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Beijing Travel Guide: Beijing Attractons: Ming Tombs

Ming Tombs Second only to the Great Wall as a destination, and usually included with the Wall in a one-day package tour, the 13 tombs of the Ming Dynasty emperors are living monuments, with all except the one opened the public still containing the remians of their emperor.

Of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (a.d. 1368-1644), 13 are buried in elaborate complexes in the valley of the Ming Tombs north of Beijing. Tomb construction began here in 1409 and continued for 2 centuries. A red gate at the only entrance sealed off the valley, and guards were posted to keep out the people. No one, not even the emperor, could ride a horse on these grounds. The same emperor, Yongle, who oversaw the construction of the Forbidden City, chose the site of this huge cemetery. The tombs reflect a similar conception of imperial architecture, consisting of walls, gates, courtyards, stairways, and elaborate pavilions with yellow tile roofs (yellow being the color of emperors). The actual burial chamber (a tumulus) is underground. The emperor, his wife, and his favored concubines were the only people buried there, along with enough royal treasure to stuff a small museum. Yongle's two Ming Dynasty successors are entombed in Nanjing, and the seventh Ming emperor chose to be buried nearer Beijing (on Jinshan Hill). Otherwise, this is Ming China's ultimate old boy's club (afterlife branch).

Occupying a natural site that resembles the courtyard so loved by emperors and common folk alike, the tombs look down from their hillside locations onto the floor of the valley, across which snakes the ceremonial road that is guarded by a series of large stone animals.

The Spirit Way (Shen Dao), the formal entrance to the Ming Tombs that funeral processions from the Forbidden City would have trod over, extends almost 4 miles from the entrance gate to the first restored tomb. The five-arched marble entrance gate, 95 feet wide, was carved in 1540. A second passageway, the Great Red Gate (Da Hong Men), served as the old entrance to the valley, its middle door opened only to admit an emperor about to be entombed. The next relic is a carved stone tablet (stele) dating from 1426, with an inscription added by Qing Emperor Qianlong 3 centuries later. It is followed by the most famous site at the Ming Tombs, the Avenue of the Stone Animals. Most royal tombs have such an avenue of sculptures, but none as impressive as the Ming Tombs. There are 12 pairs of animals, including elephants, lions, and mythological beasts, and six pairs of court and military officials. It is worth walking this portion of the entrance, as the old sculptures, some dating from a.d. 1435, are a delight. Sacred Road at Ming Tombs

To enter a Ming Dynasty underground burial vault, visitors must line up at Ding Ling, the tomb of the 13th Ming Emperor, Wanli, his wife Empress Xiaoduan, and his number-one concubine Xiaojing. Wanli ruled from 1573 to 1620. He had been overseeing the construction of his Underground Palace from the age of 22. When it was completed, he threw a party in the funeral vault, where he was buried 30 years later. Ding Ling was the first imperial tomb ever officially excavated in China, opening in 1958. The 13,000-square-foot Underground Palace, a marble vault divided into five chambers, lies 88 feet below ground. The stairway down is cold and claustrophobic. Each carved archway once contained an ingenuous system of "self-acting stones" that fell into place as locks the first time the door was closed, sealing in the dead.

Ding Ling still contains the white marble throne of the emperor and the large porcelain jars outfitted with sesame oil and wicks to burn eternally underground. In the Burial Chamber are three red coffins-the emperor's in the middle, flanked by those of his wife and concubine. There are also 23 wooden chests filled with jewelry, costumes, cups, silk, jade belts, and gold chopsticks-about 3,000 precious objects, many now on display at the Chang Ling tomb. It was in this emperor's casket that researchers made a rare discovery, a winged crown of gold mesh with coiling dragons and a pearl, the only imperial crown ever excavated in China.

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