The Xiaoling Mausoleum: Greatest of the Ming Tombs

The Xiaoling Mausoleum is one of the supreme historical attractions of the Yangtze Delta Region. Though much less famous in the West than the major historical sites of Beijing, this mausoleum complex is as much a part of China’s imperial past as the Forbidden City and The Temple of Heaven. A radical departure from the design of earlier imperial tombs, Xiaoling subsequently served as a blueprint for most of the imperial tombs from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, making it a singularly influential architectural complex. For the traveller interested in Chinese art, architecture or history, this vast complex- recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001- repays leisurely exploration.

Emperor Hongwu was the first of the Ming Emperors, and the first Han Chinese ruler in over 150 years. The liberator of China from Mongul rule, Hongwu wanted a tomb that befitted his importance to the nation. Twenty years before his death, he had already amassed a vast workforce to begin construction on his final resting place. There were 5000 guards tasked with overseeing the project, and a veritable army of laborers worked under them. The symbolism of the project was obvious: the Chinese imperial tradition had resumed. Yet rather than marking a mere resumption of the Chinese tomb-building tradition, the Xiaoling Mausoleum was also a new start. Whereas earlier Chinese imperial tombs had square bases, Xiaoling Mausoleum boasted an oval-shaped burial mound. Also new was the Sacred Way, a two-kilometre long avenue lined with colossal statues, which marked the official approach to the emperor’s tomb. It was this marriage of tradition and innovation which makes this tomb such an intriguing site.

There is, in a sense, a correct way to say the tomb, and Chinese tour groups certainly view the site according to tradition. This fact is even reflected in the name of the usual starting point: The Archway for Dismounting. Similar to those found at many Chinese religious sites, this particular gateway is almost 8 metres tall. Beyond it is the Great Golden Gate, a twenty-two metre high construction which first conveys the scale on which the project was conceived. Astoundingly, the monumental brick gateway was once part of a twenty-two kilometre long perimeter wall which enclosed the entire tomb area. Now little but this one gateway remains. Impressive as the gateway is, it is the two-kilometre long Sacred Way beyond which is truly memorable.

The Sacred Way is lined with colossal stone statues, some zoomorphic and some humanoid. These figurines, dignified and whimsical at the same time, possess a unique charm, and they are the feature we are most likely to recall when thinking of Xiaoling today. The paired sets of animals come first. Four of the six are real animals, and denizens of Hongwu’s private zoo; the other two are creatures from Chinese mythology. You will pass- in this order- lions, xiezhi, camels, elephants, qilin and horses. While the real animals are unlikely to require any introduction, the same cannot be said of ziezhis and qilins. The former is a kind of Chinese unicorn, and the qilin, sometimes confused with the giraffe, is a two horned creature with cleft feet. The humanoid section of the Sacred Way follows, after a sharp right turn. This turn, unusual in Chinese Imperial Tombs, was to avoid the tomb of a Wu Kingdom ruler on a small protuberance known as Plum Blossom Hill. Along the Sacred Way we find a crisp, life-like rendering of civil and military officials in late fourteenth-century dress. Even today hese august figures give a vivid impression of the pomposity of the Ming Dynasty court.

Elephants along the Sacred Way

Elephants along the Sacred Way

At the end of this section lie a series of ornamental stone bridges, and beyond these is a temple complex where devotees could make offerings to Emperor Hongwu. The temple complex has largely vanished, but there are some interesting remains, including stelae left by two Emperors who visited the area during the Qing Dynasty- Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong. Like everything else here, these stelae are on quite a scale, and the stone turtles that bear them along weigh fifty tonnes. There are the bases of stone fire-altars where paper money and other offerings were left by visitors to the tomb. A couple of old halls also remain, notably the Hall of Prominent Favour whose twenty-metre high stone walls are an intimation of the grandeur of the final monument, the Soul Tower.

The Soul Tower is a massive stone construction on the scale of a castle. An arched entranceway penetrates the wall and as soon as you enter, the cool, dark passageway encloses you on all sides. You ascend to the top of the tower via a set of stone stairs, and as you descend it may well occur to you that this inner sanctum was once reserved for the Emperors of China. People were once killed for even daring to approach here. The tunnel leads to an upper terrace which has views back to the temple complex and across to the enormous tumulus mound behind- the forest burial mound of Emperor Hongwu and his queen. With a diameter of four hundred metres across, the mound is thought to contain an enormous clay vault, but until it is excavated, there is no real way of knowing whether this still contains the body of the first Ming Emperor.

With so little of Nanjing’s historical centre remaining, this mausoleum is all the more important. A visit here is the surest way to appreciate the grandeur of the early Ming Dynasty, when Nanjing was, rather briefly, the centre of the Chinese world. While Beijing, the Northern Capital, is richly endowed with antiquities, Nanjing’s architectural heritage has fallen victim to the ravages of the Taiping Rebellion and World War Two. The greatest of the surviving sites in the city and environs is surely this magnificent tomb.