iz­ing the em­peror and his two em­presses. In front of the thrones were yel­low glass vases and gi­ant blue porce­lain ones — sac­ri­fi­cial of­fer­ings to the de­ceased.

“The blue vases were filled with solid beeswax in which half-burned can­dlewicks were planted,” Sun says. “This is what an­cient Chi­nese called ‘the eter­nal light’. The can­dlewicks may have burned for some time af­ter the stone gate was closed in 1620, but even­tu­ally went out due to lack of oxy­gen.”

On both sides of the mid­dle room were an­cil­lary cham­bers — largely va­cant with an el­e­vated stone deathbed in each room. There was no cof­fin.

“His­to­ri­ans be­lieve that the ‘beds’ were once for the coffins of low-level con­cu­bines of aM­ing em­peror, who were forced to hang them­selves at their mas­ter’s death,” Sun says.

“But that was be­fore Em­peror Ying­zong, the eighth em­peror ofMing, also a tragic one, of­fi­cially banned hu­man sac­ri­fice.”

Then, there was the third and the in­ner­most cham­ber, where the gi­ant red-lac­quered wooden coffins of the em­peror and his em­presses were housed. There, the posthu­mously or­dained Em­press Xiao­jing lay qui­etly, but un­mis­tak­ably, be­side her hus­band. (Em­press Xiao­d­uan’s cof­fin lay at the other side.)

Sun, who was stand­ing right be­side the three coffins when they were opened, had a close view of the corpses.

“The hair­pins Xiao­jing wore were mostly made of jade, and Xiao­d­uan’s were gold. As for the em­peror, he was wear­ing a black bam­boo-wo­ven hat with gold dragon dec­o­ra­tions. Judg­ing from the bones, he had a long nar­row face and mus­tache, not tall at all— prob­a­bly about 164 cm, and slightly hunch­backed.”

At the time the em­peror re­ceived his un­in­vited guests, Con­sort Zheng, whom many to­day be­lieve was the true love of his life, lay soli­tar­ily in her own tomb, about 3 kilo­me­ters away. Dur­ing her life, she was viewed as a threat not only to Xiao­jing’s son, but also to the en­tire suc­ces­sion of the rul­ing fam­ily.

And as a con­cu­bine, she had no right to be buried with the em­peror.

For the last 10 years of her life, Zheng en­dured lone­li­ness in a cor­ner of the For­bid­den City, in very much the same way as Em­press Xiao­jing, her in­vis­i­ble ad­ver­sary, once had. Her beloved son had long been dis­patched to his own fief­dom thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away.

Zheng died at age 65 in 1630, 14 years be­fore theMing Dy­nasty fell.

Hu says: “If the word tragedy sums up the lives ofWanli’s wives— ei­ther his loved one or his unloved ones — it is the word irony that sums up him, in life and in death.”


Rab­bit ear­ring worn by Em­press Xiao­jing upon the open­ing of the cof­fin.

Em­press Xiao­jing

A crown for Em­press Xiao­d­uan

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