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How the Ming Tombs inspire six centuries on

By A. Thomas Pasek | China Daily | Updated: 2021-10-19 08:09
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Cemeteries can be quite lively places. Not in the sense of Stephen King's 1983 classic horror story Pet Sematary, which was reanimated into a movie-twice-in 1989 and 2019. That sort of liveliness is best left to the campfire ghost stories.

But churchyards themselves can be very contemplative places, if one thinks about it. There you are, preferably alone at dawn or dusk, perhaps beside the headstone of an ancestor or dearly departed, alone with your thoughts … or perhaps not. If the barnacles of bereavement have loosed their grip over time, then all the better to commune with those who've graduated to the next stage of existence.

Being the only moving mortal surrounded by countless still strangers, with perhaps a familiar name chiseled into a stone here or there-what could be more life-affirming, or life-confirming, more lively, than a solitary stroll through a suburban boneyard?

In fact, I once had this experience at a memorial on a rather worse for the wear section of the Great Wall one dawn a few years back. But that was by intent, as I told the driver to take me to any abandoned section of the structure, not named Badaling, where I could be assured of a silent sunrise in solitude.

I, of course, didn't have such luck during a visit pre-pandemic to the Ming Tombs.

The mausoleum complex, containing the remains of 13 Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperors, is about the same distance from downtown Beijing as is the Great Wall, at least as the crow flies.

One can never know the true motives of a historical figure like Emperor Yongle (lived 1360-1424;reigned 1402-24), the third Ming emperor. While the first two Ming celestial leaders are interred in the then-imperial capital of Nanjing, in what is now Jiangsu province, Yongle was the first to choose Beijing.

In deciding to make his burial site 42 kilometers northwest of downtown Beijing, perhaps two motivations were at play for Yongle, fourth son of Emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming Dynasty.

First, the year 1420 was a seminal moment in Chinese history as Beijing's Forbidden City was first officially occupied by the royal court that year, thus permanently shifting the political center of gravity north after previously been focused around Nanjing.

By the time the doors to the palace in the capital were open, Yongle was already 60, an elderly man by 15th century standards. Therefore, with the glittering expanse of his new habitation secure, it was only natural that he ponder his own mortality.

Therefore, while the paint was still wet on the Forbidden City, Yongle-referring to the age-old art of feng shui-chose a site on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain as his family plot. And four years later, when Yongle died, he became the first of 13 Ming emperors to call the site their final resting place.

Another motivating factor for Yongle's decision to be interred north of Beijing may also come down to rather fascinating historical factors.

Ever since its first dynasty, the Xia (c.21st century-16th century BC), China was generally thought to be governed by Han ethnic people.

The first aberration to this millennia-old precedent came with the nearly century-long rule of the Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

As Hongwu successfully campaigned to return the country to Han rule and eventually became the first Ming ruler, his son Yongle was only too willing to stake a territorial claim to North China, which borders Mongolia. And what better a way than to have all emperors of the dynasty that ousted the Mongols make their sprawling mausoleum a proverbial second Great Wall, daring the former invaders to march over sacred ground.

Perhaps this is an over-read into Yongle's family plot plotting, but it makes for a good, and rather plausible, backstory plot in itself.

Let's return to the 21st century.

For anyone with a fancy for history, even predating the intrepid Italian explorer sailing the ocean blue in 1492, I would highly recommend a half-day wandering around the Ming Tombs.

While wandering among the 13 imperial tombs, seven concubine graves and a eunuch's final resting place scattered in the valley, remember to ponder the glories of the Ming Dynasty and think of the achievements made during nearly three centuries of Ming rule.

The Ming Tombs are relatively well-preserved compared with other Chinese imperial tombs. They boast high historical and cultural value due to grand architecture and a long history. To conserve the cultural heritage, the central government has restored and maintained the Ming Tombs since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The Ming Tombs were listed as a key cultural heritage under State conservation in 1961. The area was named a national key scenic spot by the State Council in 1982 and the tombs were inscribed into the catalog of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2003.

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