China’s Ming Tombs


We, the living, are often fascinated by tombs.  We can’t resist the chance to tour them, view mummies, and read about possible curses associated with disturbing the dead.  Enjoy my story of reflection as I toured China’s Ming Tombs:

Even though it was winter, the valley looked beautiful. It reached from a lake, past fruit trees, and toward several hills below mountains. Laid out in the harmonious “feng shui” design by the third Ming Dynasty emperor Yongle (1402–1424), the Ming Tombs are just 26 miles northeast of Beijing and definitely worth a visit.

Emperor Yongle moved the capital of China from Nanjing to its the present location in Beijing. After construction of the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) in 1420, Yongle selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The valley features tombs of 13 of the Ming Dynasty Emperors, some Empresses, and a royal eunuch. The tombs are spread out across the valley, many on top of hills. A great red gate marks the entrance to a road lined with huge stone statues of guardian animals and officials. Stone and waterways are strategically placed to guard against bad winds, according to Feng Shui, and create a balance between humans and nature.

The first tomb to be excavated and opened to the public is Dingling (“Tomb of Stability”). It held the remains of the 13th Ming Emperor, Wanli, and two of his Empresses. It also kept thousands of items of silk, textiles, wood, and porcelain — and a curse like the famous one of King Tut’s Tomb. Dingling’s excavation began in 1956 but was hurried and then interrupted by political turmoil in China and theCultural Revolution. The head of the archeology team was arrested and died in prison, and Red Guards stormed Dingling tomb and burned the bodies of the Emperor and his Empresses, along with many artifacts. In 1979, after the death of Chairman Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the surviving archeologists were allowed to complete excavation of the tomb.

After climbing the Great Wall of China, our energetic Chinese tour guide took us to the Ming Tombs. We toured a museum and took photos of the Emperor’s woven gold crown, an Empress’ colorful Phoenix head gear, and some royal silk robes. Then we walked around the garden-like grounds, beneath stone arches, and descended countless steps into the earth to see the actual tombs of Emperor Wanli and his two Empresses. Even though their bodies were apparently not there, the cave-like area held the creepy sense of an underground mausoleum, and we were quiet as we passed.

See more photos of the Ming Tombs on Digital Journal.


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