Introducing the Ming Tombs (Shi San Ling)
The Ming Tombs are located about 55 kilometers due north of urban Beijing at a specially selected site. The site was chosen by the third Ming Emperor Yongle (1402-1424), who moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing. He is credited with envisioning the layout of the ancient city of Beijing as well as a number of landmarks and monuments located therein. After the construction of the Forbidden City in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The Ming tombs of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were located on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain. From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming Emperors were buried in this area. The tombs of the first two Ming Emperors are located near Nanjing (the capital city then). Emperor Jingtai was also not buried here, as the Emperor Tianshun had denied Jingtai an imperial burial, but was instead buried in the west of Beijing. The last Ming Emperor Chongzhen, who hanged himself in April 1644, was the last to be buried in the tomb named Si Ling by the Qing emperor, but on a much smaller scale than his predecessors. During the Ming dynasty the tombs were off limits to commoners, but in 1644 Li Zicheng’s army ransacked and set many of the tombs on fire before advancing and capturing Beijing in April of that year.
The site of the Ming 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 area at the foot of the Jundu Mountains north of Beijing was selected. This 80 square kilometer area, enclosed by the mountain 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 seven kilometer road named the "Spirit Way" (Shen dao) leads into the complex, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials, with a front gate consisting of 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 it, there is a 50-ton tortoise shaped dragon-beast carrying a stone tablet. This was added during Qing dynasty and was not part of the original Ming layout. 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. Then come two Pillars on each side of the road, 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.
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. 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.