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.
The astronomical observatory in longest continuous use in the world is …
No, it’s not England’s world-famous Greenwich Observatory, creator of “Greenwich Mean Time.” It is the Ming Dynasty’s observatory in central Beijing. Near the southeastern corner of the old City Wall, the Beijing Ancient Observatory, originally built in 1442, is 233 years older than Greenwich.
The eight sets of astronomical instruments on the observatory’s roof have had a distinguished scientific past. Their design was strongly influenced by the Renaissance in Europe but they have some distinctive Chinese elements such as dragons and lions. The observatory’s treasures were pillaged in the 1900 war by marauding foreign troops retaliating for the lengthy siege of diplomats and Chinese Christians in the nearby Legation Quarter by Boxer cultists and the Qing military. Germany, defeated in the First World War, was the first nation to return the stolen treasure.
Today, the observatory is a small gem for in-the-know Beijingers (and a very few international tourists). There are interesting historical displays in the Ziwei Palace and some fascinating astronomical devices.
The Great Wall of China is Beijing’s most famous wall. But there’s another not-as-great wall in Beijing that is more relevant to the capital city’s history and culture. The “Inner City Wall” was built in 1419 early in the Ming Dynasty and formed a highly fortified rectangle that stretched for about 40 km around the Forbidden City and the “inner city” of Beijing.
Well into the 20th century, camel caravans would approach the city gates from the Silk Road, and horses (animal and then iron) would approach from the port of Tianjin. Moats surrounded the defensive fortifications, and a series of watchtowers provided housing for the soldiers.
Several of the gates were heavily damaged by troops from eight foreign nations during the 1900 “Boxer rebellion,” but the walled city remained, in its decaying grandeur, until a combination of the Cultural Revolution and the coming of the Beijing subway resulted in the almost-complete destruction of the ancient wall.
Today, few remnants of the old city wall remain (unlike the restored walls of Xi’an and Nanjing). But there is a mile-long stretch from the Southeastern Watchtower near the former Dongbian Gate to the Chongwen Gate that has been preserved as Beijing Ming City Wall Relics Park. The park was created in the early years of the 21st century when the ramshackle residences, with no heating, running water or plumbing, that abutted it were bulldozed and replaced by flowering trees, grass and hiking paths. (The ancient trees from the Ming era remain.) A small museum on the ramparts contains historical photos, an art exhibit and a few relics. You can walk atop a short section of the original ramparts then continue your stroll at street level. Ancient history, hidden in plain sight.