The Emperor’s Tomb

The final decades of the Mongol reign over China were turbulent: dissident religious sects revolted, peasants were restless, military adventurers calling themselves the successors of ancient dynasties rose. A penniless orphan from Anhui province, Zhu Yuanzhang, was adopted by one of the Buddhist sects (the Red Turbans) and rose to become a successful warlord, and eventually the founding emperor, Huangwu, of the Ming dynasty. 1368 CE is taken to be the beginning of his thirty year reign.

He established his capital in Nanjing, and, in 1381 CE, began constructing a grand tomb for himself in the Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan) to the north east, just outside the walls of the city. I walked down part of the imperial Spirit Way in the company of many of the descendants of the emperor’s subjects and reached this stgone archway at its end. The only thing I can read in the calligraphy above the gate is the word “gate”. When I compare this gate to the weathered stone of the statues along the Spirit Way, it is clear that this is a recent structure.

The Ming Xiaoling is still a little way down the beautiful sun-dappled road. In 1382 CE the Empress Ma died and was buried in this tomb. Her name Xiao Ling, is now part of the name of the tomb. The Ming part of the name Ming Xiaoling refers to the emperor, who was also buried here. The weather was perfect. I’d walked for about an hour, and I sat on one of the benches along this road and sipped some water. I could hear some birds, but my eyes were too dazzled by sunlight to see them properly as they hopped around in the shadows under nearby bushes.

The road rose a little, and then there was a little brook, with a bridge over it. From the bridge I took the photo that you see above: my first view of the major structures remaining of the tomb. The feng shui was perfect: water in front, mountain at the back, on a perfect north-south axis, facing south. You don’t expect an emperor to cut stint on his spiritual eternity, when a little bit of geo-engineering can fix it.

The great triple-doored gate, Wenwu Fangmen (文武方门 pinyin: Wénwǔ fāng mén) is a great attraction all by itself. There was a queue of people waiting to take photos, of themselves or friends, in front of one of the impressive doors. I was happy to have this opportunity for ambush photography. The imperial yellow of the roof, the line of tiles just below, and the honour guard of guardian figures at the ends of the roof (featured photo) were all worth pausing to see.

Just after Wenwu Fangmen was a lovely area which was in full use by photographers. This was my idea of heaven: so many opportunities for ambush photography! It seems that fallen maple leaves, perhaps fallen leaves of any kind, have become important cultural objects. I wonder whether this is just modern day photo posts, or is there an older resonance to it? When you start photographing photographers and their subjects, you start noticing the tropes that are local favourites. Another obervation: one of the wonderful things that a truly ancient civilization realizes is that people need to use toilets. The Zijin Shan area has many, and there’s even one inside the tomb complex.

Just beyond this was a Tablet Hall with a stele bearing an inscription by the Kangxi emperor of the Qian dynasty attesting to the greatness of the Ming. The turtle which bear the stele is in great demand by photographers, so I moved out to take a photo of the structure. This one has a slate roof with finials in the form of a fish. The fish finial is very common in Japanese architecture, but I haven’t noticed too many in China. An emperor uses the dragon and its sons as motifs, so maybe the combination of the fish and a slate roof seemed to indicate that this structure was not built by an emperor.

Beyond this was an area desolate in terms of architecture, but converted now into a beautiful garden. I understand that there were old structures here which have fallen into ruin. A few small structures remain: like the altar in the photo above. A gusty breeze had set in, shaking leaves off trees. It was a charming sight, to stand under these tall trees and watch showers of brown leaves. Unfortunately, you need a wide-angle and a zoom simultaneously to capture the feel of such a place, so I downed my camera and stood there magicked into stillness.

You exit this area through another triple gate. The shadows of trees on this great wall somehow captured, for me, a sense of this magical square: the crisp weather of a late autumn, the sunlight, the beautiful tall trees slowly losing their leaves, and the calmness of a constantly visited tomb. I was happy to have chosen to take a long walk on such a beautiful day.

I was almost at the heart of the tomb now. I was boxed into a narrow open space with the final Spirit Tower, called the Ming Lou. As I took a photo of the two-story tower, a dry leaf slowly dropped in front of me: close enough to be clearly visible in the final photo, far enough to be in focus. Chance favours the prepared camera. It was now time to climb.

It was a warm time of the day. After climbing up to the huge parapet of the Spirit Tower I rummaged in my backpack for the little package of oranges I’d bought the day before. I love these little juicy oranges. Eating oranges in the mild sunshine of an Indian winter are some of my best childhood memories, and sitting on that sunny parapet on this autumn day, finishing off the oranges brought me to a happy place. The northern side of the Spirit Tower faces the mound under which the Emperor Ming Taizu, ie, the Hongwu Emperor, and his consort Empress Ma, called the Xiaoling Empress and buried. I walked around to take a photo of the mound.

The light was good enough for me to try to take a photo of the top of Ming Lou. I like the intricate woodwork of the roof, and I must sit down and educate myself on this some day. Nothing about imperial tombs are accidental, and there must be symbolic meaning to each detail. I wondered how often this tower and its roof have been renovated. Certainly once after the Taiping Revolution, but perhaps several times again since the century and half after that.

On our first visit to China, The Family and I had taken a guided tour to the tomb of the Yongle emperor, son of the Hongwu emperor. On that tour, near Beijing, the guide told us many things which we would not have otherwise known. Among them is the ancient custom that when you leave a tomb you take a side path, and you don’t look back. Following that custom, I discovered a lovely thing which I would have missed otherwise: a forest of steles carried on the backs of Bixi. A bixi is the son of a dragon and a turtle, has the qualities of a dragon, and also the life and strength of the turtle. One of them looks like it could be a Ming-era sculpture. The other looks like a modern concrete replacement.

The Spirit Way

When I made up my mind to try and visit the tomb of the first Ming emperor on the Purple mountain (Zijin Shan) of Nanjing I knew that I would not be alone. My experience in China is that parks are a magnet for families on Sundays. I expected crowds, and family photographs to be taken.

There was a lot of digging and replanting on the mountainside, and many roads were closed. The marked path led me to join the great Spirit Way to the tomb in the middle. I saw a pair of animal statues flanking the road, facing each other. What were they? Lions? No, they had scaly bodies. Maybe the Suan Ni, the offspring of a lion and a dragon? Wrong again. A plaque told me that they were Qilin. That made cultural sense: this mythical creature is seen at the passing of a great ruler. The Hongwu emperor would certainly have built a few on his own Spirit Way. But these are without the single horn that they normally sport. The young man you see in the photo had already been photographed by his father, but seemed to like the beast too much to leave. I thought I would take the two of them together.

After the Qilin come the horses; two pairs of them, one pair kneeling, the other on its legs. It is possible to photograph these statues without people if you wait long enough. But this was a popular set of statues, and it would have taken a long time. I might as well do some ambush photography, I thought, and took the photo that you see above.

After the horses the road turns (the featured photo shows the pillars at the turning). This is deliberate, and is supposed to deter demons who travel only in straight lines. Autumn is a lovely time to visit this place, as you can see from the photos here. The road is lined with beautifully spreading trees which threw dappled shadows across the path. Old postcards that I’ve seen show a bare hillside stretching to the tomb. The trees are then recently planted, and quite likely after 1984.

The statuary on this second segment of the spirit path probably represent officials. The first pair wore swords and carried maces. An ordinary soldier would not come so close to the tomb of the emperor. These had to be generals, I decided. They were less popular with families, so it wasn’t so hard to take photos of these. I liked the dappled light and the autumn colours. Perhaps spring would be equally nice in a different way. Walking up the hill in summer would be uncomfortable, I think.

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The last set of statues before the gate of the tomb were probably bureaucrats. This seemed to be popular with young men. I think the statue of the mandarin looks quite happy to pose with this young man. I’ve taken a photo with and without the youngster so that you can decide which one you prefer. The Hongwu emperor started building his tomb in 1381, and died 18 years later. I thought that this early Ming artwork has stayed remarkably untouched by the many upheavals that China has gone through.

The Confucius Temple of Nanjing

Most temples that you see in China today have been reconstructed in the past couple of decades. To a tourist they look similar, partly because they fill the same social purpose in different cities. But the one in Nanjing is historically special. When the Ming Hongwu emperor won his bloody wars against the Mongol Yuan empire, he was not very fond of the Confucian scholars, and depended more on his eunuch advisers. But as a practical matter, he was eventually forced to enlist this cadre into his bureaucracy. This temple was the center of learning which then eventually supported the Ming empire, and was often at loggerheads with the Confucian scholars of Beijing.

After sunset the area around the Confucius temple (Fuzi Miao) comes alive with people. It is a shopping area, food street, and entertainment district all rolled into one. I threaded my way through the crowds, and walked into the temple. The present structure is said to date from 1869 CE, but has clearly been renovated more recently. It was established here in 1034 CE during the Song dynasty (which also instituted the civil examinations).

I walked up to the huge brazier in the forecourt which holds incense sticks, because I always find something interesting going on here. The first time I visited China I was struck by the huge numbers of young people offering incense at temples, and was told that they pray for good luck in the college entrance examinations: the Gaokao. I’d wondered since then whether the fervent prayers at temples are driven by the perception of a cultural continuity between the old imperial exams and their modern version, the Gaokao.

Further on I came across some lovely visuals. A huge brass pot stood in one corner of the first courtyard, filled with water and with candles floating on the surface. Historically, Confucianism had at its heart a set of rituals and sacrifices, centered around the emperor. Along with this, its emphasis on the family and kin groups made it a way of preserving a way of life even through the many political upheavals that China went through. The temple was burnt during the Japanese occupation. Confucianism was looked upon as a part of the ossified cultural baggage of imperial China, and the remains of the temple were vandalized extensively during the Cultural Revolution.

A conscious decision was taken in 1985 to revitalize the remnant of the market area around the derelict Fuzi Miao. The crowds that I saw on the Saturday have been part of what is said to be China’s most successful urban heritage restoration for the last three decades. The early restorations were the tasteful white walled buildings with the upward sweeping tiled roofs that I had seen from the city walls. The restoration of the temple came somewhat later. The ritual sacrifices of the Song, Ming, and Qing eras are no longer performed, but crowds are happy to participate in the lesser rituals: the offering of incense, the tying of memorial tablets, the ringing of bell and drum.

There is a small museum inside the complex. This apparently dates from the early republican period. One of the items on display which caught my eye was this beautifully decorated chair. I suppose this is one of the sedan chairs on which imperial bureaucrats travelled. Although not made “of beaten gold”, as 16th century European travellers wrote, the work on it was remarkable. Early western visitors to China were extremely impressed by the power wielded by the bureaucracy, and the deference showed to them. It was remarkable that anyone could become a bureaucrat after passing the examinations, provided, of course, they could afford to pay for their studies. In 1381 CE, 14 years after the beginning of Hongwu’s reign, this temple was renamed as a State Academy and expanded its tradition of training people in Confucian learning. It continued doing this until the Republican government abolished the exams.

This piece of calligraphy is likely to be famous. I find myself totally unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing (my reading of this tablet is the unlikely piece of wisdom “tired people blow up”). One consequence of the importance of imperial examinations was widespread literacy. Anyone could study and become an imperial officer. John Keay presents an estimate that between 10 and 20% of the Chinese population was prepared to the first level of the imperial exams in the 16th century. This is a remarkable achievement when basic literacy figures were much lower in the rest of the world. I walked out of the complex thinking about the early start that China had on all the components of modernism, and its strange historic inability to build a new world with these tools. A century of Chinese scholars have spent their lives thinking the same thoughts, and surely their work will be worth reading.

Walking on a wall in China

One of my targets for the first day’s walk in Nanjing was the Zhonghua gate. When the Hongwu emperor founded the Ming dynasty and made Nanjing the capital of his kingdom in the second half of the 14th century, he decided he needed to defend it well. The southern and western parts of the city were already defended by a wall built during the Tang period (between the 7th and 10th centuries). The Ming emperor added new sections to the east and north and completely walled in the city, and also added fortifications to the Zhonghua gate in the south.

I marveled at the thickness of the three concentric layers of walls. They have guard posts built into them. Some of these rooms now house art installations and exhibitions. Others are just locked up. I gawked at the barbicans, and the grooves through which thick wooden gates could be lowered in a hurry if enemies were spotted. I could sprain my back taking a photo (above) of the 20 meter high wall at the southern end while standing in front of the gate.

It was much easier to stand just inside the outermost gate, and take a shot along the entrance (looking north, photo above) of the four concentric gateways. I happened to be there the day before the Nanjing city marathon. When I looked at the news a couple of days later I found that over 55 thousand people had registered for the 30 thousand spots available. It was open to anyone from any country who had a valid ID. The runners squeezed through this passage in the walls at one point in the race.

Steps led up the walls. As I climbed them I realized how easy they were on the knees. I wondered how old the steps were, could they be original? The steps up the Great Wall near Beijing, in Badaling, had been high and uneven, putting a lot of strain on the knees. Here, the slope and the height of the steps was such that I’m sure that even a reasonably mobile 70 year old person would be able to negotiate it.

I looked back towards the center of town from the top of the wall. The high rises occupied a large part of the city center, but the skyline did not sport the fancy shapes that you see in Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou. Closer to the wall was a thicket of charming old houses. These were roofed with red fired-clay tiles, and were not in good repair. At one end of a dense mass of them, some had been torn down, and a crane towered over the open land. I guess they will be replaced by newer buildings in a year or two.

Straight down the line of the gate was the busy Zhonghua Road. I stared at it for a while. Buses came down it at a slow pace, while cars sped around them whenever they could. At a large pedestrian island marked by zebra stripes, a lady had stopped her electric bike. These vehicles run along pedestrian pathways. They are battery powered, and therefore quite silent. I find that I’m often startled by one of them whizzing past me. This looked like a nice photo to take.

The other side of the Zhonghua Road had much fancier low buildings: white walls with black clay roofs and accents. Is this what is replacing the old neighbourhoods, I wondered. Later as I walked through the lanes between these buildings towards the Confucius Temple, I realized that many of them housed fancy shops and restaurants. So perhaps this is the shape of things to come. Unfortunate that the charming old tiled houses are being replaced entirely by these, but it is better than having high rise towers cheek by jowl with the 600 year old walls.

The huge area on top of the walls was full of people. It looked like you could take golf carts around the walls, or even bike along it if you wanted. People were doing both these things. Others strolled, or sat in groups and chatted. And, of course, some were having their wedding photos taken. I was happy to take the opportunity to do a little ambush photography on a Ming-era wall.

Three doors and a window

Every Chinese garden has doors: either the mystic moon doors, or the mysteriously locked doors of various pavilions. The Ming era Zhan garden of Nanjing was no exception. This is supposed to have belonged to the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who then gave it to his general, Xu Da. This one also had ornate windows in pavilions where you could sit and look out at the garden (featured photo). The pavilion faced a beautiful pool, and the view out of the window did not look that good.

One of my favourite photos of doors I this garden was of this unassuming door at the side of a large pavilion which contained part of the museum of the Taiping revolution. It wasn’t the door itself which fascinated me, the the beautiful courtyard, and the view into the illuminated space of the museum.

This black stained door in a white wall, with brass fittings and a lock was exactly the kind of mysterious door I had noticed elsewhere. What could lie behind it? Historical archives or gardening tools? There is nothing that tells you about the space behind. Quite mysterious.

This looked like a special moon gate to me. Most moon gates are simply round openings in walls. This has a couple of extra notches cut into it. Is that meaningful, or just a decorative touch? I don’t know.

The famous five

Although I’d managed to figure out the shortest walks between the various temples in this neighbourhood of Guangzhou, I hadn’t factored in the time that it would take us to see each of them. So, by the time we arrived at the impressive gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals (Wu Xian Guan), we were pretty far behind our schedule. Still we paused to admire the two stone qilin flanking the entrance. The qilin are described in the West as unicorn, but these had no horns. They are shown with the head of a dragon, but with an animal body with four hoofed legs. These had a body which looked scaled, but probably represent flames. Qilin are shown in flames. Their use as doorkeepers in this Taoist temple probably has the symbolic meaning that only good people can pass between them.

It seems that the five immortals arrived in this place during the 9th century CE riding goats of five different colours, and gave a present of rice to the people of this place. This said to be the origin of the name of the city; according to this etymology, Guangzhou means the city of goats. We never got to see the five goats statue in nearby Yuexiu park, so it was good that I’d taken photos of the stone goats in this temple. These are apparently the petrified remains of the goats that the immortals rode. According to plaques inside, the temple was founded in 1377 CE, in the spot where a shrine stood earlier. The main wooden structure is said to have survived since the founding of the temple. Given the many disasters which the city passed through, I wonder how accurate this claim is. However the woodwork is certainly admirable.

An important thing to see here is the stone with a couple of depressions. These are called the footprints of the immortals. The bit of water which has collected in the depression and the large number of turtles basking on the stone make it an obviously lucky and powerful spot. We joined the few other people who were busy taking photos of this site. North of the stone is a small garden, which looked inviting. We walked along it and saw the famous bell tower called the First Tower of Lingnan (below).

The tower holds the bell cast during the founding of the temple, and therefore dating back to the foundational years of the Mings, and the early years of the Hongwu emperor. Since China was still in an unsettled state at this time, I wonder whether the idea was to use this bell partly as a military warning system. The founding of the temple carried the symbolism of a China reunified under an emperor who claimed that he was the Son of Heaven. The bell is massive, and the tower apparently serves as a resonating chamber for it. As we left I wished we’d had the time to explore this place more slowly.