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