The eternal emperor's road from glory to ashes
China Daily
2017-05-20 10:18:29

"The flesh on the three corpses has rotted completely, but the bones remain intact, and in all three cases the hair is soft and shiny." These words are from the first official report published by Chinese archaeologists on their excavation of the Dingling Mausoleum Beijing between 1956 and 1957.

The report, published in 1958, cited the discovery of "countless pieces of gold and jade jewelry and wares, and hundreds of fabric rolls"-a treasure big enough to cause a stir in the archaeological world beyond China, and to fuel the imagination of many who had long had an interest toward the owner of the burial ground, Emperor Wanli, the long-est-reigning emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In 1572, on the death of his father, Emperor Longqing, 10-year-old Zhu Yijun ascended to the throne to become the 14th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Wanli, his reign title, embodies the meaning of eternity, something that every ruler has wished for himself and his empire.

On the throne, the teenage emperor would grow into a young man whose craving for ultimate authority was tempered, or impeded, by the existence of an all-powerful consul, Zhang Juzheng. Acting as the de facto ruler of the country, Zhang had an aptitude for governing matched only by his political dedication. However, what he failed to gauge was the level of resentment the young emperor harbored regarding his dictatorial management style.

Zhang died in 1582, a decade into Wanli's rule. The emperor waited for two years before lashing out at the dead man and his family, confiscating all its assets. Many family members were starved to death, and Zhang's eldest son committed suicide.

Zhang himself was convicted posthumously of crimes including encroaching on royal land, intimidating fellow officials and monopolizing power, and stripped of all his honorary titles. All this even though Zhang, thanks to a series of reforms he initiated and implemented with an iron hand, had greatly increased the military might of the state and enriched royal coffers.

If Wanli harbored any illusion that Zhang's death and denouncement finally heralded the era of his free reign he would soon find out how wrong he was.

Succession issue

A lingering issue during his reign concerned the choice of his successor, the crown prince. While the emperor favored his third son, the court and his mother sided firmly with his eldest one. The political struggle went on for nearly 30 years. The emperor protested by refusing to attend daily court meetings, but in vain. In 1601, Changluo was made crown prince. But it was only in 1614, six years before Wanli's death, that the emperor finally ordered-certainly against his own will-the dispatch of his third son from Beijing, the Ming capital, to his own fiefdom thousands of kilometers away. (The threat was removed, finally.)

How much did this saga, straddling nearly three decades, affect Emperor Wanli? No one can know, but the emperor's protest turned into a habit. For nearly 30 years before he died he lived a reclusive life with his many royal concubines in the Forbidden City, a sprawling imperial residence for Chinese emperors from the early 15th century. From this center of power he ruled his vast country mainly by edict or giving written replies to any state affair put forward by his ministers for consideration.

The emperor was certainly neglectful in many ways, with at least one exception: building his final resting place.

Construction of the Dingling Mausoleum began in 1584 when he was just 22 and two years after the death of Zhang, his powerful consul. (Zhang, known for his prudence, may have objected to the idea if he had been alive.)

It would last for six years, with total spending exceeding the state's tax income for two consecutive years. The mausoleum, covering 182,000 sqm, was designed symmetrically. Along the central axis one can find in turn the grand entrance of the mausoleum, three courtyards, a stone tower and finally the burial mound under which the emperor's secret chamber lies. All the buildings face southeast.

Encompassing everything is an outer wall, long since reduced to mere foundations. Despite the will of the emperor, the mausoleum was not spared the ravages of time.

Hu Hansheng, a historian who specializes in imperial Ming tombs, says large-scale damage was first wreaked on the mausoleum in 1644, when an army led by the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng entered Beijing. Before the wooden palaces of the mausoleum were set on fire, Emperor Chongzhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, had hanged himself on a tree in his royal garden.

"That was 54 years after the completion of the Dingling Mausoleum and 24 years after the death of Emperor Wanli."

Yet the rebel leader Li failed to hold on to power. The Manchus, a nomadic people from northeastern China, defeated his army soon after and set up the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty.

"Despite common belief, the Qing rulers in fact exhibited great sensitivity when it came to their Ming predecessors," Hu says. "Ming mausoleums destroyed in 1644 were reconstructed, although on a shrunken scale."

When the Qing Dynasty's own demise beckoned two and a half centuries later, the Dingling Mausoleum again fell again into despair and was subject to pillaging. Today the only ground structure that can be traced back to the 16th century and has largely remained intact is the stone tower guarding the burial mound behind. (All the wooden palaces that used to sit in the courtyards are gone, the only remnants being some pillar foundations-telling signs of how grandiose they once were.)

Even the stone tower fell victim to the attrition of time. Trees have taken root in between the stone blocks that make up the wall and have extended their trunks and branches almost horizontally, parallel to the ground.

However, lying deep underground, the emperor had every reason not to bother with what was  happening in the mortal world. That was until 1956, when all the tumult of contemporary Chinese history seemed to have ebbed. In May that year the excavation of Dingling Mausoleum started. One year later the excavation team entered Wanli's burial chamber and coffins belonging to him and his two empresses were opened.

Then came the "cultural revolution", the ideology-centered political movement from 1966 to 1976. Many renowned historians and archaeologists involved in the excavation of Dingling were persecuted, some to death.

The long-dead emperor was not immune from these upheavals. In 1966 his corpse, together with those of the empresses, were taken out of storage and burned. Later, people started to talk about a big downpour on the day of the burning. But to Yang Shi, 83, wife of Zhao Qichang, a principal member of the excavation team, such talk has more to do with the imagined fury of the emperor and less with reality.

"The reality is: A few years after that, my husband and some others went to the site where the burnings happened looking for anything that might have been left of the corpses, but with no success," she says. Zhao died in 2010.

Thinking big

When Emperor Wanli first decided to build a grand mausoleum for himself, he solicited opinions from his chief officials at court. One answered: "With Zhaoling Mausoleum standing not far away, it would be utterly improper to build anything more grandiose than that." Zhaoling is the burial ground for Wanli's father, Emperor Longqing, who was only on the throne for five years before death.

But Wanli refused to listen. What he had in mind was the magnificently constructed mausoleum of his grandfather, Emperor Jiajing. Jiajing reigned for 44 years, four years less than Wanli. Yet the comparison does not end there-both emperors were known for their cavalier neglect of duty, coupled with excessive lifestyles that suggest both had embarked on paths of despairing self-destruction.

Yang Shi says the emperor's life of abandon led Wu Han, a leading historian behind the excavation, to request a scientific examination on the emperor's remains to see whether he had contracted any sexually transmitted disease. It was never performed.

Defenders of Wanli have always argued that the emperor, despite all his self-indulgence, was a man of military genius. Between 1592 and 1598 he sent troops into Korea, to protect that then vassal state of his empire against the invading Japanese under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The military triumph of the Ming army not only saved Korea, but also contributed to the fall of the court of Toyotomi, 17 years after Hideyoshi's death. Wanli is believed to have personally directed the campaigns, by issuing orders from the depth of the Forbidden City, of course.

However, the emperor savior, regarded as a hero by his neighbors, has long been blamed for the demise of his own empire. It seemed that his long and largely negligent reign sapped the last remaining energy from his family's rule of more than 200 years.

According to Ming's own official history, because of the chaos following his death in 1620, the coffins of Wanli and his empresses had to wait for months before being taken to the burial ground the emperor had built for himself three decades earlier.

When the excavation team finally entered the underground burial chamber in 1957, they found some wooden funerary chests lying right beside the coffins. On them were marks left by ropes once used by carriers to tie the chests. In some cases, wooden sticks used for carrying were simply left there.

"The burial must have been done in great haste," Hu says.