(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)
CORRECTION: Nana was apparently listening much more closely than I was: I've fixed the story of Yongle's spirit tablet--see the end of this post.
We're branching out now to some sights just outside Beijing: in the coming days, you'll see posts about the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, too. Remaining Beijing sites include the Olympic venues and Dongyue Temple.
Tourists usually visit the Ming Tombs complex as the second part of a Great Wall day-trip: the tombs are roughly halfway between Beijing and the nearest stretch of the Wall. However, in true Ming Dynasty style, the tombs are too many and too widespread to visit in one afternoon. 13 Ming emperors are buried in the region (that's Ming emperors #3-16, for those of you keeping score at home--the first two Ming emperors had their capitals at Nanjing in the south).
Of these thirteen tombs, none is more popular than the tomb of Yongle ("yong-luh"), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who moved the capital to Beijing. He ruled from 1360-1424, and his reign saw the construction of the Forbidden Palace, the construction of the Temple of Heaven, the final subjugation of the preceding dynasty (the Yuan, who, being Mongols, had fled to Mongolia), a major expansion of Chinese territory, the completion of the Yongle encyclopedia, and feudal China's only major attempt at world exploration. In fact, some hypothesize that explorers under Yongle mapped parts of the Americas and circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423, though the evidence is circumstantial, and the Chinese records that could have proven the hypothesis were destroyed by Yongle's successor, whose advisors didn't want the costly expeditions to continue.
But for all his hard work and dedication, he gets the biggest of the Ming tombs.
Yongle's tomb, also known as the Changling (or "long mausoleum") tomb, follows the traditional feng shui layout. There's a mountain at the back (north) and the main gate at the front (south). Behind the main gate is a courtyard and another gate, followed by a ceremonial throne room/worship hall, followed by an inner courtyard. The emperor's spirit tablet is kept at the back of the inner courtyard; his ashes are buried under a large mound behind that. (For a scaled-down version of the same architecture, see our post on the burial mound of Korea's Yongle, King Sejong.)
As you can see below, the architecture of Yongle's tomb is very similar to the architecture of the Forbidden City. The yellow-tiled roof is a special signature of the Ming Dynasty, and was a symbol of Chinese imperial power from the 15th century on.
This is the gate at the north end of the first courtyard.This is a bell tower in the first courtyard.
And here is the ceremonial throne room. Are you getting Forbidden City flashbacks yet?Now, the throne room is no longer used for ceremonial purposes. Instead, it's been turned into a small museum dedicated to Yongle's accomplishments. Unfortunately, most of the signs are in Chinese--though a few exhibits need no explanation.
For example: here's a giant statue of the man himself.Plus the obligatory close-up. (Sorry about the light--it was dark in there!)And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what East Asians traditionally thought of when they thought of a crown:The Korean kings had them, too--but they weren't allowed to wear as many beads. By treaty. Seriously.
And finally, at the very back of the tomb is Yongle's spirit tablet. (There's actually more to the tomb, but visitors aren't allowed to walk on the burial mound.) The soldiers of a subsequent dynasty purportedly tried to burn the tablet, but succeeded only in firing the stone to its present brilliant red. Of course, why anyone would try to burn a stone is beyond me . . . and upon close inspection, I'm pretty sure the stone has been painted. (Actually, the communists tried to burn the tablet during the Cultural Revolution and settled for painting the thing red when they failed. No word yet on Mick Jagger's plans to paint it black. Stay tuned.)
Just ask that kid there--he looks like he has a pretty good view.