Dingling TombA ~ Z

Introducing the Dingling Tomb

Dingling is located at the eastern foot of Dayu Mountain. It is the tomb for the 13th Ming Emperor Wanli and his two wives. Emperor Wanli was born in 1563 and died in 1620 at the age of 58. He ascended the throne at the age of 10 and ruled China for 48 years, the longest ruling period of all the 16 Ming emperors. Construction of Dingling started from 1584 when the emperor was only 22 years old. It took 6 years and was completed in 1590 at the cost of 8 million taels of silver, equaling to two years’ land taxes for the whole country then. By the time the tomb was completed, the emperor came to the underground palace for inspection and threw a party there. Very rare in Chinese history, so some historians said that he contributed a lot to the downfall of the Ming dynasty.

Excavation of Dingling Tomb

Dingling is the only one of the 13 Ming Tombs that has been excavated. It also remains the only imperial tomb 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. 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 Ming Tomb. 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.

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 storage room that leaked water and wind. As a result, most of the surviving artifacts today have severely deteriorated, and replicas are instead displayed in the museum. Furthermore, the political impetus behind the excavation created pressure to quickly complete the excavation. The haste meant that documentation of the excavation was poor.

A severer problem soon befell the project, when a series of political mass movements swept the country. This escalated into the Cultural Revolution in 1966. For the next ten years, all archaeological 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. 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 Ding Ling excavation have led to a new policy of the 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.

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Soul Tower

The Soul Tower of Dingling is entirely made of stones and bricks. All the brackets, eaves and rafters were carved out of stone and painted like wood. Only Dingling and Yongling, the tomb for the 11th Ming Emperor have the stone Soul Tower.

Underground Palace

The Underground Palace is 27 meters deep with a total floor space of 1200 square meters. It consists of 5 chambers: the front chamber, the central chamber, the rear chamber and two annex chambers on the left and right side of the middle chamber.

Diamand Wall

In front of the front chamber is the “Diamand Wall” which sealed the Underground Palace. The word “diamand” means that the wall is very hard and solid, and as hard as a diamand to keep it from decaying.

Front Chamber

There is a marble door in front of each chamber in the Underground Palace. Each door is similar in appearance, and each of them is made of a whole piece of white marble, which are 3.3 meters high, 1.7 meters wide and 4 tons in weight. There are 81 round marble doorknobs carved on the door in 9 lines, and each line has 9 marble knobs, representing the supreme power of the emperor.

Middle Chamber

There are three marble thrones placed for Emperor Wanli and his two empresses in the middle chamber. Originally, the three thrones were placed in a triangular pattern with the emperor’s throne in the middle and the two empresses’ thrones on both sides. Right now, in order to make it easy for the tourists to visit, the three marble thrones were placed in the same middle line. The two marble thrones in the front were for the two empresses, with a phoenix design on the back of the throne and a phoenix head carved on the arms of the throne. The rear throne was for the emperor with a dragon design on the back and dragon head on its arms. A set of five glazed pottery altarpieces is placed in front of each throne. They signify that even after death, the emperor still sat on a high position, receiving homage from his subjects and exercising his supreme power. In front of each set of the altarpiece, there is a blue-and-white porcelain jar with clouds and dragon designs, known as the “Ever Lasting Lamp”. The jar was originally filled with sesame oil, and there was a copper tube in the middle with a wick inside, floating on the surface. It was supposed to provide everlasting light in the Underground Palace. After the coffins were brought in, the light was light up before people left. But when the archaeologists opened up the underground palace, they found the top oil in the jar had already congealed.

Rear Chamber

The rear chamber is the main and largest chamber in the Underground Palace. It is 30 meters long, 9 meters wide and high. There is a coffin-platform in the center with three coffins placed on it. The largest one in the middle is the coffin for Emperor Wanli. And the other two are for his two wives. Each coffin is surrounded by some large pieces of uncut jade stones because the ancient Chinese people believed that jade could prevent the dead body from decaying. A square hole, located in the center of the coffin-platform is called “Gold-well”. It was filled with yellow clay just to show the sacred connection between the coffin and the earth. In this way it would keep the Yin and Yang in harmony. And the yellow clay was the first spade of soil when they started to build the tomb. To bury the dead in the Gold-Well and among jade pieces was considered to be the highest standard of entombment in ancient China, known as “Gold Well and Jade Burial”. The Gold Well was the main consideration in building the Ming and Qing Tombs. After an auspicious place was chosen, a geomancer would come to put the first spade of soil into the possible area for determining the location of the Gold Well. The following step was to dig a deep well, which would become the Gold Well. In the process of designing the Underground Palace, Gold Well was used as a datum mark to control the pattern of the Underground Palace.

Additional Information

Emperor Wanli

Emperor Zhu Yijun, reign title Wanli, is the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was born in 1563 and died in 1620 at the age of 58. When Zhu Yijun was 6 years old, he was chosen as a Crown Prince, and ascended the throne at age of 10. He ruled China for 48 years, from 1573 to 1620, the longest ruling period of all the 16 Ming emperors. For the first ten years of his reign, he was aided by a notable minister, Zhang Juzheng who was a capable administrator who governed the country well in the name of the young Emperor. During this period Wanli deeply respected Zhang as a mentor and a valued minister. However, as Wanli's reign progressed, several factions within the government began to openly oppose Zhang's policies as well as to resent his powerful position in the court, and tried to influence Wanli to dismiss Zhang. By 1582, Wanli was a young man of 19 and was tired of the strict routine of Confucian duties that Zhang still imposed on him. He became willing to dismiss Zhang, but Zhang died in 1582 before Wanli was able to act. During the first ten years of Wanli's reign, the Ming Dynasty’s economy and military power prospered in a way not seen since the Yongle Emperor. After Zhang’s death, Wanli felt free to act independently, and reversed many of Zhang's administrative improvements. In 1584, Wanli issued an edict confiscating all of Zhang's personal wealth and purging his family members. After Zhang Juzheng died, Wanli decided to take complete personal control of the government. During this early part of his rule he showed himself to be a competent and diligent emperor. Overall, the economy continued to prosper and the country remained powerful. Unlike the 20 years at the end of his rule, Wanli at this time would attend every morning meeting and discuss state affairs. During the later years of Wanli's reign, he became thoroughly alienated from his imperial role and, in effect, went on strike. He refused to attend morning meetings, see his ministers or act upon memoranda. He also refused to make necessary personnel appointments, and as a result the whole top echelon of the Ming administration became understaffed. There are several reasons why he deliberately neglected his duties as Emperor. One is that he became disenchanted with the moralistic attacks and counterattacks of officials, rooted in an abstract Confucian orthodoxy. A more important reason, though, was a dispute about the imperial succession. Wanli's favorite consort was Concubine Zheng, and throughout the 1580s and 1590s Wanli very much wanted to promote his son by her as the crown prince, even though he was only Wanli's third son and not eligible for the succession. Many of his powerful ministers were opposed, and this led to a clash between sovereign and ministers that lasted more than 15 years. In October 1601 Emperor Wanli finally gave in and promoted Zhu changluo (Emperor Taichang) as crown prince. Although the ministers seem to have triumphed, Wanli adopted a policy of passive resistance, refusing to play his part in allowing the government to function adequately, leading to serious problems both within China itself and on the borders.

The system of Human Sacrifice

Ancient Chinese believed that after death, there was something outside the physical body called the “Soul”. When people died, their souls remained alive and would still control people’s lives. So people buried the dead and wished the dead would have a good life in the netherworld. The living people were unable to know what the netherworld was like, but they believed that the dead would have a life much similar to that of the living. So they prepared everything as if the dead were still alive. They designed the burial ground just like a living palace and buried the dead with funeral objects that they would need in the netherworld, such as production implements, articles for daily use and jewelry. But the cruelest offering was probably the “Human Sacrifice”. According to historical records, human sacrifices were found in the first three Ming Tombs. They are Changling, tomb of the Emperor Zhudi with 16 concubines; Xianling with 5 concubines and Jingling with 10. The emperor’s concubines were first forced to commit suicide, then buried in a brick pit called “Well”. The human sacrifices were not buried with the emperor but in “Wells” nearby, on either side of the tomb. They were called wells because they were vertical shafts without horizontal tunnels. The imperial concubines as human sacrifices were buried in a standing posture, still waiting on the dead emperor. The human sacrifice system did not end until the death of the 6th Ming Emperor Yingzong (1427-1464) who left instructions on abolishing it.

Opening Hours

08:00 - 17:30 (Apr. - Oct.)

08:30 - 17:00 (Nov. - Mar.)


¥ 65 (Apr.-Oct.)

¥ 45 (Nov. - Mar.)


Ming Shisan Ling Area, Dingling Town, Changping, Beijing


Getting There

It’s better to book a private car for round trip, Taxi drivers normally don’t go there

Travel Tips

The 27 meters deep Underground Palace is quite chilly

Last Updated

2018-05-03 22:27:12

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