How to Die in Style: The Ming Tombs of China

While in Beijing, I signed up for a two-day organized tour.    Part of that tour was a visit to the Ming Tombs, the burial site for the Ming Dynasty emperors (1368-1644).   I admit that I yawned a bit when I saw that we were going to visit a tomb.  I have never found visiting dead people particularly interesting, and I was expecting the tombs to look something  like this:


Richard III tomb

Tomb of Richard III

click here for photo source.

I was surprised, therefore, to discover that the Ming Tomb site for 13 emperors in fact covers an area of approximately 46 square miles.  The enormity of the site cannot be captured in a photo.    Like so many things that are Chinese, the scale of these mausoleums is hard for me to grasp.  Each of the 13 emperors has his own site, arranged something like this:


map of Ming tombs

For source of photo, click here.

This site was carefully chosen because of the protective qualities of the mountains, as well as numerous other qualities according to feng shui–the details of which I admit are beyond me at this point.

We visited just one of the tombs-Changling.  This was the burial site of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle.  His personal title was Zhu Di, but he chose his reign title, Yongle, because it means “Perpetual Happiness.”  I suspect, however, that the hundreds or thousands of Chinese people he had tortured and killed during his reign may have disagreed about the happiness of his reign.

Yongle’s reputation is mixed.  On the one hand, he was known for his cruelty.  On the other hand, he was known for his power.  (Perhaps there is a relationship between these two qualities?)  It was he who moved the capital of China to Beijing, and it was he who created the Forbidden City.  A despot who created an advanced network of spies on his own people, he also brought about economic, educational and military advancements that benefited the Chinese people.

I was surprised to learn that the exact location of his body is unknown.  He was buried somewhere in the wooded mountain that you can see in the pictures below, but nobody has been able to find his body or all the loot that went with it.

The Chinese believed that in the afterlife, people took up similar roles and statuses as they did when they were alive.  Therefore, the family of the deceased made sure to provide the dead person with all of the goods he or she would need in the afterlife, including furniture, artwork, etc.

They also, unfortunately, believed that people needed companions, so they often buried the emperors’ concubines or other lovely women along with them–even though the concubines were still alive.

For more information on the Ming Tombs, the Ming rulers and burial practices of the period, check out this wonderful website on the subject:  click here.


Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

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