The Ming Tombs

One of the main things to do in Beijing is to visit the Ming Tombs, so I went for the first time this weekend. Although there are 13 tombs, only three are open to the public as attractions, and the rest are relatively undisturbed. We visited all 13 tombs, plus some tombs of famous concubines, with a local man who has been researching the history of the tombs and visiting them for 30 years. Thirteen tombs is a lot for one day, but the history was really interesting and it was worth the visit.

The Ming Tombs are located about 50 kilometers north of Beijing, and are the final resting places of thirteen of the Ming dynasty emperors, plus a handful of concubines and eunuchs. The valley where the tombs are located was chosen for its excellent fengshui — it’s surrounded on all sides by mountains, and also has a river running through it.

The Chinese believe in ancestor worship, and respecting deceased relatives is very important to them. Accordingly, very few of the tombs have been opened to researchers and the public, as this would be a show of disrespect for the dead. The contents of ten of the tombs are a complete mystery — nobody except a few elderly caretakers are allowed inside the tombs.

But you can take a peek through the gates!

Today, the Ming Tombs are surrounded by small villages, and have even lent building materials to the villagers. Many villagers’ homes and gardens are situated in the middle of what was once a large tomb complex. Each tomb was built like a Chinese palace, with exterior walls for protection, gardens and several buildings, so in the intervening years villagers have actually settled within the walls of tombs.

Below is the outer most wall of the tomb of the emperor with the second-longest reign in the Ming dynasty. He was very concerned with safety, and commissioned his tomb to have two walls built around it. When the builders finished construction on the tomb, they didn’t dare tell the emperor, for fear that he would take it as a sign that they were just waiting for him to die. Instead, they built a third wall, the remnants of which you can see below.

It’s funny how Chinese people take the presence of such incredible history in stride. In order to see some of the tombs, we literally had to go into people’s backyards, where there would be 12-foot-tall marble tablets and the remains of tombs.

While on the tour, we learned about each emperor when we visited his tomb. The emperor with the longest reign (48 years) had a son whose reign was shortest in the dynasty (28 days). This particularly unfortunate emperor survived several attempts on his life, but died from a mysterious illness after swimming, just 28 days into his rule. Other accounts blame his early death on “too many women.” His grandfather had the second longest reign (45 years); I guess he just didn’t inherit longevity.

We also visited the site where several concubines and female servants were buried in a humble grave. They had died during the period in which all the emperor’s women were put to death when he died so that they could join him in the afterlife.

Not all women in the Ming dynasty were so helpless. One of the most interesting stories was of Wan Gui Fei. Wan Gui Fei, although never made empress, was probably the most powerful and feared woman of the Ming dynasty. She raised the emperor from when he was a child, later becoming his lover (paging Dr. Freud!). It is said that all the court feared Wan Gui Fei because of her incredible influence over the emperor. During his reign, she systematically aborted the children of all other concubines, ensuring that she would be the only bearer of his heirs. Although many knew of this, none dared to defy her. When the emperor turned 30, he was desperate for an heir, and loudly bemoaned his fate to the court. Risking death, a eunuch threw himself on the ground before the emperor, revealing that indeed, he did have a son, who had been kept secret for fear of Wan Gui Fei. From then on, the son was personally protected by the empress, and later took the throne at age 18.

Despite her little murderous character flaws, the emperor loved Wan Gui Fei until death, and erected a tomb for her in the same valley with the emperors’ tombs, bestowing great honor on her. We took a little peek at her tomb over the wall.

Here’s what we saw!

We had lunch at a village inn, which consisted of Chinese burritos. mmmm! The inn also had a caged squirrel, which is sadly the first squirrel I’ve ever seen in China.

After a long day of tomb visiting, we stopped by a nearby reservoir, where we inexplicably saw a bunch of cute animals!

It’s hard to get the kind of experience we did without a really good tour guide, but the tombs are definitely worth visiting if you bring along a little history book and check them out at a leisurely pace. It’s a good spot for an all-day, relatively easy hike, and many villages offer cheap and filling meals in country homes.

The Ming Tombs are easily accessible from Beijing by public bus (919 takes you to the tourist tombs, 345 takes you to the reservoir) and tour company.

One thought on “The Ming Tombs

  1. It is striking to see such significant remnants of antiquity falling into disrepair and disregard. But such is the fate of the monuments of many ancient cultures, to become building blocks for peasants homes, whether in Guatemala, Egypt, Cambodia or China. Future generations may lament the loss of artifacts and context and try to restore what has been lost.

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