The Ming tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming dynasty of China. The first Ming emperor's tomb is located near his capital Nanjing. However, the majority of the Ming tombs are located in a cluster near Beijing and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming dynasty (Chinese: 明十三陵; pinyin: Míng Shísān Líng; lit. 'Ming Thirteen Mausoleums'). They are located within the suburban Changping District of Beijing Municipality, 42 kilometers (26 mi) north-northwest of Beijing's city center. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain), was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley.

Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Dagong gate(Red in the middle)and Spirit way of the Ming tombs(behind the gate)
  • Changling Mausoleum
  • Xianling Mausoleum
  • Jingling Mausoleum
  • Yuling Mausoleum
  • Maoling Mausoleum
  • Tailing Mausoleum
  • Kangling Mausoleum
  • Yongling Mausoleum
  • Zhaoling Mausoleum
  • Qingling Mausoleum
  • Dingling Mausoleum
  • Deling Mausoleum
  • Siling Mausoleum
CriteriaCultural: i, ii, iii, iv, vi
Inscription2000 (24th Session)
Extensions2003; 2004
Coordinates40°15′12″N 116°13′3″E / 40.25333°N 116.21750°E / 40.25333; 116.21750

From the Yongle Emperor onwards, thirteen Ming emperors were buried in the same area. The Xiaoling Mausoleum of the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu Emperor, is located near his capital Nanjing; the second emperor, the Jianwen Emperor, was overthrown by the Yongle Emperor and disappeared, without a known tomb. The "temporary" emperor, the Jingtai Emperor, was also not buried here, as the Tianshun Emperor had denied him an imperial burial; instead, the Jingtai Emperor was buried west of Beijing.[1] The last emperor buried at the location was Chongzhen, the last of his dynasty, who committed suicide by hanging on April 25, 1644. He was buried in his concubine Consort Tian's tomb, which was later declared as an imperial mausoleum Siling by the emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty, Li Zicheng, with a much smaller scale compared to the other imperial mausoleums built for Ming emperors.

During the Ming dynasty, the tombs were off limits to commoners, but in 1644 Li Zicheng's army ransacked and burned many of the tombs before advancing to and subsequently capturing Beijing in April of that year.

In 1725, the Yongzheng Emperor bestowed the hereditary title of marquis on a descendant of the Ming imperial family, Zhu Zhilian, who received a salary from the Qing government and whose duty was to perform rituals at the Ming tombs. He was posthumously promoted to Marquis of Extended Grace in 1750 by the Qianlong Emperor, and the title passed on through twelve generations of Ming descendants until the end of the Qing dynasty.

Presently, the Ming tombs are designated as one of the components of the World Heritage Site, the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which also includes a number of other locations near Beijing and in Nanjing, Hebei, Hubei, Liaoning province.


An overview of the Changling Mausoleum
Statue in the Ming tombs grounds
Tomb guardian statues of a warrior and official, Ming period

The siting of the Ming dynasty imperial tombs was carefully chosen according to Feng Shui (geomancy) principles. According to these, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped valley area at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, north of Beijing, was selected. This 40 square kilometer area—enclosed by the mountains in a pristine, quiet valley full of dark earth, tranquil water and other necessities as per Feng Shui—would become the necropolis of the Ming dynasty.

A 7-kilometer (4 mi) road named the "Spirit Way" (pinyin: Shéndào) leads into the complex, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials, with a front gate consisting of a three-arches, painted red, and called the "Great Red Gate". The Spirit Way, or Sacred Way, starts with a huge stone memorial archway lying at the front of the area. Constructed in 1540, during the Ming dynasty, this archway is one of the biggest stone archways in China today.

Further in, the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion can be seen; inside, there is a 50-ton stone statue of a Bixi carrying a memorial tablet. Four white marble Huabiao (pillars of glory) are positioned at each corner of the stele pavilion. At the top of each pillar is a mythical beast. Each side of the road is flanked by two pillars whose surfaces are carved with the cloud design, and tops are shaped like a rounded cylinder. They are of a traditional design, and were originally beacons to guide the soul of the deceased, The road leads to 18 pairs of stone statues of mythical animals, which are all sculpted from whole stones and larger than life size, leading to a three-arched gate known as the Dragon and Phoenix Gate.

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At present, only three tombs are open to the public. There have been no excavations since 1989, but plans for new archeological research and further opening of tombs have circulated. They can be seen on Google earth: Changling, the largest (40°18′5.16″N 116°14′35.45″E / 40.3014333°N 116.2431806°E / 40.3014333; 116.2431806 (Chang Ling tomb)); Dingling, whose underground palace has been excavated (40°17′42.43″N 116°12′58.53″E / 40.2951194°N 116.2162583°E / 40.2951194; 116.2162583 (Ding Ling tomb)); and Zhaoling.

The Ming tombs were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in August 2003. They were listed along with other tombs under the "Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties" designation.

Watercolor overview of the Ming tombs


List of the Imperial TombsEdit

The imperial tombs are in chronological order and list the individuals buried:

Name Chinese/pinyin Emperor Empresses and imperial concubines Date Picture Coordinate
Changling Chinese: 長陵; pinyin: Cháng Lìng Yongle Emperor Empress Renxiaowen 1424   40°18′5.16″N 116°14′35.45″E / 40.3014333°N 116.2431806°E / 40.3014333; 116.2431806 (長陵)
Xianling Chinese: 獻陵; pinyin: Xiàn Lìng Hongxi Emperor 1425   40°18′18.12″N 116°14′15.61″E / 40.3050333°N 116.2376694°E / 40.3050333; 116.2376694 (献陵)
Jingling Chinese: 景陵; pinyin: Jǐng Lìng; lit. 'Scenic Tomb' Xuande Emperor Empress Xiaogongzhang 1435   40°17′54.14″N 116°15′08.52″E / 40.2983722°N 116.2523667°E / 40.2983722; 116.2523667 (景陵)
Yuling Chinese: 裕陵; pinyin: Yù Lìng Zhengtong Emperor Empress Xiaozhuangrui
Empress Xiaosu
1449   40°18′49.33″N 116°13′55.56″E / 40.3137028°N 116.2321000°E / 40.3137028; 116.2321000 (裕陵)
Maoling Chinese: 茂陵; pinyin: Mào Lìng Chenghua Emperor Empress Xiaomu
Empress Xiaozhenchun
Empress Xiaohui
1487   40°18′51.60″N 116°13′36.17″E / 40.3143333°N 116.2267139°E / 40.3143333; 116.2267139 (茂陵)
Tailing Chinese: 泰陵; pinyin: Tài Lìng Hongzhi Emperor Empress Xiaochengjing 1505   40°19′23.33″N 116°12′59.90″E / 40.3231472°N 116.2166389°E / 40.3231472; 116.2166389 (泰陵)
Kangling Chinese: 康陵; pinyin: Kāng Lìng Zhengde Emperor Empress Xiaojingyi 1521   40°19′10.03″N 116°12′13.40″E / 40.3194528°N 116.2037222°E / 40.3194528; 116.2037222 (康陵)
Yongling Chinese: 永陵; pinyin: Yǒng Lìng Jiajing Emperor Empress Xiaojiesu
Empress Xiaolie
Empress Xiaoke
1566   40°17′18.09″N 116°15′06.05″E / 40.2883583°N 116.2516806°E / 40.2883583; 116.2516806 (永陵)
Zhaoling (Chinese: 昭陵; pinyin: Zhāo Lìng Longqing Emperor Empress Xiaoyizhuang
Empress Xiao'an
Empress Dowager Xiaoding
1572   40°17′28.76″N 116°12′38.55″E / 40.2913222°N 116.2107083°E / 40.2913222; 116.2107083 (昭陵)
Qingling Chinese: 慶陵; pinyin: Qìng Lìng Taichang Emperor Empress Xiaoyuanzhen
Empress Dowager Xiaohewang
Empress Dowager Xiaochun
1620   40°18′29.43″N 116°14′01.32″E / 40.3081750°N 116.2337000°E / 40.3081750; 116.2337000 (慶陵)
Dingling Chinese: 定陵; pinyin: Dìng Lìng; lit. 'Tomb of Stability' Wanli Emperor Empress Xiaoduanxian
Empress Dowager Xiaojing
1620   40°17′42.43″N 116°12′58.53″E / 40.2951194°N 116.2162583°E / 40.2951194; 116.2162583 (定陵)
Deling Chinese: 德陵; pinyin: Dé Lìng Tianqi Emperor Empress Xiao'aizhe 1627   40°17′15.01″N 116°15′35.91″E / 40.2875028°N 116.2599750°E / 40.2875028; 116.2599750 (徳陵)
Siling Chinese: 思陵; pinyin: Sī Lìng Chongzhen Emperor Empress Xiaojie
Noble Consort Tian
1644   40°16′08.69″N 116°11′32.64″E / 40.2690806°N 116.1924000°E / 40.2690806; 116.1924000 (思陵)

The Ming emperors not buried in one of the Thirteen Tombs are: Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Biao, Emperor Kang, Jianwen Emperor, Jingtai Emperor, and Zhu Youyuan, Emperor Xian.

Excavation of the Dingling MausoleumEdit

Dingling (Chinese: 定陵; pinyin: Dìng Lìng; lit. 'Tomb of Stability'), one of the tombs at the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming dynasty site, is the tomb of the Wanli Emperor, his empress consort and the mother of the Taichang Emperor. It is the only Ming tomb to have been excavated. It also remains the only intact imperial tomb, of any era, to have been excavated since the founding of the People's Republic of China, a situation that is almost a direct result of the fate that befell Dingling and its contents after the excavation.

Inside the Dingling Mausoleum
Dingling Mausoleum, one of the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming dynasty near Beijing

The excavation of Dingling began in 1956, after a group of prominent scholars led by Guo Moruo and Wu Han began advocating the excavation of Changling, the tomb of the Yongle Emperor, the largest and oldest of the Ming tombs near Beijing. Despite winning approval from premier Zhou Enlai, this plan was vetoed by archaeologists because of the importance and public profile of Changling. Instead, Dingling, the third largest of the Ming Tombs, was selected as a trial site in preparation for the excavation of Changling. Excavation completed in 1957 and a museum was established in 1959.

Golden crown (replica) excavated from Dingling Mausoleum

The excavation revealed an intact tomb, with thousands of items of silk, textiles, wood, and porcelain, and the skeletons of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. However, there was neither the technology nor the resources to adequately preserve the excavated artifacts. After several disastrous experiments, the large amount of silk and other textiles were simply piled into a drafty storage room that was wet from water leaks. As a result, most of the surviving artifacts today have severely deteriorated, and many replicas are instead displayed in the museum. Furthermore, the political impetus behind the excavation created pressure to quickly complete the excavation; the resulting haste rendered documentation of the excavation was poor.

Jewelry from Ming tombs, shaped like the Chinese character '', a Kangxi radical meaning 'heart'.

A far more severe problem soon befell the project when a series of political mass movements that soon escalated into the Cultural Revolution of 1966 swept the country. For the next ten years, all archeological work was stopped. Wu Han, one of the key advocates of the project, became the first major target of the Cultural Revolution, and was denounced, and died in jail in 1969. Fervent Red Guards stormed the Dingling museum and dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned. Many other artifacts were also destroyed.[2]

It was not until 1979, after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, that archaeological work recommenced in earnest and an excavation report was finally prepared by those archaeologists who had survived the turmoil.

The lessons learned from the Dingling excavation has led to a new policy of the People's Republic of China government not to excavate any historical site except for rescue purposes. In particular, no proposal to open an imperial tomb has been approved since Dingling, even when the entrance has been accidentally revealed, as was the case of the Qianling Mausoleum. The original plan, to use Dingling as a trial site for the excavation of Changling, was abandoned.

The panorama painting "Departure Herald", painted during the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1425-1435 AD), shows the emperor traveling on horseback with a large escort through the countryside from Beijing's Imperial City to the Ming tombs.


See alsoEdit

The three imperial tombs north of the great wall


  1. ^ Eric N. Danielson, "[1]". CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY, No. 16, December 2008.
  2. ^ "China's reluctant Emperor", The New York Times, Sheila Melvin, Sept. 7, 2011.

External linksEdit