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.