BEIJING -- Many years ago, when TV was in its infancy, losers on a popular U.S. quiz program were awarded a consolation prize by correctly answering the question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

Figuring out who is buried in the Ming Tombs, one of China's great historical sites and a common stopover for tourists on their way to or from the Bad Da Ling portal of the Great Wall, takes a good deal more thought and knowledge.

The easy answer, of course, is that 13 of the 16 emperors who reigned over the Ming Dynasty from 1368 to 1644 were laid to rest here at the foot of Tanshou Mountain, just 31 miles northwest of Beijing.

A knowledgeable guide, however, will dig deeper (no pun intended) and inform you that few of the burial sites have been unearthed, restored or opened to the curious public, for whom this giant necropolis -- or at least the parts of it that are available for inspection -- constitute nothing less than a museum of the dead.

Underground treasure

The entire complex, which replicates about 15 square miles of feudal China and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was conceived by Emperor Yong Le, who died in 1424 but not before laying out a formal burial ground according to the constraints of feng shui, or Chinese geomancy, which seeks, then as now, to balance the forces of wind and water to guard against bad spirits emanating from the north.

Following the precept that the soul and the spirit remain vital after death, Yong Le and the emperors that followed him constructed massive tombs resembling palaces for the living so that life after death would go on as before. This explains, perhaps, why 16 of Yong Le's concubines were buried alive not far away.

The entry to Yong Le's final resting place, known as the Changling Tomb, is through a massive gate with three arches built into a wall that encompasses the tomb and its surrounding grounds. Legend has it that the mausoleum itself, which is made of camphor wood, took thousands of workers five years to construct.

Not to be outdone, Emperor Wan Li, the 14th ruler in the Ming line, was buried along with more than 3,000 funerary relics, not counting his two wives, in an underground vault that took the backbreaking labor of 500,000 peasants to dig, at a cost in silver equaling the land-tax receipts from the first two years of Wan Li's reign.

The tomb, called Dingling, includes a 131-foot tunnel, 50,000 bricks imported from the city of Suzhou 8.5 miles to the north and a rear hall that contains the burial platforms for the royal family.

Several aspects of the Ming Tombs, which are known as Shisanling (literally, "the 13 tombs"), demand the attention of visitors, including funerary relics, lacquered trunks (both original and copies) and bas relief carvings. In addition, there is an archaeological museum on the grounds.

For me, the most impressive and most easily accessible attraction is the Avenue of Stone Statues, alternately called the Sacred Way, the Avenue of the Animals and the Spirit Way.

About three miles long, the road connects the Great Red Gate, the outermost gateway of the mausoleum, and the Chingling Tomb. It is lined by statues of 24 creatures and 12 Mandarin figures of merchants, warriors and officials, each carved from a single block of white granite.

The animals represented include a lion, an elephant and a horse, and each is depicted standing and kneeling.

It is the magnificent stone creatures that dignify the Avenue of the Stone Statues that are likely to live in the memories of visitors here long after the tales of China's emperors have faded from mind.

Admission to the Chingling Tomb ranges from $3.70 to $5.60, depending on the season; Dingling, $5 to $7.50; the Avenue of Stone Statues, $2.50 to $3.70.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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