The Ming Tombs – Beijing Day Five

2008 October 27
by Jason

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008. Today I managed to accomplish a lifetime goal – I visited the Great Wall. Like everything else we’ve seen in China so far, the size of the Great Wall, the number of people visiting the wall, and the experience itself are overwhelming.


The Changling Ming tomb.

We decided to take a tour bus to visit the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Our tour guide, a young Chinese woman, was named “Johnny.” She told us that her first English teacher made a mistake and gave her a boy’s name because Johnny’s hair was very short at the time. It was a funny story and an endearing quality. Sara and I enjoyed Johnny’s tour very much.

Our first stop, the Ming Tombs, was amazing. While I’ve never been to Egypt, my guess is that the Ming tombs rival all but the grandest Egyptian tombs. We visited the Changling tomb, the tomb of the third Ming Emperor Chengzu (1363-1424 AD). The tomb is massive – 100 meters on a side, nine stories below ground and 5 stories above (or there abouts). When the Emperor died, his body was carried more than 3 kilometers on the “Divine Way” (a zig-zagging path with various sculptures and gates) before being taken to a special palace where the burial party would rest for 3 days. They performed various ceremonies here, ate only a vegetarian diet, and the concubines that were chosen to be entombed with the Emperor hanged themselves here before making the final journey to the tomb.

The final journey involved burying the emperor with everything he would need in the after-life – tools, food, clothing, valuables, servants, animals, and of course, concubines. All of these things were sacrificed upon the emperor’s death.

While it might sound barbaric to bury servants and concubines with the Emperor, it had a very religious and sacred purpose. The Emperor was viewed as a God, and while I have no idea about the truth behind that belief, I will say that anyone who managed to unite a country as vast and varied as China deserved some sort of recognition.


The Nanmu wood pillars inside the mausoleum palace at the Changling tomb.

Atop the tomb was a mausoleum palace. The palace, about three stories tall, was built mostly out of a valuable wood known as Nanmu. Each of the pillars in the mausoleum were scuplted from one huge tree, and since these trees were only found in Southern China at the time, it took nearly 4 years to bring the huge columns to the tombs.

The bricks used to build the tomb were also interesting. On the outside, every brick was inscribed by the name of the person that placed it. This way, when the inspection of the tomb was completed, any poorly placed bricks could be traced back to the individual that made the mistake. Many of these marks are visible today. Inside the mausoleum palace there are “golden bricks,” perfectly fired bricks that were so strong they made a metallic sound when hit with a wooden mallet. Finally, and perhaps most amazingly, the grout used to hold all of these bricks together was made from egg whites and sticky rice.


This brick was mortared in place with sticky rice and egg whites. Each worker signed the bricks they placed so that they could be held accountable by the Emperor for any mistakes they made.

I bet I know what the workers had to eat everyday.

One of the more interesting aspects of visiting the Ming Tombs was when we were walking out. We had to step through a gate, yell out something along the lines of “spirit come with me” in Chinese, and then hope that our spirit had not decided to stay at the tomb. The superstition is that our spirit would decide to stay at the tomb instead of coming with us – or something like that. Most of the Chinese found this superstition to be more humorous than real, but everyone leaving the tomb made sure to walk through the gate.

When I visited the restroom before we left the tomb, my hands weren’t signaling the automatic sinks or hand dryers to turn on. For a moment, I too was worried my spirit was left behind in the tombs, and that my spirit-less self wasn’t recognized by the electric sensors. Then I found one that worked and my fears were alieviated.

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