Architectural Odyssey

The Ming Tombs

Updated: Aug 16, 2019 Print
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An illustration showing the Ming Tombs [image/]

The Ming Tombs, located in the hinterland of a northern suburb of Beijing, is the mausoleum complex of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Thirteen emperors with their consorts are buried here, starting with the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424). The complex covers 120 carefully selected square kilometers in the geographically favorable mountainous area. In 2003, the Ming Tombs as a whole was listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Each tomb of the mausoleum is comprised of a group of ground structures and an underground burial chamber, where coffins containing the deceased emperor and his empress or empresses (the principal wife or wives of the emperor) are placed. The ground structure carries much ritual significance, and the burial chamber is built as a solemn stone palace with a gateway and thrones.

The underground chamber of the Dingling Tomb [Photo/VCG]

The entire mausoleum complex is prefaced by a long entrance called the "sacred way", which begins with a tall stone arc and is lined by stone figures of animals, civil officials, and martial officers, guarding the spirits of the dead.

Stone statues lining the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs [Photo/VCG]

Changling Tomb

The Changling Tomb is the mausoleum of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Yongle Emperor (posthumously named Chengzu, lit. the accomplished genitor). Built in 1409, it is the best-preserved Ming Dynasty imperial tomb.

A bird's eye view of the Changling Tomb [Photo/]

The Treatise on Architectural Methods (Yingzao fashi) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the Specifications for Construction Projects of the Ministry of Work (Gongbu gongcheng zuofa zeli) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are two manuals mandated by the feudal authorities in imperial China to guide construction. However, there were no such books in the intervening Yuan and Ming dynasties (1271-1644). Extant historical structures dated to this period are the only materials available for architectural historians to study the design and characteristics of the buildings of that period.

A notable architectural masterpiece, the Palace of Grace and Blessing (Ling'en dian) of the Changling Tomb, was a hall for hosting rites of worship. The structure follows the construction system of superposed wood beams, highlighting simpler structures and more solid joints. The timber frame includes beams, posts, braces, joists and bracket sets, big or small, all made of precious and durable phoebe nanmu wood. The interior wooden structure (except for the ceiling), is free of oil paintings, making the hall look plain and unadorned.

Interior view of the Hall of Grace and Blessing [Photo/]

In the rearmost area of the Changling Tomb sits the "treasure city", or the tomb mound, below which lies the burial chamber. The large round mound, 7.3 meters high and 1,000 meters in perimeter, is piled up with earth and looks like a small highland.

Since the first unified empire set up in China in the 3rd century BC, most imperial tombs of China have been built in the shape of a truncated pyramid, surrounded by walls forming a square. The Ming imperial family, however, established a unique style of round shape, with circular walls for protection.

The round mound in the distance is luxuriantly covered by trees. [Photo/VCG]

The Dingling Tomb

An aerial view of the Dingling Tomb [Photo/]

The Dingling Tomb is the mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620), the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and his two empresses. It is the first imperial mausoleum that was unearthed in a planned manner in China’s history of archaeological excavation. The stone underground chamber of the Dingling Tomb, which is open to the public, is known for its profundity and mystery. About 3,000 precious cultural relics have been unearthed from the chamber, including dresses of the deceased emperor and his empresses, and vessels made of gold and silver.

Empress's diadem excavated from the Dingling Tomb [Photo/VCG]
A cup-and-saucer unearthed from the Dingling Tomb. [Photo/]

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