The Ming and Qing imperial tombs are natural sites modified by human influence, carefully chosen according to the principles of geomancy (Fengshui) to house numerous buildings of traditional architectural design and decoration. They illustrate the continuity over five centuries of a world view and concept of power specific to feudal China.
The Ming tombs lie in a broad valley to the south of Tianshou Mountain (Longevity of Heaven) in Changping District, about 44 km northwest of Beijing proper. To the southwest of this valley, a branch of the Yanshan Range suddenly breaks off and forms a natural gateway to the 40-square-km basin in which the bombs were built. Thirteen out of the 16 Ming emperors as well as 23 empresses, 1 highest-ranking concubine and a dozen immolated imperial concubines were buried in this peaceful valley.
It was widely held in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that although dead physically, a person's soul remained, still having human needs. Consequently, the 13 emperors' tome complexes look like imperial palaces.
Under the guidance of traditional Chinese Fengshui (geomancy), the whole process from site selection to designing of the tombs paid attention to harmony between tomb architecture and the surrounding mountains, rivers and vegetation to embody the philosophical view that man is an integral part of nature.
Of the 13 tombs, Dingling, the tomb of Emperor Wanli (reigned 1537-1619), was under archaeological excavation in 1956, and all other tomb architecture has remained intact.
Visitors first pass by an elegant, five-arched white marble memorial archway. Built in 1540, this 29-meter-wide and 14-meter-high structure, with its delicate bas-relief carvings of lions, dragons and lotuses, is still in near-perfect condition. About one kilometer to the northeast of this archway stands the Great Red Gate (Dahongmen), the outermost gate of the entire mortuary complex.
The Great Red Gate marks the beginning of the 7-kilometer-long Sacred Way (Shendao), which leads to the entrance of the Changling, the tomb of Emperor Yongle (reined 1403-1424). Continuing on, one comes to a tall square stele pavilion, with four tall white stone ornamental columns (huabiao) set at each of its four corners, standing boldly in the center of the Sacred Way. The pavilion houses a huge stone tortoise by the famous Avenue of the Animals, where pairs of lions, elephants, camels. Horses and a number of mythological beasts line the road. There are 24 stone creatures in all. These beasts are followed in turn by a group of 12 stone human figures, which represent the funeral cortege of the deceased emperors. Carved in 1540, this group is made up of military, civil and meritorious officials. Immediately beyond these human figures are the Dragon and Phoenix Gate (Longfengmen), which are pierced with three archways.
Though varying in size and architectural complexity, these tombs are similar in general layout: the plan takes an oblong shape with a round (or oval) Precious Hall (Baocheng) at the rear. Each tomb complex starts with a stone bridge, followed by a front gate, a stele pavilion, the Gate of Eminent Favor, the Hall of Eminent Favor, a watchtower and then the Precious Hall. The layout of these Ming Tombs produced a far-reaching impact on the construction of the Dong Tombs and Xi Tombs of the Qing Dynasty.
Changling, the biggest mausoleum, was built for the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, and took 18 years to complete. Zhu Di was the Emperor who built the Forbideen City, commissioned the Great Dictionary of Yongle (Yongle Dadian) and sent the eunuch Admiral Cheng He to South-East Asia, Ceylon, India, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Changling is surrounded by sixteen satellite tombs for Zhu Di’s concubines, and the tumulus has not yet been excavated. The ground structure opened to the public is a miniature Forbidden City, with an impressive Hall of Eminent Favours (LingEn Dian) of marbled floor and thirty-two sandalwood columns. The hall now serves as a museum for the precious artifacts found in the imperial coffins and twenty-three wooden chests in Dingling. The stone stele bears the inscriptions of the Ming Dynasty Renzong Emperor (Zhu Gaozhi) and Qing rulers, the Qianlong and the Jiaqing Emperors.
The Zhaoling Tomb was for the 12th Ming Longqing Emperor, Zhu Daicheng, and his three Empresses. His reign lasted only six years (1566 to 1572). It is not of much significance except that it is the first Ming mausoleum to be fully restored to its original plan.
The Ming tombs were put under protection of the Beijing municipal government in 1957.
In July 2003, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at its 27th session officially inscribed the Xiaoling Tomb in Nanjing and Ming Tombs (Shisanling) in Beijing on the World Heritage List as assemblage of the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.