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Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs in Beijing

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China

The first tomb, Chang Ling, is the burial plot of the emperor Yongle and noteworthy as the most impressive tomb because of its sequence of opulently-designed halls lying beyond the yellow-tiled gate. The tomb contains a recently-erected statue of the emperor Yongle as well as an abundance of impressive cedar-wood columns. The pine-covered burial knoll towards the back of the compound is yet to be excavated and is closed to the public.

Ding Ling – the third largest tomb within the complex – is the burial spot of the emperor Wanli. Also known as the Tomb of Stability, the crypt is noteworthy because it’s the only one where visitors are allowed to descend into its underground vault. Zhao Ling is the third, open-to-the-public Ming tomb; the final resting site of the 13th Ming emperor – Longqing – it follows a standard yet impressive imperial tomb design.

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Despite the fact that they vary in size and architectural complexity, the Ming Dynasty Tombs are comparable in general layout. Each tomb complex starts with a stone bridge, followed by a front gate, a stele pavilion, the Gate of Eminent Favour, the Hall of Eminent Favour, a watchtower and then the Precious Hall at the rear of the oval-shaped compound.

The entryway into the Ming Dynasty Tombs begins with a seven-kilometre road called the ‘Spirit Way’ – the memorial archway at the start of the path is one of the largest stone archways in China today. Once past the Great Palace Gate, which is followed by a road flanked with twelve pairs of lifelike stone statues of armour-clad generals and legendary sacred animals, the front gate consists of three red arches called the ‘Great Red Gate’.

Beyond that is the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion – home to a 50-ton tortoise-shaped dragon beast toting a stone tablet. This carving is flanked by four white marble Huabiao – also known as pillars of glory – at each of the four corners of the steel pavilion.

Highlights and Features

  • Chang Ling: Home to the crypt of the third Ming Dynasty emperor, Yongle and noteworthy as the most impressive tomb because of its sequence of opulently-designed halls lying beyond the yellow-tiled gate.
  • Dingling: The third-largest tomb within the compound, this crypt is worth mentioning because it’s the only one where visitors are allowed to tour the vast underground palace.
  • Zhao Ling: The third Ming Dynasty tomb that is open to the public, Zhao Ling is the resting place of the 13th Ming emperor, Longqing.

Ming Dynasty Tombs History

The first tomb, Chang Ling, is the burial plot of the emperor Yongle and noteworthy as the grandest tomb with its sequence of opulently-designed halls lying beyond the yellow-tiled gate. As a direct result of the fate that befell Dingling and its contents after its excavation, The People’s Republic of China has ruled that no historical site – especially imperial tombs –may be excavated with the exception of rescue purposes. 

Ding Ling – the only one of the Ming Tombs to have been excavated – is the burial spot of the emperor Wanli and the third largest of the Ming tombs. Also known as the Tomb of Stability, this must-visit spot – home to a magnificent underground palace with five vast chambers housing the emperor and his two empresses’ coffins – contains a series of subterranean interlocking vaults. This tomb is quite possibly the most sensational mausoleum-site due to the controversy surrounding its excavation.

Excavated in the 1950’s, access to the vault is through a set of enormously-vast marble self-locking doors that sealed the chamber after it was vacated; in 1956, the contents of the tomb were unearthed by a group of prominent scholars after pressure was put to excavate Chang Ling. Due to Chang Ling’s relative importance, Ding Ling was chosen as a test site; however even though the excavation revealed an intact tomb, the relative speed at which excavation was done as well as the lack of technology and tools necessary to adequately preserve the excavated artefacts – such as silk, textiles, wood, and porcelain, and the skeletons of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses – resulted in the severe deterioration of the artefacts.

Mass political movements particularly during the Cultural Revolution, further hindered the excavation progress as Dingling was sacked and its contents were unceremoniously destroyed. It was only after the death of Mao Zedong and the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution that archaeological efforts at the tomb were able to resume. As a consequence these days the items on display at the museum are simply replicas of the destroyed items.

Good to Know and What Not to Miss

  • Due to its relatively weak popularity, Zhao Ling, the third tomb, usually isn’t as crowded as the others.
  • Dingling is the site of the Ming Tombs Museum.
  • It’s best to combine a visit to the Ming Dynasty Tombs with a visit to the Great Wall at Badaling.
  • The tombs were officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July, 2003.

Ming Dynasty Tombs

  • Opening Hours: 08:00 – 17:00 Daily
  • Price Range: Chang Ling: Y45; Dingling: Y60; Zhao Ling: Y30; Ming Tombs Museum: Y20
  • How to get there: To cheapest way to get to the Ming Dynasty Tombs is to take a bus; bus 345 from Deshengmen takes you to Changping Dongguan – from here take bus 314 to the tombs. Alternatively it’s easier to join a tour group which will also allow you to visit other notable attractions in the area.
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