A Brief History of the Ming Dynasty

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Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 totalling 277 years with 16 emperors. In 1368, Zhu Biao, the first son of Zhu Yuanzhang, was named crown prince. Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98, reigned 1368-98), the first Ming emperor had 26 sons and all of them were named crown princes and stationed in different important places throughout the country. In 1392, Zhu Biao die and Zhu Yuanzhang named Zhu Yunwen, his eldest grandson, the rightful heir to the throne at the age of 15. Zhu Yuanzhang had his tomb built in Nanjing, the town, which he had chosen for his capital. As his eldest son (Crown Prince), the second son (Prince Qin), and the third son (Prince Jin) died earlier, the 21-year-old second grandson Zhu Yunwen (1377-1402, reigned 1398-1402) mounted the throne in 1398 after Zhu Yuanzhang passed away and Zhu Yunwen became the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

After the second emperor came to power, supported by Qi Tai(died1402, Minister of Board of War) and Huang Zicheng (1350-1402, minister of the Taichangsi—an office responsible for ceremonies and sacrifices) the young emperor eliminated (removed) Princes Chou,Min, Xiang, Qi and Dai one after another within less than a year. All of them were the emperor’s uncles. Prince Yan, Zhu yuanzhang’s four son, was guarding the northern frontier near Beijing with an army of 100,000 strong. The second emperor attempted to weaken the 4th uncle’s forces but met with resistance from Zhu Di, the most powerful of all the princes.

Because he was the chief commander and administrator stationed in Beiping (former name for Beijing). Superficially Prince Yan pretended sickness, but he trained troops in secret. Yao Guangxiao(1335-1418), the then trusted adviser, pursued the Prince Yan to dispatch troops and help the prince to plan and prepare military affairs. Upon the pretext of “wiping out evil for the country,” Zhu Di, Prince Yan, began an interfamilial war, which lasted three years and ended with Zhu Di seizing Nanjing. In 1403 Zhu Di proclaimed himself the third Ming emperor adopting the reign title Yongle (everlasting happiness ).

The second Ming emperor was ousted and lost track off completely. One legend goes that the second Ming emperor died in a palace fire during the war in Nanjing; the other tale continues that it was four years after Zhu Di ascended the throne in 1403 the second Ming emperor Zhu Yunwen was driven out of Nanjing by his uncle, Emperor Zhu Di. To avoid disasters, the dethroned second Ming emperor roamed from place to place disguising himself as a Buddhist monk. During his 39 years of wandering, he came to Chongqing three times but no definite records of his accommodation have been found. However, many scholars believe that he chose to stay at South Hot Spring (it lies on the south bank of the Yangtze River and is 26 kilometres from the city proper of Chongqing Municipality) for its beautiful surroundings, its isolation with the outside world and its proximity to the Yangtze River. He led a vagrant life. Therefore, he did not have a tomb.

As a frontier commander, Yongle was aware that a peaceful northern frontier was of great importance to the Ming regime and the unification of the country. He moved the capital to Beijing in 1421 after the completion of the Palace Museum (the Forbidden City). Along with the construction of the Imperial Palace, he chose this valley to build his tomb. All his successors followed his example and had their tombs built here, except Emperor Jingtai (reigned 1450- 56) who was dethroned in 1456 and buried in the western suburb of Beijing. Out of the sixteen emperors, thirteen Ming emperors lie at the foot of the Heaven and Longevity Mountains with their empresses and concubines. The site was chosen with the greatest care, with geomancy or fengshui in Chinese taken into account.(the location of a house or tomb, supposed to have an influence on the fortune of a family.

The geomancy claim to be able to tell whether a particular site and its surroundings are auspicious;geomancy, as a traditional Chinese cultural viewpoint, is widespread folk custom. It is an “environmental science” that combines multiple sciences such s geography, aesthetics, landscape, architecture, ecology, and psychology as well. The Ming tombs lie some 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing.This necropolis is known in Chinese as the Thirteen Tombs. Construction of the necropolis continued more than 200 years, almost throughout the whole of the Ming Dynasty: construction of the first tomb, Changling Tomb for the Ming emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty began in 1409 and the last one, Siling Tomb, was built in 1644 for Emperor Chongzhen (1628-44, the emperor hanged himself on a Chinese scholar tree at the Coal Hill Park just behind the Forbidden City on March 19, 1644 ), the last Ming emperor by the first Qing emperor. They are scattered over a basin approximately 40 square kilometers in area, screened by mountains on three sides like an amphitheatre and open to the Beijing Plain in the south. This gateway is defended on each side by the Dragon Hill on the right (east) and the Tiger Hill on the left (west), which are said to protect this sacred area from winds carrying evil influences. It was a forbidden ground except for those who were officially in charge of its upkeep. It was not allowed to cultivate land, cut wood or to take stones from here. No one could enter it on horseback, even the emperor himself had to dismount at the gate.

We are now riding on the road leading to the tombs. The road was opened up in 1979 with the increase in the number of Chinese and overseas visitors. Along the road. visitors will find the Memorial Arch. the big Red Gate. the Tablet House, the stone animals and statues, Lattice Gate (or Dragon and Phoenix Gate is pierced with three archways) and the Ming Tombs Reservoir. we’ll also see a lot of fruit trees planted after the founding of the People’s Re-public.

This road was known as shendao, meaning “the Way of the Spirit or the Sacred Way. ” The body of the dead was carried over the route at funeral ceremony. It is 7 kilometres long, from the Memorial Arch to the gate of the main tomb (Changling Tomb for Emperor Yongle).

The memorial arch, built of white marble, was erected in1540.It is 14 metres high and 28.86 metres wide, and has 5 arches supported by 6 pillar with beautiful bas-relief carvings of qilin( Chinese unicorns), lions, dragons, other strange animals and lotus flowers, all fighting or wriggling in heaven or in the sea. Double lintels link the six pillars. The roofing is made of round marble tiles, with upturned corners. Stone archways are usually in front of tombs and temples, giving a feeling of solemnity and respect. This biggest stone archway in China stands on the way to the Ming Tombs.  “The Way of the Spirit” used to pass beneath the Memorial Arch.

The great Red Gate was built in 1426. It used to have three huge wooden doors. The deceased emperor occupied the central opening alone, and living ministers and imperial family members had to use one of the side openings when they came to pay homage to the deceased emperors.

About 457 metres from the Great Red Gate stands the Tablet House built in1435. A marble column, known as mubiao (ornamental columns erected in front of, tombs), stands at each corner of the Tablet House. A huge tablet, 6.5 metres high, stands in the middle of the house on the back of a tortoise. The front side bears an inscription by the Ming emperor Yongle. On the reverse side is an inscription carved during the Qing emperor Qianlong’s resign. It described the reconstruction of the Ming Tombs in 1785 and commented on the rules and styles of the Ming tombs.

Now we come to the famous avenue of stone animals and statues. Named “spirit way. ” It totals 800 metres in distance. Stone animals and statues are found at the entrance to imperial tombs from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) onwards, but none of the group is as famous as that of the Ming Tombs.

The avenue with 36 stone animals and statues starts with two columns, called Wangzhu (awaiting pillars ) in Chinese, one on each side. They are hexagonal, carved with a cloud design, and the top is shaped like a round cylinder. The animals are lions}( symbol of power), Xiezhi( symbol of justice)was a mythical beast of the feline family, said to be able to distinguish right and wrong. Camel( symbol of transportation), elephant( symbolizing auspices and peace ) Qilin (kylin; Chinese unicorn; standing for auspices and peace and warding off evil spirits) was a sort of imaginary animal with a scaly body, a cow’s tail, deer’s hooves and a horn on its head, and fine horse (steed) stands for expedition. There are 24  stone creatures in all. These beasts are followed in turn by a group of 12 stone human statues (officers representing imperial body guard generals, officials signifying emperor’s close ministers,and ministers of merit emblematizing meritorious vassals civil and military officials), which symbolize the funeral cortege of the deceased emperors. Each of the statues was sculptured out of a single rock.

With the “spirit way” turning slightly, the statues appear: two military officers wearing sabers, two civilian officials and two ministers of merit. and six statues on each side and twelve in all. These animals and statues all date from the 15th century. It is interesting to compare them with those at the tomb of the first Ming emperor in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, which are scarcely any older and yet much less fine. They were all meant to serve the dead in the next world. They do give people a sense of solemnity on the way leading to the tombs.

At the end of the “spirit way” is the Lattice Gate, also known as Dragon and Phoenix Gate (meaning Celestial Gate). It is pierced with three small parallel archways. On the upper part of the centre of the archways are decorated with flaming pearls, and so they are also called “Flaming Archways” . North of the Dragon and Phoenix Gate lies a 7-arch marble bridge leads to the Gate of Changling (the tomb for the emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty ) On the east side of the bridge there are ruins of a 5-arch bridge and a 7-arch bridge built in the Ming Dynasty. The ruins of the bridges can still be seen. Beyond the bridge are the paths to the separate tombs, each ending with the tumulus, and beneath it is the stone “underground palace” where the emperor’s coffin lies.

On your right is the Ming Tombs Reservoir, one of the 17 large and medium sized reservoirs built in Beijing in the last 50 years. The 627-metre-long and 29 metre-high-dam was built in less than five months in 1958. The late Chairman Mao, the late Premier Zhou Enlai and other leading members of the Chinese Government came to join in its construction. During the construction,400,000 volunteers including workers, farmers, business people, students, soldiers, government cadres, foreign diplomats and foreign friends were involved in the project. The reservoir’s total area is 300 hectares (750 acres ) The project cost 16 million yuan(US$1935 million). It provides water for irrigation in the Beijing area and works the turbines of a hydroelectric power station. It can generate 1.2 billion kilowatt each year.In the Beijing area,there are altogether 83 reservoirs with a total capacity of 9.27 billion cubic meres of water.

On your left at the foot of the hill stands the Underground Palace of Dingling (Tomb of Stability ) a midst pines and cypresses. Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Wanli, the 13th Ming emperor. He was born in 1563, and was chosen and named crown prince when he was six years old. In 1573 he ascended the throne at the age of 10 and died in 1620. Emperor Wanli occupied the throne for 48 years, the longest reigning monarch of the Ming Dynasty.