Beijing Highlights – The Ming Tombs (明十三陵)

We made our way to The Ming Tombs (明十三陵) after visiting the Great Wall of China.  The Ming Tombs are located on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain about 50km north-west of Beijing.  13 out of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are buried here.  The 13 imperial tombs are scattered over an area of eighty square kilometres.     The first tomb was built in 1409 by Emperor Yongle (永乐帝), and the last one in 1644.

The main pathway leading to the Ming Tombs is the Sacred Way (神道) which lies behind The Stele Pavilion.  Inside this double eave roof pavilion is China’s largest memorial stele.

Four white stone ornamental pillars at the four corners of the stele pavilion

The front of the tablet bears a 3,000-word inscription detailing the lifetime achievements of Emperor Yongle.  We were told by our guide that if we see a stone tablet placed on top of a tortoise, it means an imperial tomb is nearby.

As we exit the pavilion, the 7-kilometre long Sacred Way is ahead of us.  Sacred Way means the road leading to heaven.  It was really nice walking along the wide path as it was shaded by trees.

24 large stone statues of guardian animals and 12 officials lined both sides of the path.  There are 6 groups of different animal statues and in each group, one pair is standing and the other pair kneeling.

This stone camel statue was carved in the 15th century

Wishing tablets at the Sacred Way

The 12 officials consist of 4 military, 4 civil and 4 meritorious.

Statue of a military official

Statue of Meritorius Official

Our guide waited for us at the end of the path and we continued by car to Dingling Tomb (定陵) .  By the time we reached the tomb, it was almost 4.30pm.  So we quickly made our way to the Underground Palace which was excavated in 1956.  It is the only one of the Ming Dynasty Tombs to have been excavated.

On our way to Dingling Tomb

We had to descend 27m to an underground vault.  It was quite cool inside the vault.  This underground vault is the burial place of Emperor Wanli (万历帝) and his 2 empresses.  The underground palace consists of five spacious halls: an antechamber, central hall, rear hall and left and right annexes.  The replica coffins of the emperor and his empresses are found in the rear hall as the original ones had deteriorated.

When they were discovered, each coffin was surrounded by pieces of jade, porcelain vases and twenty-six red lacquered wooden boxes filled with precious objects.  These objects are buried together with the emperor so that he can still enjoy them in his afterlife.

Three marble thrones are displayed in the central hall with glazed pottery altar-pieces and a big porcelain vase placed in front of each throne.

Empress Xiaojing’s (孝靖后) throne

At the antechamber is the diamond wall which is the front entrance of the tomb chambers.  The doorway shaped like the Chinese character for man, 人, was tightly sealed with twenty-three layers of large bricks.

We spent less than half an hour here as there is little to see.  We then spent a little time at the Exhibition Rooms  where most of the 3,000 artifacts excavated from the tomb including a great number of gold, silver, jade, China wares, textiles, wood carved figurines,etc are on display.

Gold & silver nuggets

A gold pot

Wooden figurines representing officials & servants to serve the emperor in the afterlife

Among the items excavated from Dingling are the emperor’s gold crown and a phoenix crown worn by the empress.  Unfortunately some of the artifacts on display including the crowns are replica as most of the surviving artifacts have severely deteriorated due to lack of technology and resources to preserve them when they were first discovered.

Gold crown worn by the emperor

Phoenix crown worn by the empress

We left at about 5.30pm as we had to rush back to Beijing for dinner in Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.

In my opinion, the Sacred Way is the best part of The Ming Tombs and one can skip Dingling Tomb.  As we didn’t have enough time, we didn’t visit the other 2 tombs that are open to public – Changling and Zhaoling.  The entrance fee for Sacred Way is RMB35 per person while Dingling Tomb is RMB65 per person.


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