Beijing’s Imperial Tombs

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A valley just 59 km (31 miles) north of Beijing, on the way to Badaling, was chosen in 1409 a the final resting place for the Ming Dynasty emperors. Taking into account traditional percepts of Chinese fengshui, or geomany, the 13 tombs (three other emperors were buried elsewhere) are scattered over a basin approximately 40 sq km (15 sq miles), surrounded by mountains on three sides facing the Beijing Plain in the south. Emperor Chongzhen, who hung himself in April 1644 as rebels crashed the gates of the imperial city, was the last Ming emperor to be buried here.

The Manchu successors to the throne gave him a fitting burial in line with Chinese imperial protocol, albeit on a smaller scale than his predecessors. The Eastern Qing Tombs, 125 km (78 miles) northeast of the capital, and a two-hour or longer drive away, are said to be more extravagant and interesting-and in better condition – than their Ming cousins.

The site holds the remains of five emperors, 15 empresses and 136 royal concubines. It was chosen by Emperor Shunzhi, the first Qing emperor to rule over China, who stumbled upon the site while on a hunting trip.

Of the nine tombs open to visitors, two are particularly noteworthy: that of Emperor Qianlong, who died in 1799, and Empress Dowager Cixi, who died in 1908.

Kuomintang General Sun Dianying and his army carried out a methodical looting of the complex in 1928, stripping it of Cixi’s precious ornaments. The complex was restored by the People’s Republic of China, and it is still today one of the most elaborate of the Eastern Qing Tombs and the most splendid architecturally. A side hall displays some of the personal effects Cixi had amassed over the years. An enormous stone tablet takes up the entire middle section of the steps leading to the main hall of mausoleum. Its high relief is adorned at the top with a phoenix (a symbol of the empress) and at the bottom, a dragon (a symbol of the emperor), suggesting that the Empress Dowager was far greater importance than the emperors – which was indeed the case for music of her life in the imperial court.

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