Nanjing / A nice place to spend eternity

The Ming Xiaolong Mausoleum has been confounding people for centuries, myself included.

When it completed in 1405 – as the final resting place of the recently deceased Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the great Ming Dynasty – legend has it that 13 identical funeral processions were simultaneously conducted, to keep the exact location of the tomb secret and to prevent any future looting.  The actual construction took almost 20 years, with 100,000 labourers toiling under a military guard of 5,000.

At one end of the tomb lies the Sifangcheng (Rectangular City) Pavilion, a large stone building that still stands, mostly.  At its centre is a column inscribed in honour of the Emperor and standing atop a giant stone tortoise – about the size of a typical car.  At some point in time, though, the roof collapsed.

From the Pavilion, the gently-curving Sacred Way extends 1800 metres through the landscape, with pairs of carved figures guarding the tomb.

Twelve pairs of animals are present, each demonstrating a difference aspect of the Emperor’s influence and character.  Lions show stateliness  and honour.

Camels, symbol of desert and tropical regions, indicate the vast territory of the dynasty.

And elephants show the value of stability and steadiness in the Emperor’s rule of the people.

There are also a number of mythical creatures, such as griffins and unicorns, perhaps suggesting the importance of a good imagination and a strong horn.

Further along the Sacred Way the pathway is guarded by pairs of minister and generals, providing the tomb with strength of mind and body.

The main part of the mausoleum contains a collection of stunning red buildings, laid out around a central axis and terminating on a small mountain peak beyond.

Linked by a sequence of arches and doorways, small courtyards house a number of pavilions and structures, each with a specific ceremonial or symbolic role.

This is the pavilion for sacrifice (presumedly non-human animals only).  The red wall colour may have been a practical choice …

And at the rear of the site, nestled into the mountainside, is the Baocheng, or Precious Hall, a construction of breath-taking scale.  From the entry plaza (actually a really wide bridge over a waterway), a small (relatively speaking) archway leads to a steep stair that give access to the upper level.

I think that the actual tomb may lay behind this building, hidden in the mountainside (please note use of ‘think’ and ‘may’).  Perhaps the tomb’s location is a secret still held, or maybe I just couldn’t read the map properly.  Hey, it was hot and I had just walked up all those stairs!

The Ming Xiaolong was the first Ming Tomb to be built, and also the largest.  Its elements – the Sacred Way and its guarding pairs, the turtle-topped column, scared gateways and pavilion – formed the prototype for the tombs in the Ming Dynasty, a legacy that stretched many centuries.

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8 Responses to Nanjing / A nice place to spend eternity

  1. aline says:

    according to our guide in beijing, the tortoises aren’t tortoises, they’re baby dragons!

    • no way … anyone can see it is a tortoise! the theory is that the tortoise is borrowed from the ancient indian concept of the the world resting on a tortoise’s back. i did forget to mention that the top of the column usually has dragons carved into it … maybe this was the guide’s confusion (?)

    • hold on, i just did some more internets. over the period of the ming dynasty, the tortoise figure (bixi) evolved more into a dragon-headed tortoise. the later tombs (ie the ones in beijing) probably had this type. here is an example

  2. luKe says:

    Beautiful red walls.

  3. katharine says:

    Nanjing looks amazing Tix. Will have to add it to my itinerary for next time. Good that you are getting some time to travel around a bit! xx

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