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Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

World Cultural Heritage Site: Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (2000)

Comment from the World Heritage Committee

The location of the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties was chosen in consideration of the theory fengshui. Various architectures were buried underground in these tombs. They represent the product of human activity as their environment changed as well as a glimpse into traditional Chinese architectural styles. They are a vivid reflection of the feudal world view that has influenced China for over five hundred years.


The Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911 AD) were a prime time for the construction of imperial tombs. Zhu Di, the founding father of the Ming Dynasty, carried out major reforms in the imperial tomb system. Before the Ming Dynasty, tombs were in the shape of a cube. In this regard, Emperor Zhu Di changed the shape into a round one, and cancelled the layout of a resting place in the tomb. Simultaneously, he expanded the size of the memorial temples. Emperors of the Qing Dynasty inherited and brought the tomb system of the Ming Dynasty while paying attention to the harmony between surrounding mountains and tombs. Also, they perfected the tomb system by numbering the buried ones according to their seniority in the clan and setting up an order for the palaces of the concubines.

From Emperor Zhu Di, who overthrew the throne of the Yuan Dynasty in the 1st year of the Hongwu Period (1368 AD), to the 17th year of the Chongzhen Period when that emperor was forced to step down due to the peasant uprising movement led by Li Zicheng, the Ming Dynasty lasted for 277 years. In this dynasty there were 16 emperors announced to the throne. Among them, 15 built their own tombs according to the reformed tomb system. The only emperor without a tomb was Zhu Yunwen, whose body was not found after the War of Jingnan.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding father of the Ming Dynasty, was buried at the foot of Zhongshan Mountain after his death, his tomb referred to as Xiaoling Tomb. Zhu Qiyu, known as Emperor Jingdi, was killed amid an uprising. Before, his tomb was designed according to size for a royal family member instead of that for an emperor. Later in the Chenghua Period, his position as an emperor was restored and his tomb was expanded to meet the requirements of an emperor’s tomb, commonly referred to as Jingtai Tomb. The other 13 emperors were buried around Tianshou Mountain, Changping County, Beijing, their tombs referred to as the Ming Tombs.

In the Ming Dynasty, some were not emperors when alive, but canonized as emperors after death. Tombs were built for them accordingly. Zhu Shizhen, father of Zhu Yuanzhang, was made Emperor Chun after his death, buried in Fengyang, Anhui Province. Zhu Chuyi, grandfather of Zhu Yuanzhang, was made Emperor Yu, Zhu Sijiu, great grandfather of Zhuyuanzhang, Emperor Heng, and Zhu Bailiu, great great grandfather of Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Xuan. The locations where the last two were buried remain unknown, so an order was made to build tombs around the original tomb of Emperor Yu in Jiangsu Province. These tombs are referred to as the Tombs of Ancestors. Zhu Youyuan, father of Zhu Houcong known as Emperor Jiajing, was made Emperor Xian after Zhu Houcong ascended the throne. His original tomb in Hubei Province was expanded to an emperor’s tomb, commonly known as Xianling Tomb.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) founded by the Manchu people was the last feudal dynasty in China. From Nurhachi, the founding father, to Emperor Xuanotng was forced to step down in the Revolution of 1911, the Qing Dynasty lasted for 295 years, during which 12 emperors announced their thrones. The imperial tombs of the Qing Dynasty can be divided into three areas according to locations and time they were built. These three areas are based on the three tombs in Northeast China, the East Qing Imperial Tombs and the West Qing Imperial Tombs. The design and layout of the East and West Qing Imperial Tombs followed that of the Ming Dynasty. The tombs were concentrated in an area with a shared entrance, in each direction of where a smaller gate would lead to various tombs. Along the gateway, there were marble pillars, stone inscriptions and statues. Generally, the layout was as follows: five-arch stone bridge, decorated archway, stone-tablet pavilion, three-arch stone bridge, big platform, palace entrance, Longen Palace filled with palaces, Shiping Bridge, platform, glazed gate, five ancient vessels for performing sacrifices, Liming Palace, Crescent Courtyard, Precious Courtyard and Precious Mound. The construction of the tombs for royal family members with different positions had to follow a strict burial pattern. The tombs of the emperors, empresses, brothers of the emperors, princesses and concubines could vary widely.


Xianling Tomb has an area of 183 hectares, among which 52 are occupied by the catacombs. Within this vast area, all the mountains, rivers and forests are said to be important elements for the layout of the catacombs. The mountains behind the tombs are considered a symbol of the ancestors, flanked by mountains on both sides. In the platform in the middle of the area repose buildings with nine rivers flowing by. The mountain in front of the tombs serve as a protective screen. So when looking as a whole, the layout features four mythical animals in each direction, namely a phoenix in the front, a tortoise at the back, an azure dragon on the left and a white tiger on the right. These four animals are the most important elements in the theory of fengshui. This layout achieves a combination of nature and early technology within tombs. On the southernmost region of the tombs is a stone stele pavilion called Chunde (named by the emperor), the surface of which is in the shape of square. Today, the pavilion has been destroyed, but a white marble stele is still there, where the name of the pavilion is inscribed. The stele is 3.50 meters in height and 1.15 meters in width, with its base, body, inscription and head being well preserved. To the east of Chunde Mountain is the Tianzi Hill, on which is the Shanqu Stele Pavilion. On the stele records the scope and history of the pavilion. Outside the tombs there is an exterior city that has the shape of a bottle. In the front of the city lie a pond and mountains. To adapt to these geographic features, an archway was built, 18.5 meters in width and 8 meters in length, commonly referred to as Xinhong Archway. Also, there are other three smaller gates nearby. Beneath the archway there are two horse-shaped steles, carrying a message that all officials must get off the horse there. On the right side of Xinhong Archway reposes Waiming Pond, at the back of which are preventive bridges. Passing the preventive bridges, you will arrive at Zhenghong Archway, which was constructed with red walls and yellow tiles, 18 meters in length and 7.8 meters in width. This archway has three gateways. Entering Zhenghong Archway, you will see a huge stele pavilion called Rui Gong Sheng De in Chinese, which is in the shape of a square with an area of 334 meters squared, 18.3 in length and width. The stele is held up by a white marble base and holds a double-hipped roof at its top, with four other gates in each direction. Entering the gate, you will find a stele in the middle, the Chinese characters inscribed on which are a tribute to the achievements made by the host of the tomb. Behind the stele are three preventive bridges, with a distance of 63 meters between the bridges and the stele. Passing the bridges, you will arrive at the major decorative architectures of the tomb. You will see a white marble pillar that is 12 meters in height, held up by a square base, coming in the shape of a hexagonal prism. When having a closer look, you will come to see the detailed pattern carved on the pillar, which is a dragon flying amid the clouds. Behind the pillar there is a line of stone animals, including a lion, a mink, a sleeping camel, a sleeping elephant, a Chinese unicorns, a standing and sleeping horse. Also, there are statues of four military officials and four officials. All the stone statues are lifelike and arranged in order. Behind the statues is Dragon and Phoenix Archway, which just adds more charm to the statues. The archway is an exquisitely designed four-story structure held up by six pillars, with three doors altogether. The pillars are held up by a stone base, and their bodies are carved with clouds, lotus-shaped seats of Bodhisattva and stones. The archway is decorated with wood carvings, also held up by a stone base at its bottom. Its roof is topped with glazed tiles. The archway is as white as snow, majestic and magnificent. Entering the archway and then passing several preventive bridges, you will arrive at a 290-meter long aisle, the design that is opposite to traditional asymmetrical structures and resembles the snakelike body of a dragon. Behind the aisle are another three protective bridges, with Jiuqu River flowing from northeast to southwest. The waterway is paved with stones and bricks, and in the middle of the river are nine dams. Passing the last protective bridge over the river, you will arrive at Neiming Pond, which has a round shape with a diameter of 33 meters. On the edge of the pond, a bank is built with green stones for protective purposes. On each side of the pond are stele pavilions. Behind the pond is the Ling’en Archway, and passing it, can allow you to see a platform. On both sides of the archway with glazed walls and screens, which are carved with patterns of green trees. The back of the walls is carved with two flying dragons, which are considered the guards of life. Outside Ling’en Archway, there are three stele pavilions on the eastern side and two on the western side. Behind the archway, there are two palaces on the right and left side. Passing the porch will bring you to Ling’en Palace, which has a double-hipped roof at the top. Passing the palace, you can see a platform held up by a stone base, the pillars of which are carved with the figure of a phoenix and dragon. Behind the palace is the doorway of the catacomb, which is the resting place of the emperor. Behind the stone-made doorway are two stone pillars, the structures of which are damaged. Behind the pillars there are the five ancient vessels for performing sacrifices, some of which have been damaged severely. Left are only few of the total of stone vessels. Each side of the vessels have a stele pavilion. Behind the vessels are a large platform and a mansion called Fangcheng Minglou respectively in Chinese. The large platform is 22.2 meters in length and width. There is a protective doorway in its front, and each side of the doorway is built with a staircase. The mansion built on the platform is 17 meters in length and width, held up by a huge stone base with a double-hipped roof at the top and four protective doorways at each side. Inside the mansion there is a 4.69-meter-high stele that carries the message of the Tomb of Emperor Xianling. Behind the platform and the mansion there are two cities in the front and at the back, with the former you coming in the shape of an oval, stretching 112 meters from east to west and 125 meters from north to south. Within the city there is a mound, at the foot of which is a palace originally built in 1519 AD (the 15th year of the Zhengde Period). Between the mound and the platform a crescent-shaped city is built, inside of which there is a glazed screen. The two cities in the front and at the back are connected by a platform, which is shaped like a rectangle, 11.5 meters in width and 40.5 meters in length. The city at the back is in the shape of a circle with a diameter of 110 meters. Inside the city there is a mound, at the foot of which is a palace originally built in 1539 AD (the 18th year of the Jiajing Period). In the palace repose the two coffins of Emperor Xianling and the empress. Between the city at the back and the platform there is another city that is in the shape of a crescent, in which there is a screen as well. In the two cities there are 16 exquisite statues of legendary dragons (with no horns) that are a part of the drainage system. Outside the tombs, there are mountains and courtyards, including the Zu Mountain (the mountains of ancestors), Li Mountains (on the eastern and western sides), An Mountain, East Orchard, West Kaleyard, among others.

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