In the shadowy southern slope of Tianshou Mountain, which translates as Heavenly Longevity Mountain, lie the ancient Ming Dynasty Tombs. The tombs rest on a site in the countryside north of Beijing, the newly relocated capital in the Ming Dynasty.
This ancient burial site is also the largest collection of mausoleums built in China’s long history. Resting in this tomb are 13 of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, so they are referred to as the “Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.”
At the center of the tombs is Changling Tomb, with its main axis pointing directly towards the main peak of Tianshou Mountain. Nearby, two sand-hills—Mangshan Hill to the east, and Huyu Hill to the west—symbolize two spiritual creatures. The Azure Dragon and the White Tiger together guard the sacred burial site, and immortalize the ancient Chinese wisdom of “harmonious architecture is the balance of water and mountain.”
The entrance to the Ming Tombs area, and the first thing you’ll see, is the Stone Memorial Arch, with five arches made from white marble—it’s the oldest archway remaining in China.
Passing through this archway, one embarks on the Sacred Way, a 4.5-mile-long passage that winds its way through the sand dunes. The Sacred Way is not straight, but curves towards the smaller sand hill. This was planned to achieve visual harmony and to delicately balance the two land masses.
Further along the Sacred Way are the Great Red Gate, Stele Pavilion of Divine Merits, and the Lingxingmen Gate, which translates as the Dragon and Phoenix Gate. Stone statue figures and animals guard the passage all the way along.
Enclosing the entire Ming Tombs are high walls with three different courtyards, within which house the Tomb Gate, Divine Warehouse, Divine Kitchen, Stele Pavilion, Gate of Eminent Favor, Hall of Eminent Favor, Lingxiengmen Gate, Treasure Dome, Soul Tower, and other architectural features.
The Ming Tomb is a complex burial ground with 13 clusters of mausoleums. To pay tribute to the deceased ancestors, when each succeeding emperor would select his burial site, he would choose one either to the left or to the right of the head tomb of Changling, which houses the body of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle. The scale of all the succeeding mausoleums was also drastically reduced in scale, to pay homage to the ancestors.
The major tombs
Changling Tomb. Located at the slope of the highest peak of Tianshou Mountain, it is the burial site of Emperor Chengzu (Zhi Di), the first person to be buried in the Ming Tombs, and his empress Xu. Changling Tomb is the oldest and the largest tomb of the Ming Tombs. It was built in 1413, during the 11th year of Yongle.
Yongling Tomb. Located at the southeast of Changling Tomb, at the foothill of Yangcui Hill, Yongling Tomb is the burial site for Emperor Shizong and his three empresses. Though the scale of the tomb is nothing in comparison to Changling, it exudes historical importance.
Dinling Tomb. Located to the southwest of Changling Tomb, at the foothill of Dayu Mountain, Dinling Tomb is the burial site of the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun) and his two empresses Xiaoduan and Xiaojing.