A watercolor painting overview of the Ming Tombs. (1875-1908)

A Final Resting Place Fit for an Emperor: The Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty

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The Ming Dynasty was established in 1368 AD by Zhu Yuanzhang (who became the Hongwu Emperor) following the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Until the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 AD, there were a total of 16 emperors who ruled over China. The tombs of 13 of these Ming emperors are located in a cluster not far from the Chinese capital, Beijing, and are known collectively as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.

The Three Ming Emperors Not in the Tombs

The three Ming emperors not buried in this area are the Hongwu Emperor (who was buried near his capital, Nanjing), his immediate successor, the Jianwen Emperor (who vanished from history following his overthrow by his uncle), and the 7th emperor, Jingtai (who was denied an imperial burial by his immediate successor, the Zhengtong Emperor.)

Location of the Thirteen Tombs

The Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty are located at the foot of the Tianshou Mountain in Changping District, a suburban area 50 km (31.1 miles) to the northwest of Beijing city. The construction of the first Ming tomb in this area began in 1409 AD by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. This site was chosen based on the principles of feng shui (geomancy.)

According to these principles, bad spirits and evil winds were believed to descend from the North and needed to be deflected. Thus, the arc-shaped area at the foot of the Tianshou Mountain was chosen. This site is said to cover an area of 40 square km (24.9 square miles), and is a quiet valley full of dark earth and tranquil water encompassed by the mountains - an ideal site for the burial of the Ming emperors. In addition to the auspicious feng shui and the beautiful scenery, this site is also said to be strategic from a military perspective, as the mountains provided a natural defense for the area.

Tianshou Mountain stands behind the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.

Tianshou Mountain stands behind the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. ( China Wanderer )

Follow the Spirit Way and You Will find the Thirteen Tombs

During the Ming Dynasty, the complex was not accessible to commoners. In 1644 however, the army of the rebel Li Zicheng ransacked and burnt many of the tombs before marching to Beijing. Today, the complex may be visited by the public. The tombs are accessed via the Spirit Way or Sacred Way, a seven km (4.3 mile) road. The Spirit Way is said to symbolize the dignity of the Ming emperors and their authority even after death.

At the beginning of this path there is a stone memorial archway built in 1540. This is followed by a road lined with 36 stone statues. 24 of these statues represent animals, including lions, elephants and camels, whilst the remaining 12 represent humans, including generals and government officials. These sculptures are said to participate in ongoing royal ceremonies as well as the passage of the spirits of the dead.      

One of the three human statues that line the Spirit Way, Changping, China.

One of the three human statues that line the Spirit Way, Changping, China. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Of the 13 tombs in the valley, only three are open to the public today. These are the tombs of the 3rd Ming emperor, Yongle (the Changling Tomb), the 13th Ming emperor, Wanli (the Dingling Tomb), and the 12th Ming emperor, Longqing (the Zhaoling Tomb).

The Elaborate Changling Tomb

The Changling Tomb is the largest of the 13 Ming tombs. The tomb itself took five years to complete, while one of the structures, the Hall of Eminent Favor, took about 18 years to complete. This hall covers an area of almost 1956 square meters (6417.3 square feet), which is nearly the same as the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Architecturally, however, the former is said to exceed the latter, as the columns and pillars are made of Chinese cedar (a durable, high quality softwood) believed to have come all the way from Nepal. Although the tomb has not been fully excavated, the digging was done in such a way that it is possible for the public to reach the burial chamber itself. Additionally, over 3000 precious artifacts have been unearthed, indicating the amount of wealth buried with the emperor.

The Hall of Eminent Favor of the Changling Tomb, (1871) Changping, China

The Hall of Eminent Favor of the Changling Tomb, (1871) Changping, China ( Wikimedia Commons )


The Big letdown for most excited travellers comes when they actually get to the underground tomb of an emperor.

Many people expect to see similarities of grandeur as those found in the ancient Egyptian tombs.

 To some tourists, they only see the stone coffins inside a rather plain stone walled room. That’s it.

No painted murals, no fancy carvings, no extravagance of decoration.

Others marvel at the construction of the tombs and being in the final resting spot of past Chinese Emperors.

Usually a tour departs from Beijing and takes your group to walk a portion of the “Great Wall”. Next - lunch after touring the Ming Tomb site.

You can tour Zhaoling’s tomb. He was the Emperor that sent Admiral Zheng He across the oceans to collect tribute and to enlighten less knowledgeable societies about Chinese advanced science and technology.

Before you visit the tombs, research these two very important Chinese people (Zhaoling, and Admiral Zheng He), and the tombs will take on more significance with your new insight into China’s historical past.

Without scientific data, conclusions remain conjecture.

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