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The Ming Dynasty Tombs (pinyin: Ming chao shi san ling; lit. Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty) are located some 50 kilometers due North of Beijing at a specially selected site. The site was chosen by the third Ming Dynasty emperor Yongle (1402 - 1424), who moved the capital of China from Nanjing to the present location of northwest Beijing. The Ming tombs of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were located on the southern slope of Mount Taishou (originally Mount Huangtu). He is credited with envisioning the layout of the ancient city of Beijing as well as a number of landmarks and monuments located therein. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and creating his own mausoleum.
From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors were buried in this area. The tombs of the first two Ming Emperors are located near Nanjing (the capital city during their reigns). Emperor Jingtai was also not buried here as the Emperor Tianshun had denied Jingtai an imperial burial but was instead buried west of Beijing. The last Chongzhen Emperor who hanged himself in April, 1644 was the last to be buried here, named Si Ling by the Qing emperor but on a much smaller scale than his predecessors.
During the Ming dynasty, the tombs were off limits to commoners but in 1644 Li Zicheng's army ransacked and set many of the tombs on fire before advancing and capturing Beijing in April of that year.
The site of the Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs was carefully chosen according to Feng Shui (geomancy) principles. According to these, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped area at the foot of the Jundu Mountains north of Beijing was selected. This 40 square kilometer area - enclosed by the mountains in a pristine, quiet valley full of dark earth, tranquil water and other necessities as per Feng Shui - would become the necropolis of the Ming Dynasty.
The entire tomb site is surrounded by a wall, and a seven kilometer road named the "Spirit Way" leads into the complex which is one of the finest preserved pieces of 15th century Chinese art and architecture. The front gate of the complex is a large, three-arched gateway, painted red, and called the "Great Red Gate".
At present, three tombs are open to the public: Chang Ling, the largest; Ding Ling, whose underground palace has been excavated; and Zhao Ling. There have been no excavations since 1989, but plans for new archeological research and further opening of tombs have circulated.
The Ming Tombs were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in August 2003. They were listed along with other tombs under the "Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties" designation.
Ding Ling (pinyin: Dìng Lìng; literally "Tomb of Stability"), the tomb of the Wanli Emperor, is the only one of the Ming Tombs to have been excavated. It also remains the only imperial tomb to have been excavated since the founding of the People's Republic of China, a situation that is almost a direct result of the fate that befell Ding Ling and its contents after the excavation.
The excavation of Ding Ling began in 1956, after a group of prominent scholars led by Guo Moruo and Wu Han began advocating the excavation of Chang Ling, the tomb of the Yongle Emperor, the largest and oldest of the Ming Dynasty Tombs. Despite winning approval from premier Zhou Enlai, this plan was vetoed by archaeologists because of the importance and public profile of Chang Ling. Instead, Ding Ling, the third largest of the Ming Tombs was selected as a trial site in preparation for the excavation of Chang Ling. Excavation completed in 1957, and a museum was established in 1959.
The excavation revealed an intact tomb, with thousands of items of silk, textiles, wood, and porcelain, and the bodies of the Wanli Emperor and his two emperesses. However, there was neither the technology nor the resources to adequately preserve the excavated artefacts. After several disastrous experiments, the large amount of silk and other textiles were simply piled into a storage room which leaked water and wind. As a result, most of the surviving artefacts today have severaly deteriorated, and replicas are instead displayed in the museum. Furthermore, the political impetus behind the excavation created pressure to quickly complete the excavation. The haste meant that documentation of the excavation was poor.
A severer problem soon befell the project, when a series of political mass movements swept the country. This escalated into the Cultural Revolution in 1966. For the next ten years, all archaeological work was stopped. Wu Han, one of the key advocates of the project, became the first major target of the Cultural Revolution, and was denounced, and died in jail in 1969. Fervent Red Guards stormed the Ding Ling museum, and dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned. Many other artefacts were also destroyed.
It was not until 1979, after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, that archaeological work recommenced in earnest and an excavation report was finally prepared by those archaeologists who had survived the turmoil.
The lessons learnt from the Ding Ling excavation has led to a new policy of the People's Republic of China government not to excavate any historical site except for rescue purposes. In particular, no proposal to open an imperial tomb has been approved since Ding Ling, even when the entrance has been accidentally revealed, as was the case of the Qianling Mausoleum. The original plan, to use Ding Ling as a trial site for the excavation of Chang Ling, was naturally abandoned.