Ming Tombs Scenic Area is located at the foot of Tianshou Mountain, about 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing. It is also known as the Thirteen Tombs of Ming Dynasty where the mausoleums of the Ming Dynasty’s (1368-1644) thirteen emperors lie. It was the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di, who initially built his Changling Tomb here in 1409. His succeeding twelve emperors then ordered their resting places to be built around Changling in the next 230 years of their reign. The whole area covers more than 120 square kilometers or 46.3 square miles. It is considered the most well-preserved mausoleum location with the most emperors buried.
Each mausoleum in the Ming Tombs Scenic Area has its own autonomous unit. The design and arrangement of all the 13 mausoleums are very alike, though they differ in size and structural complexity. Each one of them was constructed in a region at the foot of the mountain and the distances between them range from half a kilometer to eight kilometers. The tombs form a shape of a fan as they stretch out on the 2 sides of Changling Tomb, except for the Siling Tomb that is sitting in the southwest separately. From choosing the site to the style and design used, it is obvious that great attention was paid to harmonize the tombs with nature. They really pursue an outstanding situation of ‘made by God’ which also reflect the philosophy ‘the unity of heaven and humanity’. The Ming Tombs certainly symbolize the richness of traditional Chinese culture.
Today, only four sceneries (3 of which are tombs) are open to the public in Ming tombs scientific area, namely Changling Tomb, Dingling Tomb, Zhaoling Tomb, as well as the Sacred Way.
The other 10 Ming Tombs that are not open to the public are:
- Yongling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 11th Emperor, Zhu Houcong, and his 3 empresses are buried.
- Xianling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 4th Emperor, Zhu Gaochi, and Empress Zhang are buried
- Qingling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 14th Emperor, Zhu Changluo, and his 3 empresses are buried.
- Maoling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 8th Emperor, Zhu Jianshen, and his 3 empresses are buried.
- Kangling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 10th Emperor, Zhu Houzhao, and Empress Xia are buried.
- Jingling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 5th Emperor, Zhu Zhanji, and Empress Sun are buried.
- Tailing Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 9th Emperor, Zhu Youtang, and Empress Zhang are buried.
- Deling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 15th Emperor, Zhu Youxiao, and Empress Zhang are buried.
- Yuling Tomb – where Ming Dynasty’s 6th Emperor, Zhu Qizhen, and his 2 empresses are buried.
- Siling Tomb – – where Ming Dynasty’s 16th and last Emperor, Zhu Youjian, and his Empress Zhou and Concubine Tian are buried.
Usually located in front of royal graveyards, the Sacred Way or Divine Road means the road leading to heaven. Since the Emperor is known as the Son of Heaven, who came down from Heaven to serve his country through the Sacred Way, his most deserved return to heaven is also through this road.
The Sacred Way usually has stone statues lined up on its side. The statues often include twelve human figures composed of a general, civil officials, and meritorious officials, as well as 24 animals composed of lion, camel, elephant, xiezhi which is a mythological unicorn, the 4 divine animals: qilin, dragon, phoenix and tortoise, and horse. One pair of each of the said animals is standing while another pair is squatting. Lion signifies great solemnity because it is ferocious. Camel and elephant symbolize the massiveness of the territory controlled by the court since these animals are normally used as dependable transport in desert and tropics. Xiezhi was chosen to shoo away the evil spirits since it is believed to own the sixth sense to tell what’s right and wrong. If two men would fight, a xiezhi can kill the bad one. Qilin which is a symbol of fortune is also placed on two sides. The horse which is considered the emperor’s mount is certainly indispensable. All these animals are believed to change guard at midnight.
The Ming Tomb’s Sacred Way is one of the most complete and well-preserved in the country. It begins with an enormous stone memorial archway that lies in front of the area. Built in 1540, this archway is the oldest and the largest stone archway that exists in China today. Going farther in the Sacred Way, you can already see the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion. Inside such pavilion is a 50-ton tortoise that carries a stone tablet. At each corner of the stele pavilion is a white marble Huabiao or an ornamental pillar. Stationed on top of each pillar is a mythical beast that faces either outward or inward. Such positions are to express a hope that the emperor will not cling to the palace or forget to return to it to handle the affairs of the state. Then come two Roof Pillars that are located on each side of the road. Their surfaces are engraved with the cloud design and their tops have a rounded cylinder shape. After the 18 life-sized pairs of stone statues which were all sculpted out of whole stones, comes the gate named Dragon and Phoenix Gate.
The Sacred Way was initially constructed to lead to the Changling mausoleum. As time progressed, 12 more mausoleums were built.
This is the tomb of the Ming Dynasty’s 3rd Emperor, Zhu Di, and his Empress Xu. Among the sixteen rulers of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di, who is also known as Emperor Yongle, contributed the most to the country and had the greatest impact on history. The Ming Dynasty reached its peak during his reign. He built the Changling Tomb in 1409 which became the biggest and best preserved of all the thirteen tombs even if it was constructed first.
This scenic destination with grand ancient architecture covers a total area of 120 square meters. Its design in front is shaped like a square and its back is round in shape. The front area is divided into three linking courtyards.
When you approach the Changling Tomb, you will first find its gate which is an Alhambresque one. Its rafters and arch are all made of colored glaze. It also has three small red doors underneath. Inside the gate is a courtyard where a well-reserved stele pavilion is situated.
After the stele pavilion courtyard is the second courtyard which is probably the most stunning and attractive part of the tomb. The gate to the second courtyard is called the Blessing and Grace Gate or Ling’en Gate. It has a width of 31 meters, depth of 14 meters, and a height of 15 meters. Stationed at the corners of the steps and below the railings are stone drainages shaped like a dragon head. There are stone carvings on the stone road in between each step and its lower part is a surging sea wherein you can see mountains standing and leaping out seahorses. On the upper part are two forceful dragons that are flying up and down to chase the fire beads.
On top of the steps is the main building of the Changling Tomb called the Blessing and Grace Palace or Ling’en Palace. It is the area used for offering sacrifices for the Emperor and the Empress. It is a very unique tomb palace which is the most preserved in the country. The huge camphor wood palace is perhaps the most exquisite relic of ancient China’s wooden architecture. Its area covers a total of 2,000 square meters and it was constructed on a 3-story-high platform of white marble. Its ceiling is painted colorfully and sustained by 16 solid camphor posts. The floor, on the other hand, is covered with golden bricks. The palace’s hall measures 67 meters wide and 29 meters deep. The life-sized bronze statue of the Emperor sits on the throne that is designed with nine dragons.
The most important feature of the palace is that most of the objects and photos exhibited here reveal the great accomplishments of Emperor Zhu Di. Some of the items here are very rare and priceless, like the portrait of the Emperor, portrait of Emperor Xu, the Yongle Encyclopedia, as well as pictures depicting the Emperor’s achievements such as moving the capital of the country to Beijing and building the Forbidden City, bringing together scholars to compile the Yongle Encyclopedia, as well as sending off Zheng He to sail the Atlantic. There are also hundreds of archeological relics of the underground palace.
Located in the third courtyard are a few old structures like the 2-stone archway doors named Lingxing Gate. It has two dragons, a stone table, and five offerings sitting on top.
At the back area of the tomb is the Treasure City. If you look at it from above, it appears like a closed circular castle. It is commonly called the ‘city’ which measures 7-meter high. Inside it is where Emperor Zhu Di and Empress Xu were buried.
Situated in the southern foot of Tianshou Mountain, the Dingling Tomb is the where the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun is located. He shares the tomb with her two empresses, Empress Xiaoduan and Empress Xiaojing. Emperor Zhu Yijun was the 13th emperor of the dynasty and ruled the country for a total of 48 years, the longest reign among all the Ming Dynasty’s emperors. Built from 1584 to 1590, Dingling Tomb covers a total area of 180,000 square meters.
The Above ground Portion of the Tomb
Just like the Changling Tomb, the Dingling Tomb has a square front and a circular rear construction. This signifies the old Chinese philosophical concept that ‘the heaven is round and the earth is square’. Leading you to the entrance of this tomb are three white marble stone bridges where you can easily see a high tablet pavilion. At the back is an enclosed wall called Wailuo Wall that surrounds the mausoleum. At the center of the wall is a palace gate which is actually the first door. All the gate’s tiles, eaves, archway, rafters, and even columns are sculpted out of stones and painted colorfully. Inside the wall are three courtyards located in front and the Treasure City situated in the rear part. The first courtyard has no structures but on its left side outside are three Divine Kitchens and three Divine Storerooms on its right side. The second courtyard’s fate is also named Blessing and Grace Gate. It has a base with railings and the railings’ top are designed with stone dragon and phoenix heads. The Blessing and Grace palace is located in the third courtyard where the sacrifices to the Emperor and his two Empresses are made. In the middle of the courtyard is a stone road that is carved with a phoenix and a dragon playing with a pearl. The third courtyard’s two-column archway door is named Lingxing Gate. Inside the courtyard are a few stone tables where sacrificial items can be placed. The Treasure City at the circular rear end of the mausoleum is where the royalties are buried. It is covered with earth and the center part stands out that makes it look like a circular castle.
The Underground Palace of the Dingling Tomb
The Underground Palace here was unearthed between the years 1956 and 1958. It is considered the most important part of the Dingling Tomb. The only unearthed palace of the 13 tombs, this palace begins from the ground after over 40 meters of the underground tunnel. The whole palace is separated into 5 communicant vaulted halls including the front, the middle, the rear, the left, and the right halls. The main hall which is also the largest one is the rear. Each hall’s entrance is made from a sculptured jade while the floors are all covered with glided bricks. You can find a white marble coffin in the middle of each hall and each coffin has a square hall named Gold Well that is filled with loess. In the central hall are three white marble thrones with incense, candles, and flowers in front. Before the thrones are glazed Five Offerings, as well as a blue china jar that is filled with sesame oil and used for lamps. The Emperor’s and Empresses’ coffins are situated in the rear hall were other precious items are also displayed such as jades, vases, golden crown, silver, silk, red lacquer boxes, and many more. There was a total of more than 3,000 relics that were unearthed from the Underground Palace which includes the national treasures namely the gold imperial crown, the gold empress crown, glowing pearl, and tri-colored glazed pottery. These are all displayed today in the Dingling Tomb Museum.
Lying on the east side of Mount Dayu is the Zhaoling Tomb. This is where the 12th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Zaihou, and his three empresses are buried. It has been restored several times to cater to the visitors and tourists. The Zhaoling Tomb is currently under repairs and the reopening date is not yet set.
This tomb covers an area of 35 square kilometers and is considered a middle-sized Ming Dynasty tomb. It also follows the layout of the other tombs, a square front, and a circular back.
After the tomb’s Gate of Blessing and Grace is a blank stele situated on a stone turtle that is standing under a pavilion on the first yard’s left side. Today, the stele pavilion is used as the place where the Sacrifice to the Ancestors ceremonies is conducted during autumn.
The Blessing and Grace Palace that stands in the middle part is the tomb’s main building where ‘Displays of Zhaoling Tomb in Fall’ is usually set. Beside the palace are historical items about Zhu Zaihou and his empresses and other materials about the tombs’ history.
The Emperor and his Empresses are buried at the pack portion of the Zhaoling Tomb. It has two features that are hard to miss. First is its structure that includes a ‘dumb yard’ which is legendarily known as built by mute workers to keep the entrance of the tomb and its security secret and protected. But that is only a legend and its name actually refer to its architectural characteristics. The mausoleum here is constructed against the wall and since the mound is combined with the outside wall, it forms a ‘dumb yard’. The second feature of this tomb is its cleverly designed drainage system. There are hidden gutters that are built inside the walls and even on each side. This guarantee that the courtyard and the mound remain dry during heavy rains.
How to get there
- You can take the Subway Changping Line and alight at the Changping Dongguan Station. You can then transfer to bus 314 to go Changling or Dingling. Do not get off the Ming Tombs Subway Station because it’s 4 km away from the scenic areas and only a local car can be hired which may charge you too high.
- If you want to ride the bus directly, you can take bus 872 from Deshengmen to Dingling or Changling from 7 am to 8:10 pm. Bus 345 Express or 886, on the other hand, can take you from Deshengmen West Station to Changping Dongguan Station. Here, you can transfer to bus 314.
- Combo ticket – CNY 130 from Apr-Oct and CNY 100 from Nov-Mar
- Dingling – CNY 60 from Apr-Oct and CNY 40 from Nov-Mar
- Changling – CNY 45 from Apr-Oct and CNY 30 from Nov-Mar
- Zhaoling – CNY 30 from Apr-Oct and CNY 20 from Nov-Mar
- Sacred Way – CNY 30 from Apr-Oct and CNY 20 from Nov-Mar
- Children under 3.9 feet are free of charge.
- Dingling – 8 am to 5:30 pm from Apr-Oct and 8:30 am to 5 pm from Nov-Mar
- Changling – 8 am to 5 pm from Apr-Oct and 8:30 am to 4:30 pm from Nov-Mar
- Zhaoling – 8:30 am to 5 pm from Apr-Oct and 8:30 am to 4:30 pm from Nov-Mar
- Sacred Way – 8:10 am to 5:50 pm from Apr-Oct and 8:30 am to 5 pm from Nov-Mar