The Ming Tombs are often overshadowed on the Beijing tourist trail by the nearby Great Wall, one of the world’s greatest wonders. In the past, en route to the Great Wall, I’ve quickly visited the publicly open parts of the 13 tombs of Ming Dynasty emperors buried in an arc-shaped valley at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, about 40 km north of the Forbidden City.
The second Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, decided to build royal tombs in his northern capital of Beijing in 1420 rather than the southern capital, Nanjing, chosen by his predecessor because of its distance from the Mongolian frontier. The tombs themselves have been ransacked and emptied of valuables, starting in 1644 when the rebel army of Li Zicheng’s ransacked and burned many of the tombs as he advanced toward Beijing, where the last Ming emperor committed suicide shortly thereafter. But the glorious structures remain.
Today, there are three public museum sites among the 13 tomb locations. It’s a massive, sprawling complex that stretches over 40 square kilometers. I feel sorry for the tourists who never get to visit the tombs because of the even-more-famous sights to see in Greater Beijing.
Off the beaten path of tourist Beijing, the tombs have their own fascinating history that touches the contradictions of modern (and ancient) China. After the Yongle Emperor built the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1420, he decreed that a burial site be found to house the remains of future Ming emperors. Four years later, his was the first of 13 mausoleums built in a verdant valley beneath the Jundu Mountains, not far from the Great Wall.
The place has been ransacked repeatedly in the six centuries that have followed, most notably during the revolution that preceded the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the Cultural Revolution that followed the rise of Mao Zedong. Its tombs have been raided for political and pecuniary purposes. But its Sacred Way, sometimes known as the Spirit Way or the Avenue of the Animals, remains as a reminder of the permanence of Chinese history, despite its periodic revision.
A final contradiction: A photo of Mao admiring one of the spirit elephants is posted on the Sacred Way, but Red Guards a few years later seized the remains of Emperor Wanli from the Dingling tomb, posthumously “denounced” him and burned his remains, along with his Empress.
On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong read a statement before a bank of microphones and hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Tiananmen Square declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
Sixty-four years later, I was one of the perhaps dozens of “westerners” visiting Beijing’s most famous landmark on China’s National Day holiday. It is a festive celebration, with special decorations, tourist-friendly hats, face painting, parades and family pilgrimmages.
The scene, I thought, was very much like the Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall in Washington. Patriotism, pageantry, family, country.
My small group of three Americans (thanks, Caroline and Sara) tried to blend in with the hundreds of thousands — more probably, millions — of Chinese tourists. Well, we were never going to blend in. Caroline and Sara are striking young blondes, and perhaps a dozen Chinese families asked to have their photos taken with them. (Nobody asked me.)
We walked around Tiananmen, headed inside the main gate toward the Forbidden City, and then wandered through the historic core of old Beijing.
I hope this photo essay gives you a sense of the grandeur and the scope of the day.