Brian Salter's Blogs:
A Long Way to see Very Little


You know how it is when you stay for ages in a city. There are certain places you know you really ought to visit, but somehow it never quite seems the right time to go and do so. Thus it was for me with the Ming Tombs, which lie some 40 kms to the northwest of Beijing. They were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in August 2003, not that that really means an awful lot since almost every second tourist attraction in China seems to be designated with some kind of heritage status these days.

The Ming dynasty spanned 277 years – from 1368 to 1644 – and during that time they had 16 emperors. The majority of the Ming tombs – containing 13 of the 16 emperors – can be found in Changping District and are collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (明十三陵 or Míng Shísān Líng). I guess you could think of them as China’s answer to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The site on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain was chosen by the third Ming emperor Yongle (1402–1424). (You will of course remember that it was he who relocated the capital of China from Nanjing to its present location in Beijing!) The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley, which covers a total area of over 120 sq. kms.

OK. I know what you are asking yourself. What about the other three big cheeses? Well, not unsurprisingly, the Xiaoling tomb of the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu, is located near his capital of Nanjing; the second emperor, Jianwen, was overthrown by Yongle, and no one knows what happened to him. Emperor Jingtai was also not buried here, as Emperor Tianshun denied him an imperial burial. (Instead, Jingtai was buried west of Beijing.) Incidentally, the last Ming emperor who was buried here was Chongzhen, who hanged himself on 25 April 1644 and was buried in his Consort Tian's tomb, which was later declared as an imperial mausoleum, though it is on a much smaller scale compared to the other imperial mausoleums.

As usual, along with the majority of Beijing’s other tourist attractions, you can find an awful lot of rubbish written about the Ming Tombs on the internet, with so many scribblers obviously never having visited the place, and simply copying and pasting everyone else’s mistakes.

Getting there is quite easy, I finally discover, once I get up off my situpon and decide to set off on a cold winter’s morning. You take the subway to Jishuitan on Line 2 and then walk to Deshengmen Bus Station located on the north side of Deshengmen Arrow Tower. This is the same place you can get bus 919 to go see the Great Wall at Badaling, if you are so inclined; but instead you get bus 872 which seems to leave every half hour from the northeastern side of the bus station (not the west side as tells us). The fare is a mere RMB4.50 (no, not RMB8!) which is not bad for a 65 minute journey (no, not ‘about 2 hours’, Mr Webmaster of

The first stop on your journey should be The Sacred Way (Shéndào), which was the road leading to heaven. The Emperor, who was regarded as the Son of the Heaven, descended from Heaven along this Sacred Road, and would subsequently return to Heaven along this way.

According to you should take the 872 and get off at the 10th stop of Huzhuang in Changping District ( 昌平胡庄站), and walk about 180 meters to the Sacred Way. Actually, this is officially stop number 11 on the route, and admittedly you could still do this if you decided to visit the Sacred Way on your journey back to Beijing, entering from the northern end rather than the southern end. But as we’ve just come from Beijing, it’s a bit ‘arse-about-face’ walking back the way we have just come; so you’d be much better off getting off the bus at Da Gong Men (大宫门), which is stop 8.

The Sacred Way leads straight up towards the ChangLing Tomb. It’s worthy of a walk through, I guess, and starts with a stone memorial archway constructed in 1540, followed by the Great Red Gate, with its three-arches, and yet further in, the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion of Divine Merits and Sacred Virtue, which was constructed in the tenth year of Emperor Xuande – 1435. During repairs made from 1785-87 it was converted to its present stone structure. Four ornamental white marble Huabiao (pillars of glory) are positioned at each corner of the stele pavilion, topped with mythical beasts.

On the stele found inside, the text on the obverse was composed by Emperor Zhu Gaochi. The 3,000 word article recalls the lifetime and achievements of Emperor Zhi Di (buried in ChangLing tomb). The back and sides of the monument are carved with poems by Emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing.

Shortly after, you come to two pillars positioned on either side of the path. Their surfaces are carved with clouds, and these served as airport landing lights – or rather as beacons to guide the souls of the deceased.

The path then leads to 18 pairs of stone statues and larger than life crouching and standing animals, including lions, Xiezhi, camels, elephants, Qilin, horses, generals, civil officials and meritorious officials. They were constructed between the first and third year of Emperor Zhengtong (1436-1438) and the stone came from the Dushu quarry in Fangshan, Beijing.

The elephants look quite cute in a funny kind of way…

… and certainly appear to have appealed to the Great Helmsman, in 1954, when he stopped there to pose for a selfie.

But I have to say I think the statues of the officials are somewhat more appealing.

One nice thing about visiting on a cold winter’s day is that you have practically the entire place to yourself without the summer crowds.

But the downside of walking around in sub zero temperatures is that it isn’t long before you are desperate to find a loo. No worry. The Ming Emperors were well catered for in this respect too, just in case they needed to pop in for a quick pee on their way up to heaven, no doubt. Outside the comfort station is a sign that appears to demand that you produce a pot of jam, but whether they want strawberry jam or marmalade, they fail to mention. I have neither, but pop in for a pee all the same.

After the statues is a three-arched gate known as the LongFengMen (Dragon and Phoenix Gate) which symbolised the nobility of the monarchical system.

And that’s it for the Sacred Way. Hardly earth shattering, but a pleasant walk all the same, though at RMB25 it’s a lot more expensive than attractions in downtown Beijing.

OK, it’s on to the tombs now. At present, only three are open to the public, there having been no excavations since 1989. ChangLing is the largest; DingLing has been excavated and ZhaoLing is almost completely renovated.

You can jump back on to an 872 or 879 bus to ChangLing (长陵) now – and according to this will take you half an hour. But if like me you prefer a pleasant walk, you can do it in under an hour.

ChangLing Tomb was started in 1409 and finished in 1427, and it’s where the third Emperor, ZhuDi lies with his Empress XuShi. It is said to be the best preserved among the thirteen tombs, and has three courtyards in the front and a Treasure City in the round rear part.

According to, it was not only the emperor and the empress who were buried in ChangLing. In line with custom in those days, 16 (some say 30) consorts were required to commit suicide. After an honorary feast, they were made to stand ona wooden bed with ropes around their necks, after which the bed was pulled away. They were all intered in the tomb.

The architecture of ChangLing has the tomb chamber located at the foot of Tianshou Mountain and faces south. Its plan is square in the front and round in the rear. The tomb chamber, the treasure hill, the Soul Tower, the Hall of Eminent Favours and the Gate of Eminent Favours lie lengthwise along the central axis, as is shown on this 1:250 scale model.

Incidentally, visiting geeks will no doubt be delighted to know that there is a ‘Wifi Eervicre Area’ provided in each of the opened tombs.

RMB35 gets you in to ChangLing during the winter months. Once inside, the Gate of Eminent Favour looks nice enough, though you will almost certainly have seen a hundred other similar constructions all over Beijing.

Through the gate there is a sacred silk burner on either side, where elegiac address inscriptions and sacred silk materials were burned in sacrificial rites.

But straight ahead, the Ling'en Hall (Hall of Eminent Favour) is covered in scaffolding and even a brilliant blue sky can do nothing to dampen the feeling of extreme disappointment of this site.

The construction of this hall was started in 1409 and finished in 1427. Apparently it used to be called Xiang Hall – or Hall of Pleasure. But Emperor Jiajing renamed it when he paid a visit here, the killjoy.

It was constructed for placing the memorial tablets and costumes of the dead emperor, as well as for sacrificial rites. Its wooden components are made of Jinsi Nanmu – a rare hard wood; and the hall has a double eaved roof supported by 32 pillars, each 12.58m high.

Half-hearted construction can be seen all around you, but at least they have the decency to warn visitors to keep a sense of ‘cantion’.

Inside is a statue of the big fat emperor, together with loads of display cases containing pieces of jade, wooden models and background information about the burial sites.

In my view, this 1:50 scale model of the Ling'en Hall is a load better than the hall itself.

And there’s even 1:4000 scale model of the Ming Tombs valley, clearly showing the Sacred Way leading up to ChangLing.

The displays explain that the siting of the Ming dynasty imperial tombs was carefully chosen according to Feng Shui principles. According to these, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped valley area at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, north of Beijing, was selected for the necropolis of the Ming dynasty.

Site selection began in 1407, the 5th year of Emperor Yongle’s reign after the death of Empress Xu. Zhao Hong, Minister of Rites, led Liao Junqing and other geomancers to visit the outer suburbs of Beijing, according to the emperor's orders. Finally Liao Junqing selected the auspicious Tianshou Mountain. Construction of the underground tomb chamber was started in 1409 and was completed in 1416, and this was followed by the construction of the above ground architectures.

At the back of the above-ground tomb area is the Minglou, or Soul Tower, which used to be wooden framed. But the tower was struck by a thunderbolt in 1604 and was rebuilt the next year with a new stele inscribed ‘Mausoleum of Emperor Chengzu’. After reconstruction in 1785-87 its frame was changed to stone and the sacred stele inside was re-erected.

Standing in front of the Soul Tower are the Wugong – the five sacrificial utensils, referring to the ancient symbolic stone-carved utensils. The incense burner has a round tripod shape with loop handles and three legs with clouds and a dragon carved on the lid. Candlesticks and vases are on its two sides.

And that just about sums up ChangLing. Had I really come all the way out here to see this? My wallet is now RMB60 lighter than it was when I started. But it is still not even 1pm yet, so I decide to move on to DingLing.

Yet again tells us to take the 872 bus from ChangLing to DingLing which “takes about half an hour”. But as it takes me almost exactly 30 minutes to walk it, and my map tells me it is a mere 3 kms distant, I somehow wonder if anyone at this web site has even been out this way.

DingLing (定陵 – literally: "Tomb of Stability") is the tomb of the Wanli Emperor. It is the only Ming tomb to have been excavated and is also the only intact imperial tomb, of any era, to have been excavated since the founding of the People's Republic of China, a situation that is a direct result of the excesses of the infamous Cultural Revolution.

According to Wikipedia, the excavation of DingLing began in 1956, after a group of prominent scholars began advocating the excavation of ChangLing. But despite winning approval from premier Zhou Enlai, the plan was vetoed by archaeologists because of the importance and public profile of ChangLing. Instead, Dingling, the third largest of the Ming Tombs, was selected as a trial site in preparation for the excavation of ChangLing. Excavation was completed in 1957, and a museum was established in 1959.

The excavation revealed an intact tomb, with thousands of items of silk, textiles, wood, and porcelain, and the skeletons of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. However, there was neither the technology nor the resources to adequately preserve the excavated artefacts. After several disastrous experiments, the large amount of silk and other textiles were simply piled into a storage room that leaked water and wind. As a result, most of the surviving artefacts today have severely deteriorated, and many replicas are instead displayed in the museum. Furthermore, the political impetus behind the excavation created pressure to quickly complete the excavation. The haste meant that documentation of the excavation was poor.

A more severe problem soon befell the project, when a series of political mass movements swept the country. This escalated into the Cultural Revolution in 1966. For the next ten years, all archaeological work was stopped. Fervent Red Guards stormed the DingLing museum, and dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned. Many other artifacts were also destroyed.

It was not until 1979, after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, that archaeological work recommenced in earnest and an excavation report was finally prepared by those archaeologists who had survived the turmoil.

As a result, government policy is not to excavate any historical site except for rescue purposes; and the original plan, to use DingLing as a trial site for the excavation of ChangLing, was abandoned.

Built from 1584 to 1590, DingLing is the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun, the thirteenth emperor of the Ming Dynasty and his two empresses. The most celebrated part is the so-called ‘Underground Palace’, which was discovered between 1956 and 1958, and had a large number of precious relics unearthed.

On approaching the tomb site, you pass huge coach and car parks that have been built; and as you near the entrance there is a large modern frieze on the wall of one of the buildings depicting the layout of the site ahead.

The tomb gate through which everyone passes gives little indication of what lies behind.

But once inside, it is noticeable what a very much nicer place this is than either ChangLing or the Sacred Way. OK, the entry price here is RMB45, but compared with the other two sites, it is way better value.

Stone ramps with a dragon and phoenix motif grace the stone staircases…

And everywhere you look there are signs that tell us not to portray. To what? (It is a while before I tumble to the meaning. The guardians of the tomb are somewhat averse to the modern day peasants scribbling graffiti on the walls.)

Actually, it appears that not just modern day peasants and Red Guards have made their mark on the tombs. At DingLing, for instance, there used to be a Ling'en Gate; but in 1644 it was burnt down during a peasant uprising. It was reconstructed during Emperor Qianlong's reign but destroyed once again during the Republic of China period.

The entrance to the underground chambers was discovered almost by accident. The tunnel gate was found because parts of the lateral bricks had collapsed. Archaeologists dug an exploration ditch discovering the brick tunnel and a stone slab with the inscription of Tunnel Gate written on the wall. After another two exploration ditches had been dug, a stone slab with 16 characters engraved on it was discovered. “16 zhang further and 3.5 zhang deep to the Diamond Wall” was written. One zhang equals 3.33 metres; and the stone tunnel built with a very hard rock called porphyry was quickly discovered. Finally the diamond wall was found at the end of the stone tunnel.

The Diamond Wall was the common name of the ancient underground wall at the end of the stone tunnel. The wall was built with 56 layers of bricks with yellow glazed tiles at the top. After the burial was completed the openings would have been sealed with bricks and the tunnels blocked.

In order to demonstrate to the world at large the status of the emperor, the tomb had to be sealed with earth and lined with trees. The Deer Horn Cypresses here are known as Imperial Cypresses and have been tested to be far older than the tomb itself – so it appears they were transplanted after the tomb was built. Standing to the north and south of the grand tomb mound they fully indicate the prominent position of the emperor.

It’s a ten minute walk from the entry gate to the entrance of the so-called Underground Palace.

There’s then a long walk down eight flights of stone steps whence we end up in the Rear Chamber.

This is where the coffin bed is found, and is where the coffins of the emperor and his empresses together with the funerary objects were placed. The coffin of emperor Shenzong Zhu Yiyun was in the middle and those of the empresses were on either side of him – empress Xiaojing's on the right and empress Xiaoduan's on the left. Jade was found between the coffins and burial articles were stored in 26 cases made of Nanmu wood to the sides of each coffin.

Chinese visitors love throwing their money around, even if the majority of the notes are RMB1 or even 5 jiao; and wherever there is some relic, piles of paper money and coins are found lying there.

Unlike the other sites, DingLing is obviously popular with the tourists, and in the narrow passageways one has to fight to be able to get through.

Along from the coffin bed, in the Middle Chamber there are stone thrones for the emperor and his consorts.

Finally we get to the Stone Gate inside the Front Chamber. It has a white marble arch with hip roof. Apparently the door was thicker at the hinges – 40cm, but tapers down to 20cm in the middle to relieve the pressure on the pivots, thus making the door easy to open with the reduced amount of friction. The stone gate was shut from inside with a stone slab.

As we all mount the steps to reach daylight once more, there is an ominous warning posted up on many parts of the railings. But it appears that whoever made the signs ran out of space, so I am still left wondering what we are not allowed to lean on.

Other signs are clearer in their meaning. We must, it appears, exercise caution (as opposed to ‘cantion’?) in case of rocks cascading onto our heads from above – but how we are meant to exercise that caution we are never told.

Finally as the crowds leave the burial chamber there is a sign that I feel might have been better placed at the entrance, rather than the exit. OMG! I have high B.P. But I never did throw caution to the forward slope. Now they tell me!

Since this blog was written, you can now take the subway all the way on the Changping line.

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