It’s custom in cultures around the world to bury the dead, but have you wondered why? Why do we bury the dead? It’s a primal instinct that goes back thousands of years to our ancestors. When choosing where to bury your loved one, you may think of their favorite place or choose a beautiful destination. Some cultures around the world even let superstition choose for them.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- History of the Ming Dynasty Tombs
- Ming Dynasty Tombs’ Architecture and Construction
- The Ming Dynasty Tombs Today
In this guide, we’ll explore the Ming tombs—a world-famous destination housing the remains of thirteen Ming emperors and their empresses. The tombs are an example of the lengths humans go to in their dedication to the deceased.
History of the Ming Dynasty Tombs
The Ming Dynasty was primarily known for its culture, including the arts, literature, and religious expansion. It was a time of peace, prosperity, and stability in China. The dynasty is well known for its completion of the Great Wall and Forbidden City. Most of all, it was a time of popularity for three religions—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Chinese funerals are superstitious affairs, and so are the burials. The Chinese believe the soul of the dead influences the living. If correct burial practices aren’t followed, misfortune falls on the family of the deceased. Emperors chose a special site and built elaborate tombs surrounded by sculptures and material possession. This was to ensure not only the luck of their family but the entire nation.
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Where are the tombs located?
The Ming Tombs location isn’t random. The third emperor of the Ming dynasty chose the location for twelve of the tombs (including his own) according to the principles of Feng Shui. Many people in China believe that positive energy forms when the deceased’s burial spot is in a good location.
The general rule is to choose a place close to a mountain with plenty of water and plants around. The mountain protects from military attacks, and the soil ensures a successful burial. Legend says the fertility of the earth would come up from the soil and bless the emperor’s descendants, ensuring their successful rule.
The first Ming tomb is in a different location than the others. Located in the foothills of the Purple Mountains outside of Nanjing, the mausoleum sits on 290 acres. The thirteen other tombs lie outside of Beijing.
Who built the Ming Dynasty Tombs?
The third Ming dynasty emperor Yongle moved the Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Here, he worked on large projects like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. These projects, like the Ming Tombs, attract visitors from around the world today.
When Yongle’s empress, Empress Xi, died, he turned his attention to building a large mausoleum for her. Later, twelve other emperors built their own tombs to make the cluster known as the Ming Tombs. Chinese tombs required wealth and workers to build. Records show that one tomb took over 700,000 workers to build.
Why did they build the tombs?
You must understand Chinese cultures before understanding why emperors built such large burial structures. Some of the most famous graves are found in China as a result of the Chinese dedication towards their ancestors. The deceased continue to live in the spirit world and watch over the living. For regular families, it was important to follow funeral rituals to ensure good luck to family members.
For the emperor and empress, their burial ensures the luck of the entire nation. The emperor and empress were at the heart of Chinese society. Mourning ancestors and planning an elaborate burial was one of their most important duties.
Ming Dynasty Tombs’ Architecture and Construction
Since the spirit world is similar to the earthly realm, the Ming emperors modeled their construction after their residences. In the beginning, the Chinese built burial mounds on top of graves. The first Ming emperor set a precedent for the grandeur of the Ming tombs. Instead of the traditional square mound, he used a round mound surrounded by courtyards and gardens.
The entrance to the tombs known as the Sacred Way is a landmark in itself. Statue of animals and soldiers line the pathway connecting all of the Ming tombs. The archway leading to the path is the largest and best-preserved construction in China. The emperors believed that the statues would drive away evil spirits and guard the tombs.
The tombs aren’t the only impressive structure in the mausoleum. The Hall of Eminent Favor is commonly compared to the Forbidden City and stands in the middle of the gardens. Emperors used to it to store tablets with the deceased’s names or for rituals. Below you’ll find the answers to other commonly asked questions about the designs of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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How were the tombs designed?
Each tomb sits at the foot of the Tianshou mountain with a similar layout. Researchers speculate that the Ming dynasty was the first to use oval burial mounds. The emperors built large mausoleums around their tombs surrounded by multiple courtyards. There are multiple buildings aside from the tomb space including the changing hall and kitchen. It was common for emperors to perform rituals when visiting their ancestors.
Emperors made sure their corpse stayed preserved into the afterlife. Chemicals were used to seal the casket and special care was taken to prevent the tombs from becoming wet.
How are the tombs arranged?
The thirteen tombs are collectively called the Ming Tombs. The layout of each tomb is similar but differs in its size and grandeur.
Once you enter the stone archway and walk down the Sacred Way, you will find the Changling tomb. This is the largest and most popular tomb. It’s surrounded by massive columns and houses a statue of the Yongle emperor that oversaw the tomb’s construction. The other tombs lie within miles of each other in an arc. Each tomb lies at the base of the mountains protected from evil spirits.
How long did it take to build the tombs?
The Ming Tombs weren’t built at one time. Construction on the first tomb began in 1409 by the Yongle emperor. It’s rumored the first tomb took around five years to build. Construction on the Dingling tomb, Wanli Emperor’s resting place, took six years. It’s the only excavated tomb presenting Chinese art, decor, and clothing. Emperors built the remaining tombs between the years 1424 and 1624.
The Ming Dynasty Tombs Today
The Ming Tombs are an example of the power of funerary art around the world. Thousands of locals and tourists alike visit the Chinese culture spot every year. For how often it’s visited, little is known about the contents of twelve of the tombs. As mentioned before, only the Dingling tomb has been excavated.
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Can you visit the tombs?
While the Ming Tombs aren’t as frequently visited as the Great Wall or Forbidden City, they are a tourist destination. Only three tombs are open to the public but they include a large variety of Chinese culture and funerary history. The Changling and Dingling tombs are the most popular with the Zhaoling tomb being the smallest of the three.
What can you see when you visit?
The structure of the thirteen tombs is very similar. Each museum differs in its size and artifacts. Visitors may be surprised at the giant stone statues they encounter on their walk to the tombs.
The Changling mausoleum offers the most archeological artifacts. Although partially excavated, visitors can still marvel at the jewels and burial chambers themselves.
What is inside the tombs?
For a full view of ancient Chinese customs, visit the Dingling Tomb. It’s the only fully excavated tomb. The underground tomb has five chambers and numerous artifacts like the Empress Crown. It’s not possible to look inside the Emperor’s tomb, but the red lacquered tombs are on display. Other artifacts like the silks, pottery, and gems give visitors valuable insight into the traditions of ancient China,
Ming Dynasty Tombs: Honoring the Dead in the Past and Present
The Ming Tombs aren’t just an important Chinese landmark, they represent the funerary customs of past leaders in the East. Even today, people choose a mausoleum burial to honor their traditions with the past. By learning about these customs, we can think about our own beliefs.
Most of us can’t afford a marble mausoleum, but all of us can express our end of life wishes. If learning about Chinese funeral customs sparked thoughts of your own mortality, write them down. From a tree planted in your honor to estate planning, Cake’s end-of-life checklist is one way to begin death planning.
- Williams, Gary S. “Imperial Tombs of China.” BYU Magazine. 1995. magazine.byu.edu
- Hultengren, Irving. “Ming Tombs.” mingtombs.eu
- “Geomantic Omen (Feng Shui) of Ming Tombs.” Beijing Tourism. english.visitbeijing.com.cn
- “Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. whc.unesco.org
- “The Thirteen Ming Tombs in Beijing.” China Information Center. china.org.cn